Friday, July 30, 2010

Exploring the Wizarding World of Harry Potter - and Then Some

So tired. So very tired. Six in the morning is far too early to be up. Thirty minutes to shower, and finish a box of Cinnamon toast crunch that has been hanging around nourishing over the past few days. Then into the car with Katherine driving and away, away, away, from Port Charlotte to the vacation capital of the world: Orlando.

Through the drive I alternate between napping, and reading Forrest Gump out loud. The two and a half hours pass swiftly. Then it's time to find a motel for the nights that we will be here. As much fun as driving back and forth each day sounds, a motel with instant sleep capabilities would be far far better.

Trusted Room Saver guide shows a few places just outside of the theme park area for twenty to thirty dollars a night. We go to the cheapest one. Even with hidden fees and all those usual tricks, a price starting at 19.95 should remain fairly cheap. Rolling down the main tourist drag with giant wizards exploding from gift shops, and more restaurants, fast food places, and mini golf courses than anyone could ever fully know what to do with, we found the motel six. It lay just beyond a giant balloon offering to buy and sell theme park tickets – cheap. I assume that if you buy a multi day pass and don't use them all, this is where you can recoup a buck or two.

Pulling into the lot, we head inside waiting for the screwing over to begin, wondering what that twenty dollar fee will turn out to be. Strangely, we are told that the three nights will be twenty two dollars and some odd cents after taxes. Where is the huge gouge? Where is the five dollar a night phone fee, or something stupid like that? There is just a room charge? We are told we can not access the room yet – but to call back around two, and then we'll be told where we can be.

Ah ha! There's the rub. We don't have the room. Sure we have a confirmation number, but something will go terribly wrong in the future. It must. This is how things work, right? Nothing comes easy for us. Why would that start happening now? Still – taking out confirmation, we figured we'd deal with that when the time came. It was fifteen minutes down the Number 4 to Universal. There we paid the terrible fourteen dollars a day for parking, and made our way to the gates.

We picked up our tickets from some machine near the gate, no lines for us who booked on the internet, saving ten dollars on all multi-day passes in the process. Then we had to choose, Universal Studios, or Islands of Adventure. The multi-park tickets, while only two fifty more a day seemed like a terrible idea – who would have the time to go to more than one of the giant parks in a day? I'll keep my cash, thank you. That is ten Whopper Jrs, or a plate of Minion Taters at the IHOP. Still – it meant we had a choice. One or the other. I thought that the new Harry Potter land was in Universal Studios. As I started to walk that way all number of signs pointed out my error, and we stopped, turned on heals, and made our way to Islands of Adventures.

It had been well over a decade since I'd last been to Universal Studios. As a souvenir I collected shot glasses from all the rides. This was before I knew what shot glasses were. Lets say it was a decade and a half ago, with that revelation. I think I just thought they were cute little cups. But never mind, back then universal Islands of Adventure was yet to be built. It came some time later, with the Marvel Adventure Islands and I always wanted to see that. Now I would get my chance. And not a moment too soon. With Disney now owning the rights to Marvel Comics one wonders how long Universal will be able to keep this section of the park.

But there was no time for Marvel, not yet. There was no time for the Seuss Landing that we rushed through, and the Lost Continent? Its time may or may not come, but its time was not now!

Then, stretching before us was the snowcapped rooftops of Hogsmead village. Walking under the gate, and into a world seen only through the imagination of children – bastardized for six, going on eight - feature films, we had stepped into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

A train greets you, smoke billowing from all sides. The conductor, thick English accent, like many to be found here (stepping out of world for a moment, it should be said that Universal imported a number of Brits for this park. Their name tags show their home town as London, and other English cities. This is not a gag, but rather an attempt to keep the mythology alive, and the land feeling as true as possible to the text.) Some muggles, a few even wearing t-shirts pointing them out as such, pose with him as he laughs and chuckles away, “oh, like a Young Dumbledore, that one looks,” pointing at me. I smile, he smiles back, and soon I'm into the town proper.

Walking down the frozen world of young witches and wizards I pause to look in the windows of Honeydukes, and Olivander's wand shop. Many of the establishments here are locked, closed for the 'Christmas Season' but not all. The candy store, wand shop, robe store, pub, and restaurant are all open for business, and exploration – even by those uninterested in making a purchase. Stepping through these shop doors is an experience all of its own.

