This past weekend I enthusiastically participated in “A Celebration of Harry Potter” at Universal Orlando. To understand my perspective on this weekend, I think I must explain how big of a Harry Potter fan I am.
With 10 being extremely obsessed with the Harry Potter franchise, I consider myself an 8. I started reading the Harry Potter books soon after the third book was published, and I became hooked immediately. I eagerly awaited the next four installments and usually purchased them on the first day of publication. I’ve watched each movie numerous times and joyfully attended a special premier of Deathly Hallows Part 2, the final movie in the series. When I learned that Universal Orlando was going to build a theme park related to the books and movies, I was elated – I was going to live just a few miles from Hogwarts! As you can tell from my trip reports here on Orlando Informer for the past year, I’m ecstatic about the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley section that will be open this summer.
Last year, when Universal announced the Harry Potter Celebration, I was seriously considering purchasing a vacation package for several hundred dollars so that I could enjoy the VIP perks. However, our family budget just couldn’t accommodate this cost (considering I didn’t need the hotel accommodations or admission tickets included in the package), so I decided to do what I could throughout the weekend as a general admission guest.
Thursday’s Diagon Alley webcast
As a precursor to the Harry Potter Celebration weekend, I was glued to the webcast presented by Universal on Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 10:30am in anticipation of learning anything new about Diagon Alley. Thanks to the two years of coverage already published on Orlando Informer, I didn’t actually learn any new facts about the expansion during the webcast, but I was beside myself with glee when I saw the interior of the Hogwarts Express, the set designed as a Gringotts’ vault, and the actors from the movies who were part of the webcast.
I cannot wait to actually ride on the Hogwarts Express, experience the thrills of Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and walk down the street of Diagon Alley!
A Celebration of Harry Potter – Day 1
On Friday, the Harry Potter Expo opened at 4:00pm in Universal Studios Florida (USF) at soundstage 33, located in the New York backlot of the park. I arrived at USF around 5:40pm and went to the Expo. Unfortunately, the line to the Expo for general admission guests was already closed due to the long wait. Guests with the special vacation package VIP passes were allowed to enter the Expo without any wait. A Team Member informed me that they closed the line around 4:45pm to general admission guests, less than an hour after the Expo opened. It was clear that it was going to be a busy, crowded weekend, and I needed to plan accordingly and get to the Harry Potter Celebration events early.
[wptouch target=”non-mobile”]Remember, you can click any image to view it full-screen. And don’t miss the complete photo gallery with over 100 new full-screen images at the bottom of the post.
I decided before the Harry Potter Tribute scheduled for 7:30 that evening to walk over to the Diagon Alley construction area to see what had changed since my visit in December. I was astounded and in awe by the difference in the appearance and feel of the buildings with the scaffolding removed. I was excited to see “peek” views built into the construction walls. These two “peek” sections look like British telephone booths and are located in front of Kings Cross Station and near the Grimwald Place buildings at each end of the construction wall.
After a quick dinner at Mel’s diner, I made my way to the concert lawn next to Rip Ride Rockit to see the Harry Potter Tribute.
There were two large screens on each side of the concert stage and one gigantic screen at the back of the stage. The lawn was divided with barriers to accommodate the guests with special VIP passes. These guests were able to view the stage from the front and center of the lawn. The guests with press passes were sectioned off in the back center of the lawn. Those of us with general admission could view the event from the far left, far right, or very back of the lawn.
The general admission sections filled quickly and were actually filling up when I arrived at the park around 5:45 pm. The lawn was full and many guests were as far back as the Monster’s Cafe. Because of the numerous barriers outlining these sections, I would estimate the crowd numbers to be similar to the crowded first concert for Mannheim Steamroller last December.
A note about the event timing: For reasons we do not understand, Universal scheduled the kick off event at 7:30, yet they scheduled the park to close at 7:00. This angered a number of guests who showed up at the park between 7:00 and 7:30, and who were not able to get through the turnstiles because the park closed 30 minutes before the event started. Even though Universal’s park hours have been published for a while, it still makes little sense why they wouldn’t just keep their turnstiles open 30 extra minutes.
