Shortly after our arrival at Harry Potter World, as it is known among grade-schoolers, we passed through a brick wall with magical ease, and found ourselves standing in Diagon Alley, a secret part of London that only witches and wizards know. The buildings on either side of the street seemed to lean inward. At the end of the street towered Gringotts Bank, with a huge dragon atop, breathing fire.
My wife, Bridgit, and I walked behind our two girls, Libby and Josie, who at ages 9 and 11 were dressed in their finest wizarding robes. We passed Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, and the entrance to Knockturn Alley. We had another destination in mind: Ollivander’s Wand Shop. Our girls were there to get their wands.
Harry Potter World was a strange place to be. Officially it’s called “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” and it’s part of the Orlando-based Universal Studio Theme Park. Actually, it is two separate parks grafted onto both “Universal Studios Florida” and “Islands of Adventure.” These two Harry Potter Worlds are placed at the far back of the adjacent parks, and connected by a “Hogwarts Express” train.
It was strange to be there because for years now — for decades, really — Harry Potter has been a constant presence in our home. Before Bridgit and I had kids, we read the books out loud to each other. Afterward, we read them to our daughters. Together we all listened to the audio books and watched the films.
For the girls, the books were always there. When they were young, and we had no money or time for traveling, they were our means of escaping to another world. They dressed up as Hermione and Hedwig for Halloween. We had Harry Potter-themed birthday parties. In the many hours we spent turning pages together, we came to know the halls of Hogwarts and the streets of Diagon Alley as well as any other fictional world (and some real ones) that we had inhabited.
When our girls were old enough, they began reading the books themselves. So once they learned about the existence of Harry Potter World, it was only a matter of time before we went. We talked about it for years. They saved their money from pet-sitting and selling cookies so they could buy wands and other things. We even put our house on Airbnb to help pay for the trip. And now, here we were.
Slytherin at Hogwarts
Ollivander’s was dark inside. We were early so there weren’t many people. Along the wall a line was forming. We got in it and soon were led with a small group back to Ollivander’s office. Inside, the wandmaker himself stood behind a desk.
He welcomed us, then walked along the crowd, stopping at our girls. He peered down at them over his spectacles.
“Sisters?” he asked.
“Come over here.”
Ollivander went behind his desk and handed Josie a wand.
“Let’s try something, shall we?” he said, “Levitation charm, if you will. Focus on the wand boxes. Wingardium Leviosa.”
“Wingardium Leviosa,” she said.
The boxes fell.
“Very good,” he said, “But not your wand.”
This went on for a bit, each girl trying various kinds until he found two wands — each, he said, with a core of Phoenix tail feathers.
“Remember, ladies, just as you two share a powerful bond, so do these wands. Do not duel each other. The results would be … expensive.”
“Priori incantatem,” said Josie, referring to a similar incident in the books.
“Well, aren’t you a clever one!” Ollivander said. “Are you sure you don’t belong in Ravenclaw?”
Ravenclaw, as you may know, is one of the four “houses” that new students are sorted into when they arrive at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. You place a magical “sorting hat” on your head. Then it announces your house based on some inner qualities you possess. But in fact, Josie was not in Ravenclaw, which is for clever, creative and witty people. Instead, she considered herself a member of Hufflepuff, because its members work hard and are loyal. Bridgit and Libby felt they belonged in Ravenclaw.
“So, what house am I in?” I’d asked earlier.
“Slytherin,” they all said, without hesitation.
Most of the bad guys are.
Actually, I already knew this: A few years earlier, when we were planning a Harry Potter-themed party, Libby told me I could be Professor Snape, the strict, humorless (yet powerful and talented) wizard who is Harry Potter’s bête noire throughout the books.
“You’ve got the perfect personality for it!” she said.
I did. Slytherins are a shrewd, resourceful lot. They are ambitious and achievement- oriented. They are unsentimental realists.
This made it all the more puzzling as to how affected I was by Harry Potter World.
When we entered the village of Hogsmeade, I felt a lump rise in my throat and tears well up in my eyes. When we rode on the “Forbidden Journey,” I felt completely transported to the skies over Hogwarts. As our “enchanted bench” landed, and I looked over at Libby waving goodbye to the characters on the screen at the end of the ride, I felt the same wave of nostalgia for these people we knew so well. I didn’t know such emotions could be evoked by a theme park.
An emotional ride
Around midmorning, the crush of Muggles (non-magical people) became unbearable and Diagon Alley grew impossible to walk through. So the girls took off their robes and we wandered into the rest of Universal’s park, with sections themed according to the company’s various franchises.
We rode the neck-snapping “Hulk” roller coaster. We sat through the ridiculous “Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.” We enjoyed the last remnant of Brendan Fraser’s career on the “The Revenge of the Mummy” roller coaster.
The rides were fun, but they felt ephemeral. As soon as we stepped off, we forgot about them and went on to the next one. They didn’t have the layers, the richness of Harry Potter World.
Later in the afternoon, we headed through the brick wall into Diagon Alley again. We wandered among its tilted facades. We strolled under owls perched on wooden rafters. We bought overpriced trinkets. We ate warmed-over English pub food at the Leaky Cauldron. It wasn’t great, but we didn’t care.
What mattered was that we were back in this place, this park that wasn’t really a park, but a version of a world we had all created in our minds, a place where we’d spent countless hours, and where, for a few more, we could walk together.
The sky got dark and soon it was time to leave. On our way out, I ducked into Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment. I didn’t need a wand. I was looking for something else, and found it in a back room: a small Slytherin notebook.
The richness of Harry Potter World, I realized, didn’t come from the park. It came through it. We could feel it even through the endless chain of merchandising. What we were feeling was the power of books and stories.
Without that, Harry Potter World would be just another Florida carnival. But it wasn’t. There was magic here. Only the magic didn’t come from a wand. It came from a pen.
Frank Bures of Minneapolis is author of “The Geography of Madness” and editor of the forthcoming “Under Purple Skies: The Minneapolis Anthology.”