Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Going the Whole Hog! - Part Two

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
In Part One of our adventure to visit The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, I talked about riding the roller coasters, picking out wands, and drinking Butterbeer.  Now onto the second half of our story...

The Three Broomsticks
Eating a Turkey Drumstick
After a busy morning, we decided to eat lunch at The Three Broomsticks.  In Part One I wrote that the shortest wait was about 40 minutes, but I'm going to have to take that back.  We only waited about 5 minutes to place our order (there's a glass showcase where you can view all your culinary choices).  We ordered, paid, then waited another few minutes to get our food.  It came very fast...and that worried me.  Surely food made that quickly wouldn't taste very good.  I imagined everything being lukewarm, dry, stringy, or all of the above.  But, in fact, it was reasonably palatable.  We were escorted to a nice table by a window (you can also eat on the patio and if you look over the wall, you'll see carp swimming in the pond below).  I ordered the chicken and corn on the cob and ate up pretty much everything on my plate.  Maybe I have low standards, maybe I was hungry, but I actually liked the food.  It was simple, yet tasty.  My husband and the kids ordered the turkey drumstick and/or fish and chips and all seemed happy with their choices.  We tried the pumpkin juice, which tastes just like what you'd imagine the juice of a pumpkin would taste like.  Nobody really liked it, but I'm glad we gave it a go anyway (I suggest buying only one mug of it - you can always get more later if you are strange and actually like it).  Personally I think they should mix the PJ with lots of apple juice and spice it with cinnamon and nutmeg.  You know, make it more like pumpkin pie than pumpkin squeezings.  I could drink that...and they could dollop the same cream they use for the Butterbeer on top.  Perfect!
After fortifying ourselves with hearty English food and emptying our bursting bladders (well mine was bursting, but then again, it is the size of a walnut), we headed for Hogwarts for our tour and the ride, Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey (dunh, dunh, duhhh).  The sign indicated that the wait had gone from 150 minutes down to 90 - hurray!  Since I could no longer see a line snaking out of the castle and back to the Butterbeer cart, I thought,  Hey, maybe it won't be 90 minutes after all, more like a doable 30 or 40.  And so we entered the castle with high hopes, only to discover we had to first store our backpack in a locker.  If you're going on the ride, you can't have anything on you that might fly off and kill somebody.  That means bags, wands, bulky cameras (like ours, so I'm sad to say I don't have any photos inside Hogwarts), and bad attitudes (unfortunately, there was someone behind us in line who didn't follow that rule).  The locker was free, but the catch was that on such a busy day, they were all being used.  So you had to wait for someone to come along and empty their locker before you could get one.  This part was a bit stressful and annoying.  The actual process of getting the recently departed locker (there's a lag-time between a person 'signing' out their stuff and you being able to take the locker) was the worst of it.  The other bad part is that we discovered you can't fit some of the wand boxes into the locker - they're too long.  So we had to take out the wand and store it in the locker, then place the box up on top of the lockers and hope no one saw it.  We also needed two lockers because they're small and our stuff is big.  But like the troopers we are, we rallied and did what needed to be done.

Hogwarts From Another Angle
Once that part was taken care of, we joined the line and actually moved quite quickly through a tunnel-like area.  Yes!  This was going to be easier than I thought.  At one point along the way, you can choose between taking the tour or taking the tour, plus going on the ride.  My six-year-old barely made the ride height requirement (which I made sure to check before we left for Florida), but they don't check you here, they check you at the point just before you get on the ride.  So you could stand in line for a century and get turned away like criminals.  Don't let this happen to you - check heights!

