Harry Potter just arrived in Florida -- not via broomstick or Floo powder, but by a mystery technology that sweeps fans along on a life-and-death adventure in the realm of young wizards.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which officially opened Friday, is the newest themed zone -- or "island" -- at Islands of Adventure, one of Universal Resort's two Orlando parks.
While the Wizarding World has other attractions -- two roller coasters and a Hogsmeade Village of shops straight from the book -- it is the centerpiece ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, that has Harry Potter fans and thrill ride aficionados atwitter.
Literally. Fan blogs and online bulletin boards had been filled with breathless speculation in advance of the opening. But Universal maintained a vow of secrecy when it comes to the new ride, saying only it combines new robotic-arm technology and 360-degree film technology to deliver guests to a Quidditch match, where they will have the sensation they are flying in the game.
The Wizarding World isn't all that's new at the theme parks.
In Tampa, Busch Gardens opened its Sesame Street Safari of Fun for the preschool and kindergarten set in March. At Disney, Epcot has a DIY thrill ride, Sum of All Thrills, that allows guests to design their ride, then climb into a capsule on a robotic arm that simulates it.
But for now, the theme park buzz is all about the boy wizard.
Enter the gate into Wizarding World and you're in Hogsmeade Village -- the Hogwarts Express puffing steam on the right, shops on the left, the peaked roof of the Owlery ahead. And in the distance, the imposing towers of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which serves as the entrance to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
The queue is an attraction in itself, jammed with characters, scenes and a stunning level of detail from the Harry Potter books and movies -- the Daily Prophet with its pictures that move, the Mirror of Erised where Harry sees the reflection of his deepest desires, the greenhouse where Professor Sprout teaches Herbology.
While many of the scenes will be familiar to those who saw the movies, some will not. As the pre-show queue winds through the Portrait Hall, fans see the founders of Hogwarts for the first time as the four -- Godric Gryffindor, Helga Hufflepuff, Rowena Ravenclaw and Salazar Slytherin -- talk to passersby and to each other, slipping in and out of their frames and appearing in other people's portraits.
The line moves into the office of Headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The office and its props -- including the pensieve, which played a critical role in "The Goblet of Fire" -- were recreated from the films, "down to the finest detail," says Thierry Coup, Universal's creative director. "It was extremely important for us to be authentic. The expectations of the fans are so high, we wanted to deliver beyond those expectations."
Dumbledore appears on a landing, welcomes everyone to the school and points them toward the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom, where Professor Binns will lecture on the history of Hogwarts. In the classroom, heroes Harry, Ron and Hermione appear out from under the Invisibility Cloak.
Binns is boring, the classmates say -- dead actually -- and suggest the Muggles attend a Quidditch match instead. The portrait of the Fat Lady lets visitors into the Gryffindor common room, the sorting hat gives a safety message and the queue moves into the Room of Requirement, lit by hundreds of floating candles. There, they board enchanted benches, and take off with the help of Floo powder.
"You fly into the Quidditch match -- you are part of it," says Coup, who also designed The Amazing Adventures of Spider Man ride in the same park. "It's a new technology, one that has never been used before... . You really feel like you're flying along.
"You fly over the castle, into the forest. You run into a dragon with Harry, run into the Whomping Willow, feel the coldness of the dementors. This is going to feel like an epic journey with Harry and the other characters."
The new island also includes two existing rides that were redesigned to fit the Harry Potter story. The former Dueling Dragons twin roller coasters has been transformed into the high-speed Dragon Challenge, featuring elements from the Triwizard Tournament from "The Goblet of Fire." The former Flying Unicorn, a junior roller coaster, had more extensive changes, including new cars. It reopens as the Flight of the Hippogriff, named after one of the magical creatures -- part eagle, part horse -- under the care of Hagrid.
Time to leave the magical village.
Next door, at Universal's other park, Universal Studios, a roller coaster unveiled in August lets you choose the music for your 1 1/2-minute ride. Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit then makes a vertical climb up a 167-foot tower -- the car goes straight up, and you're lying on your back. The car dives at 65 mph, then climbs back up, twisting around the world's largest non-inversion loop, never quite going upside down.
