I got back from Florida and fell immediately into a grind at work so I haven’t had any time to collect my thoughts about the Wizarding World in one place. Currently I’m sitting in the doctor’s office (Saturday morning) being tested for the flu, because both Finn and Jen tested positive for it in the last five days.
But let me back up. Our flight to Florida was uneventful. Finn was much more anxious about this flight than she was when we went to Kansas City, but once we made it into the air she did great. On the ground in Orlando we collected our bags almost immediately and then waited a full hour for the shuttle to arrive to take us to the hotel.
We stayed at the Aventura, which is the cheapest of the three available through Universal but about five levels above a normal hotel: multiple choices of food in the lobby, staffed from 7AM to 11PM, a rooftop bar/bistro, a heated outdoor pool with its own bar, etc. Our room was on the small side but perfectly functional for our needs, and from the 8th floor we could look out and see the park (and Hogwarts Castle) from our bed.
On the first morning we were on one of the first shuttles (our tickets included an hour’s early admittance), and within 10 minutes they’d dropped us off at the entrance to Citywalk, which is a giant outdoor mall in between the real world and the entrance to the park. We followed groups of people in Hogwart’s robes to the entrance, scanned our tickets, and then followed them further through the park, past a 50’s Main Street, the San Francisco dockyards, and New York City to the facade of Kings Crossing Station. Through a crack in the wall, at about 8:15, we walked out of Orlando and into Diagon Alley. Finley’s breath caught in her throat. Sloping gently uphill, the shops and stores led to Gringott’s Bank, on top of which perched a bloodied, angry dragon. It was good enough that if I squinted in the early morning (before the throngs of tourists really descended on it) at the families wearing their robes, under the overcast Orlando sky, I was as close as I could actually get to the world of the books.
We’d been advised to go to Ollivander’s straight away, so we got in a short line and soon found ourselves queuing up inside for a private wand selection. Inside a closed room, a wizard stood behind a desk and drew one of the kids out of the crowd (not Finley, but some chump who was celebrating a birthday). His show was great. He made cabinets move and lights dim and had the crowd in his hand. When he was done we filed out into the main shop.
Finley walked almost immediately over to a wall containing hundreds of boxes, chose a blue one, and said, “What’s this one?”
A man in Ollivander’s costume overheard this and walked over. He asked Finley if she had lots of energy and if she wanted to share that energy with other people, and we all smiled with agreement. It was pretty clear Finley’s birch wand had chosen her. He then matched Jen and I with our wands (holly and reed) like a boss.
Outside, we practiced our spells at the medallions set in the ground and began to explore the Alley. We sampled hot butterbeer—which is liquid heroin—and looked through the shops, exchanged $10 for Goblin money, walked down the dark alley at Borgin and Burke’s, and looked over the flavors of ice cream at Mrs. Fortescue’s. After a thorough inspection of Diagon Alley, we found the Hogwarts Express and queued up on line there.
As with much of our stay, the lines were relatively short, and we filed into a compartment on the train. This ride is an experiential one, where there’s a projection on the “outside” wall, where we could see ourselves passing out of London, then over the countryside and past Malfoy Manor, through the Forbidden Forest (where Hagrid joined us for a while on the motorcycle) and the Weasley’s car chased alongside. Interspersed with that was a projection on the inside compartment windows where Harry, Ron and a terrible Hermione impersonator battled a dementor and bought candy from the trolley.
Walking into Hogsmeade is another moment of awe. The buildings stretch out into the distance, snow-covered roofs piled high with leaning chimneys and towering dormers, and the castle looms off in the distance. In the afternoon it’s mobbed with people, so the effect isn’t quite the same as Diagon Alley, but we still had loads of fun looking in the shops, casting spells, and walking up the lane.
