Visiting Harry Potter

img_0110by Julie Hatfield

Children love to be transported – through books – to places more exciting than where they live. As Maria Tatar, Harvard professor, children’s literature culture teacher and author of “Enchanted Hunters; the Power of Stories in Childhood” notes, “the stories of childhood draw children into enchanted other worlds…” such as Oz, Neverland and Hogsmeade, where in the latter, “the combination of meticulous scenic construction as well as elaborate dialogue gives readers the sense that they are not just eavesdropping on Harry’s world but planted comfortably in the midst of it.”

The Harry Potter movies and apps continue the journey into the fantasy world of the young wizard protagonist of J.K. Rowling’s books.  But what if a child who had been entranced – and a little frightened – by reading the Potter stories, or having them read to him, could make a visit to Harry’s Londonimg_0013 neighborhood and his school of wizardry, see some of his fantastical teachers, shop in his wand shop and actually taste butterbeer?

Enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida, where Universal Studios has re-created Potter’s life down to the portraits on the walls at the Hogswart School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, which talk to each other.

Hogsmeade Village, “the only settlement in Britain inhabited solely by wizards and other magical beings,” in Orlando looks exactly like the Victorian English village as described in the books, complete with touches of snow on the peaked rooftops.

Harry’s school, just a half hour down the road from Disney World, looks so authentic that the young readers you bring here don’t remark “Oh, it looks just like Hogwarts.” They say it “IS Hogwarts!”  The suspension of reality in the minds of young Potter fans when they’re at the theme park and know they’re in Hogsmeade comes because, as philosopher Walter Benjamin explains “children cross over into story worlds, breathing the same air as the characters and mingling with them in their world in ways that adults cannot.” You have to believe, the way children do when they read, in a different way than adults do.

grimauldplaceThus when 8-year-old Ruby Belle Hatfield and her sister 5-year-old Hazel Bea Hatfield arrived at the Wizarding World, they marched right up to the townhouse at 12 Grimwauld Place, which as they know from the book “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” is the headquarters of the Order of the Phoenix and the family home of Sirius Black, Harry’s godfather, and they waved to Kreature, the Black’s house elf, who peeks out of the second floor window in this elaborately detailed theme park.

When Ruby walks into Diagon Alley to purchase a wand from Ollivander’s wand shop, a perfect re-creation of the shop in the stories, the saleswitch chooses her out of the group gathered in the shop, to show that “the wizard doesn’t choose the wand; the wand chooses the wizard.”  After trying out six different wands, Ruby puts her hand around a beautiful wand made of holly with a phoenix feather handle, and suddenly, lights flash, music plays, and the saleswitch confirms that “this is your wand.” Ruby’s eyes still sparkle when she recalls this moment.

From there, Ruby and Hazel, with a map of all the shops in Diagon Alley at which the wands will make things in the shop windows happen, try out the power of their wands by pointing them at the windows and declaring “Incendio!” and “Aquamante!” and other commands, after which flowers in the windows bloom, skeletons dance, and fountains spew water.  Throughout the park, wizards and witches of all ages are dressed in black hooded robes and are also feeling the power of their wands upon this magical place.  The good thing about the mood in the park is that usually powerless young children suddenly feel, with a wand in their hands, that they are in total control. The fact that all the adult employees at Universal go along with the suspension of reality and stay in character to help when little readers ask where exactly, for example, they should point their wands to make things happen, adds to the magic.

The Kings Cross station looks exactly like the real one in London, and when you take the five-minute ride to the other part of the Wizardry World, you see British landscape, from the city to the countryside, complete with galloping satyrs and Harry’s hirsute teacher Rubius Hagrid, riding alongside.  Universal has even managed to put Harry, Hermione, Ron and their friends on the train, seen from inside your compartment through a filtered glass window discussing snacks and seats among themselves.

Neither Lord Voldemort nor Harry’s cruel uncle and aunt and cousin are at the park, but just to keep the dark edge of wizardry going, an enormous dragon lolls ondragon the rooftop of a building in Diagon Alley and every 20 minutes, he gives a tremendous howl from his fiery mouth, sending everyone under the age of five screaming into their mothers’ arms.

Note to parents, grandparents and any adult who takes a child to the Wizardry World of Harry Potter:  you’d better read as many of the seven Harry Potter books as you can before you go to Orlando, because you will look rather foolish if you don’t know most of the characters, and scenes, from the stories; the little ones know every detail and they may feel sorry for you. They may assume that you are not much of a reader if you don’t know that you can walk right through the brick wall to the entrance to Platform 9 ¾ to catch the Hogwarts express or that the beautiful white bird in the cage at Kings Cross station is Harry’s pet snowy owl Hedwig.  This is one of many places where travelers go in which reading – in this case, seven long and involved books – beforehand enhances your visit one hundredfold.

The 8-year-old, now home from Orlando, is enthusiastically reading Harry Potter Book Number Five. Her younger sisters, aged 3 and 6, are begging their mother and father to keep reading the Potter stories to them.

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