A Geek Girl’s Musings on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
By Byrony Mackey
I am a Harry Potter fan.
By fan, I don’t mean I ‘like’ Harry Potter. I don’t mean that the books are an ‘enjoyable read’.
I don’t use the word ‘fan’ as lackadaisically as most people do these days. I have Slytherin robes that I constructed (with my Mom’s help. Thanks, Mom!) I have a wand carved from wood corresponding to my birth-month in the Celtic calendar. I consider myself a fanatic.
- a person motivated by irrational enthusiasm (as for a cause); "A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject"--Winston Churchill
- marked by excessive enthusiasm for and intense devotion to a cause or idea; "rabid isolationist"
In the beginning…there was doubt
I didn’t want to read the Harry Potter books. I was in my early 20’s, just off a bad divorce, trying to make my way through college. I had heard about them, who hadn’t? Yet the prevailing thought was: ‘Those are kid’s books. I don’t have time for kid’s books.’
Around this time, one of my older sisters came to visit me at school. When I told her I hadn’t read them, she made me drive her to the mall (I went to school in rural West Virginia. The closest book store was in the mall, about 45 miles away) where she promptly purchased me the paperback set containing the first 4 books. (Book 5 wasn’t out yet.) The day after she left I decided I wouldn’t let her purchase be in vain. I was extremely poor at the time, so her spending that much money on a whim for me was spoke volumes as to how much she thought I’d enjoy them. I picked up book 1 and tore through it in about 2-3 hours. Book 2? Another 2-3 hours. Needless to say, I finished the first 4 books in less than 3 days. I was hooked. Over the next few years I read all the books at least 2x a year. I joined an online role-playing group called Avistrum (I believe they’re still around) I listened to MuggleCast and learned everything there was to learn about Harry Potter.
And then…there was a plan
Time to fast-forward my life a few years. I heard on MuggleCast about the plans to construct the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando’s Island of Adventure; which I was really excited about, but was pretty sure I would probably never go. My husband thinks my little obsessions are cute, but that doesn’t mean he shares them. He likes the movies, but I haven’t succeeded in getting him to read the books. I made more than a few jokes that he was lucky the park wasn’t done by the time we got married, or we would’ve spent our honeymoon cuddling over Butterbeer rather than hiding from Hurricane Omar in our St. Thomas hotel room. About 6 months ago we were at a BBQ with our good friends Ryan & Janie. (Names have been (badly) changed to protect their identities.) Janie loves Harry Potter, too. Not quite as obsessively as I do (I think she’d rather be caught dead than be seen in house robes) but she loves me all the same. The menfolk were having themselves a discussion nearby, and soon Janie and I found ourselves doing some eavesdropping. They were planning a vacation. For the 4 of us. To go to Orlando. ZOMGWE’REGOINGTOHARRYPOTTERLAND!!11!!one!!one!111eleventy-one!
And then…there was more planning
Now, we’re getting into some of the exciting stuff. There are many different package deals you can get, and they all lead you to the same destination: Universal Orlando. Having been there previously, I had an idea of what we could expect, and how to plan accordingly. There was an enticing package which promised early admittance to Hogsmeade, breakfast at the Three Broomsticks as well as a ‘Commemorative’ ticket. I steered away from that because…well…I’m cheap. We ended up purchasing 2-day park passes from the Universal website. My personal preference is to hit one park, and hit it hard. You could conceivably spend a lot more time walking between parks if you buy a ParkHopper pass, than just waiting in line since you’ll be doing it anyway. They really push those things hard. I don’t see the point unless you are only there for one day.
Since I’m your quintessential Virgo, but an A-type personality on top of that, I took control of the itinerary planning. I admit it. I’m domineering. It’s not just that I want to have it my way, it’s that I know my way is best. (FYI, that was just a litmus test to see if my husband even reads this article…) OK, for serious now. I researched all the hotels in a 20 mile radius of Universal. I looked at bus schedules. Read menus of restaurants nearby. Calculated cab fares, (Oh yes, I did) and I researched car companies.