Here I was able to talk Finley into going on the Hogwart’s ride, which, as we found out, is a mixture of live-action and projection. You strap into a chair four seats wide, which is connected to a hydraulic arm. The arm is on a track that takes you through an immersive story experience through Hogwarts, flying across the Quidditch pitch, and down into caverns to face off with dragons. I reached out and held Finley’s hand through the whole thing, as it was a little more intense than I was expecting, and I figured she was having a good time (I heard her laughing at certain points, but the way the chairs are set up you can’t see your neighbors). When we got off the ride she immediately told us with a solemn face that she didn’t want to ride any more rides.
We took a break from Harry Potter and wandered out into the rest of the park, starting with a strange area that wasn’t tied to any property we could identify. There we found some lunch and then went on a ride called Posiedon’s Fury, which felt like it dated back to 1998 or so. It’s basically a show, where the audience is led from one room to the next, and you stand on a low stage while they project video, shoot fire, and spray water on you. Finley thought that was great, probably because she wasn’t on a moving car.
From there we wandered out to the Jurassic Park area and the Kong experience, where we were unable to get her to ride any of the other rides. Finley played a game, and then we walked to the other side of the park to try and find our way out.
Returning back to the hotel, we took a brief break while Jen slept off a headache. Finn and I went down and sat by the pool, where I read a book and she did some of her homework. Then we shuttled back to the CityWalk, where we met the Matejowskis for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. I haven’t seen them since 2007, when I arranged for Jen to fall out of a plane, although the girls met with them for a hike a few years ago while I was traveling for work. It was great to catch up with them (this little girl is now driving), and we all had a great time.
We rose early on Sunday to to have breakfast at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. The only problem was that it’s very hard to get to Hogsmeade early without taking the Hogwarts Express unless you’ve got a different ticket than we did. So we hustled to King’s Cross and queued on line, rode the train, and got there early enough to be the first family on line. The food was passable at best but the ambiance was excellent, and we were able to relax for a little while before heading back out. We deliberated over what to do with a cup of butterbeer, then dove into the rest of the Universal park.
First up was Seussland, where the three of us rode the Sneetches ride, and then Finn and I rode One Fish Two Fish and the carousel. I do love the fact that she’s 11 and still loves a carousel.
Finn and I queued up for the Minions ride, which was an indoor experiential ride centered around a large screen with moving seats. That was so much fun we convinced Jen to try it with us, and she liked it up until the seats went backwards and then she white-knuckled it through the rest of the show.
Down the street was Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York, which again was an experiential ride with 3D glasses. Finn and I tried that one and she proclaimed it her favorite of the day up to that point. Jen sat out in the park square and got her stomach back in order, watching a parade down Main Street.
We then wandered through the Simpsons area, where Finn and I rode another spinning ride (this one hosted by Kang, the alien) and then I stopped in for a frosty Duff. Further on, we found the younger kids’ section of the park and checked out the Curious George area, which was basically a huge water park/exploration area and then a giant air-powered ball pit/gladiator arena. Six-year-old Finley would have spent the whole fucking day in there. As it was, we had to ask her to leave.
Walking towards the exit, we stopped in at the ET ride, which we’d been told was a throwback acid trip from the park’s opening in 1990. It did not disappoint. Like many of the other rides, it’s an experiential ride, where you get on a bike on a track and ride through the forest, ultimately going to “ET’s home planet” where a bunch of crappy rubber dummies sing a mind-numbingly bad song. Seriously. This would have been the perfect opportunity for experimentation with recreational drugs.
Walking back toward the entrance, we noticed a light show going on in the lake between areas and stopped to watch. They projected clips of their films on spraying water, synchronized with other jets of water, projections on the buildings behind, and fireworks overhead. It was, I must admit, pretty cool. When it was finished, we hurried out of the park to get ahead of the throngs.
Back at the hotel, Finn asked if she could check out the pool, so the two of us got suited up and went down to try it out. The weather was cold enough that a pool heated to 85˚ still felt freezing to me, so we stayed out and watched Back to the Future while Finn swam—and ultimately made a friend!
