Yer a wizard, Harry!
For most of you, it will come as no surprise to hear that I am a little bit obsessed with Harry Potter. I started reading the books when I was in middle school (about the same age as Harry in the beginning of the series) and fell in love. I know that they are technically kid’s fiction but I still love them and think they are brilliant and perfect. A magical world with just enough reality that you can almost believe it’s real.
Being a Potter fan also makes you part of a larger community. Fellow Potterheads share jokes and wisdom from the series, as well as debate various aspects of the stories. Just recently I had a completely serious discussion with a friend of mine regarding which Hogwarts house we would each be sorted into and the intricacies of wand lore. We decided I was a Gryffindor Prefect and Robert was in Ravenclaw. Brandon laughed at us, but don’t let him fool you. Brandon has also read the books, seen the movies, and has been known to make a Potter joke every now and then.
I have now read them all multiple times and listened to the British versions on audio book (Stephen Fry’s character voices are just far better than Jim Dale’s). I’ve seen all the movies more times than Brandon can tolerate (I re-watch them all at least once a year and also when I’m sick or having a bad week. Nothing cheers me up like Harry Potter.) However, I had yet to visit any of the real-world Harry Potter destinations. There are currently three theme parks, one each in California, Florida, and Japan, as well as numerous destinations in England where you can see filming locations used in the movies (castles, trains, streets, forests, etc.) or tour the man-made sets and see props as part of the studio tour. The new Harry Potter play, “The Cursed Child”, is also currently on stage in London. Tickets for two years worth of showings of the play sold out in two weeks. But I was lucky (and persistent enough) to snag two tickets for May 2017. I still haven’t done any planning for our side-trip to London but I’m super excited.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Studios Orlando a few years ago and was instantly a must-go destination for this trip. In fact, someone even bought us tickets as part of our honeymoon adventure wedding registry (Thanks, Pat! We love you!) On our way to Oregon we learned that the newest Harry Potter park had just opened at Universal Studios Hollywood in California. Bingo! Now I could go see both American parks. We were already planning to visit the L.A. area so this was perfect.
Fair warning to my muggle readers (non-magic folk), I’ll be letting my nerd flag fly with this one. Laugh with me or at me, but I think we could all use a little more imagination in our lives. To my fellow witches and wizards, grab a butterbeer (or maybe a little fire whiskey) and enjoy.
You can’t see the tears of joy behind my sunglasses, but they were there. Deep down, I know that the Harry Potter universe isn’t real, but this is about as close as it gets and I wasn’t about to let something like “reality” kill my joy.
The Harry Potter theme parks are designed to mimic particular places from the books. The park in Florida is Diagon Alley, the secret wizard shopping district in London, and the park here in L.A. is the village of Hogsmeade, a small town near Hogwarts school that the students get to visit a few times a year as a treat. The parks do an excellent job of keeping things authentic to the Harry Potter universe by including the businesses that would actually be found in that area. For example, in Hogsmeade you will find Honeydukes candy shop and the Hogshead Pub, just like in the books. And in Diagon Alley you will find Gringotts Wizard Bank and the Leaky Cauldron pub, just like in the books.
However, there are some inconsistencies and things that can be found in both parks. For example, both parks have a replica of the Hogwarts Express, though I think the one in Florida is actually functional and serves as a shuttle to and from the park. Both parks also have a replica of the Hogwarts castle and Ollivander’s Wand Shop. If they had kept to the books perfectly, Hogwarts would only be at the park in California (Hogsmeade Village) and Ollivander’s would only be at the park in Florida (Diagon Alley). But the reality is that every fan wants to tour the castle and every fan wants to buy their very own wand, but not everyone will get the chance to tour both parks. This entire experience requires a bit of imagination and suspension of disbelief, so why not.
First stop for this witch was Gladrags Wizard Wear. I needed to get into character and that meant buying a set of wizard robes to go over my muggle clothing. As a Gryffindor, I picked a set with a red lining to match our house colors of red and gold. The sorting hat had wanted to sort me into Ravenclaw (which makes sense given my proclivity toward academics), but knowing that the hat also takes your choice into account, I asked to be in Gryffindor instead.
You might belong in Gryffindor,
where dwell the brave at heart,
Their daring, nerve, and chivalry,
set Gryffindors apart.
– The Sorting Hat
Next, I needed a wand, and every witch and wizard knows Ollivanders is the only place to go. At Ollivanders you can purchase a replica of one of the wands used by the characters in the movies or choose your own wand based on type of wood and personality. I decided to select a wand based on type of wood because every witch or wizard’s wand is unique. It wouldn’t make sense for me to be using a replica of Harry or Hermione’s wand.
I ended up buying a Holly wood wand because it felt the most comfortable in my hand. As we all know, the wand chooses the wizard, not the other way around. In retrospect, it also seems fitting that I would purchase a wand made from Holly while in Hollywood, California.
