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Dwarfs, wizards duel for visitors this summer at Orlando’s big theme parks

The dueling theme parks in Orlando, Fla., are at it again: Which new attraction will be on your gotta-see list?

The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which opened May 28 at Magic Kingdom, is quintessential Disney: Based on the 1937 movie “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” the ride has the requisite storyline. The faces of the movie dwarfs are replicated in audio-animatronic characters. It has the movie’s cheery music. A family roller coaster, it is only moderately scary and is open to kids as small as 3-foot-2.

Over at Universal Orlando, the final touches are being put on Diagon Alley, the new Harry Potter land, which has its preview (but no official opening date yet) later this month. This new Wizarding World will have a thrill ride – Escape from Gringotts –plus the Hogwarts Express, which will connect Diagon Alley to the original Wizarding World in Universal’s Islands of Adventure.

Here’s a rundown:

Magic Kingdom’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train

Riders sit in seats that look like the rough-hewn mine buckets in the movie. The buckets, which the dwarfs carved with their axes, hang like cradles from pivots that allow them to swing from side to side as the train rounds curves.

The ride starts with quick turns and dips outside the mountain, then slows as it runs inside the mine, where the dwarfs are working in all their audio-animatronic splendor, singing songs from the movie. The walls are studded with giant gems. Then the train goes outside again, encountering curves that are little tighter and dips that are a little longer and steeper.

The ride is surprisingly smooth. Scary drops appear, but the train takes them at a speed that will deliciously frighten, but not terrify, children. In terms of thrills, the ride is about midway between the park’s Barnstormer (the Great Goofini’s junior coaster) and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

If you’re familiar with the old movie, you’ll recognize details duplicated on the ride: the dwarfs’ shadows striding along a mountain wall, the carved wooden sign over the vault, Dopey with diamonds in his eyes. And in the cabin at the end of the ride, you’ll see Snow White and Dopey dancing in a scene from the movie.

Also new at Magic Kingdom: In March the park debuted a daily parade that features floats and characters from Fantasyland and Disney movies – Belle and the Beast dancing; Ariel seated in a clamshell above her under-the-sea friends; Peter Pan and a giant pirate ship trailed by Tick-Tock the crocodile; Rapunzel and the Snuggly Duckling pub from “Tangled”; Merida of “Brave” atop a giant bagpipe; Dumbo, Pinocchio, Mickey, Cinderella, and of course, Anna and Elsa.

The star, though, (just in time for the movie) is the 53-foot-long, 26-foot-tall fire-breathing steampunk dragon inspired by Disney’s “Maleficent,” a new take on the story of Sleeping Beauty.

Universal Orlando’s Harry Potter land, Diagon Alley

The opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Studios is apparently only weeks away. Although at press time Universal had not announced when Diagon Alley will open to the public, the red carpet event and media preview will be June 18-19.

There’s a high level of interest, and that’s no surprise. According to Universal, where attendance rose more than 30 percent after the opening of the first Harry Potter attraction in 2010, more than 450 million copies of the Harry Potter books have been sold worldwide, while the eight Harry Potter films have grossed more than $7.7 billion.

The signature element of Diagon Alley is a thrill ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, the storyline taken from the final book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.” Goblin-run Gringotts is protected by an enormous fire-breathing dragon whose installation atop the bank last month – widely reported on fan websites – was one of the high points of construction. Taken straight from the movie, that is one nasty-looking dragon!

Harry and friends break into the bank to steal a Horcrux, an enchanted item that would help them destroy the evil Lord Voldemort. Theme park visitors, ostensibly at the bank to open their own accounts with the spooky animatronic goblins, get caught up in the action.

Riders come face-to-face with Voldemort, “one of the greatest villains of all time,” said Dale Mason, executive producer of Wizarding World. “It seems to me that it’s not Harry Potter without Voldemort.” Mason said the Universal designers had wanted an appearance by Voldemort in the first Harry Potter ride, which is set at Hogwarts, “but it just didn’t work out.”

Also playing a key role in the ride is Bellatrix Lestrange, a sadistic follower of Voldemort who stashed a Horcrux in the Lestrange family vault at Gringotts. “She’s just another one of those amazing characters, just so evil but so fun to watch, and I think our guests are really going to love her part in all this,” Mason said.

Universal is disclosing little about the technology of the ride, but Mason said it is more advanced than the first Harry Potter ride, using very large format projection and a 360-degree immersive environment.

Gringotts is set in Diagon Alley, a secret, wizards-only neighborhood in London. This is where wizards bank, socialize and shop for wizarding equipment and school supplies. As Universal did with Hogsmeade, it has created an entire streetscape for Diagon Alley, with a London facade facing out and Diagon Alley on the interior.

After guests pass through the brick wall at King’s Cross Station and arrive at Platform 9 3/4, Hogswarts Express will take them to the original Wizarding World of Harry Potter (Hogsmeade), which is next door at Universal’s Islands of Adventure. A two-park pass will be required to ride.

In scenes playing on “windows” of the train, as if riders were looking out at the passing countryside, characters from the books and movies will appear, including Hagrid on his flying motorbike, Buckbeak the Hippogriff and the Weasley twins on brooms.

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