Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Wingardium Leviosa!

Remember the stress is on the O, not the A.

Well, where to begin? Universal Studios is a huge and amazing place. I was there for Harry Potter, -and judging from the number of people who were wearing shirts proclaiming allegiance to a particular House, so was most of the crowd. My aunt and uncle know the area well and suggested that we get there early, so my uncle and I were in line when the gates opened. Because it was a Monday in the off-season, it wasn't crowded at all - we only had to wait for more than a few minutes on one ride. November is also a great time weather-wise - sunny and warm, but not too hot.  I didn't even get sunburned, which is somewhat of a miracle in my case.  One thing I found off-putting - the park takes your fingerprints when you arrive, at the lockers, and at certain rides. I understand the need for effective security, but this seems over-the -top. Plus the technology itself can be a tad iffy.

My uncle and I booked it to Hogsmeade, which is truly gorgeous - it incorporates Hogwarts as well, so you get all the school stuff from the books. The stores are there, including Honeydukes, and the rides are all Hogwarts-themed - one based on a generic school adventure, and one that is Triwizard Tournament focused. That one is a roller coaster split into two "dragons", so you really have to ride it twice to get the full effect. My uncle and I were split on the Hungarian Horntail (him) vs the Chinese Fireball (me). One good thing is that they make the lines amusing - you're not just standing in a bland space with a bunch of grumpy people, you're already immersed in the world, featuring such funny sights as talking Hogwarts portraits, props from the given movie or series, and in the case of the Simpsons ride, cartoon clips from the classic era. Brilliant.

We did more or less the whole park, so I won't summarize every ride, but here are some highlights. Harry Potter was incredible, definitely the best part of the park. I loved the Triwizard ride, and Escape from Gringotts (narrated by stone-cold fox Bill Weasley), which is more of a motion simulator -they don't move much, but use video and computer imagery to suggest a world of enormous depth. That said, the rides pale in comparison to the "villages", Diagon Alley (which includes Knockturn!) and Hogsmeade. You can buy a butterbeer (a bit too sweet for me) and visit Weasley'sWizard Wheezes, or Ollivander's, or Borgin and Burkes. The original actors voice their characters and appear in the videos, and that gorgeous John Williams score plays wherever you go. The wand demo at Ollivander's is a must-see. The Hogwarts Express, between the two villages,  goes to great effort to make it look like you're travelling between Scotland and London, including an authentic-looking King's Cross station. You can knock on the door at 12 Grimmauld Place, hang out with the Knight Bus driver, or use your newly acquired wand to interact with various points around the park. The merchandise is on point - you can send postcards from Hogsmeade post office with stamps and postmark, buy your own quill and wax seal, and of course all the clothing you could ever want. For myself, I stuck with a nice pair of Ravenclaw winter gloves (I identify with the House that produced Luna Lovegood, how could I not). My only complaint is that they don't have enough Hogwarts stuff, as opposed to the individual houses - I consider it quite rude to presume someone else's House, as this is a very personal matter, so it makes it difficult to shop for others. Note - the stores are small and usually crowded, so people with claustrophobia might want to be careful.

What I liked best was how much the park seems to respect the fans - lots of inside jokes and subtle nods to the books' details. The staff calls us all Muggles, for example. It's a very rich experience, and I'd love to return another time to appreciate it even more. As a devoted Potterhead, this was definitely an excellent experience.

Another highlight was The Simpsons, despite the long wait for the actual ride. Again, the park really respects the fans - there are a lot of nods to the show similar to Harry Potter's details, they've added in all kinds of landmarks from Springfield like the Android'a Dungeon and Moe's Tavern. My uncle and I stopped for a beer at the Duff Brewery, just because. The ride is a very well-done motion simulator. I am almost as big a Simpsons fan as I am a Potterhead, so that was definitely one of the top attractions in my book.

With those two accomplished, we wandered, looked at the different areas of the park, and went on a few classic rides like Jurassic Park (amazing!), Men In Black (Uncle's favourite), the Incredible Hulk (one of my faves), and the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, the most intense roller coaster by far, which I love. My uncle is also game for all of these rides, so he had a great time returning to them - he's an excellent tour guide. Universal was one of the earliest Hollywood studios, so it has a lot of classic films and franchises that I adore - old newspaper strips like Krazy Kat, the classic horror films, and seemingly every film that Steven Spielberg ever made. Such fun.

We were there from about 9-6, finishing off with another visit to Hogsmeade, where my uncle (who has the patience of a saint) waited forever for me to pick out souvenirs for roughly half the people I know. I could have spent my life savings there, so it's a good thing we didn't stick around any longer. By the end of the day, we were so exhausted that  it was all we could do to tell my aunt all about the  park, as well as my mom, who also loves Harry and the wizarding world.

After a long night's rest (everyone needed it), it has been a day of sitting by the pool and enjoying the sunlight, which I spent most of the morning doing. Currently, I'm on our back patio watching the egrets, herons and golfers go by. (No gators yet.)

It's probably a good thing I'm taking some time to relax, because we all know what comes next...

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