ORLANDO, Fla. — Universal Orlando is doing things right.
Having labored in Disney World’s shadow year after year, it sprang into the limelight in 2010 with its wildly creative the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction, which still prompts gasps and even tears among fans as they see the world they imagined come to life — magic wands, talking portraits and all.
This year, the park opened Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, an amusing and vertigo-inducing 3-D simulator that builds on the animated film. It added Cinematic Spectacular — an outdoor evening of movie fun. The popular Spider-Man ride has been completely updated with villains who seem to climb right into your lap.
And Transformers the Ride 3D, an epic battle between Autobots and Decepticons, opens next summer.
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Attendance at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, where the Potter attraction is based, skyrocketed 29 percent from 2010 to 2011, with 7.7 million visitors last year, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
Striking while the iron is hot, the park confirms plans to expand Harry Potter’s world. Details are hard to come by, but cranes at the park and online rumors seem to indicate that by 2015 there could be a new London street, more magic wand action, a new coaster, and maybe a Hogwarts Express train.
These days, it is harder to impress theme-park visitors, says Mike West, executive producer of Universal Creative, who is deeply involved in the Transformers attraction. With 3-D TVs at home, online and video games, the only thing parks can do is create an exciting collective social experience, “a chance to see something together, to hear the laughter of strangers,” he says.
Harry Potter definitely does that. And West likes to think Transformers will do that.
“The scale of it is like nothing we’ve ever done. We’ve got some of the most amazing special effects — you’ll come up against Megatron and Ravage and Bonecrusher, and you’ll be standing side to side with Bumblebee and the other good guys.”
One thing I really like about Universal Orlando is its sections for young children, like Curious George Goes to Town and Seuss Landing, where even the real palm trees are crooked. A whole bunch of new Simpsons midway games just opened, dreamed up by the twisted Simpsons folks — including Mr. Burns’ Radioactive Rings.
And amid the high-tech thrill rides and simulators, the human touch remains — costumed Minions from “Despicable Me,” Ollivanders wand shop at Harry Potter (you could hear a pin drop as the wizard taught a real boy from the audience to use a magic wand), children shooting water at Curious George, and the pure, clean ride of the Incredible Hulk green steel coaster.
Whatever Universal is doing, keep it up.
(Best-deal ticket option is a “2+1” ticket — good at both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios for any three days within a 14-day period. $151.24 adults and $140.59 for ages 3-9; www.universalorlando.com, 407-224-7840).