Harry Potter and Universal Studios

I might never go to Disney World again after a trip to Universal Studios in Orlando to see the Wizarding World of Dragon breathing fire atop Grigott's bankHarry Potter. The magic of activating animatronics from the wave of a wand, the perfection of detail, and the absolute visceral experience of the food, the rides, the shops, and the wonder of it all brought my inner child out to play. In this brilliant rendering of the settings of the Harry Potter series, dragons roar fire. Wands work. Butter beer, which is non-alcoholic, tastes like butterscotch-flavored root beer. Moaning Myrtle whines in the Girls bathroom.

The candy store sells chocolate frogs. The rides are fast and tip forward, backward and take rapid turns, so riders have to offload packpacks, purses, and loose items in lockers beforehand. I wish I had taken my cellphone to capture images of the twisting passageways and interior of the building leading up to the ride. We were told to leave anything we couldn’t secure in a pocket in the lockers, so I left my phone and bag in a locker. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride (in Hogsmeade inside Hogwarts) exceeded my expectations tenfold. As the ride flies under bridges and over buildings, riders lift their feet as if to clear the objects. My second-favorite ride is Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts (in Diagon Alley).

Escape from Gringotts includes special glasses for wowza 3D effects. The Hogwarts Express carries visitors between Universal Studios (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Diagon Alley) and Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade) and is a wondrous ride in itself, full of illusion and magic. When you go, be sure to buy the park-to-park pass so you can travel on the train between the two parts of the Harry Potter’s London and Hogwarts worlds. Riders sit in train car booths just like the ones in the movies. train to HogwartsDiagon Alley is secreted away behind the plainest of entrances in Universal Studios. I adore that we had to hunt for this magical place. Within Diagon Alley in another hidden alley–Nocturne Alley. This is the darkest, coldest place in the world of Harry Potter, a place where Slytherins feel at home and wicked plots are hatched. Okay, yeah, you can also buy glass skulls and ornate t-shirts that cheer for team death eaters. This is a place where wizards wander in costume, both visitors and workers alike. Want your own Gryffindor scarf or robes? They are in Diagon Alley. Need a wand? They are available in a shop with crooked shelves stacked higher and higher and higher.

WeGringott bank teller dined at the Leaky Cauldron on British-style food with family. Fish and chips, bangers and mash, cottage pie, and more Butter Beer. The high-beamed ceiling had carved ornaments of horses, dragons, and such at the ends of the beams. And yes, a huge leaky cauldron. The food was far better than usual theme park fare.

Though I live thirty minutes from Universal Studios in Orlando, this is my first trip to see the Harry Potter addition. I suppose there are New Yorkers who have never seen Niagra Falls, and folks in Wyoming who haven’t seen Yellowstone National Park, right? Oh, all these years to miss something so spectacular in my own back yard….sigh.

The level of detail is stunning. Every walkway, passageway, building, shop, and ride evoked a wondrous sense of being in the world of Harry Potter. I almost bought a wand just for the map that came with it. If I had been ten years old, I would have used my hard-earned allowance to walk around Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade to use it. The special places where the wands can be tested are marked on the ground with a circular inlaid brass symbol. I watched a girl of six wave her wand according to her father’s instructions and the wand triggered the lights in a building to illuminate.

Scott and Sonja at Hogwarts

Scott and Sonja at Hogwarts

After finding the perfect ministry of magic t-shirt, I signed the receipt with a feather pen. The details were spot on at every turn. Even the shop clerk was in character as he warned me in ominous tones not to pretend to work for the ministry of magic because it might carry consequences.

Elizabeth and the Hogwarts Express.

Elizabeth and the Hogwarts Express.

If you’ve seen the movies or read the books–or like me, have done both–then skip Disney, go experience the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando. Play like a kid again. You will salute J.K. Rowling with a Butter Beer.

Book Hoarding Made Easy

Family dragged me into the digital age of reading books on a screen. I wasn’t really kicking and screaming, more like whining. At first I balked that the screen didn’t have the heft, the tactile knowledge of nearing the last chapter, the smell of ink and paper, and the visual reminder of a world once explored. And then how could I get a copy signed by an author? Okay, and I also harbor a general leeriness toward fad-of-the-moment technology. What if digital book technology was like the Sony Walkman, pagers, Betamax, Super 8/8mm video cameras, laser disc players, floppy discs, or 8-track type players? Why bother deciphering the user manual if the thing would soon go the way of the manual typewriter?

