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.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: http://www.universalorlando.com/harrypotter/
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)