02 July 2012

Lessons I Learned From Orlando Theme Parks

A week ago yesterday I was given the opportunity to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter courtesy of a dear friend.  Even if I weren't already a big Potter nerd (never mind a Doctor Who nerd, Big Bang Theory nerd, Sci-Fi nerd, and several other sorts of nerds--it gets crowded in my head), it would still have been a big deal because I have never been to Disney or any park on that level.

Don't all nerds have a tasty candy coating?

She looks disconcertingly like I did in high school.  Stop breaking into my photo albums, XKCD!

Sure, when I was in high school, I went to King's Island once or twice on school trips and my family did go to Silver Springs in Florida one year; I may have even been to a Six Flags at some point, but I have never done the big D on either coast or Universal or anything else themed on that scale.  So this was a first.  Unfortunately, it rained ALL DAY last Sunday, vacillating between a light sprinkle and an outright deluge.  Still, we managed to have a good (if soggy) time and I learned a few vital lessons from my first foray into the Land of Unreality that is Orlando, which I am now going to share with you.  You're welcome.

1.  Rainy season in Florida appears to begin exactly at the state line. 
Seriously...I'm not joking.  I drove several hours through sunny Georgia, only to have looming dark clouds appear within a mile of the state line.  The clouds opened up and rained down on me just as I was crossing the line.  I'm convinced this was pre-planned, just as I'm convinced that the names of waterways such as "Withlacoochie River" were created expressly to screw with my head.  The whole drive home I saw signs everywhere proclaiming "Withlacoochie" this and "Withlacoochie" that, making me constantly wonder if there were any rivers, towns or bars called "Without la coochie" as well.

The Sunshine State...except when I visit...

2.  My GPS doesn't know how to get to Universal.  So yours probably doesn't, either.
My friend's family and I drove in separate cars over to Orlando because they were staying the night there and I wasn't.  Since I have a TomTom app on my phone (best $50 I ever spent), I ended up leading the way.  For the most part things went smoothly, at least until we neared the park.  Paul (my helpful Australian GPS voice--"That's not a roight tuhrn...this is a roight tuhrn...") led me straight past the main park entrance and down to another road which lead to some warehouse-looking buildings.  Apparently Paul thinks that the back of the makeup and costume trailers is a good way to access the parks.  Paul is incorrect.  Fortunately, we were able to double-back to the main entrance without too much trouble.

3.  The parking levels are also themed.
We parked in the Cat in the Hat section.  No doubt our vehicles were subjected to all sorts of feline depredations in our absence, which were cleared away moments before our return.  Also, don't you find it ironic that a bit of verse should be called "doggerel" if it's in a book about a cat?  I'm just sayin'.

4.  Waiting in line in the rain to get a wand at Ollivander's is much less unpleasant if you're drinking a Butterbeer.
Make that a frozen butterbeer, preferred by park patrons 10-1.  Also, I'm told that you can usually get one at the Hog's Head Pub (located in the back of the Three Broomsticks)  much faster than you can at the carts in Hogsmeade, which generally have long lines.   The food at the Three Broomsticks was quite good, by the way; try to avoid going between 12 and 3, though--that's when the lunch rush is.  Incidentally, you don't have to go to Ollivander's to get a wand; in fact, only one of 25 people gets to be "chosen" by a wand as they re-enact the iconic scene from the movie.  My friend's daughter was the one chosen in our group, so that was fun to watch.  Afterwards, we were all herded next door into the Owl Post so the rest of us could purchase our own wands.  I found an Ash wand that I liked because of the scrolly handle and finial on the end.  Since I'm a huge nerd (did I mention that I'm a huge nerd?), I had to find a box that wasn't battered or bruised or torn in any way before I could purchase it.  When I got it home, I discovered that the wand was slightly warped and has a noticeable curve to it.  Clearly I should have checked the wand in the box I selected instead of assuming they were all identical.  On the other hand, my thoughtful daughter pointed out that perhaps my wand chose me after all, since we're both a little warped.  Thanks, Honey.

My friend's daughter prepares to "Swish and Flick."


Wands on display in the Owl Post next to Ollivander's.

5.  If you must carry a bag of some sort, carry a backpack rather than a purse.
I saw tons of people with backpacks, which was definitely the better choice in the rain since they were subjected to much less precipitation.  They also conveniently leave one's hands free to carry more plunder manipulative marketing tie-ins souvenirs.  Plus you get to see everyone walking around like refugees from The Hunchback of Notre Dame with their backpacks humped under their rain ponchos.

6.  Rain ponchos sound good, but they only work to a point.
The problem with the rain ponchos is that while they did a decent job of keeping the rain off my front and back, even when snapped shut the slits down the side allowed water to sneak in and stream down, soaking both pockets and pants.  Furthermore, the opening at the neck successfully diverts rain down the front and back of your clothes anyway, since sufficient wind will keep blowing the largely pointless hood back and exposing the neck opening to precipitation penetration.  As if that weren't enough, the ponchos reduce airflow, thereby making you sweat far more than you might otherwise.  So wearing one is a bit six of one, half dozen of the other.  I suppose they would be more effective in drizzly rain than they were in a downpour, but still.  Also, trying to use the restroom in sodden pants and a plastic poncho is not for the faint of heart.  You'd have more success trying to dance the tarantella in molasses while wearing full football gear.  Which reminds me...

