Monthly Archives: March 2011

Harry Potter and the Most Amazing Amusement Park EVER!

Once upon a time there was an amusement park called Universal Orlando. This park was divided into two parts: Universal Studios (where it based rides and shows on popular TV shows and movies such as The Simpsons, Jaws, Men In Black, Shrek, etc.), and Islands of Adventure (where the rides were divided into themed sections such as Marvel comics, Dr. Seuss, Jurassic Park, Cartoons, etc.). On June 18th, 2010 the park added a new themed section to Islands of Adventure… The Wizarding world of Harry Potter (WWHP).

Now in order to do this post justice, I must start from the beginning, and I am therefore going to take you with me on a journey back in time to when I was in 8th grade. Author J. K. Rowling had just published the third book of the seven book series and I was just as adamant as ever against reading it. It was, after all, just going to be another silly fad, right? Wrong, but I didn’t know that then. A girl in my class did a book report (remember those?) on the third Harry Potter book (yes, in 8th grade) that she presented to the entire class and got me thinking about maybe trying out the series. It was settled when my aunt and uncle bought me a paperback copy of the first book for a Chanukah present later that year. Since I couldn’t ignore it anymore, I read it…

And thus began the great adventure.

I became so addicted to the books that I read and reread all of them each year, waiting for the next one in the series to be released. Even once I had other books to keep me occupied, Harry Potter was always my “sick book” of choice (you know when you’re sick and your brain is so groggy that you can’t comprehend anything too intricate). By the time the seventh and last book came out I was already an adult and I was still mesmerized. In high school I had my own page on a Harry Potter fan-site (I honestly don’t remember which or I’d redirect you there) where I wrote about the many allusions to various mythologies in the books (Remus Lupin, Sirius, etc.), mistakes in the books, and predictions for the remaining books (most of which came true, thank you). I spent one summer ruining my dad’s vacation by reading all the books out loud in a (horrible) fake British accent with a good friend of mine. I was (am?) a Harry Potter fanatic.

And then the movies came out.

I hate them. And yes, “hate” is a strong word. The first one came out in 2001 – the same year that the first Lord of the Rings movie came out. If you haven’t gathered yet from my earlier post, I love Lord of the Rings – both the books and the films. Why then do I sooooo dislike one film adaptation while I can’t get enough of the other? After all, both are adapting a fantasy classic, and in doing so take away a large element of our creativity by telling us how characters and settings appear. I, personally, am a big fan of my imagination (in case you haven’t realized that yet) and I don’t like it being squelched. Fortunately, Peter Jackson’s vision for Lord of the Rings came very very close to my own, and being able to see those breathtaking shots (elsewhere than in my imagination) gave LOTR extra bonus points. Harry Potter did not fare so well. The CGI just didn’t reach a believable level. Quiddich, which should have been the most exhilarating spectator sport ever, looked like an old video game. And Hagrid… really? He’s supposed to seem horrifyingly gigantic at first, not like a large oaf. Anyway, I refused to watch the Harry Potter films on the grounds that they’d spoil my imagination for the books. Unfortunately the commercial advertisements on TV took care of that for me, but on principle I still refused to watch the films. Years later, at my husband’s urging, I caved in an watched a few of the films (including the most recent one in theaters – a mistake I do not plan to repeat). My biggest problem with the Harry Potter films is no longer its fantastic ability to crush beautiful imaginations, but rather its inability to do justice to the story. You see, Peter Jackson realized that in converting Tolkien’s epic into a film, he’d either have to either make a reaaaally long film (yes, longer than 3 segments of 3 hours each that exist today) or he’d have to cut out elements of the story. Goodbye Tom Bombadil, et al. You were loved in the books, but alas, there was no room for you on film. Oh well, at least the story told on film was seamless without those elements. The Harry Potter films, on the other hand, try to incorporate everything, and therefore come out with very little that actually makes sense.

Anyway, enough ranting about the Harry Potter films. This post is already as long as some of my others and I haven’t even gotten to the essence of what this post is about yet… The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

One thing I must point out is that the amusement park is based on the HP films and not the books. (This is, after all, Universal Studios.) All the same, I had an absolutely great time there. I see I must elaborate. Here’s what the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is like:

As you approach the walls that surround WWHP, you are greeted by a sign reading “Welcome to Hogsmeade.” On the other side of the wall is the Hogwarts Express train, stationed at Hogsmeade Station. You are standing in the middle of the wizarding village of Hogsmeade, neighbor to the Hogwarts castle. In order to get to Hogwarts, you must pass through the streets of this wizarding town. Surrounding you are snow-covered English rooftops with crooked chimneys that are so stylishly Harry Potter (and I say this based on the font used on the books’ cover jackets, not based on the film sets).

