It was well before sunrise on a December morning in Orlando, Florida.We were at the front of the line at the gates of Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park, along with several hundred other early risers to be the day’s first visitors to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
This was more than just a fun excursion to an amusement park, however. Since it opened in June 2010, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has attracted millions of the Harry Potter faithful. Like many who had come before us, we were on a journey of fulfillment, a pilgrimage to honor one of our family’s central stories.
Our first son, Ben, was born in 1997, the same year the first Harry Potter book was published. He probably got solid food about the same time he first heard: Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. And Sam, our younger son, was still in utero when his little ears first attuned themselves to: The villagers of Little Hangleton still called it “the Riddle House,” even though it had been many years since the Riddle family had lived there.
Our growing family bonded, not just over the Harry Potter story, but over the Harry Potter books. At first we read them aloud, and savored the mouth-feel of the words, the comfort of snuggling close as the plot unfolded deliciously over the hours. Then, as the children grew, they stretched their fledgling reading skills as they struggled to master the Harry Potter books on their own.
Now? Good luck finding a bookshelf in our house that doesn’t have a set of Harry Potter books. Harry Potter DVDs spin with regularity in our DVD player. The Harry Potter audio books (we are on our second set, the first having simply dissolved from overuse) remain in constant rotation on a cassette player in Ben’s room. In the scrapbook from a family trip to England several years ago, there is a photo of Sam pushing a luggage cart through the wall at King’s Cross, marked Platform 9 3/4 .A photo on the facing page shows Ben in the dining hall of Christ Church College, Oxford, which, as all Potterheads know, is the basis for the Hogwarts dining hall.
I have not even mentioned the memorabilia that occupies drawers, dressers, bedside tables, and shelves throughout the house: time turners, wands of various composition, Harry Potter Scene-It, trading cards, Gryffindor (Ben) and Ravenclaw (Sam) house scarves, a miniature sorting hat, snitches. It’s as if Hermione’s purple beaded handbag sprang a leak during a broomstick fl yby, and the wizarding world’s jetsam settled into every nook and cranny of our lives.
Children growing up these past fifteen years have been tagged the Harry Potter generation. Our family is a prime example.And so our journey to Orlando was a pilgrimage.
What, exactly, is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and what makes it such a mecca for the Potter faithful? Mostly, it is a setting. A loving recreation of locations every Potter fan has dreamed of visiting. The park’s entrance and main thoroughfare take you into the heart of the wizarding village of Hogsmeade. Potter fans will delight in all the familiar shops: Zonko’s, Honeydukes, Dervish & Banges. Olivander’s Wand Shop is here as well, apparently as a branch location of the original Diagon Alley shop. And yes, you can purchase chocolate frogs, and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans. In fact, an astonishing six hundred items based on the Harry Potter series are available in the park.
Visually, the village is eye candy for Potter fans. Snow-capped buildings recall Harry’s first impression of the village: Hogsmeade looked like a Christmas card; the little thatched cottages and shops were all covered in a layer of crisp snow. The higgledy-piggledy architecture suggests a mash-up of magic and physics, the former force working to pull the buildings down, the latter working to keep them standing.Carelessly done, the effect could be sinister (think clown dolls), but here it is whimsical.Like the arch of Dumbledore’s unkempt eyebrows, everything conveys a wry reassurance. More than anything, it just feels so familiar, like this is a place you had to leave behind, and have now come home to again.
You belong here.
I will admit that I did not gather this impression upon our first arrival at the park. That’s because we passed through the village at a dead sprint. Our destination was Hogwarts Castle ” specifically, the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride that takes place inside Hogwarts. Even running as fast as one can (which was still not fast enough to keep pace with Ben and Sam), exiting the far end of the village, where the path bends left and Hogwarts suddenly springs into view, is awesome. Apparently hewn from the rough rock upon which it sits, the castle, with its cathedral-like main hall, its arched openings and towering spires, manages to be awe-inspiring without being menacing. Despite its bedrock foundation, Hogwarts was transfigured by the silky morning sunlight into something luminous and ethereal, floating above the rest of the park like a crenellated cloud.
Ben paused long enough to pronounce, “This is the best day of my life,” before springing away again, eager to be one of the day’s first riders.
Harry Potter inspires feats of courage.This is true, I know. Sam is not a thrill ride kid. He is the opposite of a thrill ride kid. He is, in other words, his mother’s child. But he was determined, despite our guidebook’s many descriptions of the intensity of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, to brave the ride, which is part roller coaster, part 3-D movie, and part internal organ blender.Stepping on to the moving platform that serves as the ride’s load point, I saw tears welling in his eyes. Shortly after the ride began, as we were careening through the forbidden forest, I asked him how he was doing.
“Not so good.”
By the time we disembarked, he was no less transfigured than the castle had been in the morning light. “That was the best… ride… ever!”
Don’t tell me magic isn’t real.