7.  Wear football pads.
Seriously...the people at the park, whether native Floridians or obvious tourists (especially tourists, who are determined to make the most of their limited visitation time, dammit, come hell or high [tropical storm] water) have absolutely no concept of either right of way or of peaceful egress from rides.  They will mow. you. down. without a second thought.  And that's when it's NOT raining and they AREN'T trying to crowd into whatever few dry spots or shops are available.

8.  Hogwart's Castle has no cell phone coverage.
Apparently the magic does not extend to Muggle mobile devices.  Surprisingly, it does extend to the ever-present snow atop the buildings of Hogsmeade, which doesn't melt even when the temperature is in the '90s.  In Florida.  Still, while the snow looked oddly plastic, not unlike a petrified Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, it looked good from a distance and the stone façades of the buildings were really well done and reasonably convincing.  Next time I visit I'm disguising my cell phone as an owl.  Maybe then I'll have better luck with communications.

Hogwarts Castle and ponchoed pedestrians

Hogsmeade, Land of the Eternal [plaster] snow (and, apparently, Mickey Mouse).

9.  The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is smaller than you might expect.
Don't get me wrong--the place was cool.  We visited Zonko's joke shop, Honeyduke's, and Ollivander's/Owl Post--though I didn't look much past the wands at the Owl Post.  Turns out there was additional merchandise farther back.  There is a replica of the Hogwart's Express, complete with random bits of luggage on the platform to enhance the ambience, as well as a cheerful conductor standing ready to take pictures with you.  There are a couple of rides in the area as well as the castle, of course, which boasts a ride that appears to be the main draw of the attraction.  Unfortunately, I didn't get to ride; turns out my chest was too big for me to fasten the safety harness/bars and the attendants are no longer allowed to "push" it down on you.  If you can't click it yourself, no ridey.  Instead, I was given the opportunity to stand in a hall and watch everyone else jump off the moving seats as they went by, after which they expressed their joy over the awesomeness which I'd missed.  I especially appreciated the woman who jumped off and screamed in my face (twice) that the ride was "worth the 90 bucks (admission price) right there!!" while waving her hands about.  It was awesome.  So, for future reference, the well-endowed should wear the tightest bra they own, or else strap 'em down with an Ace bandage.

The Hogwarts Express, complete with steam.

"Now, with Abandoned Baggage Decor!"

Before you actually get on the ride, however, you are herded through the castle.  On the trip you get to see Professor Binn's classroom, Dumbledore's office, the glass meters with the house point stones, etc.  All along the way are digitized portraits that talk and interact with each other, emulating those in the movie.  There are also 3-D projections of the Dumbledore and the three kids, who talk to you as you pass through.  But once you finished in the castle, that was pretty much all that was left.  I saw several other shop façades with "closed" signs on them, so I thought we'd seen everything.  Naturally, after we left the park, I discovered that there were actually a couple of other shops we'd missed:  Dervish and Banges and Filch's Emporium of Confiscated Goods.  Whoops.

The "entrance" to Dumbledore's study.

Instead of talking heads, talking portraits.

Dumbledore sees you picking your nose.

10.  Speaking of boobs, soggy boobs are not happy boobs.  I'm just sayin'.

11.  Purchasing a lot of souvenirs at your first stop sounds like a good idea--till you have to carry them all through the parks for the rest of the day, never mind in the pouring rain.
As I understand it, one of the glories of Disney is that if you're staying in one of the resort hotels, they will deliver your purchases directly. to. your. room. for you.  Not so in Universal.  Carrying the wand box wasn't so bad, though the corners tended to create stress marks in the bag holding it, so I spent the whole day checking it for signs of breakage and water damage.  Then of course there was all the twisting of the bags to keep the rain out of them.  The biggest problem for me, though, was my brilliant decision to purchase two glass apothecary jars full of candy to take home.  Not surprisingly, they got very heavy, very quickly.  In retrospect, it would almost have been worth going back to make selections when you were done seeing everything.  

My warped wand.
Some of Honeyduke's offerings

12.  Lots of water is a wonderful thing.  Sometimes.
Lots of water pouring down all day gets really old really fast.  While gallons of water may have been great for hydrating my exposed arms to silky softness by the end of the day, it didn't exactly do much for my one-day-old nail polish, which was sluicing off in little pink sheets by the end of the afternoon.  Cheap $12 metal watches are less than appreciative as well, a point brought to my attention the next morning when my host's young son woke me up to inform me that my watch had water in it.  In case I didn't know.  Three days later it still had water in it.  After a nice, long rice bath, however, it seems to have recovered with minimal ill-effect.

Meanwhile, standing out of the rain (but still soaking wet and with sweat dribbling down your back) for over an hour to get into the Shrek 4-D ride at the Universal theme park only to have them shake your seat about and spew yet MORE water into your face is somewhat less than thrilling.  No doubt this would be much more enjoyable on a hot, sunny day.  To be fair, the incessant rain meant that we didn't get nearly as hot as we would have otherwise--but that still doesn't mean I'm gonna make a habit of visiting theme parks in tropical storms.

13.  Theme Parks are evil marketing geniuses.
Virtually every single ride or activity that we explored in either theme park spit us out directly into a store laden with merchandising tie-ins for our perusal:  See Ollivander and end up in the Owl Post.   Like Hogwart's Castle?  Have some house robes and Marauder's Maps.  Wanna see Shrek 4D?  How about some nice ogre ears to take home?  Or, if you prefer Despicable me, there's always a plethora of fuzzy plush minions to cuddle.  Seriously...they know you have kids, and that there is no escape except past the cash registers.  Evil, I tell you.

14.  The Hard Rock Cafe can cure a multitude of ills.
I rapidly discovered that my rain tolerance was probably running out after around three hours, though I lasted for an additional 2-3 past that.  Even in the company of good friends and an exciting atmosphere, teeming rain and tired feet do tend to make one feel miserable fairly quickly.  Though we took a brief break before heading to the Universal Studios park from the Islands of Adventure park where Harry Potter is, we petered out pretty quickly once there, only managing the Shrek and Despicable Me rides and some shopping at the Universal Studio store.  The studio store provided a significantly more pleasant (or at least relaxing) shopping experience, in part because there were no crowds of people cramming in on top of you in ten minute intervals or trying to grab things from your hands.  Also, while perhaps not as extensive as the individually-themed shops, the Universal store had a little something from every one of the attractions--one-stop shopping, if you will.  But I digress.

After our foray into the Land of the Empty Wallet, we decided to have dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe, whose claim to fame is that it is the biggest of all the Hard Rock Cafes, and indeed it had (at least) two full floors of tables.  So now I've eaten in the biggest, as well as the first Hard Rock (in London), and the one on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls among others.  I'm becoming a freakin' Hard Rock connossieur.  We all sat down, blissfully divesting ourselves of both packages and ponchos, and quickly ordered hot coffees, hot teas, and hot cocoas all around.  Hot drinks in June...welcome to Floridian irony.  After a few minutes we began to warm back up and our feet began to stop cussing us out and we began to unwind.  I ordered a big cheeseburger and joyously inhaled it and all its caloric glory, which would no doubt be enough to feed a small African country for a week.  That burger was utter and delicious decadence from first bite to final burp (several hours later), and kindled a small, warm glow in the pit of my stomach.

Hard Rock Orlando, on a sunnier day than we had.

Because every restaurant needs a full-sized pink Cadillac suspended over the bar.

15.  Remember to remove the green parking post-it from under your wipers BEFORE you leave the park in the pouring rain.
If you don't, you'll get to spend the next half hour watching it biodegrade on your windshield as the wiper blade scoots bits of it off to the side until it looks like a bunch of tennis ball fuzzies and/or Shrek boogers.   On the plus side, it provides a vaguely entertaining distraction from the considerable traffic formed by sodden people leaving the parks in droves.  One of the best bits of advice we got before going to the park was to be there when it opens because it's less busy, and indeed the traffic was noticeably lighter on the way to the parks than it was on the return trip, as was the park itself.

15a.  Three days after your visit your calves will STILL be remembering the extra 6 miles you walked that your brain has been trying to block out of existence, and they will still HATE YOU.
I marked this as "15a" rather than "16" because I wanted to end on a nice, round multiple of 5 and if I'd used "16" I would have felt obligated to make up 4 crappy observations just to round out the list to 20.  No one needs to see that.  But, if it makes you feel better, I offer the following in tribute to the magical land of Seuss, through which we had to pass to get to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter:

Do you like to have a list?
Does disorder make you twist?
Do you like O, C and D?
Are you anal, just like me?
Yes, I like my stuff just so,
And really, so do YOU, you know.

In spite of the endless rain and the tired tootsies, I did have a good time, not the least because I got to spend a few hours with a dear friend for the first time in a couple of years--and that is worth all the rain in Florida.


  1. I would love to see it.. I love Harry Potter and it looks great in your pictures. I love Disney World but live in NYC so don't get down there often. Thanks, I will add it to my list of must do!

  2. ::snert::

    Wand. Curved want.

    ::parades out::

  3. *Wand* even. Clearly my brain is elsewhere.

  4. I love Harry Potter and would love to go, however, I am not big on rollercoasters or anything that even slightly resembles them. I am the biggest chicken. Still it would be cool to see and get some souvenirs!


    1. Roller coasters aren't my main thing either, but I don't think most of the rides were great big ones. There's more to do than just the rides, especially on sunnier days. You can learn more about the park here and rides here: http://www.wizardingworldharrypotter.com/

      Also, if you just want to shop without making the trip, you can buy directly from the park here:

      But I hope you get to go sometime...it's a cool experience!

  5. Once again, I feel as if I have been there. Thank you so much for sharing, you really should get paid for this stuff! I truly enjoyed this. :)