And that’s when it starts… The Harry Potter theme music. No, they don’t have giant speakers blasting it throughout the park. It’s in your head. And you look around and you realize that you are in your own movie, complete with its own set and soundtrack.

Well, if you just entered the world of Harry Potter, what’s the very first thing you’d want to do? Fly, duh. So we headed straight over to the main attraction: Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. In the queuing area you wind your way through Hogwarts, making many twists and turns. Just inside, one of the first things you pass is the hourglass keeping score of the house points. Needless to say, Gryffindor had quite a lead. The lights are all dim, so one room seems to turn into the next. Since we went on an “off” day, the lines were non-existent. As such, we walked rather quickly through all the rooms, not taking our time in the queue area. I am therefore positive that I missed a lot of awesome features. Oh well. Next time. Anyway, we passed through the greenhouses and through many other dark rooms. In one room, supposedly the Headmaster’s office, a projection of Dumbledore (quite a realistic projection, actually) greeted us, and in another classroom, another excellent projection of Harry, Ron and Hermione appears from underneath the invisibility cloak and tells us to meet them somewhere so they can sneak us down to the Quiddich match. We passed by the Sorting Hat, which spoke to us quite animatedly, issuing warnings about the danger of what we were about to do (as well as listing the safety regulations of the ride), and passed through some rooms of talking portraits issuing similar warnings. The rooms with the animated portraits were quite remarkable. Not all of the portraits seem animated at first – only a few act lively, talking animatedly to us – and then you catch a blink or a sigh from one of the seemingly stationary portraits. Covering the portraits is an effect layer making the portraits, no matter how they move, seem cracked like real oil paintings do.

As if the queue area weren’t enough, the ride was even more exciting! You sit on a bench that Hermione enchants, and then you take off, flying as if on broomsticks! The story itself is a little vague, but the excellent blend of live sets with incredible animatronics and wrap-around projection screens makes it feel so real that you don’t even bother questioning why Hagrid’s runaway pet dragon is ferocious and evil. Yes, that’s right, you get chased by a dragon who breathes hot fire (steam) at you, chased by Aragog (remember the gigantic spider from book 2?) who spits venom (or water) at you, chased by dementors who try to suck out your soul, beaten silly by the Whomping Willow, and you somehow end up in the Chamber of Secrets, and then out in the Quiddich pitch in the middle of a match, which, according to what Harry says at the end of the ride, you helped him win. Like I said, unclear story, awesomely realistic ride.

Aside from The Forbidden Journey, there are only two other rides in WWHP: Flight of the Hippogriff and Dragon Challenge. Flight of the Hippogriff is your classic “family roller coaster” (meaning it moves at medium speed and is entirely non-thrilling). The only reason whatsoever to go on that ride is to see Hagrid’s hut and an animatronic hippogriff (and to say that you went on all the rides in WWHP, which is why we went on it). Dragon Challenge, on the other hand, is your classic kind of thrilling roller coaster. The roller coaster existed prior to the opening of WWHP as Dueling Dragons. The change of the name to what it is now is to pay homage to the first task of the Triwizard Tournament (book 4), which has nothing to do with flying a dragon, so once again the premise of the ride makes no sense. All the same, it’s a worthwhile ride. The queuing area displays both the Goblet of Fire and the Triwizard Cup (oh, and the Weasley’s crashed flying Ford Anglia on the way up). The coaster itself features two tracks that supposedly race each other: the red track (Chinese Fireball) and the green track (Hungarian Horntail). The first time we rode the ride we went on the Chinese Fireball. I don’t remember the 2 dragons taking off at the same time, but there were a few places where the cork-screws of both tracks intertwine, giving the illusion that you’re about to crash into the car on the other track. It was quite exciting. Later in the day when we rode the Hungarian Horntail, both cars left at the same time, but we didn’t pass the other car at all during any point of the ride – highly disappointing. Bottom line: red track was better for us, but it’s all about the timing.

