I love the Harry Potter stories, have read all the books, have seen all the movies, but I never had the opportunity to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. All that was about to change. All I needed was to work a little magic, and (borrowing shamelessly from a famous villain) to keep in mind that all magic, Dearie, comes with a price. In my case, the price has always been planning: I do my best magic with a nice dollop of planning. So, after channeling Hermione for a few days and making sure my local Gringotts had not been broken into, my Muggle husband and I finally made the trip to the Universal Orlando Resort in Florida in December. Because the flying car was in the shop, we chose to fly with Virgin America, but that is another blog post . . . maybe. Before I conjure tips, however, I am going to mention a few more things for those of you who may not know. The Universal Orlando Resort is really two theme parks: One is the Universal Studios Florida, where you will find Diagon Alley; two is Islands of Adventure, where you will find Hogsmeade Village and Hogwarts Castle. Because the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is in two theme parks, you can visit either Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade, or you can visit both. If you are planning your visit as a single day experience, the single park ticket is $110; if you want to see both (the park-to-park), ticket price is $165, multi-day tickets are also available. I recommend that you visit https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/tickets-packages/park-tickets/promo/index.html for more detailed ticket information. The latter is important if you want to ride the Hogwarts Express train. Only two things will guarantee passage on it: an annual/seasonal pass or the park-to-park ticket mentioned above. I encourage everyone to ride the Hogwarts Express at least once, sooner or later. Yes, you may consider that an extra tip.
Oh my, I almost forgot! You might like to know that Diagon Alley has one ride (Escape from Gringotts); Hogsmeade Village currently has two (Forbidden Journey, Flight of the Hippogriff). Both places have one restaurant that share some items on the menu but are different enough to be distinct (the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley and Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade). A sweet tooth can be satisfied in either park; you may be tempted to scream with delight in Diagon Alley’s Florean’s Ice Cream Parlor, and dentists will thrill at the crowds going in and out of Honeydukes in Hogsmeade. As to shopping . . . well . . . stores, like a patch of magical mushrooms, are plentiful in both places. Diagon Alley, however, has more stores with a greater selection of merchandise. In either park, when it comes to shopping . . . Vale oscula pecunia.
Enough already! For all you first-timers out there: TIPUS ARTICULATUS!
Watch the movies. Read the books.
If it has been a while since you have seen the movies or have read the books, my inner Hermione recommends a re-viewing or re-reading . . . of . . . (hold on to your robe) . . . . everything. At the very least, dust off or buy a copy of The Sorcerer's Stone. If the mere thought of books raises unexplainable green boils, don’t worry; the movie will do. The reason is simple: Remember the details (the devil is always in them) and you will have a devilishly wonderful time. Believe me, the creators of the Wizarding World are exacting in the details they have included throughout. Now don’t get me wrong. You have a wonderful time even if you haven’t seen the movies or read the books. Yet, there is something magical the moment you spot a detail you clearly remember (the dark spiders scurrying across the window in Knockturn Alley, the house elf behind the curtain, Moaning Myrtle in the bathrooms). Call it déjà vu—the thrill one feels at the moment of recognition is irrepressible. The real magic in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is all in the details.
2. Begin at Diagon Alley in Universal Studios Florida.
Remember what I wrote about the Universal Orlando Resort being two theme parks? Tip two, then, is to do what Harry did—introduce yourself to the world of wizardry by starting at Diagon Alley. Getting there, of course, is half the fun. Walk along the streets of London until your find yourself passing the Screed and Sons bookstore, pass by the red record store, its arched windows, and the scarlet-red telephone kiosk, then look past the rectangular Leiscester Square Station sign until you see the unassuming brick walls that, in actuality, make up a nice little maze. Wend your way in that maze until you walk through the wide rough opening of the brick wall that . . . you guessed it . . . opens onto Diagon Alley, a place you can see, feel, hear, and even taste (think butter beer, cottage pie, Earl Grey and lavender ice cream). Yes, you can expect a sensory experience that may at first be a little overwhelming, especially because of the crowd milling about. All those people, however, provide a vibe of reality that is both remarkable and unforgettable. After you have eased your way into the steady stream of people flowing along, do not be surprised if you soon find yourself looking for towering Hagrid. After you have walked the few steps to get past Weasly’s Wizard Wheezes (orange color, of course), look down to the very end of the street on which you are walking and you will see the columned entrance to Gringott’s bank. Continue walking and soon you will see the fire breathing Ukrainian Iron Belly fire-breathing dragon (every ten minutes) perched menacingly on the rooftop. The magical adventure begins!