There is no Coca-Cola in the world of Harry Potter, and there isn't any to be found here. There are Apple juices, pumpkin juices, and other beverages all sharing the label of an in-world farmer. There are no twizzlers, or smarties, or sour kids. Inside the candy shop, all treats are packaged, labeled, and branded for the world in which they are being sold. Pink Coconut ice can be yours, as are the ever popular every flavour beans. If you crave a chocolate frog, you can buy one here – and, of course, don't forget to collect your famous witch and wizard card from the bottom of each one. For those wandering through Honeyduke's it will become obvious that candy, in clear dishes, is far more wonderful than when boxed on a supermarket shelf. There is even a potentially racist treat – in a display four goblins hold the stylized face of an 'ancient Chinese man.' His long hair, and mustache are being tripped – sold as licorice. One wonders if the character shouldn't be holding an Opium Pipe to complete the look. Still, I remember this is set in Europe where racially offensive signs depicting Asian's isn't thought twice about, just accepted. And no one else seems to mind. A number of Chinese kids are posing lovingly beside it. After all, themes of pro-racism run so strongly through the texts of Harry Potter that it would almost be out of place for that not to be mirrored here.

The other end of the candy store is Zonko's gag shop where you can buy chattering teeth, and Up-Stairs Springs (the amount of children this will disappoint is beyond count.) There are even t-shirts advertising some of the products, and events to be found in world. You will find no shirts with Harry face on them here – such a thing would not exist in this world. You can buy a fan jersey though, as many would be wishing Potter on to victory. There are only two or three things I found in this whole area of the park that break the theme that we have really, as if we were Thursday Next, stepped into the book itself.

Looking at the t-shirts, I again question why companies think that only guys want awesome t-shirts, leaving all the girl's fitted shirts with pictures of nymphs, and coloured in pinks and baby blues. It's a shame there will never be an awesome shirt made for a girl.

When through the town one has a decision to make. What ride, what experience, will one take first? Will you try and learn to train a Hippogriff on the family friendly coaster, or ride one of the dueling dragons to find itself featured in the Tri-Wizard tournament? While both of those seem like acceptable options, no true fan would consider those until they have experienced, first, Hogwarts castle itself.

The whole time you had been walking the imaginary streets, the castle has been looming overhead, a beacon calling to you off in the scaled distance. Step by step you draw closer, leave your bags in a magical locker opening and closing with the print of one of your fingers, and then off in line you go.

And what a line, it seems that many non witches an wizards wish to see the inside of Hogwarts castle. For an hour and a half you stand in the heat – snow capped buildings or not, it is blistering outside. The snowman by the Butterbeer seller seems to be mocking you. For an hour you stand in the sun. Then you come closer and find yourself in the herbology greenhouse, mandrakes looking at you with their plantlike eyes, causing all sorts of confusion for vegetarian and vegan wizards. Next thing you know you are is the castle. And while there are still thirty minutes before you will experience what is to come, that does not matter. Not when you are now walking through the sacred halls, looking at the point chambers for the four houses, and seeing the various statues and monuments at the opening gates.

Then you step further in. The paintings come alive, with subjects jumping between one frame an the other. These pieces of classic art move around the walls, and talk to you, each other, while more simply slumber – snoring away.

You are welcomed to the castle, and have it explained to you at that you are about to see a lecture by the great Dumbledore. Turning the next corner, though, all this ends as Harry, Ron, and Hermione step out and tell you that it would be far better to ride on a flying enchanted bench with them, and explore the world. This is, undoubtedly true.

The paintings that follow tell you the best ways to remain safe on these benches, and then just before boarding the Sorting Hat gives you a few final pieces of advice. Once boarded you quickly take to flight, Hermione enchanting you, and sending you to visit Harry and Ron higher up. Flying, you meet Hagred who tells you to be on the look out for his lost dragon. Next thing you know, you are under attack – the dragon emitting hot breath at you. Escaping through the dark forest, large spiders see you as prey, spitting at you with every pass. Then the great willow begins to beat at you, but with a quick escape, you find yourself over the quiddich pitch where Malfoy tries to delay you, without success. Harry, out of nowhere – one wonders if he was even supposed to be playing in this game, if he was showing you around – grabs the Snitch and you're off again. Through the halls of the castle, chased by dementors, you make good on your escape until you have finally landed once more. Harry being heralded as champion, and Dumbledore inviting you back any time.

As you leave the castle, to collect your belongings, and shop at Filches emporium, no doubt trying to make a buck from confiscated belongings, you can't help but be amazed. Even the most jaded individual will have been thrilled, and transformed into a hyperactive child rattling off their favourite parts of the experience.

But then, there is still more. The Durmstrum boys are showing off their martial arts ability, while the French girls work with ribbons – a practical skill when one realizes that so much of wizarding is all in the wrist movements. Next up is the dragon ride, but not before downing a cup of Butterbeer. Its flavour is something of a mix of Ginger ale and Root beer, capped with a thick caramel cream head.

Slightly refreshed it is on to the dragon ride, the line taking you past the flying car, now crashed into the ground.

This ride is a fast roller coaster, which left me dizzy, and feeling old, but I was glad to have done it. And with that I stumbled out of the world of Harry Potter, hoping to visit it once more before I left this part of the world. And while it felt as if I'd done and experienced so much already that was but one of the Adventure Islands in this park. The next?

Jurassic Park.

For years I had wanted to visit the Jurassic Park ride. In California, I wanted to go and experience it, alas it was under repairs then. But now – now was my chance. Through the large gates, we walked into a jungle of wooden pathways, and rivers, and dinosaurs popping out from behind trees. The sensors that kept track of the animals were posted around the area – previously seen only in the text, not the movies. Then we were standing before the entrance to the River Adventure. This was one of the rides not yet finished in the movie, but very much a part of the novel. After waiting in line (no line seeming long after the Potter line) we boarded our craft an began a leisurely ride down the river, passing great beasts, and having them detailed for us by our in car narrator (spared no expense.)

Then – something turned for the worst. We were pulled into the raptor containment area where something had gone wrong. A boat was torn to pieces, compys fighting over scraps of uniform. And then we were pulled up, up, higher an higher through security checkpoints, now abandoned. Out of the dark a velociraptor jumped towards us, but quickly backed down as something terrible clawed through the wall. Ducking the venom of the Dilophisaur we saw just what had put the fear into the six foot dinosaurs – before us was a great t-rex. With our gaze held, travelling towards its feet, we all wondered how we were to escape. In an amazing show of misdirection, just as we worried we would hit it, the floor opened up below us, causing us to rush down down down screaming all the way, bursting into a great plume of water. Safe once more, we had survived. Cue the heroic music, and let us out.

Lunch was had in the discovery centre, modeled after that from the movie. There one could merge themselves with a dinosaur, creating freakish mangled combinations. A baby raptor was also born, and explained by one of the scientists that worked at Jurassic Park. It was at this moment that I wished the Gift Shops had far different items. Sure a shirt with a dinosaur is lovely, but imagine having a Jurassic Park employees khaki coloured shirt, with badge on it? Or one of the doctors uniforms. Back in other park, who could resist a Cyberdyne Systems security uniform? These are what they should be selling. This is what I would buy.

Jurassic Park also had a children's play area, which offered some brief exploration. And there were flying dinosaurs that could be ridden, but only with the accompaniment of a small child. Clearly adults can ride it – why restrict them?

Then, this section too was closed off to us – fully explored. Next up was Toon Lagoon. Saying the name five to forty times for enjoyments sake, led us past more water rides, themed around the lagoon. There were shops where Sunday Funnies came to life. Hagred owned a shop, and Billy, from the Family Circus, took a dotted line stroll through the area. It was also here, for some reason, that Matt Hoffman's Agro Circus was held.

At the Circus, we watched some of the best X-treme sports performers in the country. Taken from all over the world they performed vert and flatland tricks on blades, boards, bikes, and motorcycles, the latter driving around the sphere of doom. This show offered a break from walking around all day. The feet needed rest, and here rest was provided. It was also good fun to watch. Then it was out of Toon Land to experience Marvel Superhero Island.

There was a comic book store here, which sold all the weekly titles. Picking up a few, I noticed that Marvel might be on the verge of retconning its One More Day retcon. If that happens, I won't have to hate Spider-Man any more. It was the first time in years they addressed those moments. Perhaps this farce is at an end? Perhaps it was just to solidify the new status quo even further. That would be terrible.

Not wanting to think of all the pain they'd caused to the Web Slinger since the launch of the first movie, I choose to return to a simpler time when he was a brilliant cartoon, which I had watched the whole series of this year. Into he Daily Bugle we walked, and were told how a sinister syndicate was on the loose. Park 3D ride, part in seat experience, we move through New York, facing off against Doc Oc, Electro, the hardly ever seen orange female Venom from the second Venom miniseries, and others. It was a taste of what things once were, and I quickly fell into the comfort of an understood continuity where super heroes were right, and the moral ambiguity was a thing yet to come. This was a world of thought bubbles rather than psychological narrator boxes. And while I appreciate how the form evolved, finding it hard to truly step back, these mini vacations into a simpler time are always well loved.

Our final experience here? Doctor Doom's Terror Tower. The line was short, so why not. The best part? The safety videos 'created by Doom.' Fantastic cartoons that show how to best love your dictatorial leader. My favourite creation in this whole park? Leopold, “But how will this help Dr. Doom?” he asks, voice squealing, before turning into a pile of goo. How indeed. But it doesn't matter. All that really mattered was that he asked.

Then it is home. To sleep. Sleep, a good long sleep, before waking up early again tomorrow and exploring an entirely different park.

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