Counter to everything you’ve ever known about amusement parks, the longest lines in WWHP are not for the featured ride, rather for entrance into Ollivanders (not to be confused with Ollivander’s wand shop in Diagon Alley, this is meant to be a smaller Hogsmeade branch – never mentioned in the books – and as such, you are not meeting Ollivander inside, rather Ollivander’s assistant). (Inside Ollivanders, there’s a short demonstration of “the wand choosing the wizard” almost word for word as it happens in book 1, accompanied by some “magical” effects, after which you can purchase silly plastic souvenir wands.) We waited a good half hour to enter Ollivanders (remember, we had no wait for the other rides, it being an off week and all), but the wait was probably one of the most enjoyable parts of our time spent in WWHP. You see, on the line we began talking to a “Hogwarts student” (term for the WWHP staff) named Bonnie. We asked her tons of questions about the production of WWHP. She told us that in order to be accepted to work in that part of the park when it opened, you had to go through a difficult process where you had to first answer 4 difficult questions about Harry Potter, and after passing that you then had to sit through a 6 hour NEWT exam (the exams that 7th year Hogwarts students must pass before “graduating.” Upon our request she gave us a bunch of sample questions from these exams, which between us we were able to answer all of them (Bonnie was quite impressed – said she never met any visitors before us to be able to answer them all. I don’t know whether to be proud or embarrassed). We also got the insider’s scoop on WWHP. Here’s a little known fact that we learned: Universal Orlando began building WWHP before many of the films were out. By the time the 3rd film went into production, WWHP had already built The Three Broomsticks, a part of the film set that is not seen until the third movie. So what did they do? The film crew asked Universal for the blueprints of their Three Broomsticks since it was already built and would save time on the film trying to design their own. Another little known fact… much of the set used in the films is presently in storage at Universal… in the next few years they are hoping to build a Diagon Alley extension to WWHP. All in all, the wait for Ollivanders was quite enjoyable (Bonnie – wherever you are – you deserve a raise).

The rest of Hogsmeade didn’t let down either. Both The Three Broomstick and The Hog’s Head serve food and drink, including such Harry Potter classics as Pumpkin Juice and (of course) Butterbeer (which supposedly tastes nasty, but isn’t Kosher at any rate). There’s even an Owl Post post office in which you can write and send postcards with an authentic Hogsmeade postmark. The store Dervish and Banges sells a lot of Harry Potter merchandise, but to me was most notable for its caged copy of The Monster Book of Monsters which snores, snarls, and occasionally wakes up and goes crazy snapping as onlookers. The real treats in Hogsmeade, however, are Zonko’s joke shop and Honeydukes sweets shop. Zonko’s sells both joke and prank supplies from Harry Potter (such as extendable ears, screaming yo-yos, sneakoscopes and pygmy puffs) as well as your practical joke supplies from the outside (Muggle) world. Honeydukes is everything you’d expect it to be… and entirely non-Kosher. They sell everything: Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (with only 3 normal jelly bean flavors, the rest are disgusting sounding), Canary Creams, Acid Pops, Sugar Quills, Chocolate Frogs, Pepper Imps, Peppermint Toads, Fizzing Whizzbees, Candy Floss, Ton-Tongue Toffees, and there’s a special baked goods section that sells Cauldron Cakes and Hagrid’s Rock Cakes as well as other more common pastries.

My only real problem with The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the premise. I was expecting to enter WWHP and suddenly have magical powers (not real magical powers – I’m not delusional, but I expected to be made to feel like a witch or wizard). After all, one of the reasons why Harry Potter has become such a fad is that people like to pretend that they are like Harry. That’s why kids buy magic wands. That’s why college students “play” Quiddich. Instead, WWHP chose to insult us: all tourists are visiting Muggles, and all Universal employees are Hogwarts students. That’s right. Rather than aim for a temporary suspension of disbelief, they chose to take the cheaper, less imaginative route. I entered WWHP with my own dreams of having magical powers, and instead I just had insults thrown at me. One “student” while ushering us onto a ride shouted, “All Muggles, this way!” I gave him a passing glare and responded in my best hefty African-American woman’s voice, “Who you callin’ ‘Muggle,’ Muggle?” (Honestly, all I was missing was the finger snapping to emphasize the attitude.) I think they’d have had an easier time making me feel like a witch, but hey… If they want to sacrifice the story, it’s not my fault.

Why is it sacrificing the story, you ask? Well, you see, in reality Muggles can’t actually see Hogwarts. The books describe that there’s a spell cast over the castle to make all non-magic passerby see a pile of old ruins. Also, Muggles can’t perform magic, so the whole wand selection ceremony that they have in Olivander’s wand shop, as described before, makes no sense. Not to mention that they’d all get into serious trouble with the Ministry of Magic for breaking about a thousand rules pertaining to Muggle secrecy. Muggles aren’t supposed to know that there’s magic at work in the world, you see. Maybe that’s why the main ride is called “The Forbidden Journey”… and we’re supposed to believe that goody-two-shoes Hermione would take part in such a forbidden crime? As I said before, I believe they’d have had an easier time convincing tourists/visitors that they are witches and wizards instead of the opposite, not to mention making much happier children (and therefore happier adults). Too bad they didn’t consult me beforehand. I’ve got plenty of great ideas…

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Honey, I Shrunk my Wife

Ok, so my husband didn’t really shrink me. All he did was take me to Disney World… for the first time in my life! I can’t help it if I turned into a kid again!

Over a four day trip to Orlando, we spent three of them in four different Disney parks (and the fourth day we spent in Universal): Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM). All of the parks were fun and entertaining in their own right.

Animal Kingdom is home of the ride Expedition Everest… probably the most fun ride in any of the Disney parks (and the first roller coaster I was able to keep my hands in the air for the entire ride), and the show The Festival of the Lion King… an exciting blast of acrobatics, animatronics, singing and dancing, and awesome stunts. While it was impressive to see live animals in a Disney park (instead of animatronic animals), I personally enjoy live animals much more at the local zoo. Still, the artistry in the design of the park, especially the architecture and the wall paintings of tigers and such in the Asia section, was beyond exceptional.

Epcot's Emblem

Epcot, what is supposed to be the geek’s favorite park, was a bit of a letdown. I expected futuristic stuff – the technology of tomorrow, if you will – but all I got was rather dull educational stuff… and Michael Jackson saving some planet with his dancing. The most acclaimed ride in Epcot, Soarin’ (a flight simulation ride), was overly hyped in my opinion and a bit of a letdown. Alternatively, I had gotten really worked up and nervous about the ride Mission: SPACE for nothing. (The deal with Mission: SPACE is that back in the 90’s, two people within a few year span died after exiting that ride. As a result, Disney now offers two tracks for the ride: the original track, which simulates g-force with a lot of fast spinning, and a new track which is a simple simulation ride, minus the spinning. I was concerned that if I went on the original track, I might be #3 on the list. I didn’t even get nauseous or light headed.) Oh, and what’s with the over-large golf ball? The other half of Epcot – World Showcase (where they try to present in both architecture and manner eleven different countries. There wasn’t much to do in any of the “countries” – an occasional show, performance or ride, and plenty of non-Kosher dining – but it was a nice multiple-hour stroll with my husband through pretty landscapes, however fake. One major problem I had with the World Showcase was that it wasn’t always clear where one country was ending and another beginning, or which country I was “standing in” at any given moment (forgive me for not being well educated in the differences between Japanese and Chinese architecture). One highlight however was watching my husband get tipsy in Germany and needing to regain his balance. I’d never witnessed that before.

Hollywood Studios was all sorts of fun, especially to this particular girl who thinks her life is one big movie. Take the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, for example… man, I want to be him! I think more than any other action hero, my dreams (asleep dreams, not aspiration dreams) are most influenced by Indiana Jones and all those stunts he pulls. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve had to work my way through booby traps to get all sorts of treasures (in my dreams, I mean). But even with Indy’s awesomeness, I’m inclined to say that he fell just short of the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show. I mean, what’s more pulse-racing than high speed car chases, sailing through the sky while driving backwards, and motorcycles being driven through walls of fire? Not much. Maybe the Tower of Terror. Until that free-fall ride I had yet to hear my husband scream on a ride. He usually just giggles like a teenage girl (it’s really, very cute). Interestingly enough, the photo taken of us on that ride shows all the riders around us with their hands in the air, while my husband and I clutched onto our seats and to each other for dear life. Good times. Then, of course, there is the most popular ride of all the Disney parks: Toy Story Midway Mania. Wow. Let me remind you – we were not there during peak season. The longest wait we had for anything was maybe 15 minutes long. And then there was Toy Story. When we first got to the park in the early afternoon, the wait was reported to be 80 minutes long. We figured we’d wait until the first nighttime showing of Fantasmic (Hollywood Studio’s nighttime spectacular) when we figured the wait would be shorter. Wrong. We came back later only to find the wait had lengthened to 100 minutes. Since that was really the only ride that we had left to go on, we figured we’d wait it out. Fortunately we were followed in line by an Argentinian family where both the mother and her sister were at one point in their lives Israeli, so we spent the whole wait speaking to each other in Hebrew. That made the wait seem to fly by… that and the fact that the actual wait was only about 35 minutes. (Apparently they lie about the wait time on that ride so that only the most serious of the visitors will actually risk the wait.)

Cinderella and Prince Charming in front of Cinderella's castle

And then there was Magic Kingdom… the most magical of them all (hence the name). While at the other parks I may have felt like a little girl in a candy shop, here I just felt like a little girl. I imagine that it would have been more amazing being half my present height, standing in the shadow of Cinderella’s castle, but the effect was not lost on me. Even more magical though was seeing the Disney princesses up close: Cinderella with her Prince Charming, Snow White with her Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty with her Prince Charming (his name is Prince Philip, did you know?) and me with my Prince Charming. (The day we were there happened to be Valentine’s Day, not that it matters, since we don’t celebrate the Saints.) (On a side note, either the Charming family is very large, or Prince Charming is quite the player.) Add into the equation Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck and Goofy, and now you can understand my wide eyed wonder. While I was immune to the fear, I can completely sympathize with the little girl behind me who started crying when the villain from Sleeping Beauty, Maleficent, materialized on stage during a musical stage show. She is quite the scary one, and she was very much real, standing on that stage with puffs of smoke evaporating behind her.

The rides in Magic Kingdom are of course all classics: Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion and It’s a Small World, to name a few, and surprisingly they were not all targeted for children (although none of the thrill rides even measured on the same scale as the thrill rides in nearby Universal Studios). The part that my husband and I enjoyed most as adults (I’m pretty sure we agreed on this) was Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. The premise is cute: after the monsters discovered that laughs can power their world much more than screams could (watch the movie again if you don’t remember), they are now holding comedy shows where their sole purpose is to make us laugh. With an audience full of little kids, teenagers, adults and grandparents, it’s a wonder they succeeded. Not only were they hysterical, but they had my husband the engineer stupefied as to how they had the on-screen animations interacting so seamlessly with the audience. Ah, the wonders of modern technology. Speaking of modern technology, the highlight of our day in Magic Kingdom was hands down Push, the talking trash can. As we were leaving the section of the park called Tomorrowland, a trash can on wheels, saying hi to passerby, was moving towards us. I whipped out my camera and started filming. Push (named such due to the text on his trash can lid) saw me doing so, and thinking I was taking a picture approached me saying “cheese!” It was love at first sight. The ensuing conversation went something like this:

“Hi! Where are you from?”
“Me?”
“Yeah.”
“I’m from Israel.”
“Ooooh, Israel! I’m from Tomorrowland. My name’s Push.”
“Hi.”
“Nice to meet you!”

Now just imagine everything Push said in a techno Elmo voice and you can understand why I was a puddle. For the next four days, every time I saw a Disney trash can with the word “Push” printed across the lid (and Disney has them roughly every 12 feet) I’d sigh and say, “I miss Push.”

Magic Kingdom's "Wishes"

And so we get to the nighttime spectaculars. In Magic Kingdom it’s called “Wishes,” in Epcot it’s “IllumiNations,” and in Hollywood Studios it’s “Fantasmic.” Each one is remarkable in its own right. Wishes is the most straight forward: fireworks above Cinderella’s castle. IllumiNations takes it a step further as a fireworks and laser lights show over the lake in the middle of the World Showcase. (While the lasers weren’t super easy to see, it was nice seeing the fireworks both above and reflected in the water below.) Fantasmic, however, takes it to a whole new level with fireworks, lasers, and images and film projected onto a wall of water being sprayed up from the pond in which the show takes place. Oh, and it also tells a story. All that being said, my favorite nighttime spectacular show was Wishes. It doesn’t get more magical than an incredible display of fireworks against the backdrop of Disney’s classic emblem with such Disneyish songs as “When you Wish Upon a Star” from Pinoccio and “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” from Cinderella playing over the loudspeakers. I was transported to another place. A place with no evil. A place with no worries. A place where dreams really do come true.

It’s no wonder that Disney World has long been called “The Happiest Place on Earth.”