Other than the Forbidden Journey, don’t expect much in the way of thrill rides. There is the Hippogriff, which is a junior roller coaster (and, yes, Sam was all over that after his triumph inside Hogwarts) and Dragon Challenge, a pair of intertwined coasters whose inverted cars are designed to resemble the Hungarian Horntail and the Chinese Fireball. Ben was a particular fan of this coaster, and says that the Hungarian Horntail track is both faster and smoother than the Chinese Fireball track. (Even if you don’t ride Dragon Challenge, you should wander the path that leads to its entrance. Along the way you can find Triwizard Champion banners, the tenacious little Ford Anglia, and Hagrid’s Hut.)
Once we had done the rides, we returned to Hogsmeade at a more leisurely pace. We admired the storefronts and browsed in Zonko’s and Honeydukes. And of course, when we passed the twenty-foot barrel sitting atop a beverage cart, we had to give butterbeer a try.
Butterbeer, according to one account, is the single most popular item in this wildly popular park. Universal Orlando spent years developing butterbeer, striving to be faithful to the beverage described in the books (sans any suggestion that it could give the drinker a buzz) and having to satisfy the very demanding standards of J.K. Rowling herself. The result is a butterscotchy, cream soda-y beverage with a frothy marshmallow-y head that is poured in two phases, and goes down without being too sweet, so long as you drink it in a timely manner. After 30 minutes or so, the head and body lose cohesion and blend together into a less savory concoction reminiscent of Ron’s more spectacular potions-class flameouts.
Our family’s verdict? Ben loved it. The rest of us thought it was good, but one was enough. Sam gravitated to pumpkin juice, another Harry Potter favorite.
There are several important things to know before you go to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. First of all, it is much smaller than you would imagine.The entire themed area covers only 20 acres. Second, it is wildly popular, which, combined with its small size, means that it gets crowded. Really crowded. Out-of-hand crowded. So crowded that by nine-thirty in the morning, we left to enjoy other Areas of Islands of Adventure and nearby Universal Studios.
So, be prepared for crowds. Plan accordingly. If possible, book into a resort-owned hotel, which allows you to get into the park an hour earlier than the general public. Because of the park’s small size, you’d be surprised how much ground you can cover in an hour. Plus, if you’re a resort guest, your room key doubles as an express pass, which allows you to use the priority boarding lines for most of the popular attractions. It is common for wait times to approach three hours for Forbidden Journey at peak times (and sadly, this ride has no priority boarding line) so don’t underestimate the value of rolling out of bed a few hours earlier than you would normally on vacation.
One bonus of the crowd-sucking nature of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is that for much of the rest of the day, we bounced between the Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios parks with hardly any lines. (If you like thrill rides, Ben and I have just two words for you: Hulk Coaster!)
The crowds at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter become more manageable in the evening, and so we returned later, to try a few things we had missed.Namely, the Three Broomsticks, the pub in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione pass many a weekend afternoon, noshing, sipping butterbeer, rubbing shoulders with notable witches and wizards, and, later, beginning to whisper of rebellion against Lord Voldemort’s resurgence.We were pleasantly surprised to find no line. The standard cafeteria-style theme park food service was quick and efficient, and we were pleasantly surprised that the prices weren’t rapacious. But the real joy came when we stepped into the dining area, which is so lovingly crafted I almost wanted to cry. I had no particular preconceived notion of what being in the Three Broomsticks should feel like, but I knew immediately that this was it. It felt old, and intimate, memory drenched.
I watched Ben and Sam, their eyes constantly drifting upward, to the rough-hewn ceiling beams, along the fl ying balconies, as if summoned by age-old whispers, longago conversations still humming in the high shadowy places. Our conversation, too, was warm, punctuated by laughter.Ben quaffing his butterbeer and Sam his Pumpkin juice. Reminiscing about Harry Potter. Not the books, but the ways in which Harry Potter’s world is suffused with our own. Harry Potter trivia to keep the boys awake on a late-night car trip home.Our own, boy-brand of favorite wizard spells: Exsmellyarmpits! Rectumsempra! Notebooks full of schedules and notes from imaginary semesters at Hogwarts.
As I looked around at the other families similarly engaged, I suspected I was not the only parent offering up other, unspoken, wishes around Harry Potter, because what I hope my children carry forward from Harry Potter has nothing to do with wizards. I hope Ben and Sam will heed Dumbledore’s wisdom when they must “make a choice between what is right and what is easy.” I hope that they cultivate the kinds of friends who will stand by them no matter what the circumstances. I hope that they have compassion for the marginalized.Most of all, I hope that during those inevitable times when they must journey alone along harrowing paths, they will still feel the presence of all who love them.
As we prepared to say goodbye to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I found myself back again at how it all began. The books. The seven pillars upon which all of this was based. And by this I don’t mean just a theme park, but rather the ethos of the entire Harry Potter generation. Everyone in the park that evening – in the Three Broomsticks, the streets of Hogsmeade, the labyrinthine passages of Hogwarts—was joined by a common bond, stained with J.K. Rowling’s core message that love is the greatest magic of all. The iconic castle was lit from below by floodlights and from above by an emerging moon. The collective dreams of both sides of the Harry Potter generation filled the air, gamboling about the pitched eaves and drunken chimneys of Hogsmeade like patronuses shielding us all from dark magic.
All was well.