Finally, for our hotel, we settled on the La Quinta Inn & Convention Center. They had a free shuttle to and from the park. A complimentary hot breakfast, and a decent looking pool. Upon arrival, I actually realized I had stayed in that exact same hotel when I was in Orlando for the NCAA Swimming Championships back when I was in college. Ahhh, memories. The hotel is pretty nice, especially when you consider the price, which was about $50 a night booked through Expedia. They moved our rooms so the couples would be across the hall from each other, and every time I spoke with anyone at the hotel they were gracious and super helpful. It’s located right on International Drive, a few miles from Universal. We used the hotel’s ‘preferred’ transportation company, GuyTours instead of renting a car to get there from the airport. Sheika, our driver, was freaking awesome. What a great guy, call him if you need to go somewhere in Orlando. It was about $70 round trip, which I calculated out to $100 if you take a cab.
‘Spared no expense!’ – John Hammond, Jurassic Park
So finally we have fast-forwarded to being at the park. We decided to go to Islands of Adventure on Friday, that way we’d have the option to return on Saturday if we felt we missed something. If not, we’d go to Universal on Saturday. We were picking up our tickets at the Kiosk when I heard a woman nearby exclaim: ‘THIS is my commemorative ticket? What a ripoff!!’. So…according to that woman, the commemorative ticket is not really worth it.
I wasn’t aware that Universal had implemented a fingerprint scan system throughout the park. (Apparently Disney does this, as well. Sue me, I’ve never been to Disney) I thought this was pretty dang snazzy, 1984-ish as it seemed. But my Big Brother fears were quickly erased by my first view of Hogwarts Castle. We could see it rising in the distance, and if you squinted just right, you could cut the Jurassic Park visitor’s center out of your line of vision. I love me some dino’s, but I don’t want them running loose in Hogsmeade!
Now, forgive me for this next part if you’re an avid theme-park-goer. I haven’t been to many theme parks. Knotsberry Farm, 6-Flags and Universal Orlando (but not IoA) were my only experiences to date. On top of that, I was never an adult at any of them, so you tend to notice different things. My first impression was ‘WOW, is this place clean or WHAT?!?’ Since I had just spotted Jurassic Park, the quote from John Hammond kept running through my head all day: ‘Spared no expense!’ That’s overall how I felt about this park. I was floored. The buildings were all artfully aged and beautiful. Everything was clean and sparkling, unless it was supposed to look old and rusty.
All aboard the Hogwart’s Express!
After making our way through Dr. Suess land as well as Sinbad land (yes, I will refer to everything as ___ land. Please refer to the Universal Website if you want proper names) we finally laid eyes on Hogsmeade. Janie and I cried. Not like hungry, angry babies or anything, but we both got a little teary. The crooked chimneys. The real-looking snow on the peaked roofs. I felt like I was in Hogsmeade. Unfortunately with about ten billion other people (HOLY CROWDED!) but still. The Hogwart’s Express is there when you first walk into Hogsmeade. Next to it is a ‘depot’ of lockers, (they use the fingerprint scanning here, too. DO NOT leave ALL your money in the locker. Just in case. I warned you.) for the Dragon Challenge ride.
What do you mean ‘No Dragons’??
We opted to go right on the Dragon Challenge ride, as the wait was only listed as 10 minutes. The walk up is festooned with banners for the 4 Champions in the Tri-Wizard Challenge. You pass by Hagrid’s hut (I don’t think it was built to scale…) and finally the Flying Ford Anglia which beeps and flashes its lights at you. Very cute. You enter into what appears to be the tent the Champions wait in before the (wait for it…) Dragon Challenge in the movie. The Goblet of Fire is also in there. I didn’t have a chance to put my name in it. Following along, you pass by the Tri-Wizard Cup itself! I was getting so very excited by this time…until we were deep in the caverns, and the announcement came. “We’re sorry, the Dragon Challenge is down for maintenance right now, we are not sure when it will resume”. What? WHAT? GAH! I want Dragons!
Oh well. I’m in Harry Potter Land!! Even broken dragons can’t quench my enthusiasm.
Diagonsmeade. Alley. Place.
I was actually very surprised by how small the shops were in Hogsmeade. I don’t know if they underestimated the amount of people or just didn’t feel like making them bigger? Possibly it was the throngs of people that skewed my perception. There are a lot of faux storefronts they have set up, with window displays and the like, so maybe they left room for expansion. Honeyduke’s and Zonko’s are connected to each other, and I noticed right away that they really didn’t have too many differing products. I looked at one shelf, then another…and they had the same stuff on them. I wasn’t really there for the shopping at either of these stores, so this bothered me little.