Anyway, we finally entered the true line, but from this perspective it looked rather long.  Crap.  At the particular spot where we met up with the line, a drink cart sat beckoning to thirsty line dwellers.  If it's hot out and your line starts at the cart or even farther back, be sure to keep some cash (I'm not sure if they took credit cards) on you and buy a drink or two.  You'll eventually reach water faucets, but they're a LONG way off (imagine how far back it was for those poor souls who had the 150-minute wait!).  We didn't have any form of money (our wallets were in our backpack), so we settled in to wait.  Fans blew misty water at us, helping to alleviate the heat, and the lines generally kept moving at a reasonably good pace.  As we were walking along, we saw all the lines we were still going to have to go through (think of a giant maze with invisible walls), but we fooled ourselves into thinking, "it's not that long."  And then we reached a certain point in the line and saw that it went back even farther, doubling and doubling again and again.  This particular area was located in the direct sun without a sign of shade or a fan anywhere.  Double crap.  We already knew what we had to go through after this part because our line had already passed by all the other people way ahead of us.  As we passed by them, they would look at us with sympathy mixed with a hint of smugness.  Of course, this is the point at which the guy with the bad attitude started dissing the Harry Potter books, complaining about people cutting in line (they weren't), and talking on his cell phone.  At that point, I wondered, "What would HP do?"  Because that sun was getting hot and the six-year-old was getting cranky.

Finally, after we'd started hallucinating about swimming in mugs of Butterbeer and pumpkin juice, we reached the shaded conservatory area.  It was actually even hotter here, but you could almost smell the magic as we approached the entrance so we tried hard to stay optimistic...and conscious.  When we reached the water fountains, we gulped down mouthfuls of water, splashed some in our face, and hurried along to enter Hogwarts at last.  The moment we entered the cool interior of the castle, I decided that the wait, while VERY long, had been worth it.  Like childbirth, you forget the suffering almost instantly as you take in this wondrous world that you've seen only in the movies and in your feverish imagination.  I won't give away everything that happened, but I will tell you this:  You'll see talking/moving portraits, Dumbledore's chambers (where a holographic Dumbledore speaks to you), and you'll visit the Defense of the Dark Arts classroom, where you'll encounter Harry, Ron and Hermione.  I couldn't believe how realistic the characters looked.  In the Dark Arts classroom, something very awesome happens, so if it's a slow day, be sure to stop and listen to their whole skit and then, wait for it.  I'll only tell you that it was magical.  I have to say that although I didn't like the long lines, they did give you ample time to look around and take everything in.  I loved the tour and kept thinking what a great job it would be to work at Hogwarts.  I doubt the employees get as much free reign as I would like, but still...what fun!

Hogwarts From Yet Another Angle
Soon we approached the line for the ride.  I was excited, but my expectations weren't terribly high.  I'd heard good things, but I wasn't expecting anything spectacular.  Even so, I was in a good mood and ready to go.  On the ride, you sit four to a car so I went with my two oldest and my husband went with our youngest.  FYI:  If you're willing to split up, you can take another line that goes a lot faster.  You just won't ride with families or friends.  You'll get placed with other groups.  If you're okay with that, I'd say go for it.  We had a family so we couldn't split up, but I think it's the way to go if you can.  You can't even see the people next to you anyway.

Next, they strap you in and off you go on the best ride I've been on...EVER.  Hermione is talking in your ear the whole time - not intrusively, but to warn and guide you.  To be honest, I'm not really sure what she was saying, but it didn't matter, I was flying and dodging and flipping upside down.  I was encountering spitting spiders and raging Dementors and feeling hot dragon's breath right in my face.  I was inside the castle, then flying out of it, down onto the Quidditch field as though I was riding my own Nimbus 2000.  Hermione could have been calling me a Numpty and I wouldn't have cared.  The ride was so realistic that I felt like I was truly doing everything on my own.  I even lifted my feet as we soared down toward the field at breakneck speed.  This ride truly made me feel like I was a part of something bigger, like a heroine in a book come to life.  Of course, unlike Harry Potter, I yelled the entire way.  But I was shouting with joy this time around, not from mindless terror and fear of puking my guts out.

