Saturday, April 30, 2011

Big Winner!

My trivia team just won $500 for our Student Blazer Pennant Publishing class! We were part of a trivia night in support of 3 students who will be traveling to Spain and France to student Spanish and French (who would've thought?). Our team consisted of a few teachers and some fellow Pennant staffers, and we beat every other team for a grand prize of 500 bucks. We aren't sure exactly what the 500 will be going towards, but hopefully MINI FRIDGE!. Just kidding

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Muggle's Journey

I can't imagine what it must be like to be J.K. Rowling. Has no greater writer come from such humble beginnings? She stated in an interview that the idea for Harry Potter simply "dropped into her head" one day while on the train, and it quickly snowballed into something pretty big. But I don't expect she believed it would ever get THIS big:

The above picture is a snapshot of Hogsmeade, the fictional wizarding village from the Harry Potter universe. It serves as the hub of the pretty much brand-new Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure theme park(s). Talk about extravagant. I can write about this place all day, but nothing compares to the experience of strolling down the brimstone walkway, gazing up at the wonderfully lopsided architecture, smelling Butterbeer in the air, and immersing yourself in Harry's world. It's truly entrancing.

The park sits in the back corner of The Islands of Adventure, sandwiched between Jurassic Park and The Lost Continent, and it is easily the most popular attraction at Universal. The words to describe it escape me. The attention to detail, as seen above, is astounding. When you enter the village, it's like walking directly into Rowling's imagination. To the immediate right

is the magnificent Hogwarts Express, presented by a "conductor" who interacts with the crowd at certain times of the day. Continuing in, the Three Broomsticks

stands lopsided and weathered on the left, and next door, Honeydukes sweets shop sells Bertie Bot's Every-Flavor Beans and Chocolate Frogs to hordes of young Potter fans. Zonko's joke shop is filled to the brim with goofy artifacts and knick-knacks. Dervish and Banges, basical

ly a glorified souvenir shop, contains an assortment of artifacts from the series, like brooms, time-turners, pens, parchment, cloaks, robes, and wands.

The absolute most entertaining and enthralling division of the village BY FAR, is Ollivander's Wand Shop. Much unlike the other shops available for guests to enter, Ollivander's is a show. Wrapped around one side of the building are line ropes which, on the days I visited, were always completely filled with excited Muggles. The times I had waited to get inside, the line had thinned out a little. Our 20 minute wait was worth every second.

When you enter Ollivander's, it suddenly becomes very quiet. A desolate, somewhat eerie sound resonates through out the room. Everything looks EXACTLY like the Ollivander's from the movie. The walls are massive shelves, stacked to the ceiling with wands; thousands of them, all made up to look very dusty and old. Then, "Ollivander" descends from a dimly lit staircase. He introduces himself to the large congregation of Muggles before him, and carefully selects one person from the audience to receive their special wand.

I, admittedly, had hoped I would be picked; but alas, no such luck. My first visit, he chose an older woman, and the second he picked a young girl. Both are extremely, extremely lucky. "Ollivander" offers his chosen person 3 wands, in the same fashion as in the movie. The first two, at his command of pointing and reciting a certain incantation, make flowers "wilt" in the corner,and cause wands to shuffle on the shelves (with the addition of lights and sound effects that enhance the experience). These wands are not meant for the chosen Muggle. The third wand, however, is the one. Music begins as "Ollivander," says to himself, "Curious, very curious," and he hands the wand over. At their touch, a wind whips up inside the room, the music swells, and a soft, glowing light engulfs the wildly grinning participant. Then, with some closing remarks and "tips" on how to properly operate a wand, "Ollivander" leads the group into a section of Dervish and Banges where a large selection of both character AND original wands await to be purchased. I purchased an original, although I came quite close to buying the Elder Wand, but I wanted one completely original to the Park. I chose a handsome looking wand with a phoenix feather core. Easily the coolest $30 I ever spent. (I unfortunately did not get any pictures of the inside of Ollivander's for fear of disrupting the show with my flash. It was pretty dark, and my videos came out poorly, also.)

Now, the castle. Gaze upon it's glory. GAZE UPON IT!