This is what wand lore tells us about wands made from the Holly branches:
Wood from Holly trees has magical healing properties and is thought to repel evil. Holly people make good leaders and thoughtful, loving and effective counselors. Holly people should use their understanding of the dark, hidden side of humanity to guide others in their time of need.
Testing out my new wand before I board the Hogwarts Express. All of the wands at Ollivanders can be purchased as “interactive” wands. The interactive wands have a tiny sensor on the end (like your TV remote) that can interact with the displays in the shop windows throughout the park.
Your wand comes with a map showing the location of all the interactive windows in the park as well as the particular incantation and wand movement needed to make the “magic” happen. It was really fun to walk around and look for all of the interactive windows. Some of them were actually pretty difficult to figure out. I was never able to get the music shop window below to do anything special.
The “magic” is generally some sort of change or movement in the display window. For example, the stacks of tea cups in the window below would spin if you did the charm correctly.
Now properly dressed in my house robes, and armed with my new wand, it was time to explore the quaint little village of Hogsmeade.
What makes the Harry Potter theme parks so magical is the fully-immersive design and attention to detail. As soon as you walk through the gates to Hogsmeade you begin to hear the music (all from the movie soundtracks) and can easily forget that you’re just in one section of a much larger theme park, all within the metropolis of L.A. You don’t see the other buildings in the park peeking out over the roofs of the village shops. You can’t even hear the explosions going off at the Waterworld show next door. The only thing that would make it more believable is some dreary English weather instead of this lovely southern California sunshine.
It would also help if more of the visitors came in costume. Most of the kids were dressed up, but I was one of few adults dressed in full wizard attire. I got props from the staff though, including a fist-bump from a fellow Gryffindor Prefect at Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods (not a real store from the books, but still a very cool shop). I also had a number of park visitors confuse me for a staff member and ask for directions. One family even had me pose for a photo with them!
The level of detail within the park is just outstanding. First, the restrooms are called “public conveniences” (how British) and while inside you can hear Moaning Myrtle giggle and bubble along the u-bend. Moaning Myrtle generally only resides in the girl’s lavatory but Brandon said he heard her giggle in the boy’s room as well.
Second, the park ATM has a sign for Gringotts Wizard Bank. Unfortunately, the ATM only dispenses muggle money. However, I’ve heard that the park in Florida has an actual Gringotts Bank, complete with an escaped fire-breathing dragon, where you can exchange your muggle money for galleons, sickles, and knuts.
Third, the shop windows. You could spend hours just looking in the shop windows, despite the fact that about half of the Hogsmeade shops are just facades. The only fake shop that I really wished had been real was the bookstore. I saw the turquoise window full of Gilderoy Lockhart’s books and for a moment forgot that those books have never been written. They are quite literally works of fiction* within a work of fiction. However, I still don’t understand why the park neglected to include a bookstore when the entire park is based on a series of books. Even if all they could sell were the original Harry Potter books. To spice things up a bit they could have a character actor play Gilderoy Lockhart and offer “autographed” copies.
*Technically, Lockhart’s books were not fiction, they were lies.
Now on to what you’ve all been waiting for: Butterbeer. Is it amazing? Is it alcoholic? What does it even taste like?
Yes, the butterbeer is delicious. It is also expensive. A cup of regular (not frozen) is $6 and a cup of frozen butterbeer was $7. Brandon cut himself off after three.
No, butterbeer at the park is not alcoholic, despite it being pretty well established that butterbeer is an alcoholic drink in the Harry Potter universe. Yes, the students drink butterbeer in the books and movies, which seems strange to us Americans, but the books are British and across the pond they don’t have the same social and legal restrictions regarding minors consuming alcohol. The legal drinking age in a number of European countries is 18 years old (formerly 16 years in some places) and children even younger are sometimes given small servings of alcohol at special occasions. Also, the wizarding community is not govered by muggle law and likely has its own rules regarding such things. I’ve always imagined butterbeer as being only mildly alcoholic, maybe 2 or 3%. It’s like a socially acceptable near-beer for teenagers. At the theme park it only makes sense for the drink to be non-alcoholic. There are lots of kids that have been dying to try a butterbeer and adding booze to the mix would deny them the fun.
Pro-tip: If you would like to make your butterbeer alcoholic, just purchase a cup of butterbeer from one of the many vendors and then walk over to the Hogshead Pub. Order a shot of whiskey, mix into your butterbeer, and enjoy!
So what does it taste like? From reading the books I always thought butterbeer would taste like butterscotch. I also thought it would be warm. At the theme park, butterbeer is cold or frozen cream soda topped with caramel whipped cream. It may or may not taste like your expectation of butterbeer but it is really tasty. And in the Southern California sun a cold drink is much more refreshing than a warm one.
