Universal Steams Ahead with 1 Million Hogwarts Express Riders

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www.universalorlando.com
It's no surprise that the biggest winner among theme parks this summer is Comcast's (CMCSK) Universal Orlando. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter's ambitious Diagon Alley expansion at Universal Studios Florida is drawing huge crowds since opening last month.

Comcast hasn't spelled out how many more guests have gone through its turnstiles at Universal Studios Florida and the adjacent Islands of Adventure this summer, but last week we got a good indication of how successful it has been when Universal Orlando announced that one million passengers have now ridden the Hogwarts Express train ride that connects the two parks.

Guests board the richly themed trains for the short virtual trip between London at Universal Studios Florida and Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure. Antics ensue while on board, but there's no point in playing spoiler to one of the more unusual transportation rides ever built. Universal Orlando has a hit on its hands, and a million riders know that.

A Million Tickets to Ride

Last month's opening of Diagon Alley was initially riddled with reports of the expansion's thrill ride -- an indoor Gringotts coaster -- suffering outages and long lines. However, Diagon Alley's more important ride -- the family-friendly train ride that bridges the two Potter-themed areas -- is making headlines for the right reasons now.

Universal celebrated the million-passenger milestone by treating 200 park visitors to Butterbeer-flavored ice cream. It should be pointed out that this is no ordinary feat. A ride on the Hogwarts Express involves leaving one park and entering another. Patrons need to prove that they have admission to both parks, scanning their tickets before hitting the boarding platform. Guests with single-park tickets can pay to upgrade their passes at the train stations.

In saying that a million guests have ridden Hogwarts Express in its first month of operation Universal Orlando is also saying that attendance to its parks has gone up by at least one million. It's incremental, since every ride results in a turnstile click -- and that's on top of the organic uptick in front-gate attendance that's clearly taking place this summer.

The impact of this single ride can be dramatic. According to the Themed Entertainment Association, 8.1 million guests visited Islands of Adventure last year. Universal Studios Florida clocked in with nearly 7.1 million visitors. If the trend continues with Hogwarts Express sending a million guests a month to the other park, we're talking about an increase of 6 million admissions to each park over the next 12 months.

A single ride causing a combined 12 million incremental admissions would be outrageous. It would find the two parks rivaling the annual guests entertained at many Disney (DIS) parks.

The Ups and Downs of Levitation Spells

Unfortunately for Universal Orlando, we have to keep the hype in check. Some guests taking the train would've just walked over to the adjacent park. It's just a brisk five-minute walk between the front gates.

More importantly, guests who take a roundtrip journey on the Hogwarts Express -- and that's highly recommended since each trip is unique -- would register three admissions during the day, but they won't necessarily stay longer than a patron enjoying just Universal Studios Florida or Islands of Adventure on a single-park ticket.

This doesn't mean that Universal Orlando isn't going to make a lot of money this summer. Between the upgraded dual-park admissions, original food and beverage items and licensed merchandise, a lot of money is being spent at the resort. The ultimate attendance numbers may need their asterisks, but Comcast is going to make a ton of dough from fanatic muggles.

Everybody Wins

Disney and smaller park operators will be rightfully jealous. Walt Disney World's new additions this summer are mostly a Snow White-themed mine coaster at the Magic Kingdom and several temporary "Frozen"-themed attractions at Disney's Hollywood Studios. SeaWorld (SEAS) actually discontinued a sea lion show this past weekend in Orlando, and a thrill ride at Busch Gardens Tampa has had its opening delayed.

However, all of the parks should ultimately benefit from the influx of visitors hitting Central Florida to check out Diagon Alley. Many guests coming down for a week make time to visit some of the other attractions in the area. We've already seen Orlando hotels check in with their highest occupancy for June in nearly a decade -- and that was before Diagon Alley opened. This will only help.

It's safe to say that Harry Potter has cast a spell of enchantment over Orlando this summer.

Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a seasonal resident of Celebration, Florida, and owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days.

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