Photo courtesy of Universal Orlando Resort.
As far as theme-park gouging goes, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter proudly carries on the noble and ancient tradition.
But the effort, theatrics and, yes, guilt of the sales pitch before was so convincing that I challenge any father out there to resist—and not drop US$31.92 on a plastic injection-moulded wand.
It all started earlier that morning when the clear Florida sky was still more inky than pinky. My son awoke my wife and I from the kind of deep, guilt-free sleep you enjoy on an overdue vacation. As we begged for a few more minutes of darkness amidst the sprawling king-size bed and marshmallow duvet, he reminded us that today was his birthday—his fifth—and how we had agreed to blow his mind with a visit to the Wizarding World, namely Ollivander’s Wand Shop, so he could be chosen by a wand on his birthday, just like Harry. Then he turned the lights on, victoriously.
For more than a decade, my wife has dutifully awaited her regular hit of Harry Potter books, and then movies, like the semi-annual joyous occasions that they were. She then passed on the love of all things English, orphaned and cursed to our son. He’s been gorging on the franchise for the past year, but the poor guy’s timing is all wrong.
He’s seen all the films. But now that the series is over, he’s still too young to read the tomes himself or get much out of Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new social media methadone clinic for jonesing disciples.
And my wife also hasn’t been herself since the finale. I’m having trouble filling the emptiness that Alan Rickman left in her heart.
Clearly, I had to bring them to Orlando to the US$250-million park that has supercharged Universal attendance with a 20 per cent bump in 2010 and more than 50 per cent in 2011.
We reluctantly pried our eyes open, grabbed our daypack and sprinted across the Loews Portofino’s piazza and down the wooden pier to await the first boat shuttle to Universal Studios.
The 25-seat pleasure cruiser is gratis guest transport for all three Loews properties, Universal’s only onsite accommodations. It’s also the coolest way I’ve ever approached a theme park. The 10-minute journey across a manmade lagoon ended at the dock between Universal Studios and its Islands of Adventure sister park, of which The Wizarding World is the newest section. Like all Loews guests, we came armed with our room card that doubles as early park access at 8 a.m., an hour before the 9 a.m. crush.
Once the gates opened, we followed yet another lagoon to Seuss Landing towards the Lost Continent. As we rounded a corner, Hogwarts Castle’s blackened turrets came into view for the first time. It was like a first-time Eiffel Tower moment. Or, the first-time you lay eyes on Disney’s Cinderella’s Castle. In fact, Hogwarts was purposely built a few feet taller than Cinderella’s shrine to ensure bragging rights, and is already every bit as iconic. The swashbuckling symphony of the Lost Continent waned and the plinking, music-box notes of the Potter soundtrack (you know the tune) filled the silence of gob-smacked first-timers.
To our right, a stationary Hogwarts Express steam engine billowed smoke while a conductor waved at the early entrants. Not surprisingly, the place gets so packed that a visit is a crawling, shoulder-to-shoulder affair—from flash mobs of Beauxbatons ladies striding by to Moaning Myrtle-occupied washrooms.
But, in another plug for staying either at a Loews property or a Universal Studios partner property, ride queues can be reduced dramatically with a hotel key card.
This is a must for sating preschooler adrenaline fixes with the family-friendly Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster, with its robotic Buckbeak and its panoramic views of Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. The junior coaster and the fact visitors of all ages can walk through Hogwarts to visit Dumbledore’s office and meet Harry, Ron and Hermione via video is enough to distract most kids from the height-restricted Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride inside Hogwarts. Hailed as an industry game-changer, the flight simulator gets gut-wrenching at times, soaring through Hogwarts and Quidditch fields while dodging Dementors and the Whomping Willow.
The sensory overload was too much for our son, who broke from my grasp and sprinted through Hogsmeade Village and its snow-capped rooftops, crooked storefronts and miniscule details that keeps aficionados geeking out for hours.
We arrived at Ollivander’s for the first wizard selection of the day. Usually, 30 people are let in at once and only one child is chosen from the group. We’d been worried that if our tyke didn’t have a one-on-one with the shop keep, his displeasure would make the Mandrake’s shriek pale in comparison. Luckily, the two preteens in our group acquiesced.
After answering a few questions and getting measured, he was allowed to try two wands. One provoked a lightning storm and the other slammed a crooked stack of drawers open and shut. Upon grasping a third, a yellow light lit him up while a symphonic score rose to a crescendo.
Although his back was to us, I could tell he was barely holding it together.
So I bought three of the same model, just as insurance to make the magic last for as long as possible. Plus, the C-note I handed over didn’t yield any annoying change that would only fly out on the Hippogriff.