Prepping for a Very Harry Potter Vacation

Hogwarts at Universal Studios, Hollywood, CA

I am going to England in March to visit UK Sarah and we are going to spend the first 2 days geeking out over Harry Potter. We will see both parts of The Cursed Child at the theater and then the next day visit Warner Bros.’ The Making of Harry Potter.

Fans enjoying Hogsmeade at Universal Studios.

In preparation I am re-reading all 7 books by JK Rowling. I will probably watch all the films again too. My close reading of the Harry Potter series is so much more enjoyable and meaningful because as I read a chapter I am pausing to listen to the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. The co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile created a unique format. Each episode has a theme, such as friendship, commitment, fear or other values/ emotions. They begin with a short story from one of them that illustrates the theme. Then they compete in a friendly competition of recapping the chapter in 30 seconds. This is followed by a discussion of the chapter through the lens of the theme. They then apply a spiritual practice, such as lectio divina, to part of the text, finally they each give a blessing to one of the characters. Often there is also an interview with a guest rabbi or professor. Or they play a short message from a listener. I am LOVING the whole experience.

Vanessa and Casper met at Harvard Divinity School. Vanessa is up front about her Jewish background and nonbeliever status. Casper is a little more enigmatic. He has a lovely British accent and can share his boarding school experience. They are both very empathetic, mature people with a strong moral compass. It all adds up to a fascinating podcast.

By the way, just to be on the safe side, I am flying back to California before the deadline for hard Brexit.


Fall Into Harvard Square

Oh how lovely to be out of the smoke choking the Sacramento Valley. Oh to be enjoying some rain.

I am visiting my son in Boston and it has been over 15 years since I’ve visited Cambridge, so while he worked at his office, Mid morning I rode the Red Line to Harvard Square. It was such a pleasure to walk 5 minutes from his South Boston apartment to the T-station. Then it was a 7 stops and about 30 minutes and a fraction of the cost of a Lyft ride.

I did a quick walk to stretch my legs to the old cemetery and Cambridge Commons. The brisk autumn air and orange and red leaves clinging to the tree branches were enjoyable in the light rain. As I walked back towards the Harvard yard a family of 5 asked where they might find something to eat. From the Commons they couldn’t see all of the restaurants or the Square a short walk away. I pointed them in the right direction and then we laughed when we realized we are all visiting from California.

I walked through the Harvard Yard and looked at the heart of the campus. It was chock full of tour groups. I was busy remembering my visit with my daughter Sarah when she was in middle school, and then the Gilmore Girls episode where they are visiting Harvard University (although I’m pretty sure it was filmed at Pomona College). I didn’t have much information so I mostly just gawked. I would have benefited from a more organized tour. I don’t want to take the spot of a potential student with one of the free campus tours offered by the University; however, there is also a self-guided tour you can utilize to learn more about the campus.

I made a beeline to Harvard Book Store, a robust independent bookstore. I also checked out the student center on Harvard Square while looking for a fountain soda. Students at Harvard only have healthy options. I ended up getting a slice of pizza at OTTO and then finding a fountain soda and a place to sit and rest for a minute.

One of my highlights, as a devoted gramma, was the Curious George children’s toy store. Upstairs they still have the sign for “Dewey, Cheatem and Howe” law firm made famous by NPR’s Car Talk guys.

It is only a few days before Thanksgiving so I wasn’t sure how many students to expect. Cambridge was buzzing with all sorts of people–groups of tourists, prospective students, grad students, groups of academics, and more. I weaved my way back across the yard to get a closer look at the Memorial Hall. The lobby was open but the theater and the freshman dining hall were closed. This is an awe-inspiring cathedral to higher learning with high timber ceilings and stained glass windows. The dining hall looked like the Hogwarts dining hall and I later learned that the filmmakers did use it as a model.

I started to make my way back to the train station. The train was much more crowded on the way to the Back Bay. I had to switch to the Green Line and was confused as to what stop I needed. When you are underground and there are no bars, you cannot ask Google. So I did it the old fashioned way: I asked for help from a kind young woman. She showed me how I could choose any of three lines to get to Hynes Center stop. I followed her ACROSS THE TRACKS. It felt so awkward but it was safe.

Boston is a charming city and a manageable size. I look forward to more adventures tomorrow.


Huge Harry Potter Fan Visits Hogsmeade

Hogwarts Express Conductor with Harry Potter enthusiasts

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.

Pumpkin Juice and Gilly Water for sale

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 at Hogsmeade entrance

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).

20170409_132542Friends 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.

20170409_114837We 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!