Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Harry Potter and the Unattainable Cost of Living - The Beauty and the Blunder of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios

SPOILER ALERT: I'll start this by dispelling the notion (see what I did there?) that I'm going to use this piece to knock Universal Studios or the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. While I'm primarily a budget traveler, I adore Harry Potter and amusement parks. Though I offer a critique, I'm not going to waste anyone's time rambling about consumerism or outrageous prices. Awesome! Here we go...

One of the many Triwizard tournament propaganda flags near the Dragon Challenge Ride in Hogsmeade

For those of us who treasure experiences more than tangible treasures, it isn't always easy to set your sails for a destination that moves you on a visceral level. This isn't to say that traveling retards your ability to loose yourself to sights and sounds. Au contraire, it fortifies it. It just isn't always ostentatious. Travelers are calm and collected, so finding a place that made me revert to outward emotions, especially ones derived from fictional places and characters, was quite bizarre and overwhelming.
The entrance to heaven...I mean Hogsmeade

Like many outted Harry Potter fanatics, I hold J.K Rowling's universe in a much higher regard than just books and films. No, I see Harry Potter as a completely intricate creation that helped bulldoze the barriers between genre. It showed generations alike how to exist, and that even in the midst of evil and tyranny, we are still people, and life must continue. It portrayed the beauty of innocence and reminded us that when this innocence is combatted and beaten, the youthful spirit can still thrive. Most eloquently put by the likes of Stephen King, " Harry Potter is about confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity." While I've spent countless hours lost in HP media, seeing the cast iron sign for Hogsmeade, framing the idyllic view of fake snow atop buildings I've only dreamed of, allowed me to be whisped away to entirely different realm.

After finding my composure, I began to venture down the Hogsmeade streets, passing HoneyDukes and the Three Broomsticks. I imagined sipping Fire Whiskey after a long day of Auroring at the Hogshead Pub, or taking my future, hypothetical children to the misplaced Olivander's to get their first wands. I listened to screeching Mandrakes and bubbling cauldrons, and passed upbeat Universal staff performing songs and dances I've performed countless times in the comfort of my mind's creatively dressed walls. I even listened to moaning Myrtle shriek and giggle as I used the public urinal. In eager anticipation, as buildings began to fade, denotated by a fabricated intersection, I starred up at the sight us HP fans have always longed to visit: 


As silly as it sounds, seeing the place I'd devoted many-a-night wishing existed in the present, was exceedingly moving for me. It is a place I dreamt housed my first love, or the failures, triumphs, and follies of my youth. It is a place I could only imagine experiencing the changing of seasons in, year in and year out. Even without stepping foot inside, I felt fulfilled...that is until I did step my rapidly moving feet through the threshold! After dropping my bag in the free locker (Whaaa? Free!), while jaunting easily through the scarcely populated single riders line, I gazed at the enchanted paintings on the wall explaining the procedures for the ride. I saw the animatronic Sorting Hat tell anxious muggles about what to expect when strapped in for the "Forbidden Journey." Even the staff seemed enthused to see riders fly along with Harry, Ron, Hermione, and a large group of notable Hogwarts students and staff, living a youthful fantasy in the flesh. Though I made the rookie mistake of downing a sickeningly sweet butter beer before departure (don't do this if you're over the age of 12), nothing about this experience disappointed. I was even enthused to look at all the crazy merchandise in the exit turned gift shop before returning to Hogsmeade. After riding all the rides and looking in the shops multiple times, the sheer idea of existing in this tangible representation of a fictional universe I love left a lasting smile on my face. 

The Sorting Hat

As nearly 5 hours elapsed in what I can only describe as how clouds in cartoons feel, I was kindly told that Universal was two different parks, and my pass wouldn't allow me to venture to the newly created Diagon Alley. Without hesitation (sorry dwindling savings) I paid the exorbitant fee to upgrade my ticket, and was quickly embarking on the Hogwarts Express to London. The ride, which is an actual train that transports you from park to park, is an extremely realistic take on what the Hogwarts express looks like in the films. To further immerse you into your wildest fantasy, the windows are replaced with projectors that show you weaving through the countryside, past dementors and ominous weather, before reaching London (where the Nightbus is weaving magically through the streets.) The Kings Cross Station is realistic enough to have a vendor selling English beer and crisps to those waiting in queue. My excitement to break through the enchanted brick wall to Diagon Alley was nearly unbearable!

The Hogwarts Express
Maybe it was my rapidly decreasing blood sugar (my purse of outside snacks didn't last as long as I'd hoped), but Diagon Alley didn't foster the same magic as stepping into Hogsmeade and Hogwarts. While aesthetically amazing, with the addition of Knockturn Alley and a fire-breathing dragon perched atop Gringotts, the experience as a whole left me longing for the comfort of my own imagination, melding with previously peered pages. Universal's blunder, I felt, was making Diagon Alley a glorified walking mall. While yes, Diagon Alley is a shopping center, it's a freaking magical shopping center. Obviously Universal wants to push a product, but making every store only a store doesn't do what Rowling has created justice. The aging Simpon's universe, while still hawking product, at least offers activities in which you can dump your money. Apart from the Gringott's Ride (and 9 or so small pieces of Diagon Alley's structure that have a "magical" movement activated with the swish of a $50 interactive wand), Diagon Alley's only option was starring at the buildings in amazement, or buying Harry Potter memorablia. While not necessarily disappointed, I found myself seeing Universal starting to fluster in their second installment to the Wizarding World. After milking my $4 pumpkin juice as long as possible, I realized I would better spend my time seeing the alternate video played while catching the Hogwart's Express from London to Hogsmeade, and enjoying a handcrafted Wizard Brew (made locally in Florida for the park) in Hogshead. While the money to upgrade my ticket was well worth getting to ride the immaculate and entertaining Hogwarts Express, my immersion seemed to only exist in the artificially snowcapped village of Hogsmeade, laying in the the majestic shadows of the Hogwarts castle.

Hogsmeade in all its glory
While one can be tempted to make jokes about how it's fitting that Harry, while sadly orphaned, was a trust fund baby, I can't but help look back on my time in the Wizarding World with fond memories. Though I think the clip at the end of the Gringotts' ride, where Bill Weasly tries to get you to invest in a vault, is fitting description of the Diagon Alley addition (the Hogwarts ride ends with Harry singing your praises and Dumbledore inviting you back), I am more than pleased with what I felt, smelled, tasted, and experienced. Having the opportunity walk through Hogsmeade,  peer into Hogwarts, and ride the Hogwarts express in real life is more than I could ever ask for. While I'll always prefer the realm that exists at the amalgamate of literature and my imagination, experiencing the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is one I'm grateful to tick off the bucket list.

Here are some extra photos to wet  your whistle until your Hogwarts Letter (i.e fat paycheck of disposable income you choose to spend on a vacation to a theme park) arrives...

More Triwizard signage
Another view of the castle
Muggles will never learn to drive...

The lovely ladies of Beauxbatons and the strapping gentlemen of Durmstrang

The Hogwart's Express made the park-to-park ticket upgrade worth the cost

Enjoying a specially brewed beer in the Hogshead

Shamelessly asking other onlookers to take my picture at Hogwarts


Disney is no longer the happiest place on earth

Photos courtesy of author

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