This year the kids received invitations to Hogwarts in their Easter baskets. Visiting a theme park has never topped our list of dream vacations, but our little Harry Potter maniacs made us rethink our priorities. At ages 13 and 11, the kids are the perfect mix of old enough, young enough, and tall enough.
They’ve been feverishly re-reading the series all year. They pass time in the car by creating Harry Potter quizzes, they never get sick of the movies, and they giggle at obnoxious Harry Potter songs on YouTube. They dreamed of picking a wand at Ollivanders and drinking Butterbeer at the Leaky Cauldron.
In other words, they were pretty darn excited.
So off to Florida we went.
I will never forget their reactions when we first stepped through the brick wall into Diagon Alley. Sam clasped his hands on top of his head, bent over for a second, then backed right back out. It was too much. “No way, just no way…” he muttered. Maggie plowed forward, frantically pointing at everything with an agape grin of joy. She was, quite literally, speechless.
The enchanting world of Harry Potter burst straight from the page, and J.K. Rowling’s black and white words exploded onto this cobbled street for all to enjoy. Our imagination was suddenly tangible. Just like that, we believed in magic.
At this point I realized my heart was going to float, untethered, throughout my body for the entire day.
First we headed to Gringotts Wizarding Bank, where the dragon roared and spewed hot flames:
The ride inside is called Escape From Gringotts, and it’s spectacular. There was so much to look at inside the bank that we actually wished the line was longer. The goblin bankers were busy balancing the books, while the head banker provided a safety briefing for the ride. Characters slipped in and out of framed portraits on the walls, and copies of the Daily Prophet (complete with moving pictures) were on display. We especially enjoyed our elevator descent into vaults.
After the ride it was off to Ollivanders. It was claustrophobically crowded, but Sam and Maggie didn’t care. At first they inspected wands recommended by birth dates, but Maggie’s all had menacing skulls at the base. Deal breaker.
One of the wand makers noticed her displeasure and asked, “Would you like me to recommend one based on your personality instead?” Maggie’s eyes lit up and the answer was most definitely yes.
“So tell me a little about yourself,” said the wand maker.
“I like horses,” Maggie started.
There was a bit more back and forth before the wand maker made her recommendation. “I get the impression that you are adventurous. You are also kind and confident, but I’m sensing a strong stubborn streak.” How had she so perfectly described my daughter within two minutes?! After much contemplation, the wand maker slid out a box with a 12 1/4 inch wand made from oak and dragonheart string. Maggie was in love with it before she finished her first swish and flick.
Sam watched this encounter with saucer eyes, so of course I asked the wand maker to help him as well. Sam told her he liked soccer and playing outside. Again, this magical wand maker described our son perfectly after only a few probing questions.
“I get the impression that you have a great sense of humor. You are active and outgoing, and feed off the energy of other people. But you also have very quiet times when you sit back and take things in, and think about the world around you.”
Seriously, can this be my retirement gig?
It’s probably no surprise that Sam loved the first wand she recommended: 11 1/2 inches, birch, with a phoenix feather core.
Best. Souvenirs. Ever.
I actually teared up when I passed the cashier my credit card. Do I realize this was a trap? Yes. Did I care? Not one bit.
Like I said, retirement gig. I’m submitting this blog post with my resume in 20 years.
Sam and Maggie spent the entire day looking for medallions on the sidewalk and casting spells into storefront windows (which is not as easy as it looks!).
After more exploring and spell casting, we decided to head back to London and visit King’s Cross for a ride on the Hogwart’s Express. We couldn’t ignore the Knight Bus and his talking head, or the phone booth to the Ministry of Magic. Sam was shocked when he picked up the phone and it talked back to him!
There was plenty to look at while we were in line for the train: Hedwig, wizard trunks, and even an illusion when you walk through Platform 9 3/4. And of course the actual Hogwarts Express!
The train delivered us to Hogsmeade, where we got our first true look at Hogwarts.
Sorry Cinderella, but your castle simply can’t compare:
The ride within the castle is called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. The line features Hogwarts classrooms, herbology greenhouses, talking portraits, the sorting hat, the Mirror of Erised, and more. The ride itself starts with a whirling trip through the floo network straight onto a broomstick with dragons, Quidditch players, and dementors. We loved it!
Hogsmeade was a quaint village and every bit as fun to explore as Diagon Alley.
The kids happily rode the Flight of the Hippogriff roller coaster, but they were too apprehensive to ride the Dragon Challenge on this first visit to Hogsmeade. We came back a few days later and they channeled Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s bravery, and conquered this coaster. They loved the Dragon Challenge (and its inversions!) so much that they rode it twice!
For us, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was more about the experience than the rides. To eat lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. To toast with Butterbeer. To shop at the one and only Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. To cast spells. To accidentally wander into Knockturn Alley. To hear Moaning Myrtle in the restrooms. To shop for quills, Quidditch supplies, and snitches. To see an actual Monster Book of Monsters and the dress Hermione wore to the ball. This was the true magic!
It rained the day we visited the park. It was mostly a drizzle, but at one point it poured so hard that the sidewalks started flooding. I’m not kidding: a family of ducks actually swam past us. We sought refuge indoors for a bit, but for the most part the rain was a blessing. The deluge thinned the crowds substantially, and also gave us the opportunity to pretend our rain ponchos were invisibility cloaks! The weather felt authentic to the books, so we didn’t mind in the least.
At one point in the day Sam and I were climbing a set of stairs, I think to ride Forbidden Journey for the second time. He looked at me and said, “You realize this is actually my dream come true, right? To actually be inside Harry Potter world?”
At another point Maggie squealed, “This is the best day of my life so far!!” (I had to point out the day we brought home our puppy Tess, which she conceded was slightly better.)
Clark is not a Potter fanatic, but even he was amazed. “Seriously… one person came up with this entire world?!” he mused.
As for me, I’ll never forget the moment we boarded the Hogwarts Express back to reality. My eyes brimmed with tears of joy and sadness. I simply didn’t want this day to end. The kids cast a quick “dehyrdo” spell, and before I knew it we were on our way.
I can’t predict everything my children will remember about their childhoods, but I do know this: they will cherish the moments we spent bringing these beloved books to life in our living room every bit as much as the two days we spent in Harry Potter world. Black and white words on a page are so much more when played out in a child’s imagination.
But how wonderfully magical it is when, just for a brief moment, your imagination becomes reality.
“The stories we love best do live in us forever.” ~ J.K. Rowling