The store I was really looking forward to was the Owl Post. To get in, Janie and I waited in line for about 25 minutes. They could only let a couple people in at a time, and even with that I wish they let in less. The Owl Post is connected to Dervish and Banges. The store is really narrow and really small! Here they sell house robes, patches, sweaters, ties, you name it. I purchased a Slytherin patch for my robes. A very neat thing was the Monster Book of Monsters display. They have an animated one in a cage which growls and moves. The MBoM that they sell there was not my favorite, though. Janie purchased one from Amazon.com for my birthday last year; I like it much better, it’s all plush. The ones in DandB’s had a plastic tongue and I they just didn’t appeal to me. I finally made my way into the Owl Post, which is so small you can’t walk freely through it, unless you’re the only person in it. It’s a square room, with a counter smack in the middle. There are shelves all the way around, and behind the counter there’s really only room for one person, so you’re essentially in a line, that only moves when the first person moves.
The Owl Post is also where they sell wands. (Although they are also for sale at an outdoor booth or two. I suggest purchasing your wand from Alivans.com, but that’s just me.) As I have a wand already (10¾" vine , with a ) we skipped Olivander’s. Now I didn’t realize that when they have a group in Olivander’s they bring them through into the Owl Post.
There’s a distinct lack of order when it comes to trying to purchase something. I grabbed some postcards, a Dark Mark wax seal kit (OMG, I LOVE that thing.) and an awesome picture frame that looks like a trunk and stood in the general area I figured was the line. About this time a door opens to my left, and here comes a huge group from Olivander’s!! It was chaos. Total chaos. It does puts a damper on enjoying the whole thing. I was excited about the postcards, because they ‘postmark’ them from Hogsmeade. Which was AWESOME…until I found out they don’t carry any postcard stamps. Make a mental note: bring postcard stamps.
Butterbeer! Drinkable Diabetes!
We finally got out of the Owl Post, and went to find the guys who were wetting their whistles over at the Hog’s Head Pub. I believe it’s the only place to procure an adult beverage in Hogsmeade. (Other than carts.) The bar is beautiful; it’s cleverly aged with a moving (and huge) hog’s head behind it. Shrunken heads hang from the wall, although I didn’t hear them talk. The men had gotten two butterbeers, one frozen, one not, so that we could taste them both. I’ve read that most people prefer the frozen, but I have to say it’s the last for me. It was really, really good. But really, really sweet!! Wow, I don’t know how someone could drink more than one of those! It tastes like melted Werther’s butterscotches and a dash of Cream Soda. As a grownup who enjoys adult beverages, I was really disappointed they didn’t have a version made with say, Butterscotch Schnapps. We did enjoy our drinks, and the commemorative mugs they came in (we’re going to concoct our own.). I must admit I am seriously afraid of my next dental visit. The Three Broomsticks is attached to the Hog’s Head, but it’s mainly a restaurant. While we did not eat there, the smells coming from it were tantalizing!
Hogwarts! Hogwarts! Hoggy Warty Hogwarts!
Teach us something, please!!
We’re on our way to the castle! I’m really not sure how to convey just how astonishing Hogwarts Castle is. Every detail had been painstakingly crafted. Janie and I cried again. The outside waiting area is made to look like the Greenhouse, and cunningly so. Each piece of metal is skillfully rusted, and the hanging pots of plants have real exotic, Harry Potter-looking plants in them. There’s one which must be some type of carnivorous plant, I WANT ONE!! I don’t know what it is, but I want one. It looked terribly tropical, which means it won’t happily live in Arizona, though.
On entry to the castle, you’ll see a golden statue of the Architect of Hogwarts. He is holding a model of Hogwarts in one hand, and some charts (?) in the other. The four house mascots are represented as well. At the end of the first stretch you’re faced with the great phoenix statue which in the movies guards the entrance to Dumbledore’s office. (Acid Pops is not the current password.) Continuing along you see the House Points containers (Slytherin was in second place.), the Mirror of Erised (I saw myself living there…) and some assorted tapestries you may recognize from the movies.