The ride came to an end all too soon.  If the line hadn't been so long, I would have rode it again and again.  I LOVED that ride.  Now, just to keep you from raising your expectations too high, maybe I was experiencing cognitive dissonance.  After waiting in line so long, I HAD to like the ride to make up for all that suffering.  I must admit, by the time we entered Hogwarts, I was muttering something along the lines of, "This better be worth it or else Potter gets it..."  But I don't think it was that.  To me, despite the heat and three wilting children, one of whom decided to be churlish for the second half of the wait (I'm not sure I can blame him), it was definitely worth it.  I hope you think so, too.  I will tell you youngest wasn't too sure about the ride afterwards (it's a LOT for a six-year-old and probably a little scary, too).  When the ride was over, he tumbled off it looking a bit dazed.  One of his sandals fell off as he stumbled along to join the rest of us.  I grabbed his sandal and his dad scooped him up into his safe, strong arms.  And after hearing us rave about it, along with a little recovery time, he decided it had been the best ride EVER. That's my boy.

It was back to reality after that.  We fetched our stuff out of the lockers (the wand box was still there - hurray!), then visited Filch's Emporium, right next door and full of very expensive but fun stuff to look at.  Lots of people were wearing Hogwarts attire (not just the staff), which, in that heat, is true dedication.  After looking around the shop, we headed outdoors to take some photos and decide what to do next.

Here Are the Cauldrons I Bought
to Bring Home (I Wish)

That's Right - Two Wands!
A Nod to the Gate in Anaedor

Beware the Power

Snow-Covered Shops

Every Flavour Beans
Chocolate Frog
We knew we didn't have much more in us, so we decided we wanted to try Honeydukes, the candy shop, as our last stop.  Actually, I was the biggest proponent for it.  I wanted my candy.  I sent my two oldest to check out the wait and they discovered to everyone's delight a very short line (it was quite long earlier in the day).  We got in after about 10 minutes (so I guess I lied again - sorry).  The shop isn't as magical as some of the other places, but I'm not sure it needs to be.  The candy tells its own story.  Two of the boys bought giant lollipops. Two of us bought the chocolate frogs.  Three of the group, including myself, bought the Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. At first I thought they would taste like regular jelly beans.  Wrong.  While they do have some good flavors, like marshmallow and tutti-frutti, they have the nasty flavors, too!  Luckily there's a chart labeling the different ones.  They actually have vomit, dirt, rotten egg, earwax and bogies (we've yet to figure out if bogies means boogers, though my son says it's BAD, whatever it is).  My sons bravely tried the nasty flavors and it was quite entertaining watching their expressions.  I told them they could have my nasty ones to share with their friends.  Mom of the Year award, you're in my reach!

The Islands of Adventure
Sadly, that was our last stop.  I was loath to go, but we were tired and it was time.  We really had a great day, though.  Once we made it out of the park (it's a long walk back to the parking lot), we headed out of town and grabbed supper on the way home, all the while discussing our brilliant adventure.  We only had time to visit the Wizarding World (only one small part of the Islands of Adventure), but that was plenty for me.  I can't wait to go back when the crowds are much smaller so I can see everything at a more leisurely pace.  I missed the Flight of the Hippogriff, the Frog Choir (though I did hear "Something wicked this way comes!" in passing), and the Triwizard Spirit Rally.  They are first on the list for next time.

Even though there were difficult moments (intense heat, long lines, fussy kids, fussy mom, not knowing all the rules, losing kids), I don't really remember any of that.  What I remember is an experience that was magical and uplifting - even the bathrooms were interesting (think Moaning Myrtle).  As a writer, I can only hope that some day my work will become a similar inspiration to people around the inspiration to dream big and fly high!  

I Can't Wait to Go Back!
Until we meet again...
Come Explore Anaedor!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Going the Whole Hog! - Part One

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
I absolutely love the Harry Potter books and movies.  They capture all the wondrous things I dreamed about having and doing as a child, and still dream about as an adult, from the bountiful feasts to the castle looming over the loch, from the possessing of magical powers to the partaking in amazing adventures.  So it won't surprise you that ever since hearing about Universal's new Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWHP) theme park, I started plotting ways to get there. 