The track traces a treble clef lying on its side, but you might not notice this whimsical touch, part of which disappears into a building facade and bursts out the other side.
Instead of the snapshot photo now ubiquitous on thrill rides, you can buy a video that shows you experiencing the coaster from launch to finish, with the music you chose providing the soundtrack.
Universal also added two restaurants to CityWalk this spring: Fusion Bistro Sushi & Sake Bar, a walk-up bistro with sushi rolls at $5-$16; and Fat Tuesday, a Bourbon Street-themed purveyor of frozen daiquiris.
This park updated and expanded the old Land of the Dragons to create the Sesame Street Safari of Fun, which opened March 27 and picks up the Africa theme with characters dressed in safari gear.
Like Wizarding World, Sesame Street relies in part on old attractions that have been rethemed, but the area has been expanded and rides and entertainment added. The former dragon cars in the junior flume ride were exchanged for hippos; a circular swing ride was pulled from storage, refurbished and called Rosita's Djembe Fly-Away.
Sesame Street's anchor is Elmo's Treehouse, which got a makeover from its dragon days. At its feet are Bert & Ernie's Watering Hole and Oscar's Swamp Stomp, two splash playgrounds for toddlers, while netted canopy bridges overhead connect the treehouse to other play areas.
New is "A Is for Africa," a show in which the characters have an adventure in Africa; upgrades to a dining pavilion and the park's first regular character breakfasts and lunches.
The highlight is Air Grover, a 42-second coaster ride with mini-dives and two horizontal loops -- a starter coaster for kids within view of two of Busch Gardens' heart-stopping adult coasters. With Grover in helmet and aviator glasses at the controls, the coaster flies over the Sahara.
Busch Gardens is also building a thrill ride, set to open next year, but has not released details about it.
Most of Disney's attention is focused on its biggest expansion ever, one that will double the size of Magic Kingdom's Fantasyland. The Fantasyland -- which opens in two parts, in 2012 and 2013 -- will play heavily on interactive attractions, including "homes" for three princesses with whom guests can chat, along with Journey of the Little Mermaid and a renovated and expanded Dumbo's Flying Circus.
This year, Disney World's newest ride is an undisguised math and science lesson where guests design their thrill ride. Sum of All Thrills is part of Epcot's Innoventions attraction, a complex of quasi-educational interactive exhibits, and is sponsored by Raytheon.
Guests use a touch-screen work table to design their choice of ride -- a bobsled, roller coaster or jet -- and a customized series of corkscrews, inversions and steep hills. If a hill is too high or speed too fast, a "virtual test dummy" lets the designer know that section needs to be reworked. (Tip: Take too long with your design and the computer will take over and finish it for you.)
Two guests take seats in a robotic simulator, capsules are lowered over their heads, and they experience the ride they designed. The simulator doesn't go anywhere, but it turns and shakes, and high-definition video, sound and air motion create a not-quite 100 percent sensation of speeding through space with dips, dives and twists.
If a simulated thrill ride feels odd inside the capsule, it's an even odder sight for those outside: An array of robotic capsules moving in place at helter skelter angles, two pairs of legs sticking out of each, tracing the arc of the ride in the air.
Fans can get back in line and re-engineer their ride, or come back with their design card for up to six months and experience the same ride.
Omaka Rocka opened at Aquatica, SeaWorld's water park, this spring. It consists of two closed slides that widen into funnel shapes that spin tube riders and rock them so that they might end up facing front, back or sideways when the ride spits them out. The addition of two slides brings to 38 the number of slides at Aquatica.
Aquatica, which already had cabanas, converted some to premium cabanas with more privacy, including one "ultimate cabana," with two tents, a dining table for six and a daily rental fee of $600.
At SeaWorld, the killer whale show continues with some temporary changes after one of the orcas killed its trainer Feb. 24.
Whale trainers are still doing everything from the deck, says Jill Revelle, park spokeswoman, but eventually will return to the water after the park finishes reviewing its practices.
Tilikum, the 12,000-pound orca who grabbed his trainer in his mouth and held her underwater, is expected to return to the show as well, but the date has not been set.