Universal keeping new Harry Potter theme park plans a guarded secret
By Beth Kassab
Would-be builders of castles outfitted with floating candle sticks and talking oil paintings are lining up to grab a slice of Central Florida's largest and most lucrative themed construction project in nearly a decade.
In the three weeks since Universal Orlando unveiled plans for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Islands of Adventure, some local companies that specialize in supplying or building fantasy experiences have already signed confidentiality agreements with Universal.
"Everybody's going to be after a piece of this business," said theme-park consultant Steve Baker of Baker Leisure Group.
Universal pledged to spend up to $265.million on the Harry Potter attraction and the transformation of its Back to the Future ride into one based on televisions' The Simpsons.
For companies in the business of bringing the imaginary to life, Harry Potter's theme-park debut signifies a marked turnaround in a post-9-11 slump.
"We've slowly seen a steady increase in projects being green-lit," said Craig Hanna, president of the Themed Entertainment Association, which represents the building and design trade.
Universal has begun talking with some firms about the project, which is expected to open in late 2009 as a 20-acre "theme park within a theme park" centered on Hogwarts, the magical castle where Harry and his friends attend wizardry school.
Universal likely won't have to look very far for the talent it needs to develop "The Wizarding World," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said.
"Certainly we think a lot of the resources we need are right here in Central Florida," Schroder said. "These are companies that have helped us build amazing experiences in the past."
He said the project likely would involve dozens of contractors.
Secrecy is standard practice in the formative stages of major entertainment blueprints, a strategy that serves to protect the plans from competition as well as build intrigue.
"They're going to protect the creative side of this at the highest level," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Cincinnati.
He predicted the Harry Potter franchise and its accompanying attraction will be "one of the most highly protected intellectual properties of all time."
For construction, design and supply firms that specialize in theming, it's a big change from the past few years.
While Orlando has seen major investments by Walt Disney World in the form of individual rides Mission: Space and Everest, the Harry Potter plans will bring the largest themed construction to the city since Islands of Adventure was completed in 1999.