One of the most innovative additions to Central Florida's theme parks this year uses a decidedly old-fashioned form of transportation: the train.
Trains have been a theme-park staple since the original Disneyland opened in 1955, with the steam-powered, narrow-gauge Sante Fe & Disneyland Railroad circling the park. And the sleek monorails at Disneyland and Walt Disney World have become icons recognized around the world.
But Disney's upstart rival — Universal Orlando — is about to introduce a twist when it opens Hogwarts Express, a ride based on the magical locomotive-powered train from the Harry Potter books and movies. It is one of the principal attractions being added as part of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter — Diagon Alley, which will open by the summer inside Universal Studios Florida.
What makes Hogwarts Express unique: It will link two gated theme parks, picking guests up in Diagon Alley and depositing them inside the original Wizarding World, which is now named the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Hogsmeade, inside Universal's Islands of Adventure. Visitors who want to ride will have to pay for more expensive tickets that allow admission to both Universal Studios and Islands on the same day.
Disney World's monorail also runs between two parks — the Magic Kingdom and Epcot — but it picks up and drops off riders outside the front gates of each park. Visitors don't even need a ticket to either park to ride.
Universal says it's the first time a theme-park attraction will link separate theme parks from the inside. And they expect it to be an enormous hit: NBCUniversal President Steve Burke, a former Walt Disney Co. theme-park executive, last year called it "one of the most creative ideas I've ever seen in the theme-park business."
"The actual transition or movement from one gate to another gate is part of the attraction, which has never been done before. And it's a wonderful, creative idea," Burke said.
And it's no wonder they are excited. Analysts expect the Hogwarts Express will give Universal the leverage to dramatically raise the price of Universal's "park to park" passes.
Robert Niles, publisher of ThemeParkInsider.com, recently predicted that the price of a one-day, two-park ticket at Universal will leap to $149 before tax — a 16 percent bump from the current $128 price. (A one-day, one-park ticket to either Universal Studios or Islands currently costs $92 before tax.)
In addition to driving prices higher, the attraction is certain to create far more demand for Universal's two-park tickets. Universal says guests will be asked to get off the train at each destination, which means no round-trip option for visitors who have only one-park tickets.
To further boost demand, Universal says the Hogwarts Express will be far more than a simple mode of transportation. "Just like in the fiction, guests will be able to experience the special sense of journey that comes while traveling aboard the Hogwarts Express between London and Diagon Alley and Hogwarts and Hogsmeade," said Universal spokesman Tom Schroder, cryptically adding that "there will be a few surprises and delights throughout the journey."
Abe Pizam, dean of the University of Central Florida's Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said the Hogwarts Express is part of a broader trend among theme parks to drive higher guest spending by developing more add-on experiences.
In that regard, Pizam said, it's similar to the water park that Legoland Florida opened in 2012, which is housed entirely within the main park but still requires separate admission. SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. took the same approach when it opened a version of its Aquatica water park inside SeaWorld San Antonio, also in 2012.
"They're flying a balloon here to test to see if the normal, all-inclusive ticket can be violated," Pizam said. "People are testing these concepts to see 'how can we make more money?'"
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Bright spots: Walt Disney World will complete its Fantasyland expansion in the Magic Kingdom with the opening of the "Seven Dwarves Mine Train." SeaWorld Orlando is deploying more walkway performers, pop-up entertainment and animal encounters as part of its "Sea of Surprises" 50th anniversary promotional campaign.
Storm clouds: SeaWorld is still battling fallout from "Blackfish" and anti-captivity activists. Disney's still scrambling to fully implement its billion-dollar "MyMagic+" technology systems. And Universal has a high bar to clear following the success of the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Trends to watch: Disney's MyMagic+ is the boldest — and most expensive — attempt to weave new technologies into the park experience, but Universal and SeaWorld are also testing and expanding things such as new ride-reservation systems and mobile-ticketing platforms.