My first awareness that a Harry Potter theme park was in development in the United States came late last year while I had half an eye on breakfast television.
"Mummy will you take you there," I promised my then 6-year-old, a seriously dedicated Harry Potter fan who's read all the books at least five times and seen all the movies. "Really?" she asked with wide eyes.
Of course, I'd foolishly assumed it would be located at Disneyland, California, and imagined us taking a quick jaunt across the Pacific. I eventually discovered it was, in fact, on the other side of the continent in Orlando, Florida.
Although that part of the world is geographically less accessible to us Kiwis than London, I didn't consider reneging on my rash offer. I'd said we'd go and that was that.
Over the following months I regularly checked the Wizarding World of Harry Potter website for an opening date so I could make travel plans. Frustratingly "Spring 2010" was as specific as it got for a very long time. Finally, it emerged that the grand opening was scheduled for June. We already had plans in place for the June-July school holidays, so our trip to Florida was scheduled for the beginning of the September holidays.
The arrival time of our flight from Los Angeles at the uncivilised hour of 5.30am meant we were easily able to enter Universal Orlando Resort's Islands of Adventure theme park on the dot of 9am. Arriving early to beat the worst of the crowds of people is a well established theme park principle. Still, throngs of people filled the streets of Hogsmeade village and there was standing room only in most of the shops. All was explained a few days later, when I read in USA Today that late afternoon is actually the best time to avoid crowds at what they describe as "this year's 800-pound gorilla of the theme park world". Bother.
The expert take on the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is that it offers what is known as an "immersive experience". Visitors can interact with it as if they have really stepped inside J.K Rowling's richly imagined vision. You can eat fish and chips or Cornish pasties at the Three Boomsticks, wash it down with Butterbeer - a brew reported to taste like a hybrid of butterscotch and shortbread - or pumpkin juice, then try a spot of retail therapy at Zonko's (for jokes, tricks, toys and games) and Dervish and Banges (robes and Quidditch equipment) where the most hideous Monster Book of Monsters sits in a cage, baring its teeth and growling. You can buy sneakoscopes, omnioculars, inflatable eyeballs and Bertie Bott's every flavour beans too.
It's said that the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry here is even more realistic than the one on the movie set. Indeed, it's the small details, the total commitment to the theme that impresses even those who are not hardcore fans of the franchise. Blinking owls perch in the rafters of the Owl Post, Moaning Myrtle haunts the (real) restrooms and a sign at Three Broomsticks says: "Notice from the Department of Intoxicating Substances: Underage wizards will not be served alcohol." The front window of Dogweed & Deathcap, a (permanently closed) store selling exotic plants and flowers, displays a mandrake root - which, according to my personal Potter aficionado, first appeared in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and "is basically a carrot that has a face and screams when uprooted".
A veteran of the Gold Coast's Wiggles World where the members of the Wiggles are never in attendance, Katie was not remotely fazed that the boy wizard himself, Harry, was conspicuous by his absence. Instead, she was caught up in the sheer realism of the park, which is supposed to have cost an estimated US$250 million ($314 million) to create. An "olde worlde" air pervades the cobbled streets and thick layers of faux snow, thoroughly at odds with the unrelenting sunshine and 32-degree Floridian humidity, cap the rooftops of the quaint buildings.
For Katie, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was really all about the shopping. "I'm more excited than so excited," she announced upon acquiring her very own Voldemort's wand (US$28.95) which was evidently earmarked to place a "controlling curse" on a certain someone. She bought wind-up action chattering teeth (US$4.95) and a screaming yo-yo (US$9.95) from Zonko's, an embossed Gryffindor journal (US$18.95) from the Hippogriff Cart and a Marauder's Map (US$49.95) from Filch's Emporium. She wanted to buy a chocolate frog from Honeyduke's sweet shop but her melted-chocolate-on-white-frock-averse mother vetoed it.
The height restrictions on the rides - not to mention the sight of a grown woman dining at the Three Broomsticks restaurant and wearing a Hermione robe without a hint of irony made me wonder who, exactly, the target market was: certainly not a pint-sized 7-year-old. Standing around 118cm tall, Katie could ride only the fairly sedate Flight of the Hippogriff. She was too short for both the Dragon Challenge high-speed rollercoaster and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey - a breathtaking ride over Hogwarts school, for which prosthetic limbs must be removed: "Think haunted mansion on steroids," wrote one Twitterer.
Despite being vertically challenged, we were luckily permitted to wander on foot through the eerie halls and corridors of Hogwarts. Portraits on the wall talked to and argued with each other in darkened chambers and we passed Dumbledore's office. "Dumbledore was actually talking to us and holding his wand in his long fingers," said a most impressed Katie. "He was in 3D." I think it was some sort of hologram.
The Harry Potter experience followed us on our journey home. At Orlando airport we chatted to a friendly couple also checking in for the flight back to LA. It turned out they owned a store called Whimsic Alley which specialises in Harry Potter merchandise - "better than Harry Potter World", they proclaimed as they handed me their business card and urged us to visit them on Wilshire Boulevard. Having well and truly performed my motherly theme park duty, I was quietly aghast. I had absolutely no intention of shifting from the poolside cabana at the very grown-up Santa Monica hotel, where I planned to chill for a couple of Potter-free days.
Harry Potter was also responsible for my carry-on bag being searched at LAX before departing for Auckland.
"Have you got anything sharp in there?" asked the security official who must have spied something suspicious on the X-ray. "Only Voldemort's wand," I replied, cringing with embarrassment as my crumpled holiday clothes were dumped onto the stainless steel bench, much to Katie's bemusement. The things we do for our children.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part I in cinemas now.