Image: Hogwarts Express
Kevin Kolczynski  /  AP
The Hogwarts Express arrives at Hogsmeade Station as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter continues to develop at Universal Orlando Resort.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/25/2010 10:04:01 AM ET 2010-05-25T14:04:01

Alarte Ascendare, indeed.

Apparently, thrill seekers hoping to get levitated this summer won’t have to wait until the Wizarding World of Harry Potter casts its spell at Universal Orlando next month. On May 29, flights of fancy of another sort will take place when the 19-ride, $30-million attraction known as Luna Park opens at Coney Island.

OK, so it’s not exactly the second coming of Disneyland, but if history is any indication, Luna Park could be drawing crowds long after Harry Potter goes the way of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Magic Kingdom.

I know, comparing a small, old-school amusement park with the most anticipated theme-park attraction in recent history is crazy talk. And truthfully, they couldn’t be more dissimilar. But in an industry in which rides come and go and retheming is a way of life, there’s a fine line between big news and old news.

A quick spin through Coney Island
Unless you’re a New York resident or a student of amusement park history, the name Luna Park might not mean much. It first appeared in 1903, when a collection of rides opened under that name in the burgeoning resort of Coney Island on Brooklyn’s south shore. In time, the name would grace more than 40 parks around the world, making Luna Park the world’s first amusement park chain. (Take that, Universal Studios!)

Alas, the original Luna Park burned down in 1944, just as the rest of Coney Island began its long, slow slide into creepy, kitschy irrelevance. Sure, local attractions, including the legendary (and still hair-raisingly scary) Cyclone roller coaster, continue to draw big crowds, but there’s no escaping the fact that the one-time “amusement park capital of the world” has grown tired and tawdry.

Enter the new Luna Park (which is opening on the grounds of another defunct park, Astroland, that closed down two years ago). Occupying just over three acres between the boardwalk and Surf Avenue, it’ll initially feature 19 mechanical attractions, most of which pay homage to the longstanding whirl-and-hurl school of ride design.

There’ll be the Tickler, a spinning roller coaster; the Eclipse, a spinning pendulum ride, and the Electro-Spin, a spinning disk that traverses a U-shaped track. (Notice a trend?) The park’s signature ride is expected to be Air Race, a first-of-its-kind attraction that simulates fighter jets in a high-speed pursuit while generating up to four gs.

What there won’t be is an admission charge to enter the park. Instead, visitors can buy $1 credits (each ride will take three to five credits) or purchase a wristband for unlimited rides within a four-hour period ($26–$34). And while there will be some subtle nods to the Luna Park of old, the major “theme” of the place will likely be the same one that’s defined traditional amusement parks for generations — spinning, screaming and hoping not to lose the chili-cheese dog you had for lunch.

The theme’s the thing
Compare that to the scene at Universal Orlando, where the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is taking shape and no thematic stone has been left unturned. Wedged between the Jurassic Park and Lost Continent sections of the park, Hogsmeade among the palm trees (I kid) promises to be the next best thing to actually being inside J.K. Rowling’s head.

The rides, no doubt, will be state of the art, especially Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which will use advanced robotics and 360-degree filmmaking to take riders through Hogwarts, past the Whomping Willow and high above the castle grounds. The other two — the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff and the intense Dragon Challenge roller coasters — will be less high-tech but just as familiar to anyone who has read the books.

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Video: Inside ‘The Wizarding World of Harry Potter’

And, of course, there will be themed shops and eateries and all manner of wands, brooms and Every-Flavour Beans for sale. Wizarding World will offer a fully immersive experience, not to mention a well-leveraged, highly merchandisable product to an audience that’s already deeply invested in it. We’ve read the books; we’ve seen the movies — a theme park attraction is probably a natural extension of the “brand.”

But, and with precious few exceptions, even the most popular brands have a finite shelf life — especially in the theme park industry. Universal’s Back to the Future attraction becomes The Simpsons Ride while Camp Snoopy at Mall of America becomes Nickelodeon Universe. Likewise, it should come as no surprise that the two coasters at Wizarding World are older rides that have been “re-skinned.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, the industry’s capacity for reinvention is one of its greatest strengths and, in time, the Forbidden Journey may be rethemed into Twilight: The Ride, the Kung Fu Panda Express or Sock Monkey’s Excellent Kia-dventure. Like The Dude, the mouse abides, but everybody else is only as good as their most recent gross or Nielsen rating.

Whirling-and-hurling, on the other hand, never goes out of style.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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