You could spend a lot of time (and a lot of money) shopping in Hogsmeade. Many of the shops sell the exact same souvenirs. And if you leave Hogsmeade and suddenly remember you forgot to buy something for that special Harry Potter fan in your life, you can always stop at one of the many Harry Potter gift shops scattered throughout the rest of Universal Studios. The largest and most extensive souvenir shop within Hogsmeade was probably Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, which you walk though as you exit the Hogwarts Castle. You can find almost everything the other shops sell and more here.
The absolute best shops, however, were the shops based on real places in the books. Inside Gladrags Wizard Wear you can find all of your costume needs and also see replicas of costumes from the movies. Ollivanders is everything you want it to be, with boxes of wands haphazardly stacked to the ceiling. But a trip to Hogsmeade just wouldn’t be complete without stopping at Honeydukes candy store and Zonko’s Joke Shop.
You can buy chocolate frogs (complete with collectible wizard cards), Bertie Bots Every Flavor Beans (really just Jelly Bellies), and of course, Dumbledore’s favorite Sherbert Lemons. The store is a sensory overload of colorful sugar, exactly as it should be.
Zonko’s is attached to Honeydukes. The jokes and games fit within the Harry Potter universe decently well (as best they can without real magic), but the shop could have been bigger. It almost felt like an afterthought, just tacked onto the end of Honeydukes.
You will undoubtably wander into the owlery whether you intend to or not. The covered area full of picnic tables is just beyond the entrance and near a butterbeer stand. But don’t forget to look up, down, and all around. There are owls perched along the rafters and “owl droppings” artfully painted onto the floor. The owl roosting spot is also attached to the Owl Post wizarding post office. From here you can buy stationary and post cards. They will even mail them for you with an official Hogsmeade post mark! In fact, this is one of the few true freebies at the park. The Owl Post will stamp any piece of paper you bring them with the Hogsmeade stamp. You can bring in your own letters, your own post cards, maybe even the invitations to your Harry Potter themed wedding. They will stamp all of it for free. If you need to buy your stationary and stamps there, however, you will pay an up-charge. A 1 oz Harry Potter stamp costs about $1.50 and you can only buy them in sheets of 14 stamps.
As much as I loved wandering through the shops, the best part of Hogsmeade was just enjoying the architecture of the village itself. It feels very old-world, quirky, and full of magic. The fake snow even sparkles in the sun! Our second day in the park was very overcast, which improved the realism of the park immensely over our incredibly sunny first day.
Of course, we also had to have lunch at the Three Broomsticks. The cafeteria style ordering system lost a bit of the magic, but being the only restaurant in Hogsmeade meant that the place was busy all day long. Table service would have led to long wait times just to grab a bite to eat. The food was surprisingly good though. I had the bangers and mash and Brandon had the fish and chips.
While we were eating we saw the cutest little witch at a nearby table. She couldn’t have been more than five and was walking up to each of her family members (in her house robes, wand at the ready) doing her own invented spell, “huggle snuggle”. She would point her wand, say the incantation, and then hug her opponent. It might be the most effective move in wizard dueling I have seen yet.
The Hogshead Pub is directly attached to the Three Broomsticks. There is a tiny seating area in the pub itself, but it seems like the idea is grab your beer in the pub and bring it back to your table at the Three Broomsticks. Like Zonko’s Joke Shop, the Hogshead really should have been its own shop. Yes, the Harry Potter story was intended for children, but the first generation of children to read Harry Potter are now in their 20s and 30s. And we want to enjoy a drink at the local pub and imagine we are having a heated debate with Hagrid about the pros and cons of keeping dragons as pets.
The only drink at the Hogshead that is made specifically for the park is the Fire Whiskey, which is just cinnamon whiskey. We didn’t try it but were told it tastes exactly like Fireball. I asked about buying some (mostly because I wanted the bottle it came in) but was told that they can’t sell it by the bottle.
After we’d had our fill of butterbeer, chocolate frogs and cauldron cakes, blown-up all of our Dr. Filibuster’s Fabulous No-Heat Wet-Start Fireworks, and managed to snatch back the Marauder’s Map from Filch’s Emporium of Confiscated Goods, it was time to finally board the Hogwarts Express and head to the castle.
Of course, I’d have to change into my school robes once we were on the train. We can’t draw attention from the muggles by showing up to the platform in wizardwear.
This replica train compartment is just behind the Hogwarts Express. They have spare wands and scarves in the various house colors for you to wear while posing for a few photos in the compartment. They also use a special camera that shows the scenery from the movies on the green screen behind the window. The effect is very cool. I never purchase the photos at theme parks or on roller coasters, but in retrospect I should have bought these. They were really funny and I have so few photos with both of us in them.
