“What would you like for your birthday,” I asked my almost 5 year old son.
“I want to go to Harry Potter World.”
With these words I knew I was raising my son right. Not only had my reading of the novels to him and the constant viewing of the films instilled the love of the wizarding world into my son, but he’d asked for an experience over a list of toys.
For years Desmond had been reenacting the scenes from the movies - focusing primarily on flying his blue mini cooper in front of the Hogwarts Express train runing around our Christmas tree every year. With the Map of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter World Desmond made in hand, I happily to pulled him out of school (the joy of Pre-K flexibility), and hauled us down to Orlando for an over the top birthday request come true.
When planning a trip to a Theme Park with a young child I keep these things in mind.
1. Book your Hotel on site for early entry into parks:
Especially for little kids that will have trouble waiting in line and possibly become overstimulated by the crowds, the slower hour at the beginning of the day can be very helpful.
2. Scout out cool down/relaxing zones:
Kids are going to have their moments. Find areas that are more relaxing and/or give you a chance to sit down and take a break away from the crowds.
3. Single Rider/Express Pass:
If possible, have a single rider trade off buddy. Take turns leaving the kids with your partner and move faster through the single rider line. If you can budget it, spring for the Express Passes to breeze through the lines.
4. Plan Your Time Around the Weather:
Arrange your day to spend the hottest parts of day on water rides and/or inside activities. If it’s easy to get back to your hotel, consider returning for a midday swim and returning to the park for nighttime festivities.
We opted to stay at Cabana Bay, the colorful budget option on the Universal Grounds. Staying on the resort is a great option to make your trips in and out of the park smooth as well as the fact it gives you access to Harry Potter World - Islands of Adventure an hour before the park opens to the general public.
Desmond had one primary goal on this trip - to get a wand. However, the wand shop did not open for an hour. As we waited, Desmond enjoyed his first of many Butterbeers. One of my favorite parts of travel is to watch my son light up having fun with new experiences, and like his mother a tasty treat is always a welcome delight
The time had come for a wand. If you’ve ever been to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter you know there is a little show you can watch in Olivander’s Wand Shop where they pull an audience member or two up to the counter and a wand picks them. I had hoped they would bring me up when I visited on my 30th birthday, however I was passed over. Today, I hoped they would bring my son up to the counter. Unusual to my character, I made a big point to mention it was his 5th Birthday to every staff member I passed. Still, he was not called to the counter. We watched the magical scene unfold with random objects moving around the store and various other special effects to recreate the magic of a wand choosing a wizard. After the show the small audience is shuffled through a door into the wand shop to select a wand for themselves. As the last audience members left the room, Desmond approached the counter and waited. The actor playing Olivander turned around to find a pair of determined blue eyes staring him down.
“I need my wand,” Desmond said full of business.
“Well then…” said Olivander.
Olivander proceeded to request the next group of audience members wait to be shuffled in while he had a one-on-one moment with Desmond. Without rushing, Olivander spent some time evaluating Desmond’s characteristics and trying out a few wands. In the end, George Weasley’s wand decided to choose Desmond. I’m still grateful to the amazing staff who could see how important this was to him, made him feel special, and helped his dream come true.
Desmond is not one for rides, but the amazing thing about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the park itself is amazing enough on its own to warrant a trip if you are a fan. Walking through Hogwarts we watched Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s projection talk to us from the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom about 10 times before Desmond was ready to move on, and when we approached the entrance to Dumbledore’s office the excitement was obvious.
It was time to take the Hogwart’s Express over to the Universal Studios side of the park. The ride is short and a little stuffy but until we make it to Scotland we will ride this over and over and over again.
Once in the world of Diagon Alley, it was time for robe fittings, candy stores for butterbeer fudge, ice cream shop for butterbeer ice cream, joke shops, and a walk through Gringott’s Bank with a truly fantastic ride
Desmond spent about 10 minutes arguing with an animatronic goblin at the money exchange insisting the goblin disclose the whereabouts of Harry Potter himself. The goblin was actually pretty awesome at arguing with Desmond.
Knockturn Alley is a great place to get out of the sun. Desmond, as with many kids, can easily get overstimulated and needs a place to escape the chaos that the park can sometimes be. Knockturn Alley is cool, dark, and creepy which makes it a great place to spend a little time in the height of the heat. The ice cream store is just around the corner too and there is a great spot to use your magic wand to make an umbrella rain and cool you off right before the entrance of Knockturn Alley.
One of the most stunning parts of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is watching the dragon breath fire from the top of Gringotts Bank. Just down the street you’ll find the Magical Menagerie with every variety of magical creature. Desmond spotted a baby Norbert puppet that hatches from an egg. I sent him out to watch the Dragon and sneakily purchased it for him. On the ride home he tells me, “Mom, there’s a Dragon following us home. He’s in your backpack.”
I might be a muggle, but he’s a wizard.
Recently my son and I watched the film “The Greatest Showman.” If you’re a fan of musicals, fantasy, or dreams this is a great film to see. While watching the sparkle and shine, I was drawn back to my years of making shows. I began my “showbiz” career in dance. Nothing kept my attention more or made me happier than dancing. I was convinced I would travel around the world and study the dance of various cultures and choreograph at genius levels. As I grew, I moved into production. Now - I’d decided - I would create productions that shared the stories of people from around the world. I learned about the behind the scenes world that made the dream come to life on stage. Every hour of my life was devoted to the theater. During the day I would hang lights, build sets, and search for props. At night there were rehearsals, technical rehearsals, and performances. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to work in the field, you know it consumes you. It’s a magic that can intoxicate you just as Hugh Jackman’s character P.T. Barnum got lost in the process of bigger, better, and more fantastic!
Life, as it so often does, had other plans for me. I found myself in a new career. I became a Travel Advisor, merging my passions of cultural immersion and experiential creation. We live in a world where we are surrounded by spectacle, where we are constantly seeking entertainment from a variety of technological stimuli, where we have our attention competed over by what is the loudest or most provocative and we constantly look away from the greatest show…life. Why do we prefer false realities? Why do we choose to look away? These are deep questions best left to self reflection of the individual but as a Travel Advisor I think about the core of this often. How do I move the traveler out of a cookie cutter experience and into a deeper travel experience? How do I fully express the value of authenticity?
I will always love a great story masterfully told and will find one in the Wadi Rum desert of Jordan. Now, however, I find myself moving in a direction that seeks contact - to actually be part of the story even if it’s simply as the woman who passes the action on the street and not the woman swinging from the trapeze (though I’ll try one if I happen upon it). Real life continues on regardless of whether or not we decide to look out at it.
In the end, Barnum realizes the show he wants to watch most is the one of his daughters growing up. Today I still make stories, but now they are travel stories for clients. Every time I work on a trip, I get to help turn their dreams into a reality. I suppose this run on reflection has to do not so much with abandoning other forms of entertainment (because that would just be nuts), but to remember that the greatest show is life and we need to get out and see it with our own two eyes.
HOLLY MANN: As an Independent Contractor of Vista Travel Consultants, Inc. a member of the Virtuoso Network, my access to the highest quality of vetted global travel partners allows me to create rich, culturally immersive, and liberating travel experiences.