3. Become the Wizard You Wish to See in the World.
Only a Slitherin (although I am a Ravenclaw with a touch of Hufflepuff) could write such a cheeky introduction, and therein lies my point. Your experience in either park will be enhanced when you happily enter the grand stage of cheekiness. To do that, you might want to try doing two things: Tap into your imagination, and let go of your inhibitions—now is not the time to be perfectly normal. Remember that only a Dursley would be stubborn enough to deny that all the world’s a stage, so make your entrance and exit in magical style. Select your house colors (you may want to take one of the many sorting tests available on line before you arrive) and then proudly brandish your Hogwarts talisman as you go out and explore, discover, remember, cast spells, and, above all else, enjoy yourself. Try not to be shy, and (for the parental units reading this) avoid cynicism. . Yes, everyone that Harry Potter’s world is a child’s world, right? What about boundaries? Decorum? Wizened maturity? All that misses the point. Harry Potter’s world is that of the imagination—it may be time to reclaim yours. Initially, I had to be coaxed out of my reluctance to wear the Ravenclaw robe my Muggle bought me. It didn’t take long, however, to realize he was right: I wasn’t in Rome, but I knew what I had to do. The only downside to dressing the part was that, occasionally, someone mistook me for a park employee, to which I gracefully bowed, cast a cheering charm, and then told that person that I was also just visiting. Believe it or not, I do not remember receiving a single eye roll. I encourage you not to resist the temptation to become a character on the Harry Potter stage. To that end, remember that sometimes the only way to resist temptation is to yield to it; so go ahead—be wild. Join the wild ones you will see: old and young, male and female, and every shade in between.
4. See The Ollivander Wand Ceremony.
While many of us will be selecting a wand from the obvious places, watching the wand keeper help one lucky participant in the selection process (remember, the wand chooses the wizard) is really something. In Diagon Alley, separate from Ollivander’s wand shop, you will discover the Diagon Alley Arts Club sign hanging above a door that is the entrance to an area where a queue forms for the wand selection ceremony. An assistant to the wand keeper will show the group that has collected there (which can be up to twenty-five people) into a wonderfully decorated room where the ceremony takes place. Lucky for you, I won’t spoil your experience by telling you what actually takes place. I will, however, tell you that the only disappointment you experience is not being chosen by the wand keeper. If you are not, take a deep sigh and then allow yourself to enjoy the play within the play that is acted out for you. Yes, you can go on-line and try to discover just what you can do to increase your chances of being selected (being a child is not necessarily an advantage). The range of suggestions is interesting: stand in the front row, stand one third of the way back from the front row, be a child, dress up as a wizard-in-training, jump up and down while shrilly shouting “Choose me, me, me!” and(believe it or not) being several months pregnant. On the day I visited, the group was very small and while children were present, I was chosen. Was I chosen because I was wearing my Ravenclaw robe? You can believe what you want. In the end, selection is a mysterious process that takes place in the mind of the wand keeper. If you are selected and after the wand has chosen you, then you can choose to buy the wand or not. Did I buy mine? Of course! Ash. Fourteen inch. Flexible. Dragon heartstring core. How could I not? Finally, you can find the wand ceremony in either Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade.
5. Take a Turn on the Dark Side.
Knockturn Alley, that is. Creatively creepy, devilishly detailed, splendidly scary, a turn about the alley is highly recommended for everyone, not just those who are or imagine themselves to be pure blood Slytherins. Now then, if you don’t want to use floo powder or to magically apparate, getting to Knockturn alley is easy. Outside and to the right of the Leaky Cauldron restaurant you will see an arched brickwork beneath an old street lamp. Just to the right of the archway you will see a number of iron-gray cauldrons curiously stacked and resembling the rattle at the end of a snake’s tail, only larger . . . much larger . . . a dragon, perhaps? In through the archway you go. A quick glance to your right, and follow the extended arm and finger sign pointing you in the right direction. In just a few steps you’ll find yourself gradually swallowed by darkness and surrounded by the shadows cast from the pale amber light flowing from stanchioned casement shop windows and dramatically dim street lamps. As darkness embraces you, ambient theatrical music and haunting sounds become Siren calls from the dark side. Was it me, or was everyone around me quieter? The ambiance is mesmerizing, and there is much to do: Shop (Borgin and Burkes—you might feel a Lucius or Draco-like smile spreading on your lips when you see what’s there); stop before a storefront window filled with singing shrunken heads and, if you know the words, join in; watch spiders scurry across windows that have been papered over with The Daily Prophet and wonder what’s hidden inside; or, as I did, try out your interactive wand to cast spells that add to your creative and magical experience. As I mentioned earlier, I am not Slytherin. I did, however, experience a brief moment of Slytherinness as I practiced my spell-casting in Knockturn Alley. I wasn’t having much success, and my Muggle husband was all too helpful trying to tell me how I should be moving the wand as I spoke the incantations. He was trying so hard that at one moment I turned my wand on him and shouted—EVANESCO! As I just said and lucky for him, I had yet to master my wand technique. All in all? Visit Knockturn Alley, please. Should you still be a little reluctant, don’t worry: Exit signs are well-lighted and easy to spot.
There you have them: Five Magical tips for the uninitiated. I could have provided more (the most I have seen so far is twenty-nine) and, perhaps, even five is too many. Who can say? What I hope my suggestions do is pique your interest, kindle your curiosity, and whet your appetite for an imaginative experience. I suppose someone can question the value of a place like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, especially because we all believe what we find there is not real. It may be more useful to think of that world as a bridge that connects our real, all too often difficult, lives with the rich forsaken land of our imagination. I end by suggesting that we remember Dumbledore’s words; then, maybe, we can begin to understand and appreciate the infinite possibilities inspired by Harry Potter’s world:
“Of course it is happening in your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”