I’m writing this post in Pages (Apple’s anti-Microsoft Word) because lately my internet has been le suck. After spending yet another weekend out of town, my Google Reader is desperate for attention, but my internet refuses to load it! It’s super frustrating. :(
Anyway, like I said in my last post, I recently spent a magical week in Florida with my family as a surprise 30th anniversary gift to my parents. They’ve been married for thirty years, dated for six years before that, and produced three top-notch kids (heh heh), so we decided they deserved somethin’ special! Plus… we wanted to go to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. :) My whole family has been Potterfans for ages, so this trip pleased everybody.
And what can I say – Harry Potter World is abso-freakin-mazing. I was filled with such geeky, fangirly glee the whole time we were there, gazing up at the rustic, snow-capped buildings as I wandered the streets of Hogsmeade, buying a pumpkin juice from a crusty old street vendor, and window-shopping at Zonko’s joke shop. Although those of the iron-fisted, true-to-canon-only persuasion may recoil with horror at the fact that Diagon Alley shops are nestled next to Hogsmeade shops, I managed to let that slide, because the overall atmosphere is just so realistic and authentic and wonderful. Packed to the brim with merchandise and not-for-sale decorative, thematic knick-knacks, stepping into one of the crowded, cluttered stores that line the streets of Hogsmeade is like stepping into the Hogsmeade of J.K. Rowling’s books. The store clerks all wear Potter-appropriate clothing, although some of their combinations (bizarre striped pants and tunic-type shirts) are more reminiscent of a wizard trying to dress like a muggle, a la Cornelius Fudge. From the street vendors pouring out frothy mugs of butterbeer to the Hogwarts Express conductor roaming the streets, braving the heat while wearing a full-on conductor’s uniform, the staff adds an indispensable touch of life to the atmosphere that makes the whole experience that much more realistic.
And, of course, there are rides. Not many rides, but enough to satisfy anyone who needs to supplement their wide-eyed wandering through Hogsmeade with a little adrenaline rush. The Dragon Challenge ride is basically the old Dueling Dragons ride from Islands of Adventure; with a fresh coat of paint and a few minor changes to the interior line and waiting area, it’s passable as an interpretation of the dragon challenge from the Triwizard Cup. The ceiling of the loading area is particularly impressive; it’s meant to look like you’re in a large tent, and shadowy figures of dragons swoop down among the outlines of treetops. The ride itself is just Dueling Dragons, a fun, quick, roller coaster with lots of loops and turns and an element of “competition” as your dragon (either the Hungarian Horntail or the Chinese Fireball) races against the other.
For the younger muggles, the park features Flight of the Hippogriff, a tamer coaster that wends through the Hogwarts grounds and past Hagrid’s hut. Riders sit in a wicker-like car that’s fronted by a Hippogriff-head of sorts.
The park’s tour-de-force ride, though, is Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes place inside the Hogwarts castle.
The castle itself – and the line for the ride – is a major attraction; Universal did a truly amazing job recreating key rooms from Hogwarts, from the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom to Dumbledore’s office. Packed with magical objects and paraphernalia, the attention to detail is incredible. I could’ve spent hours just oohing and aahing and exclaiming over everything.
The moving portraits might have been my absolute favorite detail, however. One whole room of Hogwarts, one tall, narrow, glorious room, is filled with a haphazardly-placed array of portraits, pictures of wizards and witches and magical folk. Just like in the books, they really and truly resemble oil paintings – there’s that same sort of crackly gloss to them. But they move! The characters move and talk and interact and jump from one frame to another. I think I loved them so much because their styles were so varied, as if this was really a collection of paintings that started centuries ago and that current inhabitants kept expanding. It was, in a word, enchanting.
And the ride itself? Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is easily – easily – one of the best theme park rides I’ve ever experienced. I don’t say that lightly, either; I’m a bit of a roller coaster enthusiast and a ride junkie, but this is hands down in my top three. It’s a little difficult to describe the type of ride this is; the story is that you’re invited to a Quidditch match, but you have to sneak in, so Hermione enchants a school bench to fly you there. Once you’re seated in the bench, the ride begins in earnest. The bench itself seems to move around on some sort of gigantic robotic arm, twisting you and turning you and jostling you around as you fly through a Quidditch pitch (“Showing off again for your muggle admirers, Potter?” Draco sneers) and dodge Dementors in the Forbidden Forest. The ride uses a combination of video screens and animatronics; the Whomping Willow that nearly knocks your bench off course is a three-dimensional moving object, while the swooping scenes of water as you fly over a lake are obviously shown on a huge screen that surrounds you and gives you the sensation of being there. The bench’s movements are perfectly synchronized with what you see, so when you dive off a cliff towards the water, the bench drops and so does your stomach. It’s truly incredible. And although the lines can be long – 90 minutes! – my family lucked out on one mildly rainy night when we practically walked right on… three times in a row. :)
And if that harrowing journey leaves you hungry, the Three Broomsticks is waiting with authentic Potter-esque fare. While the menu isn’t extremely vegan-friendly, I managed to piece together a decent meal of corn on the cob and potatoes and salad when my family ate there one night.
Adjacent to the Three Broomsticks is the Hog’s Head pub, where you can grab a cider or a pint of the Hog’s Head home brew. I tried a sip of my brother’s, and it was quite tasty! If you’re not up for alcohol, the pumpkin juice is a ridiculously delicious alternative. Perfectly pumpkin-y and superbly spiced, the juice tastes best when ice cold – perfect for a hot day in Hogsmeade. The pumpkin juice avoids tasting like pureed pumpkin pie; instead, it combines a few different fruit juices (pumpkin, apricot) with the perfect amount of complementary spices to create a unique flavor that’s surprisingly addictive. I’m definitely planning on trying to recreate it at home! But – of course – pumpkin juice isn’t the star beverage…
…nope, that would be the ubiquitous butterbeer! Served either warm or cold, you can get a glass of this beverage nearly anywhere in the park. Butterbeer jockeys pour it from a cart in the middle of the street while bartenders serve up sloshing glasses in the pub, glasses filled to the brim with the caramel-colored beverage and topped with a thick, foamy head. I’d read up on butterbeer before heading to the park, and because others described it as tasting like cream soda and sugar and butter, I assumed it wasn’t vegan-friendly. The day after I left, though, I got a text from my sister saying, “The butterbeer’s nondairy!” Serves me right for not asking! In any case, my family described it as almost overwhelmingly sweet and creamy, perfect if you’ve got a major sweet tooth. (Note: I can’t confirm that “nondairy” means vegan; I’ve also heard it has whey in it.)
What else can I say? I loved this place. I felt like a five-year-old again, I was so excited to be there. If you’re a Harry Potter fan, it’s probably the closest you’ll get to ever living in his wonderful, magical world!