And now, moving portraits!! I was blown away by this room, which was a sort of replica of the Great Hall. The screens on the moving portraits were even painted to appear like oil paintings. They move among each other and converse, as well. It was so magical I almost felt 6 years old again. (For clarification, at that age I would’ve still wanted to believe they were real.) Next up is Dumbledore’s office! He appears up on the balcony and speaks to you, I was loving whatever type of screen technology they used. His office is full of beautiful paraphernalia such as the Pensieve. Portraits of headmasters follow your progress into the Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom. This is where you get the ‘story’ of the ride. The Trio comes out from under the Invisibility Cloak on the balcony, and explains they would like to help you get out of boring Professor Binns history class. Professor Binns was a teacher who passed away in the Teacher’s Lounge one day, and his ghost got up out of his body and proceeded to teach class. He’s exceedingly dull, so I personally appreciate very much the Trio’s efforts in getting us out of that. Out of the DAtDA classroom we find the Pink Lady welcoming us into the Gryffindor Common Room. I really want a fireplace big enough to stand in, by the way. The one in the Common Room is gorgeous!!
The Forbidden Journey pretty much rules.
After the Common Room you’ll be ready to get on the ride. (I didn’t mention the room with the floating candles, those were sweet.) Each car has 4 seats, and this ride is half animatronics, and half almost virtual reality.
I felt like I was flying. Really flying on a broom, through Hogwarts. Oh no!! Hagrid lost a dragon! No worries, it’ll find you! I don’t want to go through the entire ride for you, but if you want to fly on a broom through Hogwarts grounds, including the Quidditch Pitch….you need to go. This was my favorite ride of the entire trip. It’s pretty much the sweetest ride ever, IMHO.
WELL DONE DRAGON!!!
Now I must take a moment to impart to you what I believe to be the differences between a ‘ride’ and a ‘coaster’. These are two very different animals. While they share some attributes, they’re like synonyms. They sound the same, but they mean different things. A ‘ride’ is both physically and mentally involving. A ‘coaster’ is usually just physically involving. A ‘ride’ wants to pull you into a story. A ‘coaster’ wants to push your lunch out of your stomach.
With that being said, the best coaster is the Dragon Challenge!! Our earlier disappointment notwithstanding, this coaster delivers. Note: We did not (to my husband’s endless chagrin) get to compare the Hollywood Rockit as that was closed for maintenance. So I cast my vote at the Dragons. (But I love Dragons, so why wouldn’t I??) This coaster consists of two separate coasters. When you arrive at the boarding area, you have your choice to ride the Chinese Fireball (red-orange) or the Hungarian Horntail (purple-blue). My research revealed that the Dragon ride was one of IoA’s original attractions, which explains the colors. These two coasters start out on the same hill, side by side, but quickly move to traverse separate courses. There are a few near-misses with the feet of the riders on the other Dragon, which is totally sweet. We rode the Chinese Fireball first, and then went right back to try to tame the Hungarian Horntail. After the ride I was under the impression that the Horntail ride was a lot shorter than the Fireball, but all sources say they are the same length. This coaster is everything I expect a coaster to be. Sweet, sweet, red awesomeness on a track, heading straight towards sweet, sweet blue awesomeness on another track. So while the Forbidden Journey is my favorite ride, don’t let that detract from the fact that the Dragon Challenge is my favorite coaster.
All fun things must fade to memory
Well, our Harry Potter adventure came to an end. All in all it was a fantastic vacation that was enjoyed by each of us. We made it the perfect mix of action and rest.
In closing I just have a few points of advice if you are going to plan a vacation to Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter:
Do your research. There is a world of information on the web!! Don’t go in blind. Know what time parks open and close. Know transportation schedules. Know what the weather will be like. See what you can or can’t bring into the park. Make a plan of what you absolutely MUST see.
Bring bottled water. You are allowed to bring this in, along with snacks. Don’t bring anything crazy, like a tuna fish sandwich, but bring some granola bars. Some gummy snacks, something! Unless you like paying out the wazoo for something you could have brought, of course.
Bring a small-ish backpack. You’ll probably be buying stuff. It’s pretty sweet to shove it in your bag and swing that on your back rather than holding it in your hand all day.
Bring sunscreen. I live in AZ. I’m used to the sun and I still make it a point to wear sunscreen. Sunburn hurts, especially if you live in a cold climate and are not used to the FL sun! Reapply often through the day, and don’t forget the tops of your ears!
Wear comfortable, weather-appropriate clothing. Lady in the black leather skirt, ridiculously small red halter top and sky-high heels, I’m looking at you!! (She was a trooper, though. We saw her a few times through the day.)
I hope you all enjoyed my trip half as much as I did!! Always remember, "draco dormiens nunquam titillandus!!!"
(from Nielle) For muggles who may not know, draco dormiens nunquam titillandus means: Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon.