Monday, September 26, 2011

Hogsmeade Alley

Recently I had the opportunity to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida.  I promised more reflections about the Hogsmeade experience, so here goes:

When you first enter the World, it is through gates reminiscent of a medieval walled city.  The first thing you see is the Hogwarts Express train, complete with a conductor, sitting at the platform of Hogsmeade Station.

From there you enter the village of Hogsmeade proper.  Now I realize that they probably had to make the lane of shops and such "Hogsmeade" for the simple reason of continuity for us purists.  In other words, if you want to have Hogwarts Castle, the nearest settlement, magical or muggle, is the village of Hogsmeade.  But what Harry Potter fans really want to visit, in their secret heart of hearts, is the London shopping district of Diagon Alley.  And that is what Hogsmeade village really is.

Sure, the shops all have the Hogsmeade names -- the joke shop is Zonko's, the sweet shop is Honeyduke's, the pub is the Three Broomsticks -- but the layout and the feel is pure Diagon Alley.  And it's great.

If I had a complaint, it would be that the shops should be bigger on the inside.  Too often the choice was made to combine interiors.  For example, on the outside, Zonko's and Honeyduke's appear to be separate establishments, but inside, it's one large interior space, with one side devoted to the pranks and jokes (sneakoscopes, extendable ears, etc.) and the other to treats (fizzing whizbees, every flavor beans, chocolate frogs, and so forth.)  A similar arrangement is made with Ollivander's (a direct transplant from Diagon Alley; we fans know that there is no Ollivander's "branch office" in Hogsmeade, but we don't care!) and the Owl Post are also combined into one interior space which can be very, very cramped.  It should have been bigger.

And as long as I'm complaining -- why was the decision made to show Hogsmeade in the winter?  In central Florida?  Seriously??!?  I mean, the artificial snow decorating the rooftops is very well done, but there are no holiday or other seasonal decorations...and it's FLORIDA!  It's always going to be warm at best -- are we supposed to believe that it's some sort of Weather Charm gone horribly awry?  It's just silly.

But with those nitpicks out of the way...Hogsmeade is pretty great.  And the food is good, too.  There are a few carts dealing in snack foods and Butterbeer, but the real place to eat is the Three Broomsticks Pub.  A beautiful job was done in creating this place.  There is a proper bar at one end, complete with animatronic boar's head over the taps, and a dining area at the other.  Food includes things like shepherd's pie and fish & chips, butterbeer, pumpkin juice and pumpkin fizzes.  Our meals were tasty and amazingly not overpriced (I'm thinking of you, Disney churro!)

If you pay attention, you are likely to see a variety of magickal folks wandering the streets, and not just picking up trash in costume.  A troop of girls from Beauxbatons Academy may go by, followed by their staff-wielding Eastern European male counterparts.  Clearly the villagers are behind Dumbledore's muggle initiative one hundred percent.

So if you're a fan...go.  It's well worth the pilgrimage.  Take the Ollivander's tour -- maybe your kid will be picked for a wand trial.  Snoop into every shop window; you never know what you're going to see.

Luckily the Mandrake Root is a juvenile, and it shouldn't knock you out.  Finish the Forbidden Journey ride and then come back down the hill to shop at Dervish & Banges'/Flourish & Blott's (yes, another combined interior) so that you don't have so much stuff to store in the lockers (hey, those high-end Quidditch robes take up a lot of space.)  But do go.  I haven't had this much fun at an amusement park since I went to California Disneyland and rode the Indiana Jones ride -- still a paragon of what amusment park rides should be -- and I honestly believe that anybody else, even if they only have a passing interest in the movies, will have that much fun as well.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Not the literary creation, of course, but the amusement park at Universal Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida!

As with most health care professions, my wife is required to complete a certain number of continuing education hours each year in order to maintain her certification as a physician.  The American Academy of Family Physicians helps with this by holding an annual Scientific Assembly, at which attendees can earn 20 or more credit hours at seminars that run for twelve hours a day over a four day period.

Obviously, after an intensive period of study and information absorption, a break is needed.  Each year the Assembly is held in a different city, and each year the Assembly tries have that "break" in the form of a celebration which takes advantage of the best that city has to offer.  In Boston, it was a concert by the Boston Pops held exclusively for the attendees and their families.  In San Antonio, it was a cookout at the Alamo.

In Orlando, the Assembly rented Universal Islands of Adventure for the evening.

No outsiders, just a few thousand family doctors and their families.  No long lines, and the entire park all to ourselves.  Wonderful.

My wife and I made a beeline for that part of the park known as the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.  (Us, and most everybody else!)  Megan and I had the opportunity to "do" Universal a couple of years ago at my dad's 80th birthday, so we felt we could skip the other areas--Comic Strip Land, Dr. Seuss Village, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent and Marvel Island.

We are both Harry Potter nerds.  We wanted Hogwarts.

The first thing we saw upon entering the gates of Hogsmeade Village was the train station with the Hogwarts Express steaming away at the platform.  The conductor cheerfully greeted all of us Muggles as we entered the town.

Hogsmeade itself is delightful.  A mix of what we all imagine Hogsmeade to be with a healthy dose of Diagon Alley thrown in.  Zonko's Joke Shop and Honeyduke's Sweets are the first shops you pass on your way up the High Street, followed by Flourish and Blott's, Dervish and Banges', and the Three Broomsticks Pub.  On your right will be Ollivander's Wand Shop and the Owl Post, and at the end of the lane is Hogwarts Castle.

The first thing we did was to get ourselves a couple of Butterbeers from the Butterbeer wagon.  They were, alas, not only nonalcoholic but very disappointing.  For all the world it tasted like creme soda topped with a caramel-infused whipped cream.  Butterbeer is available in both a frozen slushy version and a "draft" version; at $21.00 for two we thought it terribly overpriced in spite of the souvenir plastic glasses.  Butterbeer is normally available for far less at the Three Broomsticks, so if you go, wait until you get inside the pub.  We fell prey to our newbie ultrafan nature.

Pumpkin Juice and Pumpkin Fizzes are also available.  Very sweet and quite delicious.  I much preferred my Pumpkin Fizz to my Butterbeer.

After browsing the shop windows, we headed for Hogwarts.  I understand that when the park is open to the world at large, the wait for the Forbidden Journey ride can be hours long.  For us that night it was only about twenty minutes, and it was barely long enough to appreciate the level of detail that goes into waiting for the ride.  You start off through the Hogwarts grounds and enter the greenhouse and Herbology.  There are alway props to look at, and everything is perfectly duplicated from the films.

From the greenhouse you finally enter the castle, where you are asked to get rid of all bags and loose items in a free locker adjacent to Filch's Confiscated Goods (the inevitable end-of-ride gift shop) and continue on into the castle.  You will see just about everything you ever wanted to -- the witch statue that hides the secret passage to Honeydukes, living paintings, the Griffin statue that guards the entrance to Dumbledore's office, and so on.  If the ride is too scary for you, or if you don't meet the physical requirements (you have to be 48" tall and guests of a certain largeness cannot be accommodated on the ride -- I barely made it at 6'5" and 285 lbs.) you can still wander the castle.

You wind through Dumbledore's office and are greeted by a film of Michael Gambon explaining his new initiative of Muggle/Magical interaction at Hogwarts.  It's great.  You also get a short film from Harry, Ron and Hermione in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom.  Again, you will see EVERYTHING you wanted to see -- Sorting Hat, Dragon skeleton, spine-shaped candles, everything. When you get to the Gryffindor Common Room (and get to see Dawn French's Fat Lady living painting -- DO NOT MISS THIS!) you are finally getting close to the actual ride.

You will enter the Room of Requirement, be seated on a bench with three other people, and Hermione will charm the bench so that it flies.  From then on you are in the hands of one of those flying rides that use movie screens and physical motion to induce the illusion of movement.  Sort of a cross between Disney's Haunted Mansion and Universal's Simpsons ride, if that helps.

I won't spoil the plot other than to tell you that it involves Quidditch and Hagrid, but it's great.  Lots of jerking around -- they are right to make you locker your loose items! -- and some genuinely scary moments for littler ones, but well worth the time invested.  I'm told the ride lasts about five minutes, but it felt like it lasted far, far longer.

If you are a Harry Potter fan, or even if you merely enjoyed the movies, I heartily recommend this experience.  Again, I have no reference to compare what the wait times might be like on a normal visit to the park, but my wife and I had a wonderful, wonderful time.

More on the other parts of Hogsmeade soon!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

On Vacation

I haven't posted in a while for the simple reason that my wife has taken me with her to this year's conference of the American Academy of Family Practice Physicians. It is the first vacation we have taken with just the two of us in almost twenty years and we made the choice to turn it into a second honeymoon of sorts. We came down a few days early to sit in the sun together and have somebody else do the cooking and cleaning up for a little while. I have to admit to feeling a little nervous. As new empty nesters, would we still connect the way we used to? Would there still be things to talk about once the kids and work were taken out of the equation? Turns out, I needn't have worried. We spent some lovely and lively days together, and even the evenings (now that the conference has started) have been fun. Tonight we went down to a place called Pirate Cove and played 18 holes of mini-golf. There we were, two fogeys in our fifties, acting like the high school kids we once were together. Mini-golf, for goodness' sake. For what it's worth, I cleaned her clocks. And she had two -- two! -- holes-in-one! Just goes to show, I guess, that you're never too old to have a first date again.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Baltimore Comic-Con

This year was the first year in a while that I missed going to the Baltimore Comic-Con.  It was held the same weekend we had to pack Olivia up and off to school.  Here's a piece I wrote last year, following what turned out to be my and Olivia's last trip to Baltimore for a while:

"Unlike its more famous cousin, the San Diego Comic-Con (which has largely been taken over by Hollywood) the Baltimore Comic-Con really is an old-school, by-God comics convention.  No movies or television programs are previewed, and the only "stars" in attendance are stars in the field of comic art.  Stars like Ramona Fradon, one of the first women professionals in comics who at the age of 84 is still drawing.  Her work on Metamorpho, the Element Man for DC Comics in the 1960's has made her a fan-favorite artist.  Stars like Jim Starlin, whose stories about the mad god Thanos have provided a major framework for stories in the Marvel Comics universe.   And stars like Sergio Aragones, who has been drawing those brilliant little gag comics in the borders of the pages of Mad Magazine for decades.

"I had the honor and privilege of meeting these folks and many others at the Baltimore Comic-Con.  Like I said, Baltimore Comic-Con is all about the comics, much as San Diego was, back when it started years ago and before it became "the" place to debut anything related to science fiction, video games, or action entertainment.

"It really was a treat to get my geek on and see so many of the people whose work in comics (or if I want to get hifalutin', "sequential art") has given me so much pleasure over the years.  The list includes Bernie Wrightson (probably the finest horror artist of the modern generation), Jimmy Gownley (his Amelia Rules! is rewriting the book on comics for young people), Ian Sattler (story editor at DC Comics), Jim Shooter (his revival of the old Gold Key Comics characters like Magnus, Robot Fighter and Doctor Solar, Man of the Atom is just brilliant, making these characters from the 1960's relevant again a full half century later) and many, many more.

"To an individual, these are the nicest, most approachable, kindest people who can claim celebrity status in their field.  I can think of no other setting in which one can just walk up to someone and begin a conversation based on our shared love for the medium of comics and our appreciation for their work.  It was a rare treat.

"To be sure, there were dealers and hucksters and shameless self-promoters; wanna-bes and has-beens along with the cream of the comics industry.  But even these folks were just as polite and pleasant as one could possibly hope.  My daughter spent four hours in the company of artist/writer Howard Chaykin and inker/writer Klaus Janson and learned more about artistic storytelling and page layout in that time than most people get in an entire semester of classes.  They critiqued her comics work, and were brutally honest and yet completely fair.  She loved every second.  Howard Chaykin in particular was a real treat for her.  She draws manga-style comics, and Howard is pretty much the polar opposite in style, but after he frankly and honestly critiqued both her work and his own limitations regarding that style, he pointed out to the audience that it took "real balls" to come forward in public and let strangers see and criticize one's work.  He was a real class act.

"And while she was in her class, I got to use the dealer's floor as a kind of hands-on museum, seeing some of the comics that I knew when I was a kid all up close and personal again.  I can't begin to describe the pleasurable nostalgia I felt seeing for the first time the second issue ever of Green Lantern ...  and holding the first appearance of Spider-Man (Amazing Fantasy #15!) in my hands.  Yes, it was old and clearly well-read, but still in great shape over 50 years later, and I can think of no other venue in which I would be allowed to handle it.  I even got to see a copy of the very first comic book that I ever read, Green Lantern #4.  Back in the day, I picked it up for a dime at Carlino's Drug Store (yes, I'm that old; comics were still a dime when I started reading them) and ever since, I have loved and collected both comic books in general and the character of Green Lantern in particular.

"Oh, yeah.  We had a great time."