Continuing with Harry Potter Tribute kick off event, the host for the weekend, Austin Romero, took the stage at 7:30pm. After asking for cheers from each Hogwarts house, he introduced a video that looked back at the Harry Potter phenomenon. The video incorporated the outstanding music from the movies and highlighted the bestselling books, award winning movies, Pottermore website, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the Greatest Fans with the Biggest Hearts. The finale ended with a caption “The Journey Continues” and then a photo of Diagon Alley from the movies. I admit I got choked up watching the video because of the memories it brought back. It was marvelous to see the actors grow up again before my eyes and relive the eight Harry Potter movies.
Thanks to Dan, here is a look at the introduction sequence:
The American publisher of the Harry Potter series, Scholastic, recently released the Harry Potter books with new covers, celebrating the 15th anniversary of the first book being released. Austin Romero introduced the illustrator for the new covers, Kazu Kibuishi, and talked with him about his involvement with the Harry Potter series.
Mr. Kilbuishi was at the Expo during various times throughout the weekend, providing autographs and photo opportunities for HP Celebration guests.
Afterwards, Austin Romero talked about facts known only to those who have joined Pottermore, an online interactive community designed by J.K. Rowling. He asked the audience who had been sorted into their house on Pottermore. A large majority of the audience responded. Romero explained that the Pottermore sorting ceremony was devised by J.K. Rowling, and it is the only official place to be sorted. This information was very interesting to me, and I decided to embrace the house that Pottermore had sorted me — Ravenclaw.
Romero enthusiastically introduced actors from the Harry Potter movies to the stage. It was an entertaining introduction of Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom), James Phelps (Fred Weasley), Oliver Phelps (George Weasley), Evana Lynch (Luna Lovegood), Devon Murray (Seamus Finnegan), and Mark Williams (Arthur Weasley). Dan also got us a video of this sequence:
After clips from the movies featuring each actor, they were asked questions. My favorite scene was Neville Longbottom confronting Voldemort in the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. All the actors were very personable and entertaining throughout the cold evening, and the panel talked for almost an hour.
The Diagon Alley webcast (displayed toward the top of this page) was replayed for the Harry Potter Tribute audience.
Afterwards, two executives from Universal took the stage and discussed some of the new features of Diagon Alley, including new products at Weasleys’ Wizzard Wheezes, such as a Decoy Detonator, Umbridge on Unicycle (on display at the store), Nose-biting teacups, and Skiving Snackboxes, which will be available for purchase.
The Universal executives promised that Diagon Alley would exceed guests’ expectations. “On every street corner, there will be magic that you can participate in and observe.”
After a few more questions for the actors regarding their feelings about the new Diagon Alley, the Harry Potter Tribute ended. Most of the crowd lasted the entire ninety minutes, in spite of the cold conditions including wind chills in the upper 30’s.
I enjoyed the tribute, but I was hoping for more details about Diagon Alley. At that point, I reminded myself this weekend’s event was called a “Harry Potter Celebration”, not a “Diagon Alley” celebration. As a result, I altered my expectations for the rest of the weekend, and I was not disappointed!
A Celebration of Harry Potter – Day 2
On Saturday, I arrived at Islands of Adventure around 9:30am, thirty minutes after the gates opened. Dan had posted on Twitter that the guest admission line for the 10:00am panel discussion My Life on the Harry Potter Set, Talent Q&A at the Toon Lagoon amphitheater extended to the Hulk coaster.
Thinking I would not be admitted into this session, I rushed to Hogs Head inside the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) so that I could try the new, warm Butterbeer, only available during the mornings of the Harry Potter Celebration weekend.
I was the last person in Hogs Head to try warm butterbeer that morning. The Team Member from the Hogs Head bar told me I would be the last one served, but the bar ran out of the drink two people in front of me. Demonstrating the awesomeness of UO Team Members, the TM had someone go over to Three Broomsticks to get two cups of warm butterbeer for the last two customers in line. We were both very grateful. I’m not a big fan of sweet drinks, but the warm butterbeer was delicious, particularly on a cold morning.
I hope they will make it available on a permanent basis, especially during cold weather.
Throughout the weekend, the panel discussion admittance encompassed two separate queues. One queue was for those guests with special VIP passes (who were admitted first), and the other queue was for the general admission guests (who were admitted pending available space in the amphitheater). After each panel discussion ended, the theater was emptied and all guests had to go back to the end of the queue for the next panel discussion. This process became an important factor, as I had to prioritize which session I wanted to see because, as a general admission guest, there was no guarantee I could attend any session, let alone two sessions back to back.
Around 10:15am, I decided to get in line for the 11:30 panel discussion, Go Behind the Scenes of Pottermore from J.K. Rowling. Even though it was early, I was not the first in the general admission line, but I did made it into this session.
