Last time I went to Universal Studios was around 1980. I don’t remember much except the tram ride including an encounter with the Jaws‘ great white shark and the Ten Commandments‘ parted Red Sea. For the next 30 years I thought “everyone should go once to see how fake everything is that looks so real on film.”
Filmmaking has come a long way since then including the magic of the Harry Potter movies. Once while I was in Chicago I trekked to a special exhibit of Harry Potter movie props and videos explaining how they filmed the quidditch match, and so on. I loved it. The weird part is while the magical world of Harry Potter is completely imaginary, everything about the sets and props were very real. The knit sweaters and blankets were exquisite and I was inspired to knit my son a blanket like the one Mrs. Weasley made.
I was in Los Angeles on other personal business but I decided to take the plunge to see the Harry Potter experience at Universal Studios in Hollywood. I didn’t want to go alone so I asked my son’s friend Glen. I know he’s as enthusiastic about the books as I am. He said yes immediately.
I went to the AAA website to check out any available discounts. I got the first of many rude price shocks: $105 per adult with a discount. How do families afford it? I looked at Costco and they had a $200 deal for a yearly pass; however, it is not a deal if you only plan to visit once. As I’m checking out of the site with the AAA passes and they ask if I want to pre-purchase my parking for $20. Oh yeah, the $105 doesn’t include parking!
Glen and I met outside the Hard Rock Cafe, which is in a shopping area outside the official amusement park. (Imagine an outlet mall on steroids.) All the facades are supersized–it’s a little Times Square, a little Vegas and completely boring. Does anyone really pay $20 to park and shop for Sketchers and go to the movies?
We managed to enter the gates minutes after the 10 a.m. opening. There were plenty of people joining us–many already in their Hogwarts robes. We went straight to Hogsmeade for the Harry Potter experience. Immediately we felt transported. The energy and the excitement is palpable. Glen and I looked and each other and we knew we were ready to get our Harry Potter-geek on. The conductor of Hogwarts Express was there to greet us, the whole place was just what you’d imagine Hogsmeade to be.
We moved on to Honeydukes candy shop and then on to more shops that combined movie sets and souvenir shops. Universal Studios does not miss an opportunity to sell you branded stuff. You can buy Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, Slytherin and Gryffindor hoodies, quidditch shirts, socks and more. You can buy full robes and a quidditch broom ($300).
Friends had suggested we try the butterbeer. It froths like a rootbeer but is twice as sweet. The butterscotch flavor is delicious but I could only drink half of my $7.20 standard plastic cup of butterbeer (yes there is a souvenir option). I am used to the hyper-marketing that is ubiquitous in the USA, but I couldn’t help contrasting it with Hobbiton in New Zealand, where the real beer at the Green Dragon is complimentary and the only souvenirs are sold at the entrance/exit. Ah New Zealand.
We stood in line for about 40 minutes to enter Olivander’s Wand emporium. First we entered a small room lined with wand boxes and then we were invited into a larger room with a counter for wand fittings. The shopkeeper selected a small girl in Hogwarts robes to come forward. She was adorable in her excitement and awe. He proceeded to have her try 3 wands. With the first two the spells backfired. The third wand “chose” her. He called the girl’s family forward for a chat and the rest of us were ushered into the shop for fans to make their own purchases with cash or credit card. Part of me experienced some sympathy anxiety for parents who after shelling out wads of cash were going to feel considerable pressure to purchase a $50 wand for each of their children. Fortunately, Glen and I can afford to splurge and we each bought an interactive want so we could try out “spells” at designated spots around the park.
We ate lunch at the Three Broomsticks where we both ordered the fish and chips. It was tasty and filling and $20 for lunch. It was good to sit down briefly.
We experienced almost all of Hogsmeade and so that left us with the virtual ride and the roller coaster. I get motion sick quite easily so I knew the roller coaster was out. But I was curious to see the Hogwarts classrooms that are part of waiting in line for the virtual ride. Glen stowed our wands in a locker (stow everything you can!) and I breezed past the sign that says no pregnant women or people prone to motion sick. And hour later and we were ushered to our ride seats and locked in. I was optimistic for no good reason, within a minute I was starting to feel queasy. I shut my eyes for most of the ride. You’ll have to ask Glen for ride details. He was quite pleased. I was just relieved I didn’t actually throw up. I sat down gulping in fresh air for a few minutes before I was ambulatory.
We went back and did the shopping that we didn’t want to carry through the park. We stepped out of Hogsmeade and looked around at the rest of Universal Studios: Shrek 4D, something with zombies, an animal show, and then at each other. Interested? Nah. Me neither. Four hours in Hogsmeade and were were ready to leave. Was it worth it? Yes!