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Universal’s summer salvo in the Orlando theme park wars — a Harry Potter-themed roller coaster — has the operator carving out a new category.
“It’s more than just a ride,” said Mike West, senior director and executive producer at Universal Creative, the planning and development arm of Universal Parks & Resorts. “This is really what we call our first ‘show coaster’ because it’s a totally immersive environment that we’re going to take our guests on.”
The company revealed new details about the ride at an event in New York City late Monday. Previously, only the name — Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure — and an opening date of June 13 had been confirmed. The ride will replace an earlier roller coaster called Dragon Challenge in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Hogsmeade at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando.
While many of Universal’s rides are story-driven, with immersive theming throughout, none of those are proper roller coasters, West said. “It’s taking the show and putting it with the coaster.”
Universal Parks & Resorts, which is owned by Comcast, is spreading the word about its newest attraction on the heels of Disney’s announcement that it is opening its new Star Wars expansions in Florida and California earlier than expected.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will open May 31 at Disneyland in California and Aug. 29 at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida. That gives the new Universal attraction a couple of months before Orlando-area competition heats up in the latest battle between the entertainment giants.
At Universal, the new ride will be set in the Forbidden Forest, an area in the Harry Potter books that has so far not been put to use for a theme park. To get the forest aesthetic right, the park planted more than 1,200 live trees.
“We’re creating a new environment with the Forbidden Forest,” West said. “This will add a whole new layer, a whole new vista for [author] J.K. Rowling’s incredible stories and will really take the Wizarding World to a whole new level.”
Guests will ride either in a motorbike or an adjacent sidecar, with a different experience depending on where they sit. Hagrid, a groundskeeper, teacher, and caretaker of magical creatures in the books, serves as a guide.
“This is unlike any ride vehicle you’ve ever been on before,” Alan Gilmore, art director for the Harry Potter films who has also worked on the theme parks, said in an introductory video. “It’s especially designed to make you feel the freedom of flight.”
The coaster will move forward and backwards at speeds up to 50 mph, the company said, with creatures including Fluffy the three-headed dog, a centaur, and Cornish Pixies making appearances.
“I promise you it’ll be the most highly themed, immersive coaster experience ever created,” Gilmore said in the video.
The new attraction is just part of Universal’s ambitious plan to evolve into a destination that better competes with Disney for visitors’ time and attention.
The first part of Universal’s Endless Summer Resort, Surfside Inn and Suites, opens in July as the seventh hotel at Universal Orlando. With 750 rooms and budget-friendly prices, the property is looking to capture the family market. When a sister hotel opens in 2020, it will increase the total number of rooms at the theme park complex to 9,000. By comparison, the much larger Walt Disney World Resort has 36 hotels with more than 30,000 rooms.
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said during an earnings call last summer that adding new hotel rooms had been “a key driver in Orlando.”
During that call, NBCUniversal CEO Stephen Burke confirmed that the company was also “looking at” adding another theme park in Orlando, in addition to Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida, and the Volcano Bay water park.
“We have a lot of great [intellectual property], we love the theme park business; it’s one of our best, most consistent businesses,” Burke said at the time. “And we think we have a lot of very long runway and that another gate in Florida would have the advantage of turning Florida from a two-to-three-day destination to potentially a weeklong destination.”