After sitting in the train compartment for a few minutes the conductor told us that we would have to disembark. They were having a malfunction with the train. A powerful spell had caused it to become glued to the tracks. We would have to find another way back to school.
Then we remembered. The car! Mr. Weasley had lent us his flying car, a baby blue Ford Anglia with a few magical “modifications”. Unfortunately, we are both terrible at flight navigation and accidentally crashed into the old whomping willow. Ooops.
Actually, finding Mr. Weasley’s Ford Anglia did feel like we were breaking a few school rules. The car is next to the castle, in the center of a twist of barriers used when the line for the castle ride gets too long. The park wasn’t particularly crowded when we went and none of the lines were exceptionally long, so this area wasn’t being used. It was blocked off with a gate, but wasn’t locked. We just opened the gate and walked on in. No one seemed to mind. The path comes out right at the entrance to the castle and is the only way to see Mr. Weasley’s car.
Hogwarts Castle is the biggest draw at the Harry Potter parks. It is huge and towers over the park skyline. Inside you can ride one of the most unusual roller coasters I have ever been on: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. It is a 3D roller coaster, like many of the other rides in the park. Instead of strapping into a train-cart and rocketing through twists, turns, and loops, essentially letting gravity do the work, you strap into a seat on a sort of articulating arm while wearing 3D glasses. You are still traveling over a track like a traditional coaster, and there is enough motion and speed to make people queasy, but most of the excitement is from the visual addition of the 3D screens. The articulating arm stops in front of a number of curved screens showing the 3D footage. With the articulating arm moving along with the film, you actually feel like you are flying along with Harry as you try to escape from the castle.
We rode the ride twice, once wearing the 3D glasses and once with the glasses off so we could see how everything worked.
Before we arrived, I had read online that the lines for this ride could be outrageous. People were saying they waited for up to two hours and suggested going straight to the ride when the park opens to get a place in line. I thought this was a terrible idea and completely ignored it. Rushing right through all of Hogsmeade without stopping to enjoy it and feel the magic sounded like a total waste of the experience. When we finally decided to go check out the castle the line was only 20 minutes long. Granted, we were there on a weekday during the off-season. It might be a totally different story on a Saturday in June.
On the other hand, a long line for the Castle isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The line is also the tour of Hogwarts Castle and is full to the brim of amazing things to see. The 20 minute line actually felt rushed.
Pro Tip: The second time we rode the roller coaster we wanted to take our time and really enjoy the castle. We also wanted to take some photos. You can’t bring any bags or big cameras with you onto the coaster (cell phones are fine) so the park provides free lockers for you at the beginning of the line. You are, however, permitted to take as many pictures as you would like of the inside of the castle. If you want to bring a full size camera through the castle and then ride the coaster just ask the attendant at the end of the line if you can use the staff exit to return something to your locker. You can then re-enter through the staff entrance when you return, avoiding the rest of the line! Again, this might not work if the lines are super long, but worked great for us. Unfortunately, the castle is also super dark and not the easiest place to photograph.
The only other Harry Potter themed roller coaster is The Flight of the Hippogriff, a coaster geared towards younger kids. I was hesitant to ride it at first, just because I heard it was a kid’s coaster, but I actually loved it. While waiting in line, I got to walk by Hagrid’s hut, his magical motorbike, and bow to Buckbeak the Hippogriff! Totally worth it.
Right before we left Hogsmeade something magical happened. A woman stopped me and said, “Hey, I just noticed your robe, and your prefect badge, and I saw you taking pictures of the ATM just because it said Gringotts. You’re a huge Harry Potter fan, aren’t you?”
“Well, I have a gift for you.”
“What?” My Alan Rickman impression clearly faltering.
“My son just started reading the Harry Potter books and loves them. I’m a huge fan too. I read them all when I was a kid. Well, we made this together and wanted to give it to a super-fan when we finally made it to Hogsmeade.”
“Oh my god. Wow. What? Okay.” As as I melted into a puddle of wizard goo because this is literally the cutest and sweetest thing ever. They had made a stack of wood and canvas blocks and painted them with symbols from the Harry Potter series and they gave them to me because I’m a super-fan! I’m not sure who was happier, me or the kid.
Of course, the only way to find out was a proper wizards duel.
It was a draw.
Brandon eventually drug me out of Hogsmeade. There was so much else to see at Universal and so little time! Honestly, I was actually ready to go myself. Walking around Hogsmeade was like living in an alternate universe where money didn’t matter. I checked my bank account afterwards and was reminded that those were in fact muggle dollars I had just spent. Still totally worth it. And just like reading the books, I would do it all over and over again.
Okay, so maybe I was ready to leave Hogsmeade, but not entirely ready to leave the magical world behind. Muggle life can wait for another day.