Live, reporting from Orlando, Florida — it’s the intern!
Every year around Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling’s birthday (July 31st, in case you aren’t quite the Harry Potter addict I am), approximately 3,000 fans convene for the annual LeakyCon. Once a Harry Potter–only conference, LeakyCon has since opened its doors to fan communities of all different types, from Star Trek to Sherlock. But we never forget our roots, and this year as part of the conference, many of us got to head over to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in the Universal Studios theme park for “Open at the Close,” an after-hours park event exclusive to conference attendees.
The event started before the park closed to give us time to enjoy the rides, so of course when we stepped off the bus around 5:00, we headed straight for Diagon Alley (I’ve always wanted to say that!) and the “Escape from Gringotts” ride which was new to our whole group. It’s a 3D interactive ride, which makes for a fantastic immersive experience. We interrupted Harry, Hermione, and Ron’s escape from Gringotts Wizarding Bank, but luckily we had Bill Weasley to lead us out, guiding us as we crashed over the Gringotts cart track, nearly got attacked by Bellatrix and Voldemort, and finally made it to freedom.
The Diagon Alley section of the park is new, but aside from Florida’s characteristic oppressive heat, you could hardly tell you weren’t wandering around in the wizard section of London. The intricacy of detail in the park, from the shops and souvenirs to the faces of the buildings and the costumes of the employees, was enough to convince us that we had somehow figured out the brick-tapping code behind the Leaky Cauldron. Gringotts, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Ollivander’s wand shop, the Magical Menagerie, and even Knockturn Alley line up next to each other to create a (ahem) magical experience.
But then we went to King’s Cross station and got on the Hogwarts Express — a big, beautiful scarlet train that took us to Hogwarts. HOGWARTS, GUYS.
It was really exciting.
The train itself is pretty uneventful, but images in the window show delightful scenery of the trip out of London through the English moors and the Scottish hills, while on your other side characters in the train’s corridor walk past your compartment.
It’s winter in Hogsmede when you get off the train (which makes a strange contrast to the heat, but still somehow works).
There you can ride the old “Dueling Dragons” ride from Universal — repurposed for the Wizarding World park — which is a pretty great roller coaster. But it’s got nothing on “Forbidden Journey,” another immersive ride that jumps and squiggles and pushes and pulls you through the Hogwarts buildings and grounds as Harry, Ron, and Hermione give you a chaotic tour of their school.
Once the park closed at 10:00 pm, though, we were treated to a complimentary meal of beef stew, quinoa and roasted vegetables, salad, and bread. It is a compliment to the chef in the park, and the truly wonderful atmosphere, that we dug into our stew with gusto even though it was about 46 million degrees outside. We also got to wander through the shops with a much smaller crowd than usual and enjoy a few of the shows. Celestina Warbeck and her backup singers were particularly good, although credit where credit is due: Celestina pulled a charismatic member of the audience to join her on stage.
When we finally hopped back on the bus around 1:00 am, the park event was still going strong. Though all that magic really wore me out, both the eleven-year-old Harry Potter fan and the twenty-five-year-old Harry Potter fan in me were wildly happy that I got to knock around Hogwarts and Diagon Alley for a day.
Tune in next time for highlights from the LeakyCon lit track, a fan-focused YA track at the conference hosted by authors Maureen Johnson and Robin Wasserman.