Wednesday, December 10, 2014

IAAPA Day 2: A Trip to a Wizarding World

The head cold is still well in effect. So I take my Dayquil with coffee and breakfast and get ready for the day.

Boss Man wanted to use his connections get us some free passes to the parks out in the area, but things don’t always work out the way we want. The passes ended up being for Sunday… travel day. So, what is a clever professional to do? Company credit card. We call Big Boss, he Okays the whole deal, and after one swipe, we’re suddenly inside Universal Studios Orlando.

First thing we hit is the new Diagon Alley. It’s simply amazing. You stroll into a building and see a brick wall. Turn a corner and the sound of bricks pulling away distract you just enough to see an enormous opening in the wall to reveal the new addition in all its glory. The alley is so rich in visuals it’s overwhelming.

Two things hit you when you walk in. First is the character of the place. Every single park employee you see isn’t an employee, they’re denizens. You buy something with a credit card; they’ll gladly return your “Muggle Plastic” to you afterward and tell you to have a nice day. Nobody breaks character and if they did, I wouldn’t complain. It’s too beautiful in there. The second thing is the dragon. Yep. They have a dragon. It’s our friend from the Gringots escape scene in the movie and every half hour or so, it roars… then breathes FIRE! If you stand in the right place you can feel the heat.

When you’re out there, look around carefully. On the ground there are symbols, weird lines and dots enclosed in a circle. What you’re seeing are instructions. Go to the wand shop and buy a wand. They have several, organized by seasons. They’re beautiful. Take your new wand and run back to the symbols. Now, wave the wand and flourish… things happen! Sounds play, water pours, things move. It’s… wizardry. The beautiful thing is, they added these to the old Hogsmead section too.

We rode the Gringots ride as well. It’s both a 3D simulator adventure and a roller coaster. I’m not one for coasters but I rode this thing twice. Seriously. You stroll into the main hallway and the goblins are at work. Paintings on the wall entertain you as they explain exactly why you shouldn’t ever attempt to break into the place. You go down an elevator then back up a set of stairs. The whole way, you’re seeing moving pictures on newspapers and people behind frosted glass talking to each other. When you get on the ride you expect a leisurely tour through the vaults. Yeah right. First thing that happens is Bellatrix Lestrange shows up to ruin your day. With one wave of the wand, you’re on a coaster drop that sends your cart along a fantastic journey that’ll take too many words to describe. So, I’m not going to. (Plus, spoilers for those of us who'll be there in a week or so. -Ed)

I’m going to interlude here about lunch. We ate at the park which is always deliciously fattening. The Bangers and Mash were good. Well, they were about as good as you’d expect from an amusement park. I was still feeling sickly so I didn’t want to have any Butterbeer. My stomach and head weren’t up for it. So I tried an “Orange Fizzy Drink”. Big mistake. If you like drinking what seems like a bowl of brown sugar with some orange soda and cinnamon drizzled over the top, then this is your beverage. Just to be sure you’re diabetic after, they rimmed the cup with cinnamon sugar and an orange slice to add nutrients. I drank 1 of the 12 ounces before swooning and switching to straight water. All in all, my meal alone cost $15. Combined with that of the Compatriot it was $42 after tip. Ah… capitalism.

Most people complain about how much things cost at an amusement park and it’s a fair assessment.  I hear it all the time. What you have to remember is that multi-million dollar improvements need to be paid for and the genius that designed this addition has a devilishly cruel way to do it. In order to go to both Potter attractions you have to buy tickets to both parks. To go between them you take the Hogwarts Express.

Strolling out from Diagon Alley you walk into greater London. Straight ahead is a double decker bus with a talking shrunken head and a driver that’ll have a nice conversation with you and take a picture. Taking a right leads you to King’s Cross Station. Walk through, get your hopper pass checked and… fingerprinted? Suddenly I’m back in the airport. Thank you sir, may I have another? The reasoning is purely financial. They match your pass to your fingerprint as you enter the park. That way, you can’t hand it off to somebody else and have them waltz through without paying, unless of course, you let them hack off your finger, which I doubt is worth the cost of entry. Just sayin’.

King’s Cross is fairly ordinary until you start getting near the ride entrance. There’s advertising and beautiful little details everywhere if you’re looking for them. You’ll go up a set of stairs and around a corner. You’ll see a luggage trolley sitting out. Stop right there. Let people pass you. Look past the trolley and you’ll see people walk right into a brick wall and disappear. Lots of my job involves disassembling other people’s work and seeing how they do things so that we can make our park better. I watched lots of people walk through and I know how they did it. I’ll not ruin it for you.