As a new member of Pottermore, I really enjoyed learning more about the way scenes and stories on the website are developed. Tom Hodgson, the Creative Director and proud Hufflepuff house member, presented a time-lapse video of an upcoming scene that demonstrated how a Pottermore scene is created from inception to final design. He noted that Pottermore encourages its members to use their imagination, just like the books, and that is why the artistry does not show full faces.
Hodgson then revealed seven facts related the Harry Potter series only found on Pottermore, including the fact that the next day was Gilderoy Lockhart’s birthday. (Gilderoy Lockhart is the Dark Arts Professor in The Chamber of Secrets who loses his memory toward the end of the book.) Three audio clips of J.K. Rowling talking about Gilderoy Lockhart and his past were then played for the audience. These clips were never played for the public before, and we were the first to hear them. They will be available on Pottermore soon.
Tom Hodgson was an entertaining and informative presenter, and I was glad I attended this panel discussion.
Knowing I wanted to take my time at the Harry Potter Celebration Expo at USF, and the fact that I would probably need to stand in the queue for a long time before getting into the Expo, I decided to skip the remaining panel discussions scheduled that afternoon and headed to USF. After a quick lunch at the Monster’s Cafe, I walked to Studio 33 in the New York backlot.
The line was fairly lengthy, and I stood in it for about an hour before entering the Expo. I was able to chat with other fans while in line. This was a fun experience of sharing our enthusiasm for Harry Potter and especially Universal’s part in Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Regarding warm butterbeer, I did a quick poll of everyone who had tried it and they really liked it too. Finally, just outside the entrance to the Harry Potter Expo was one of the Weasly’s Ford Anglia cars used in the movie Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
This display made a great photo opportunity for Harry Potter fans.
The marquee outside the Expo festively displayed “Welcome to a Celebration of Harry Potter Expo”. Just inside the entry, a large sign advertised Diagon Alley, Summer 2014 along with luggage and a bird cage, similar to what Harry had on the Hogwarts Express.
My excitement was growing as artist’s rendering of scenes from Diagon Alley were on display, including a map of this entire new addition to Universal Studios. As guests entered the Expo, oversized posters from each of the Harry Potter movies were placed high above. Almost immediately, a hush formed due to the intimate, nearly reverent feel of the Expo.
Subdued lighting and dark curtains surrounded the room while the fabulous one-of-a-kind music from the movies played in the background and helped set the mood. Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin house banners hung from the ceiling in the center of the room. Enormous lighted signs, at least 15 feet tall and wide, were hung behind each booth. No matter where guests stood in the Expo, they could also hear the Sorting Hat deciding the house fate of anyone who wished to be sorted.
I immediately got in line for the photo opportunity on the huge, amazingly detailed Gringotts Vault set that was used during the webcast on Thursday. Being inside the vault, I felt I had received just a small glimpse of the astounding detail I would experience when Diagon Alley opens this summer.
The next area I encountered at the Expo was the Scholastic booth. As I mentioned earlier, Kazu Kibuishi was signing posters at scheduled times throughout the day. In addition, Scholastic’s 14×20 foot board, a Muggle Wall, invited all guests to write and “Tell Us What Harry Potter Means to You”. I wrote “Hope for All”. I also received a free Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone poster from Scholastic and post cards with artwork by Kazu Kibuishi.
I also entered the raffle for a chance to win a Special Edition Harry Potter boxed set and exclusive framed lithograph signed by Kazu Kibuishi.
I walked over to the MinaLima booth next. Miraphora Mina and Eduardo Lima are the graphic designers that were responsible for any graphic prop used in the Harry Potter movies. Any movie prop that had writing on it was designed by MinaLima, including, but not limited to, The Mauraulder’s Map, the letter welcoming Harry to Hogwarts, any of the books the students used, the Quibbler newspaper, and all the products from Zonko’s and the upcoming Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes. Beautiful framed artwork highlighting the MinaLima Harry Potter artistry was on display throughout the booth. In addition, a glass case displayed some of the graphic props used in the films.
MinaLima has an online gallery www.theprintorium.com offering limited edition reproductions based on the original Harry Potter films’ artwork.
Pottermore from J.K. Rowling was my next stop. There were several laptops set up for guests to log onto or join Pottermore. In addition, Tom Hodgson, the Creative Director of Pottermore, was available for autographs and photos. The large wall sign highlighting Pottermore included the Weasley’s magical car, and it made a great backdrop for photos. In addition, a live artist was drawing creatures for the Pottermore website.