I took that picture on my phone on the way inside. Around the bend is a stone wall that guides visitors into a maze of line separators that lead into the castle. The longest wait we encountered for the castle (and the spectacular ride that lies within it, which I'll get to in a moment) was about an hour--which was perfectly fine, as there was ALWAYS something interesting to look at. We moved quickly through the line outside, while listening to John William's fantastic score, and soon found ourselves inside Hogwarts. We were first presented with the entrance to Dumbledore's office, a great, towering stone falcon sitting atop a hidden staircase. Continuing in, we were then treated to a high-ceilinged room covered corner to corner with Witch and Wizard portraits--some of which were moving around in their frames and speaking to one another. Through this room, the crowd was greeted by none other than Dumbledore himself. The actor Michael Gambon, as Dumbledore, was projected as a sort of hologram behind his desk in an ornate office. The technical wizardry (pun intended) behind this is astounding. He looked and sounded as if he were right there, talking to us. Our line was moving quickly, so as we hurried along, mouths agape as we walked, we were taken by surprise at Harry, Ron, and Hermione (also ridiculously realistic holograms), who had appeared from beneath the Invisibility Cloak atop a balcony to give us an explanation of their intention for us---they wish to save us from a boring History of Magic lesson by flying us around on enchanted benches, under a charm conjured by Hermione .

Now, we arrive at the ride. A park operator asks politely "how many?" and we had four in our group. We received our own bench---which, needless to say, was obviously not a true bench. The "benches" were shaped like benches, but had a large back rest, lapbars and handlebars for support, and they meandered along a moving walkway. We sat down, completely giddy with excitement, and buckled in. We were moving towards a dark hole in the wall. Looking up, I gasped. Hundred s upon hundreds of "floating" candles reflected off of a shiny ceiling, bobbing in the dimly lit room. It truly was beautiful. I only had moments to appreciate it, however, as suddenly Hermione's voice leapt from speakers behind my head. She told us to say "UP" on the count of three. We obliged.
What followed was an experience that is difficult to explain. With a combination of simulated movement, practical special effects and a series of large, Omnimax-esque screens, we flew around Hogwarts. We escaped the clutches of a Hungarian Horntail dragon, evaded the soul-sucking kiss of dreaded dementors, and raced alongside Harry in a game of Quidditch. We zipped though the Forbidden Forest to meet Aragog, the giant spider, and soared over the lake and the tips of the castle, before landing safely in the Great Hall, where Dumbledore, Harry and the rest of the Hogwarts gang wished us good day. Every second of it was convincing. Seriously, there wasn't a moment where I was disappointed--except for the very end, of course.

I rode that ride (called The Forbidden Journey) three times during my stay at the park. When I wasn't in line for it, I was in line for Butterbeer
and oh boy was it something. In the books, Butterbeer is hot and warms the soul. But at Universal, where temperatures regularly reach the high 8o's, a hot beverage is impractical. Instead, Butterbeer is offered as cold, like a soda, or frozen, like a slurpee. Both taste magnificent. Imagine butterscotch, mixed with a twang of rootbeer, and you've got the general taste. It's very smooth, and it is topped with a mysterious, goopy foam that is a unique taste in its own. One cup is a whopping 1,350 calories, and worth every sip.

The park also harbors two rollercoasters: a kiddie one called the Flight of the Hippogriff, and a much more intense, floorless thrill ride called The Dragon challenge, which is designed as a competition in the Triwizard Tournament. On the route up to the coaster sits Ron Weasley's bewitched car, as seen below:

Having read the books fervently as a kid, I was worried that the creation of a theme park may taint the vision J.K. Rowling had for her stories. I was sorely mistaken. The thinktank at Universal really knew what they were doing here, which really makes me happy. They could have easily half-assed the whole thing, raking in cash from die-hard fans, but they didn't. They brought Rowling's world to life, respectful of the content and characters.

If you haven't read the books, please, by all means do. There's a reason they're so popular. They're a saga unlike any other; adventures borne of an endlessly creative imagination. With running themes of death and longing alongside friendship and the importance of courage, Harry Potter speaks to a generation to which the latter are very important. So again, go to the library and grab Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. You won't be disappointed.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Hello there!

It's been quite some time since my last post. Here's an update of my busy Junior year:

-Swim season=success. Best times in all of my events.

-I visited Universal Resort Orlando over Spring Break with some friends and family. We lodged at the on-site Hard Rock Hotel, and with our room keys as automatic fast-passes for nearly every attraction within the park, we enjoyed four days of pure bliss. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is by far one of the coolest things I've ever seen. It requires its own post which I will get to soon.

-Upon arriving home from Spring Break, I have taken up re-reading every Potter book. I have thus far read through the first two, and I plan to start the 3rd sometime tonight.

-I've added quite a few new book titles to the library that is my bedroom shelving unit over the past few months. I've read many and hope to post thoughts on them over the next couple of weeks

After a prolonged winter hiatus, I'm back with all barrels blazing. I hope to continue posting through out the summer!