Subtitled, “You’re a wizard, Chili!”
Today was our big day at Universal.
I don’t know if I mentioned this before, but Mr. Chili is something of a rocket scientist (no; literally. He’ll tell you he’s “just a mechanical engineer,” but for the last decade or so, he’s been doing his mechanical engineering thing on shit that goes into space on rockets and does amazing and magical things. In MY book, that makes him a rocket scientist). Last month, he was in Florida to witness one of his toys getting hurtled into space on top of a rocket.
He was here with one of his co-workers (who also happens to be a very good friend of his (I jokingly refer to Mark as Mr. Chili’s “work husband”) and, while they were here, they did all kinds of fun stuff and ate at all kinds of nice restaurants. Mr. Chili felt bad that he did all those things without us (he’s good like that!), so we’ve been recreating his experiences since we got here. Our first dinner here was at a lovely Italian place because he ate there with Mark and his wife while waiting for launch day, for example.One of the things that totally geeked my husband out was his trip to Universal Studios to see the new Harry Potter attraction.
We’d been to Universal a couple of times before, and we’d been to the Hogwarts/Hogsmeade site a bunch of years ago, but that didn’t prepare me for the literally amazing experience that is Diagon Alley.
We were among the first people at the park (on a “low attendance” day; Mr. Chili had crowd forecast maps… seriously) and made our reasonable way to the site (I only saw one or two people sprinting across the park; I gather that, on some days, the rush to the place resembles the Running of the Bulls, but I didn’t see anything even remotely resembling that on the day we were there). Even the approach is magical; one rounds a corner and a street (specifically, Grimmauld Place) comes into view; row houses, shops, a BT phone booth, the Knight bus, and King’s Cross station. Over a bridge, and you’re there.
We stopped at 12 Grimmauld Place to take some pictures of the girls in the doorway (one of them pointing up at Kreacher peeking out from behind the second story curtain!), and to notice that the bricks on 12 are darker than the bricks that make up the rest of the row, then we made our way to talk to the conductor of the Knight bus and the shrunken head (does he have a name?), which is a very cool, interactive thing; it actually talks TO you. The conductor asks your name, and the head repeats what you tell him and introduces himself. They tell jokes, they sing songs; it’s all very cool. Even though I really didn’t like the shrunken head in the movie, this was undeniably cool.
From there, we headed right to Diagon Alley. The entry to the thing looks just like it did in the movie; the wall is open and the bricks are tilted and it’s just amazing. The cobblestone street is lined with shops; Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes‘, Madame Maulkin’s, Flourish and Blott’s, a quidditch shop, a bookstore (which, much to my profound disappointment, was just a display), Olivander’s, and the FREAKING LEAKY CAULDRON! Seriously; we spent the first ten minutes just gawking in geeked-out, nerdy amazement.
The view up the street is to Gringotts, and the effect of it cannot be overstated; the dragon from the vaults is perched on top of the building, and every 20 minutes or so, the thing starts to roar and then spits out an enormous fireball, the heat of which can be felt from the street. We decided, since the crowds were still really small, that we’d head to the “Escape from Gringotts” ride, and it was great. We stashed our stuff in a locker and headed into the lobby, which was EXACTLY like it was in the film; giant crystal chandeliers, and goblins on high desks working on ledgers. They’d occasionally look up at us – one of them nodded at me – and they each had little idiosyncrasies; it was fascinating and I’m a little sorry that we didn’t have to wait longer because I feel like I missed a bunch of really neat stuff in the lobby. Anyway, the lead goblin at the end of the lobby directs you into the office behind his desk where our goblin guide comes to search a desk for the keys to the vaults. After he roots around for a bit, Bill Weasley comes in to help, and to explain to us what we’re doing; we’re to get into an elevator to go down to the vaults where we’ll board a trolly for our tour.
Along the way, of course, mischief ensues. It turns out that we decided to take our tour at the same time that the kids were robbing Bellatrix Lastrange’s vault for the horcrux, and she and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named are tearing around trying to find them. There are trolls tearing up tracks and swinging clubs at us, Nagini is hissing around, and at one point, I actually jumped from the 3D effect of a wall being blown apart (the ride is a combination odyssey and physical props, though the wall blowing out bit was 3D). The kids mount the dragon and leave it to Bill to guide us safely out of the vault, but not before the thing spits his fireball and blows our hair back with hot air.
It was amazing.
After that, we collected our things from the locker and went shopping. Really, even if you never buy a thing, the shopping is cool; there are quills and ink, there are badges and pins, there are ties and hats and robes and GORGEOUS real wool Hogwarts sweaters (the pretty dark ones with the red stripe at the bottom), there are quidditch ball sets and wizard’s chess sets and journals and train tickets and….really; it’s amazing.
We took in a show (we saw the Tales of Beedle the Bard troupe doing the Fountain of Fair Fortune), then we took in a bit of lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. Bean had mac and cheese (natch), Mr. Chili had cottage pie, I had the Guinness stew, and Punk had an order of fish and chips. Butter beer to drink (of course) and I had the Peachtree Fizzing Tea, which was yummy.
Thus fortified, we did some more shopping and sought out more magical spots. OH! I forgot to mention; when we landed, Mr. Chili headed straight for the Universal shop in the airport and bought a magic magic wand. Apparently, there are RFID wands that, when swished around in specific spots, make things happen. At the blacksmith, for example, magic magic wands (as opposed to plain old regular magic wands) work the bellows and repair some goblin armor. At the stationery shop, a flick and swish makes a feather quill pen levitate. There are spots all over the place, and while we had some trouble with some of them (the sun sometimes gets in the way, apparently), the overall effect is fantastic.
