Jessie Raymond: Loving the magic, holding the wallet

Last week, during a brief family vacation to Florida, I found myself at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, an attraction that straddles two Universal Studios theme parks in Orlando.
My initial reaction to going? Yeah, no.
As an avowed cheapskate, I make it a point to not enjoy anything more expensive than a cup of coffee and a bagel. And I despise crowds (where “crowd” is defined as more than 40 people per square mile). There aren’t too many places, then, that I would expect to enjoy less than an Orlando theme park. But I live among a couple of diehard HP fans who refused to hear my Muggle protests.
At the entrance, when we handed over our debit card and I saw the cost for five people, I had to grip the ticket counter until a wave of nausea passed. “That’s OK,” I said, forcing a smile for my Potter-loving family’s benefit. “We’ll just go without heating fuel next winter.” (They thought I was joking.)
As for the crowds, I was told they were light, by Florida theme park standards. Still, I found myself getting jostled by legions of Harry Potter fanatics who stumbled about, wide-eyed, dumbfounded by the accuracy of every minute detail of the scenery. A few wept with joy.
I’m no Harry Potter expert. I don’t know the difference between Death Eaters and Dementors. I’ve read only books 1 and 3. I did see the last movie in theaters but I had trouble following the story because I didn’t know what a “horcrux” was. I figured out that there were seven of them and that Harry had to destroy all of them, but I still don’t know why. Maybe so he’d get the eighth one for free?
It didn’t matter. The attraction so thoroughly captured the feeling of the books and movies that even I found myself transported. It was all there: King’s Cross Station, Diagon Alley, the imposing castle of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the Hogwarts Express train, the village of Hogsmeade — even butter beer (though I doubt Harry drank his from a disposable plastic cup).
People raved about the rides, particularly “Escape from Gringotts Bank” and “The Forbidden Journey.” Both of them featured roller coaster action combined with spectacular video and audio effects that left me half awestruck and half regretting the large omelet I’d had for breakfast.
I don’t generally care for rides, but these were designed better than most. In one, for example, the part where you were technically waiting in line became a winding tour of Hogwarts Castle. Every bit of the Harry Potter universe was represented, right down to the paintings whose subjects griped at each other across the vaulted stone halls.
Diagon Alley, the Merchants Row of Harry Potter’s world, was admittedly exquisite. The narrow cobbled street and colorful jumbled buildings, reminiscent of a wonky Victorian London, referenced all things Harry Potter in every storefront window. Until I saw the price tags on the souvenir wizard robes and briefly blacked out, I almost forgot I was in a loud, bustling, wallet-sucking theme park.
Then, as we were leaving Diagon Alley, we passed the Owl Post (the wizard version of the post office), where owls picked up and delivered mail. Built into the rough clapboards in the upper stories of the building were four or five tiers of elaborately decorated alcoves, several of which contained lifelike owls presumably waiting for an assignment.
The architecture was stunning, but what caught my attention were the realistic dried black and white owl droppings piled on the lip of each alcove and dripping down the face of the clapboards. Gross, yes. But I couldn’t look away.
There I was, surrounded by talking paintings. A fire-breathing dragon atop Gringotts Bank. Newspapers with animated photos. Perhaps a horcrux or two (not that I’d recognize one). And wands — available for purchase in Ollivanders Wand Shop at a price that caused parents to wail and rend their garments — which, when waved just so, actually made objects move.
But what had me staring in amazement? The painstakingly dripped fake bird poop that, above all else, made me believe Diagon Alley could be a real place.
If that’s not magical, I don’t know what is.

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