Our New Pet Alligator

The Only Way to Travel
This spring, my husband and I decided to take the leap and travel during April spring vacation.  The kids were old enough to lug their own suitcase and also past that age where they're getting sick every two weeks.  Plus, major snowstorms were pretty rare at this time of year (though this year it appears we got lucky, seeing as how long winter has been hanging on).  Lucky for us, we had free room and board while staying in Florida. My husband's mother (an excellent cook) and her husband own a cute little bungalow about an hour from Orlando, located in a 55+ retirement community.  This pleasantly quiet community offers several amenities, all within walking distance.  There's a golf course (of course), a swimming pool, golf carts for zipping around on (they drive them EVERYwhere, even to the Wal-mart next door, and they are awesome), sand cranes with their babies tagging along behind, horseshoes and shuffleboard, Spanish moss, palm trees, and baby alligators.  I'm starting to look forward to retirement - we had a great time living the lifestyle of the no-longer employed - relaxed, yet still quite active, with lots to see and do.  Sweet.

Sand Crane and Fuzzy Babies
How I Love My Spanish Moss!
As you might already know, Florida in April can be hot.  When we arrived it was in the high 80s.  But we came prepared for the heat.  Being that New Hampshire was in the high 30s when we left it, we were dressed in pants and jackets (airplane temps are hard to was cold on the way there, but almost stifling on the way back).  In our carry-on suitcases (the only way to fly - no waiting for luggage), I packed sandals and shorts on top, with easy access.  We changed in the airport and headed outside to get our rental car.  Boy was it hot outside!  And boy did that heat feel great after a long winter freezing our buns off.

Palm Tree

Snow in Florida?
Personally I'm not a hot-weather person (I was born in Minnesota and have a healthy dose of Norwegian ancestry cooling my blood), but with each year I pass on this planet, I crave the heat more and more.  That being said, when we visited WWHP on Friday (the day after we arrived), we were a bit stunned by the relentless sun and heat.  Seeing the snow-covered roofs actually helped a little and the fast rides, plus drinking Butterbeer, cooled us off, too.  I actually didn't really like the Butterbeer all that much - the first couple sips were okay, but after that, the taste was too rich for my wimpy taste buds (it tasted like a buttery cream soda to me).  But I liked the look with lots of frothy cream on top, which gave everyone snazzy white mustaches.  We bought the plastic mugs (around $10), which make nice souvenirs and can be filled with lemonade or tea for 85 cents at the Three Broomsticks or Hog's Head Pub.  My husband and two of our boys liked the Butterbeer a LOT so I suggest you give it a try.  Who knows?  You might become a Butterbeer addict.

When we first arrived at the park at about 8:15 (it opens at 8:00), we found ourselves surrounded by a lot of cars all heading in the same direction.  That being said, it was relatively easy to find our way around and not as stressful as I thought it would be - kudos to Universal.  We paid our $15 (ouch) for parking and were then guided to a spot to park our car (be sure to remember what area you're parked in...we were in the Dr. Suess section).  Upon first arrival (after having our bags checked for contraband food and non-H20 beverages), we got confused about how to purchase tickets.  We eventually figured it out, shelled out a whole lotta dough for our tickets (we had one freebie because my husband's mom worked at Universal - it was a nice savings), then proceeded to the spot where they check your ticket (which is where we headed first and were told with 'aren't the newbies cute?' smiles, that we had screwed up).