Jen and I were determined to ride some rides together, so we prepared Finley to hang out while we waited on the lines. But we planned things so that the lines would be as short as possible. Hustling into the park in the morning, we hit the Escape from Gringott’s line with a 20-minute wait and wound our way through the building until we boarded a mine car and headed into the dark. Again, it’s an experiential ride augmented with 3D glasses, with live-action elements and projection, where we followed Harry, Ron and Hermione and evaded Bellatrix and Voldemort, who were shooting spells directly in our faces.
Exhilarated, we found Finley where we’d left her and hustled over to Hogsmeade, where we queued up for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. We didn’t know much about this one going in, other than that it’s the newest of the rides in this section of the park. As we walked up to the building where the queue starts, we saw part of the ride flying past, and I have to admit, both of us got really nervous. I don’t like roller coasters all that much and I knew this was going to be outdoors, but I also knew Jen really wanted to ride it, so we continued in line.
The cars are shaped like a motorcycle and a sidecar, with a restraining pad that comes down over your legs. I took the motorcycle so I was sitting up the whole ride, which ramped up my anxiety, and Jen was in the sidecar. Normally when I’m in a roller coaster I squinch down into the seat as much as possible so I can pretend I’m not dangling from a pipe twelve stories above hard concrete. This was like standing on top of a speeding train.
Luckily, as you can see, there are no giant climbs or loops, which would have had me shitting my pants (I’m afraid of heights; anything above 3 stories has my palms sweating) but the acceleration and physical movement was absolutely fantastic. We were both cackling like idiots at the end of the ride; if we’d not had Finn waiting on us, we would have immediately gone back on line.
As it was, Finn was feeling lousy at that point, and by the time we’d made it back to the entrance she was really down. We got back to the hotel and put her in bed for a couple of hours until she woke up with a fever, at which point we Uber’d to an urgent care. We then got a car to take us to the nearest Walgreens to pick up a Tamiflu prescription, where we found they had not received the prescription. I called a car for the girls and waited around an hour for them to fill the script, then came back and delivered her medicine.
We quietly packed our gear while she slept and the next morning hit the ground running. Our Uber driver was a nice man from Venezuela who didn’t complain at all when Finn got sick in his van. I tried to catch as much as I could with a plastic bag but didn’t have time to actually open it, so most of it was in my hands. In the airport we checked our bag and then washed up in the lavatories, sailing through security relatively quickly. We prepped for more sick on the plane but Finn did great and thankfully had no further issues.
Getting home was uneventful, and Finn laid down immediately on the couch, where she stayed for the next two days. As she got better, Jen got worse and she was diagnosed with the flu on Friday.
I spend most of my life worrying about money, so it’s strange that I get so zen about money when we’re on vacation. Basically, I’m willing to spend whatever on whatever if it makes our life easier, especially when I know that we’re going to be spending more on food than I normally would. Even so, the numbers were kind of staggering for the time we spent in the parks. Overall, we spent $848.05 on food of all types, from airport to airport; this equals a little over $200/day on meals, butterbeer, drinks from the bar, butterbeer, snacks, and butterbeer. We spent a total of $200 on Uber rides, $80 of which was a cleanup fee for our Venezuelan friend, and a further $25 for travel to and from the urgent care/pharmacy.
Where we were relatively chill was in merchandise. Given that Every. Single. Ride. Ended in a gift shop, and there was a gift shop in the lobby of the hotel selling merch, we got away with only spending $202.31 on branded stuff: 3 wands and a hippogriff. Finley was really restrained in the face of all this consumerism; she never bugged us for a robe or a T-shirt or jewelry or any of the other thousand items available. When she latched on to the hippogriff, I made that happen, but waited until the final day in the park and made her carry it in her own backpack. It was fun to watch her walk the park with Buckbeak’s head sticking out of the pack, and it made her happy—and that was worth every penny spent.