For $10.95, I purchased a booklet of 20 first-class Limited-Edition Forever stamps (pane of 20) featuring Harry Potter movie characters and scenes along with a Digital Color Postmark with the first day these unique stamps were issued at the United States Postal Service. If wanted, an exclusive postmark that commemorated the Harry Potter Celebration weekend was also added to the envelope while guests waited at the booth. One of the designers of the stamps provided autographs — I had him sign my envelope and book of stamps.
The photo op at the US Post office booth was a “wanted” poster saying “Have You Seen These Wizards” similar to the Sirius Black wanted poster from the movie and book Escape from Azkaban. Guests could use various props including house scarves, wands and glasses like Harry and Luna wore and stand in front of the sign. Their picture was taken and printed out on a postcard and also emailed to them. Guests could purchase a Harry Potter stamp and mail the postcard to a friend. I kept my postcard as a fun souvenir.
The Warner Bros. Studio Tour London booth provided wand lessons for any guests who wanted to learn the basic wand steps as demonstrated in a video by Paul Harris and assisted by Universal Team Members. The booth had several glass cases containing actual props used in the Harry Potter films. Props included a Death Eater’s mask, Bellatrix Lestrange’s dagger, Harry Potter’s glasses, Godric Griffindor’s sword, and Hermoine Granger’s time turner necklace. All of these items were fundamental to the Harry Potter books and movies, and it was exciting see them up close.
Many more props, in addition to actual sets used during the filming of the Harry Potter movies, can be seen at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in London.
In the center of the Expo, guests could purchase exclusive merchandise: a collector’s pin for $8.95, keychain for $14.95, t-shirt for $21.95, and signed and/or numbered Harry Potter Celebration commemorative prints from MinaLima priced at either $69.00 or $149.00 depending on the print features. I purchased a t-shirt for myself. Of course, now I wish I had also purchased the collectors pin and keychain as additional souvenirs.
Harry Potter the Exhibition, currently on tour in Edmonton, Canada, displayed several costumes worn in the movies by Harry, Ron, Hermoine and Dumbledore.
As a longtime fan of Harry Potter, I found these costumes to be absolutely fascinating:
In addition to the costumes, Harry Potter the Exhibition provided the Sorting Hat experience.
After waiting in a queue, guests sat on a stool and an actor positioned the sorting hat over the guest’s head. After the actor asked the guest questions, including if there was a preferred house, the Sorting Hat, using a voice just like the movies, announced several characteristics of the guest and excitedly pronounced into which house the guest was sorted. This sorting provided a great photo opportunity for all Harry Potter fans attending the Expo. I waited about 40 minutes until it was my turn to be sorted.
While I was waiting in line to be sorted, Oliver and James Phelps made a surprise appearance at the Pottermore booth for about 10 minutes, signing autographs and taking pictures with lucky guests who happened to be in the right place at the right time.
I left the expo after more than two hours of fantastic experiences. It was well worth the wait time. At this point I decided to walk around the rest of USF. Wait times for the attractions were moderate with 60 minutes for Despicable Me, 45 minutes for MEN IN BLACK and everything else less than 30 minutes. However, Transformers had a posted wait time of 110 minutes, which I learned later was due to technical issues with the attraction that day.
I ended my second day of the Harry Potter Celebration and was very pleased that I was able to spend so much time at the Expo. I did not feel rushed, nor did I feel like I needed more time. Although I did wait over an hour for each the panel discussion I attended earlier in the day and the Expo, I did not think it was unreasonable based on the popularity of Harry Potter. I equated it with waiting for Forbidden Journey on a fairly busy day – well worth it!
To read Maureen’s trip report covering day 3, followed by comments from guests who didn’t have such a magical experience, click here.
A Celebration of Harry Potter – videos
For those of our readers who would like to seen an extended look at the Harry Potter Celebration activities from Day 1 & Day 2, we’ve provided these YouTube videos of the complete kick off event, Expo, and Day 2 panel discussions:
A Celebration of Harry Potter – photo gallery
Click any image to view it full-screen. When the full-screen image is open, click to the right or use the right arrow on your keyboard to advance through the gallery.
Day 1: Diagon Alley & Harry Potter Tribute
Day 2: Panel discussion & Expo
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