Entrance to Hogsmeade and Butterbeer Cart
After lots of walking, we finally arrived at the entrance to Hogsmeade.  Hurray!  It was a grand moment for me.  However, the place was packed and really bustling so we quickly split into two
groups to ride the roller coasters.  Unfortunately, the sign that read 20 minutes for one of the roller coasters was being changed to 35 minutes as we approached.  I went with my two oldest boys to ride the Dragon Challenge, a roller coaster ride where you nearly collide with the other 'dragon' flying around at the same time.  As a kid I could ride any roller coaster without any effect beyond joyous abandon.  This time I felt nauseous and had trouble keeping my eyes open, so I missed the near-collision part.  I also shrieked a lot, which is totally unlike me.  Ah, well.  Maybe next time I'll be able to stare death in the face.  While standing in line, we worried that we needed to present our tickets for each ride (you don't), but we eventually relaxed when we didn't see anyone else with tickets in hand (my husband had the backpack with everything, including tickets, in it - backpacks are good to have, btw - we stowed a bottle of water and sunscreen, along with wallets and the camera).  We were in shade for a majority of the 30-minute wait (actually it was like being in the underground tunnels of a castle), so that was nice.  My husband and youngest son, who was too short for the DC, rode the Flight of the Hippogriff (be sure to check the website for height requirements for ALL the rides).  I didn't get to ride that one, but next time I plan to give it a go.  It sounds quite fun.  Both of them liked it, though my husband thought it was a bit scary...for him.  The six-year-old was fine.

Hagrid's Hut
I'll say this before I go on: the lines for EVERYTHING were really long (and that includes the shops).  Our shortest wait was around 40 minutes.  At one time, the wait time for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey was 150 minutes (they do everything in minutes to fool you into thinking you won't be waiting forever).  And a lot of time we were in the sun while standing in line.  Good thing we wore baseball caps and brought along sunscreen.

Lockhart Entertains Us
After the dragon and hippogriff rides, we waffled around for a bit before deciding to stand in line to pick out a magic wand in Ollivander's Wand Shop (that's after we finally figured out where to stand).  While waiting in that line with the boys, my husband stood in the Butterbeer line to get our Butterbeer.  The set-up worked out quite well.  While waiting, we viewed the Quidditch box and watched Gilderoy Lockhart.  We even got to see the Snitch!

The Quidditch Box

The Snitch Flying Through the Sky

Ollivander's Wand Shop
When we finally entered the shop, we discovered a dark and mysterious room filled from floor to ceiling with boxes of wands.  The proprietor of the shop greeted the group (in a wonderful English accent, of course), then selected a volunteer, who happened to be my oldest son. This was a great moment for him and for all of us.  I was so thrilled I forgot to take pictures, which is probably just as well since I got to enjoy the moment without worrying about lighting and focusing and all the stuff that goes wrong when you're in a hurry.  The skit was quite funny and filled with special effects and my son literally had his moment in the spotlight when the 'right' wand was selected for him.  He hammed it up and did me proud.  Very fun.  Afterwards we shuffled (herded might be a better term, though they were nice about it) into the wand shop, which is connected to Dervish and Banges, and each of our sons picked out a wand.  After much perusal, each selected a different one (phew).  While we were looking, one kid told us that he picked Voldemort's wand because it looked the coolest, not because he supported evil.  I could relate.  We both agreed that evil people generally have all the best stuff and Voldemort was no exception, though personally I'd think he should have worked on getting a nose first. 

While buying the wands, our clerk wondered if she could fit the wand boxes into the tiny plastic bag used to hold my postcard (I had to get at least one memento of my own).  A spell was suggested, whereby the other clerk reminded her that 'use of magic' in front of Muggles was forbidden.  I, of course, told them not to make assumptions about our Muggles status.  Corny, yes, but most definitely fun.  The crowd was all pretty much like-minded - ready to enjoy the fantastical world of make-believe and that, to me, was just brilliant.

Our visit to Ollivanders finished up our morning of fun and adventure.  In Part Two I'll talk about dining at The Three Broomsticks, our visit to Honeydukes, and our tour of Hogwarts, including the ride, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the absolute best part of the whole day!

Until we meet again...
Come Explore Anaedor!