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Orlando Harry Potter attraction enchants despite glitches

By Barbara Liston

ORLANDO Fla. (Reuters) - The signature ride of the new "Harry Potter" attraction at Universal Studios in Orlando, a roller coaster with passenger cars that pitch, heave and spin 360 degrees through a 3-D film adventure, was shut during a media preview on Thursday after minor glitches the previous night.

"Escape from Gringotts" is the centerpiece ride of the new Diagon Alley expansion to the "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley" attraction, opening to the public July 8, which recreates the London-based wizard shopping district imagined in J.K. Rowling's book series.

The ride ran into a technical snag and broke down late Wednesday during a red carpet debut, and was still not running on Thursday. Even so, the actors who attended the preview gasped and grinned as they walked though Diagon Alley, a fully realized four-story shopping district.

"It's absolutely brilliant. It totally takes you in," said Warwick Davis, who played Professor Filius Flitwick in the film series.

To enhance the feeling of authenticity, the designers collaborated with Rowling to create additional signage and graphics that remained true to the book, said senior vice president of Universal Creative Thierry Coup.

"If we had to make up the name of a print shop, the name or wording is somewhere in the book," Coup said.

Diagon Alley is connected to Hogsmeade, the original Potter attraction at Universal Orlando, by the Hogwarts Express, a four-minute themed train journey based on the magical locomotive in the book series.

The new additions will join the main "Harry Potter" ride, "The Forbidden Journey," which is based in Hogsmeade and is an amalgamation of scenes from the book.

"Escape from Gringotts," topped by a landmark fire-breathing dragon, closely follows a storyline in which the book's leading characters - Harry Potter, Hermoine Granger and Ron Weasley - escape from the goblin-run bank vaults on the back of a dragon.

Diagon Alley resembles an old English village with a hint of enclosed American mall. Large swaths of the shopping district are covered by glass with ceilings made to look like sky and a strategically located elevated train track, allowing comfortable shopping even during a Florida summer storm.

While theme parks in Europe and Asia feature enclosed areas, open air is the norm in Florida's sunny climate, and shopping is the main activity. Potter fans can purchase a $6.95 set of chattering teeth at Weasleys Wizard Wheezes, Hogwarts school robes for $109.95 at Madam Malkins, or Dumbledore's robes, the priciest item in the shop, for $700.

On the dining side, the Leaky Cauldron restaurant offers up traditional British dishes such as a Toad in the Hole (sausage in savory bread pudding), for $8.99, and fisherman's pie for $14.99.

Comcast Corp's Universal Studios will also bring the world of "Harry Potter" to its Hollywood theme park in 2016, as part of plans to drum up attendance with a revamp and five-year expansion plan for its film-themed attractions.

(Writing by Piya Sinha-Roy in Los Angeles; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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