ORLANDO (Reuters) - "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling helped flesh out four new characters who will appear exclusively at Universal Orlando's theme park version of her mythical Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, park designers said on Thursday.
Universal said its new Wizarding World of Harry Potter park in Florida will open on June 18 and gave new details of the rides based on Rowling's fantasy novels about the boy wizard.
The seven wildly popular books have sold more than 400 million copies worldwide and spawned a movie franchise that has earned billions of dollars.
In the books and movies, the founders of the Hogwarts houses of Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin are referenced but are long deceased. At the park, the characters will come to life.
"We have those appearing as actual talking portraits. They speak to you in the Harry Potter in the Forbidden Journey (ride)," Alan Gilmore, art director on the Harry Potter films and for the park, told Reuters.
"They are unique to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter so that is a really big point for the fans. They actually get to meet these people and understand who they are."
Rowling was consulted throughout the development of the 20-acre (8-hectare) park and signed off on the details, the designers said. Universal declined to discuss how much Rowling was paid, the costs of construction or revenue projections.
The Orlando Sentinel newspaper said the park was a $200 million investment for Universal Orlando, which is owned by the Blackstone Group and General Electric unit NBC Universal.
The company has begun selling Wizarding World of Harry Potter vacation packages. Four-night packages, which include an on-site hotel room, park tickets and various amenities, start at $645 per adult or $1,548 for a family of four.
In interviews and news releases on Thursday, Universal said the park fused filmed scenes, live action and advanced robotic technology to envelope guests in a fictional world.
"It's going to feel like nothing you've ever felt before," said Thierry Coup, senior vice president of Universal Creative and creative director for the park.
The signature ride, "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey," starts in Hogwarts, where visitors travel through Professor Dumbledore's office, the Gryffindor common room and the defense against the dark arts classroom.
Riding what appears to be an old Gothic bench, they soar over the castle grounds and meet creatures such as the Hungarian Horntail, Dementors and the gigantic Whomping Willow.
Universal said it developed a new way of projecting and using film to simulate the feeling of flying.
"It creates the complete impression and feeling that you are flying and soaring over Hogwarts and going to a Quidditch match and you're doing all that freely along with Harry and Ron and really living what you've always wanted to live if you've seen the films and read the books," Coup said.
No Harry Potters or Hermione Grangers will walk around in costume at the park but actors Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and others who played key roles in the movies were filmed specifically to create a realistic presence in the rides.
A dual roller coaster called Dragon Challenge will let guests choose their dragon and ride through "an intense aerial chase" in which the creatures seem to twist, loop and nearly collide, Universal said.
A family ride, Flight of the Hippogriff, will take guests past Hagrid's hut and instruct on the proper way to approach a Hippogriff, a magical creature with the head, wings and front legs of a giant eagle and body, hind legs and tail of a horse.
There also will be plenty of opportunities to buy souvenirs: magic wands, Hogwarts apparel, Quidditch game gear and many types of themed food and novelties, such as Cauldron cakes and Nosebleed nougat. Guests can mail letters from the park that will be stamped with a Hogsmeade postmark.
Editing by Jane Sutton and John O'Callaghan