The line for The Express is enormous. You’re led to your row and a full size train pulls up to the station. There are six seats to a car and no photography or recording, obviously. When the ride starts, you’re shut into your car and the real show begins. Look out the window and you pass through London on your way to Hogwarts. On the inside wall you’ll see lots of character interaction including a Dementor attack. You’ll see the glass frost up as they touch it. Again… beautifully done. As you stroll off the train you’re in Hogsmead and ready to continue your magical journey. I can’t complain.

No good day ends without problems. On our way back through the park it started raining. It rained a little more. Then it rained some more. We had a business event to get to later in the day so we decided to head back to the car. We started at the exit from the Hogwarts train and had to walk back through the entire park to get to the car. That’s when the monsoon started. Have you ever been in the car when it’s raining and suddenly the clouds open up and drop so much rain on you that your windshield wipers stop working entirely? We had that for a half hour. I was wet in places I didn’t know I could be wet in. My real problem was my hat. It’s expensive and made of paper. I made a choice. I bought an eight dollar parka and cut it up to make a mini parka for my hat. It was a lot better than buying a new fifty dollar hat.

We got into the rental van, cranked the heater, and rolled back to the hotel. Unfortunately, I only brought one pair of shoes for the trip so I had to throw them in the dryer. I watched them tumble in there for an hour and I’m lucky I did. Every ten minutes or so one of them would kick the dryer door out and leap out onto the ground in a sad suicide attempt. But after a good drying, warm shoes are nice.

This leads me to our first real event of The Show. Disney decided to show off some of their new attraction with an exclusive event for IAAPA members. We walked outside our hotel room and met a very nice lady from the Disney Corporation. She exchanged our prepaid tickets for some beautiful “One Magical Night” passes and we drove out to the Magic Kingdom. Disneyworld is a big park and it’s even bigger when you get the place all to yourself. There are probably a few hundred of us, maybe more. I didn’t count. We were led into the castle for a delicious buffet dinner including all sorts of treats, free drinks, alcoholic and non. Mickey ear cookies and tarts were the desserts along with some of the best popcorn I’ve ever tasted. Then the rides: After several attempts to steer clear, I tried the new Mine Train Coaster (I know, I’m a wuss). It’s referred to as an intermediate coaster. Something to give your 9 year old a taste of what coasters could be without actually scarring them for life as happened to me when I was younger. I’ll tell that tale some other time. It was pretty tame, I know, but the turns were good and the drop was pretty decent for a kiddie coaster. Also, it was entirely Dwarf themed along with games to play in line and songs from the movie running in the background.

The whole experience was topped off with an A Capella show from some really talented fellows that were a delight to listen to. One of their crew, a Jamaican fellow, had a voice that would make James Earl Jones sound like a soprano. “Hello Ladies,” he said, and the women swooned. Next to him I sound like Mickey Mouse but then again, so do most people.

We were then treated to the “Frozen” Christmas show which was, as Disney always does, amazing. I get such park-envy when I go to these places. Elsa, Anna and their friends put on a delightfully staged routine just before they goad the audience into begging Elsa to decorate the castle. Then the music hits as lights from some unknown place shower the castle as she waves her hands. The Castle is set alight with what must have been half a million coordinated flashing LEDs. Fireworks fly and snowflakes run across the towers as the music hits a crescendo. The lights flash as one last flourish of pyrotechnic mayhem showers the sky bringing all the lights on to form a white crystal sheet over the castle. The population of this park under the age of ten is probably 2%. The crowd goes nuts.

Not wanting to waste a good daily fireworks permit, they have another epic fireworks show and immediately after, one showing the history of the park and of animation in general. I’m starting to get overwhelmed. My camera doesn’t stop taking pictures though.

The busses are beginning to head out and I snap a few shots of the park as well as some of the local fare. It’s funny, I’m used to seeing everything so picture perfect that I was almost felled at the sight of some non-standard princesses. I’m not sure why these people chose to dress up. They were part of some group that was in the park but I’m never one to miss an opportunity. I snapped a picture of a few of them and moved on. My sense of well-being returned to normal as I got to the main entrance and the real men and women in costumes appeared, clad in lusciously rich and likely, very warm costumes. Goofy was about with a group of lovely carolers that waved as I took pictures. Every employee performed flawlessly. I was thanked at every turn and I, as the customer, made sure to show my gratitude whenever possible.

Sleep was inevitable after that. Still slightly on west coast time, I lost consciousness somewhere around 12:30 Eastern Standard Time. Tuesday was going to be a busy day.

The Lopez is an Amusement Park Industry Professional, Artist, Gamer, LARP GM, Member of the Gamer Geekus gaming troupe, and occasional guest star on the Ace of Geeks podcast. You can find Gamer Geekus at or email him directly at
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