We walked through the streets, got a frozen butterbeer (Punk decided she wanted to try all the varieties; it comes cold, frozen, hot, and as ice cream. She got everything but the hot; it was too warm outside for it), and then made our way through Knockturn Alley (don’t miss it; the Dark Arts shop is cool). From there, we decided it was time to go to Hogwarts.
King’s Cross Station is amazing (I’m using that word a lot, and yes, I DO know what it means, Inigo!). The entryway has some sort of magical illusion that makes it look as though the people in front of you really ARE going through the wall between platforms 9 and 10 (the only bummer is that you can’t watch yourself go through). When Mr. Chili came here a month or so ago, he was kicking himself for not stopping in the little British food shop in the queue, so we made a point of going in (there was no line at the time and people were just walking right by it on their way to the train) and buying a load of Aero bars (the sweet trolley goes by in the hallway of the train, but you can’t buy anything from it, so we had to supply our own sweets). The Hogwarts Express is gorgeous; a giant red engine and a bunch of cars that are divided into cabins. We made our trip from “London” to Hogwarts with just one other couple in our cabin, and it was wonderful. The inboard side of the cabin is, apparently, some sort of shadow puppet screen; the kids go by (I don’t think they got Emma Watson to do the voice, though; I think the girl sounded much more like Ginny than Hermione), the aforementioned sweet trolley goes by, Dementors go by. On the outboard side, there’s a movie screen that shows images of London, we go by the Malfoy estate, we watch dark wizards flying by on their clouds of black smoke, we see the enchanted car, and finally, we come around the corner and see the lake and the forest and the castle. Hagrid greets us at Hogsmeade and there we are.
I found Hogsmeade to be less magical than Diagon Alley, but that may have just been because it was crowded and hot and there felt like less to do there. Mr. Chili and Bean went on the Dueling Dragons roller coaster while Punk took a nap in my lap, then we got up and made our way to Hogwarts, where the girls and I got in line to go on the ride while Dad went to find someplace shady to sit.
The queue takes you through parts of the castle, Professor Sprout’s greenhouses, and then back into the castle, where there are giant sculptures of famous witches and wizards (though I wish they’d had identifying plaques on them) and talking portraits. We spent some time with the Fat Lady, wandered through the Dark Arts classroom, then were shown into Dumbledore’s office, where we were welcomed to a tour of the castle and a lecture with Professor Binns. As we made our way into his classroom, though, Harry, Ron, and Hermione appeared on a balcony (they were under their invisibility cloak) and told us, sure, we could stay for the lecture, but it’s DEAD boring (as Professor Binns is, in fact, a ghost), and they’d be willing to sneak us out (“It will require a bit of magic,” Hermione told us) so we could see a quidditch match.
We were loaded into benches and then Hermione cast a spell on our group and we were thrown through the floo network which sent us outside where we met Harry and Ron in their quidditch robes. As we passed a bridge connecting two parts of the castle, we found Hagrid holding an empty chain leash asking us if we’d seen a dragon (oops!), then we swooped under the bridge and ran into said dragon. The dragon proceeded to chase us, Harry, and Ron into the Dark Forest where Ron fled from the spiders (which spit at us) and, as we tore through the forest, Hermione told us to follow her voice to get out of the forest. We flew to the end of the quidditch pitch where we found Harry and Draco. The snitch flies in front of them and they jostle each other trying to get at it. Then we ran into Dementors. Harry cast a patronus spell and we left him to deal with them while we flew around the moat and into the castle dungeons – the Chamber of Secrets, to be specific. We dodged the skeleton snake and collapsing beams and eventually made our way out into the open again.
From there, we flew to the observatory of the castle, flying down and through the castle, through the great hall, then passed by the quidditch team congratulating us and Dumbledore welcoming us back to visit any time.
All of that was provided for you courtesy of Bean; I had my eyes closed through most of the ride. Motion odyssey rides wreak havoc on my system, and I didn’t enjoy the ride at all.
After that, we found Dad and the girls decided the wanted to go on the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster, so I held everyone’s stuff and watched them roll by (this being a family friendly coaster (“all positive Gs,” says my husband), they all came off with smiles), then we decided to get back on the Hogwarts Express and head back to Diagon Alley and some of the aforementioned butter beer ice cream (which was yummy) while we watched Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees do their singing thing. Bean found a couple of things to buy in a shop (a gift for her best friend and a sweatshirt for herself) and then we decided it was time to go.
We went on the MIB ride in the next section over, and that was fun. You’re put in a cart, given a noisy cricket sort of ray gun, and told to shoot as many aliens as you can find. Our boat earned a rating of “celestially average,” which is much better than we did the last time we went on that ride; Will Smith told us that time that, if we hadn’t been in a training simulator, we’d all have been bug food.
After that, the girls went on the Simpson’s ride and Mr. Chili and I sat our butts down for a bit. Once the girls were back (it’s another motion ride, they said, and we’d have hated it), we made our way to the Rock-it roller coaster so Mr. Chili and Bean could partake (Punk and I found a bench with a good view of the first part of the coaster ride to wait). They both came off smiling, and Bean said she wanted to do it again, but we had reservations at the Hard Rock Cafe and needed to head over; besides, we were all pretty hungry by then.
I don’t think I’ve ever eaten at a hard rock before, but I enjoyed it. The food was pretty standard for these kinds of chains (Punk and I shared a burger, Mr. Chili got a bbq chicken sandwich, Bean got chicken fingers, and we split a plate of potato skins between us), but the atmosphere was a hoot. The music was way too loud (we gave the waitress our orders through a complex combination of sign language and menu-pointing), but everyone – from the guests to the wait staff to the busboys and hostesses, was singing (and occasionally dancing) along.
A quick run through the gift shop (where Punk bought a tee shirt and got $10 off with the coupons one of the roving managers left at our table) and we were off for home again, exhausted but delighted. It was a really, really good day.