ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe led groups of excited kids dressed in Hogwarts uniforms as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park officially opened on Friday to long lines and snarled traffic.
Radcliffe, Rupert Grint who plays the boy wizard's best friend Ron Weasley, and other actors from the blockbuster movie and book series, were on hand at Universal Orlando as fans lined up more than eight hours to be among the first visitors.
Before dawn, the backup of Potter fans began to block the main highway through Orlando near the entrances to Universal, prompting the theme park to open its parking garage at 5 a.m. -- 30 minutes earlier than planned, according to local media.
Visitors told Reuters that by 8:30 a.m. the line to get inside wrapped around the exterior of Universal's Islands of Adventure park, of which the Wizarding World is one of six unique sections. And the wait for the signature ride, the Forbidden Journey, reached at least 90 minutes, at one point.
"It was worth it, just because I'm a Harry Potter fanatic," said Kelsey Rigg, 18, a British transplant to Florida who at 3 a.m. joined a crowd of several hundred people.
Universal executives did not immediately have information about crowd size.
The 20-acre Harry Potter park reportedly cost $250 million to build and recreates the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and other places dreamed up by author J.K. Rowling in her fantasy novels about the boy wizard and his friends.
Attractions include the Dragon Challenge, a high-speed ride based on the Triwizard Tournament, a fictional 13th century contest between students of the three most prestigious magical schools of Europe.
Flight of the Hippogriff is a roller coaster based on Rowling's magical creature with the head, wings and front legs of a giant eagle and the body, hind legs and tail of a horse.
"It's genuinely amazing. The detail and care that went into it is equivalent to what went into the films, and that's gratifying," said Radcliffe, who also pronounced the wizard drink Butterbeer to be his treat of choice.
"My preference is the frozen Butterbeer. It's very, very nice," he said.
Standing in line to get in Ollivander's Wand Shop where she hoped a wand would magically choose her, Anabella Morabito, 17, of Miami, said she was so excited that she was only able to get three hours sleep before arriving at the gates at 4:30 a.m.
"It's almost like we grew up with the characters. I started reading them (books) when I was in third grade and now I'm in the university. Right now, I feel like I'm in the movie. I'm in the books," she said.
Within the past two weeks, one of the top two online travel agencies has reported double-digit increases in trips booked to Orlando, according to Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"I gotta believe Harry Potter is part of that," Sain said.
On Wednesday, Rowling rode on the signature "Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey" ride, which puts film, technology and robotics together in a new way to bring riders physically close to the action. It is touted as creating a more realistic sense of flying than other soaring rides on the market.
"She was very pleased. She was actually thrilled," said creative director Thierry Coup said.
So were guests.
"It made you feel like you were flying. You wanted to just reach out and touch stuff," said Susan Benoit, a tourist from Fredericksburg, Virginia, after her first ride.
Universal executives gave no detailed projections for attendance or revenue for the new attraction.
"We obviously expect this to have a very, very nice effect on our attendance," said Bill Davis, chief operating officer and chairman of Universal Orlando Resorts. "We expect it will help tourism overall in the state and Orlando."
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Patricia Reaney