The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which marks its first birthday today, has established an enthusiastic theme park following, the kind seen for the books and films featuring a boy wizard created by author J.K. Rowling.
Visitors to Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park can go inside Hogwarts castle, swig two kinds of butterbeer and buy magic wands. Some guests take their devotion to an extreme, the sort of extreme that helped make IOA the fastest-growing theme park in the world last year, according to industry estimates.
Chris Bell, 21, says he has ridden the Harry Potter and Forbidden Journey ride 627 times — and counting — as of early this week.
"It's so fascinating. Every time I go on it, I see something new," said Bell, a UCF student from Orlando. He also has collected all 17 of the exclusive souvenir wands that retail for $30 apiece and "the majority" of T-shirts sold there.
Bell goes to the theme park whenever he can, he said. He joined IOA's 5.9 million guests in 2010, a boost of 30 percent more than the previous year, according to estimates by AECOM, a Los Angeles consulting company, and the Themed Entertainment Association. There's no break down on how many of those are repeat visitors.
Every day, thousands of folks stream into the area, and some are there merely to soak in the atmosphere of the "real-life" Hogsmeade village again.
"The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is like a Harry Potter fan conference that never closes," said Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University. "It's open every day. So if you're really into that, I can see how you'd like going there and just existing for a while."
Stress relief is one reason Tim Hinton, 50, visits often.
"I can pop over there for an hour, an hour and half and have a really satisfying break and get away from my real life and just enjoy being there," said Hinton, of Orlando. He is there so frequently that employees recognize him. He mailed 200 Christmas cards from there for the exclusive Hogsmeade postmark.
But his "must-do" on a visit is a frozen butterbeer. His first sip resulted in the drink's foam getting mixed in with his goatee. A picture was snapped, and after seeing other fan photos — including foamy celebrities — he established a Facebook page called "I Love Butterbeer Mustaches."
He owns many souvenirs, too.
"I haven't bankrupted myself, but I've bought a lot of stuff because it's unique and it seems special to me," he says. "Where else can you buy omnioculars?"
For months, Karen Martin, 25, made weekly trips to Wizarding World from St. Petersburg. She spent about $400 on merchandise during her first three visits, she said.
"It kind of bums me out when I go there because I have nothing to buy — I already own all of it," she said.
"I bought my annual pass because of the Wizarding World," said Martin. "It makes me feel full. I'm the happiest I can ever be when I'm there."
Universal Orlando officials haven't commented on the possibility of expanding Wizarding World, but it's on the wish list of hard-core fans, including Hilary Klein, 25, who regularly drives three hours from Boca Raton for Potter time.
"I'd like to see the park expand out of just being 'Goblet of Fire,' " the fourth of Rowling's seven Potter novels, Klein said. "I'd like to see later stuff happen."
Fitting that bill would be a much-rumored coaster project based on Gringotts bank, which is expected to be featured in the final Potter film. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2" debuts in theaters on July 15.
"We want to see an indoor coaster where you get into the car at the bank, you get down and you encounter the dragon," Hinton said. "That could be a total E ticket-plus-plus-plus."
Bell has heard all that Gringotts talk, but his imagination goes further and includes attractions based on the Shrieking Shack, Diagon Alley, the Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes joke shop, a Chamber of Secrets restaurant and a Quidditch experience that would be a cross between the Manta coaster at SeaWorld Orlando and the Dragon Challenge coaster at Wizarding World.
"That would be really interesting if they could do that," Bell says.
The presence of superfans — even the ones wearing long black robes in July — at the theme park is a positive, said Thompson, the pop-culture professor.
"I have to envy people who can get so much enjoyment out of a series of books which become movies and characters in a universe, that they want to go back to a place over and over again," he said. "There are a lot of people walking around on this Earth that aren't that into anything and I think are infinitely less happy as a result."
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