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And now for Harry Potter and the wizard theme park...

FANS OF Harry Potter have been dreaming about riding a Nimbus 2000, catching a golden snitch and winning a game of Quidditch since creator JK Rowling invented the sport 10 years ago.

Now aficionados of the boy wizard may not have to wait much longer. Universal Studios is seeking a deal with Rowling to build a $500m Harry Potter mini theme park in Florida.

Rowling is believed to have been in negotiations with Universal Studios since 2005 over potential sites and the park's contents. Earlier talks with Disney, which has a Disneyworld in Orlando, are understood to have fallen through because the giant American leisure corporation wanted total control of the project.

The new Potter land is likely to be incorporated into Universal's existing Islands of Adventure attraction, which already hosts areas themed on Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park and Marvel comic superheroes. Island of Adventure is close to Universal Studios, the company's main attraction and the third biggest-theme park in America.

Peter Alexander, a former vice president of Universal Studios and founder of a theme park design consultancy, said: "People keep screeching that it's an entirely separate park, but according to Steve Spielberg, who we talked to about it, he says it's going to be a 'land' within the confines of the existing Islands of Adventure theme park. If it's a 'land' it will cost at the very least $500m."

Alexander estimates that Rowling stands to earn up to 9m a year if the park goes ahead, to add to her already colossal 576m fortune.

"If I was negotiating for her I would ask for 5% of the gate fee," he said. "With an attraction like that getting around six million people a year paying 30 per head, that's 180m."

Sources say that both Universal Studios and Rowling, who owns the rights to the Harry Potter franchise, are agreed on the principle of the mini-park, but are still hammering out the details of a settlement.

Alexander, who has previously inquired about the possibility of a Potter theme park on behalf of a client, said: "Either she is a very shrewd businessperson or she is surrounded by people who are."

Once an agreement is reached, the attraction could be built in as little as 18 months.

What attracts theme park companies to the project is the huge, global Potter fan base.

More than 325 million Potter books have been sold around the world, and it has been translated into 62 languages. The final title in the seven-book series, Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, will be published on July 21.

Theme park experts believe that like Mickey Mouse and the George Lucas-inspired Star Wars, Pottermania will have longevity. US bookstore Barnes and Noble has already received more than 500,000 pre-orders for the final novel.

Not only will the books continue to appeal to new generations of children, but the associated films have become holiday-time classics. The first four films have grossed 2bn at the box office with three more to follow.

The film of Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix - the fifth novel in the series - will be released on July 13, ensuring maximum publicity for the book launch 10 days later.

Alexander said: "The property [Harry Potter] has legs - he is not going to be less popular in years to come. What is good about it is that it has family appeal and if they put some good rides in to the theme park there will be teenage and young adult appeal too."

Alexander believes making a Harry Potter attraction part of the bigger Islands of Adventure is the right commercial strategy.

"Usually a theme park devoted to one subject doesn't do very well because people want a variety of experiences," he said. "In France they made a Smurf theme park. They expected two million people per year but never got more than 800,000."

It closed last year.

The concept of a Potter attraction stretches back at least four years. At the time, reports suggested Disney approached Rowling with a project, possibly to be built in Singapore.

However, the project fell through. Alexander, also a former employee of Disney, believes it was due to Rowling's reputed protectiveness over her creations. "Disney would not want to cut her in to the action creatively," he said.

It took several years for Rowling to allow the books to be made into films by the Warner Bros studio, for fear of "Americanising" Harry. In 2001 she said: "I'm not against the idea of a film - I love films. The vital thing for me was that it would be true to the book."

Alexander said Universal was more used to yielding creative control to get a deal but that might be slowing down the negotiation process. "Universal did not ask [Rowling] for permission to do the park, they just came to her with a pitch," he explained. "Probably she did not like their designs and they had to start over."

He thinks Rowling would have objected to the proposed rides at the theme park if they did not replicate the action and adventure of the books.

Universal Studios, Warner Bros and Rowling all declined to comment.

Buckle up and hang on to your hat

Potter fans online are already speculating about the rides. Here are some of their ideas:

CRAZY QUIDDITCH

Giant quaffles, bludgers and golden snitches in which guests ride in a quidditch match where they are the ball.

FRED AND GEORGE WEASLEY'S LASER FUN HOUSE

Play laser wand tag in this mirrored maze, but watch out for dragons and trolls along the way.

AZKABAN PRISON

Prisoners find themselves in a spin on this high-speed whirligig.

SEARCH FOR THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE

Encounter living chessmen and an unconscious troll as you take a boat ride in search of the Stone.

GRINGOTTS BANK GHOST TRAIN

Hang on to your hat as the Gringotts goblins guide you on a miniature indoor mine train.

 
 
 

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