Published: Jun 11, 2010 6:41 PM EDT
Updated: Jun 11, 2010 3:45 PM EDT

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Until now, Harry Potter fans could merely
imagine the sensation of quaffing a butterbeer, finding a magic
wand at Ollivander's or escaping the steam from a snarling dragon's
snout.
      But finally, 13 years after the first of seven books began
chronicling the boy wizard's adventures, imagination has become
reality at Universal Orlando.
      The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, a mini-park inside
Universal's Islands of Adventure theme park, opens for general
admission June 18, but The Associated Press got a sneak peek at
what has become the most highly anticipated theme-park attraction
in years.
      Past a stone archway and the steam-belching Hogwarts Express,
the fictitious city of Hogsmeade unfolds amid snowcapped, dingy
rooftops and storefronts packed like row houses with shops straight
from the books and movies. Zonko's joke shop offers Sneakoscopes
and extendable ears. The confectionary Honeydukes has chocolate
frogs and Bertie Bott's Every-Flavour Beans (literally ranging from
pear to fish). At the Owl Post, guests can stamp mail with a
genuine Hogsmeade postmark.
      Towering over it all is Hogwarts, a perfect reproduction of the
imposing, many-spired castle where Harry and his magician friends
are students.
      "Once we locked in and knew what we were doing - what we
thought would be the most iconographic moments of the fiction to
bring to life - it became a matter of executing at a level of
authenticity and detail that was going to be unquestionable," said
Mark Woodbury, head of Universal Creative.
      Park construction was overseen by the production manager from
the Potter movies, and as Warner Bros. filmed the series' sixth
movie, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," scenes were shot
for the park's crown jewel, a ride called Harry Potter and the
Forbidden Journey.
      The cutting-edge ride seamlessly combines the sensation of
flight with tactile experiences like smoke and drops of water as it
takes guests through a hodgepodge of encounters in Potter's chaotic
life, from the Quidditch field to the mouths of giant spiders and
dragons. The ride queue stars lifelike projections of film
characters like Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore.
      "The special effects were just great, you really felt like you
were riding along with Harry on his adventure," said visitor Karen
Collins of Revere, Mass.
      Potter author J.K. Rowling is a stickler for details, and
Universal worked hard to get her OK. So many recipes were offered
to find the perfect look, texture and taste for the heretofore
fictitious butterbeer that Woodbury lost count.
      "We had to package up all the ingredients and rent a hotel
kitchen in Scotland so that we could put it all together," he
said.
      The result? A tasty, thickheaded (and nonalcoholic) brew
reminiscent of cream soda, which has proven wildly popular with the
fans who bought special tickets to preview the Potter park ahead of
the June 18 public opening. Like Wizarding World employees, some of
these avid Potterphiles dressed in robes and wizard hats, at times
giving the place the slightly geeky feel of a "Star Wars"
convention.
      Besides the Forbidden Journey, The Wizarding World has just two
other rides: Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge, both of
which are older roller coasters repurposed with Potter themes.
      There's no additional admission for Wizarding World once you pay
to enter Islands of Adventure. But guests who travel long distances
to see it may be disappointed that there's not much to do beyond
the three rides other than soaking up the scenery and going
shopping - although long lines for the attractions could easily
keep them in the mini-park for hours.
      The shopping opportunities are so extensive - from broomsticks
($250 to $300) to magic wands ($28.95) and Gryffindor scarves
($34.95) - that it feels at times like the whole park is for sale.
      The Wizarding World is an ambitious bet for Universal, which is
co-owned by a division of NBC Universal and private equity firm
Blackstone. Contract details buried in Securities and Exchange
Commission filings reveal how badly Universal wanted a piece of the
franchise, which it describes as the most financially successful in
film history. The contract gives Universal the rights to operate
the park for nine years, with two additional five-year options. But
the rights can be pulled if Universal fails to maintain minimum
quality standards, doesn't invest enough capital or sells
controlling interests.
      Universal has poured cash into the park the past few years,
sinking up to $380 million in the Potter park and two other
attractions - a ride themed on The Simpsons and a roller coaster on
which guests choose their own soundtrack. The Potter section of
Islands of Adventure alone reportedly costing more than $250
million.
      Twitter was filled this week with rave reviews of what was being
referred to in tweets as "wwohp." One fan who got access to the
soft opening said it was the "best park experience" he'd had in a
long time; another said Forbidden Journey was so good she cried.
"Thumbs up" to butterbeer and pumpkin juice, tweeted another.
      "It was truly amazing, they brought the books to life," said
Jacki Lenners of Flagstaff, Ariz., who attended an early preview of
the park last month.