ORLANDO, Fla. - Craig Taylor wasn't much interested in vacationing in Orlando with his parents this month - until he and his girlfriend plugged into the hype swirling around the new Harry Potter attraction.
So Taylor, 23, a police dispatcher who lives near Manchester, England, and girlfriend Katherine Lucarz, 22, both fans of the wildly popular books and movies about the boy wizard, decided they had to tag along to experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando.
That's where they were on a sunny, cool weekday afternoon in early December, taking a break among the other Muggles in the shadow of the towering Hogwarts castle.
"It's brilliant," said Lucarz, adding that the steep, snow-covered rooftops, crooked chimneys, and shops of Hogsmeade village are even more like the movies than she imagined. Other visitors lined up just to get in the door at Ollivander's Wand Shop, and waited an hour for the centerpiece ride, a state-of-the-art flight simulator/robocoaster called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.
That sort of devotion to all things Potter is precisely what Universal hoped to tap into when it debuted the $250 million attraction in June in a corner of its Islands of Adventure park.
Harry has conjured all the magic Universal expected, and then some. In the quarter after the attraction opened, crowds at Universal parks swelled by 36 percent over the same stretch last year, while attendance at Disney's Orlando parks stayed roughly the same.
But the big question is, can Universal keep the edge and take a bigger bite out of the Mouse's historical dominance as more families shake off the recession and come back to the parks?
That's hard to tell, industry analysts and tourism officials say, but everyone agrees the eye-popping success of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has been a shot in the arm for all Orlando-area attractions.
Thanks to the new attraction and an improving economy, hotel occupancy rates in Orange County shot up nearly 21 percent in July over the same month last year, and through September were running nearly 7 percent ahead of 2009 totals.
"Harry Potter certainly has been a very powerful motivator," said Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau. "I believe that it has helped to drive additional visitation to Orlando."
But Disney, historically good at keeping extended-stay visitors on its properties, is losing more park days to Universal now because of the Harry Potter attraction, said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., an independent industry consultant. He believes the Potter attraction has also taken a big bite out of attendance at SeaWorld Orlando, whose image and attendance are still recovering from the violent death of a whale trainer in February.
"[Harry Potter] has had an enormous impact, and we believe it has legs," Speigel said. "I don't think you're going to see a 36 percent increase at any theme park for a while. But we believe that Harry Potter has enough story line to carry forward for the next 15 years, if it is properly executed in the parks."
Moody's Investors Service said last month that Universal's boost from the attraction should last several years.
Steve Baker of Baker Leisure Group, a theme-park industry consultant, predicts a two-year benefit for Universal but says Disney's dominance and skill at keeping visitors on its properties are too hard to crack for Universal to gain any permanent ground on the mighty Mouse.
"I think what's happened so far is that [Harry Potter] hasn't brought new business to the market yet, it's just enjoyed a bigger market share of what exists," Baker said. "And I think until Disney comes out with something new, that's probably going to be the case.