Mark this date: June 18, 2010.
Input it into your iPhone, add it to your Outlook, scribble it on your desktop quote-of-the-day calendar. But whatever you do, don't ignore it. If you are a certain flavor of fanboy, that's the date you'll be camping out, drooling in anticipation. And if you're a resident of our city's southwest sector and have no tolerance for magical masochism, it may be the day to depart for Dallas, Des Moines or even Denmark.
No matter which group you fall into, we are all less than 12 weeks away from the most important addition to Orlando's tourism industry since the turn of the 21st century. On March 25, after years of speculation and swirling rumors, Universal Orlando Resort announced the June 18 official opening date for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the globally anticipated expansion to Islands of Adventure.
The June 18 red-carpet celebrity ceremony worthy of the multibillion-dollar franchise arrives mere days before the contractual deadline of July 1 and almost exactly three years after the project was first announced. That means the Potter expansion, which had been slated for "spring 2010", will miss out on the lucrative Memorial Day weekend, though hotel packages currently on sale suggest "soft-opening" previews will begin by May 28.
Along with giving a date for the debut, Universal decided to de-cloak details on Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the next-generation attraction that forms the centerpiece of this new "park within a park." The thrill ride — housed in a massive warehouse disguised as mountainous cliffs above which towers a movie-accurate re-creation of iconic Hogwarts Castle — is the first application of Kuka's RoboCoaster robotic arm technology wedded with a dark-ride environment involving dimensional sets and high-definition screens. Guests will board "enchanted benches" and travel through key moments from Harry's "chaotic" adventures — including a Quidditch match and a close encounter with the Whomping Willow — via a mix of advanced animatronics and freshly shot footage of the film-series stars. Think of the best parts of Universal's Simpsons, Revenge of the Mummy and Spider-man rides (minus the 3-D glasses) welded together for a "How the hell did they do that?" response, and you're getting the general idea.
None of these newly confirmed nuggets will come as news to OW regulars, to whom I broke word of the world-exclusive ride system back in June 2007. More enlightening are the fresh revelations about the attraction's queue and pre-show, which promise to be as game-changing as the ride they support. Before boarding, guests will tour signature sights inside Harry's mystical alma mater, including Dumbledore's office (featuring a virtual Michael Gambon), the "Defence Against the Dark Arts" classroom, Gryffindor's common room and the floating-candle-filled "Room of Requirement." It's disappointing that fan-favorite locations like the Great Hall and moving staircases are missing, but everything is built to Oscar-winning set designer Stuart Craig's specifications.
It's all set up for the ride's storyline: Harry, Ron and Hermione invite you to skip class and join them on a Floo powder—powered adventure — but Universal expects the queue to be attraction enough in its own right to install a special "tour only" line expressly for those not willing to be tossed around. (Express Pass users also will get their own entrance, but single riders appear to be SOL.) Most astounding, Universal estimates the entire experience to take a full hour, an eternity in theme-park terms. If it lives up to expectations, this might be the first attraction queue in the world to exponentially exceed Disneyland's 15-year-old Indiana Jones Adventure.
So, what to do if you just can't stand the wait any longer? Well, don't bother becoming a dead-tree journalist; my pleas for a preview have gone unheeded. You're better off becoming a fan-site blogger: Eric Scull from MuggleNet.com and other Potter-pushing webmasters were recently taken on a VIP tour by Universal Creative president Mark Woodbury, and they returned raving about talking portraits and towering statues.
Otherwise, your only sneak-peek option is to visit the Dueling Dragons roller coaster, which recently reopened after a brief rehab before its imminent repurposing as Potter's Dragon Challenge. Traveling the temporary pathway to the ride, you'll glimpse the crooked eaves of Hogsmeade Village through cracks in the construction walls (smoke already rises from the chimneys and faux-snow on the roofs already shows signs of schmutz). Inside the Dragon's castle, you'll see that all the skeletal décor has been stripped (including my beloved baby-angel skull). And in between, you'll get an anticipation-stoking eyeful of Hogwarts' stunning exterior.
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