All whining quieted after Hubby bought me a Kindle. A generous soul by nature, hubby gave me this device for a thoughtful reason and a selfish one. The thoughtful reason catered to my voracious appetite for reading. The Kindle enabled me to buy books instantly, and who doesn’t love instant gratification?


The selfish reason hubby bought the Kindle was to satisfy his longing for more order on the bookcases in our home. Stacking books two deep on shelves didn’t appeal to his aesthetics. He often urged me to read the books we own before buying more. But honey, I said, when I go to writers conferences they GIVE me books…and the used bookstore in town takes trade-ins. Supply and demand remained in balance for the most part. Fine. I’ll admit that I spend money on books as fearlessly as congress spends our tax dollars. Not on that scale, mind you, but with equal abandon.


Could I be a hoarder? My name is Joni. I am a book hoarder. Wait, no. Let’s call it collecting. Hoarding books isn’t as frightening as say, hoarding broken clocks, or mismatched china, or human teeth. Right? The signs of hoarding include:

  1. keeping things most other people don’t value.
  2. being unable to use parts of one’s house for their intended purpose.
  3. having so much clutter that it causes distress or impairment.

Like good manners, I suppose many people these days don’t value books as they once did. I can’t use the sofa in the study because of the stack of books on it. And–uh, oh–hubby is distressed by the stacks and I’m too embarrassed to show photos of the worst of the overstuffed bookcases. Egad. I’m three for three. My daughter might be dialing a reality tv show producer at this moment. So many it’s time for a Kindle.


The first major selling point on the Kindle was the vast collection of freebie classics! Free! Like a kid in a candy store, I think I drooled  as I scrolled through pages of freebies. I’ve lost so many books over the years from lending them out to moving from Indiana to Louisiana to Florida that uploading classics felt like reclaiming long-lost friends.


The second major selling point on the Kindle was the promise of magic–being able to pack HUNDREDS of books in my purse. Like Mary Poppins’ carpetbag, or Hermione’s magical handbag carrying a tent and supplies for Harry Potter and Ronald Weasley, the Kindle contains worlds. In the mood for a hilarious romance? Click on a title by Kristin Higgins. Horror? Stephen King and Dean Koontz’s works are a touch away. Various versions of the Bible at the ready and word searchable. Sort your collection by title, by author, or by most-recently uploaded with a Midas touch. Honestly, I couldn’t find which room, let alone which bookshelf a particular fiction book might be in my house. This magic slab of plastic and metal will keep all nineteen–soon to be twenty–of Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum books together in one place instead of migrating from house to car to suitcase to friends. Organization and instant access, the device is my personal librarian, or a genie at my command.


The third major selling point on digital books is that oh-so-handy Kindle application that can connect me to my digital library from my laptop, a tablet, a smart phone, or my Kindle. Never again will hubby and I have to wrestle over the only copy of Dan Brown’s latest book. If the house blows away in a hurricane, my digital book collection will be safely stored in the cloud.


The fourth major selling point, the one that obliterates my last objection, is that authors can digitally sign books. I have amassed signed books from over 100 of my favorite authors. These books reside in a glass-enclosed bookcase in the study where children cannot play with them. Meeting the author adds more meaning to the book. Each book signing marks the bond between author and reader. Even though I am an author, I am first a reader, a devourer of stories. Though I haven’t asked for a digital signature from an author yet, the time will come. And who knows when an author might sit beside me on a plane? It will be easy to have a copy of his or her work on hand.

So when pastor sees me looking down into the glow of my device during service he might suspect I’m texting, or trolling the internet, but I’m following along in King James, New American Standard, and New International Version. Because I can.

So there. Let book purists weep over me. I’ve gone to the dark side, gone to digital for the freebies, for the instant access, for the ease of finding one book among hundreds, and to prevent buying a fourteenth bookcase. Now only Amazon.com and I will know how many books I’ve hoarded. Hehehehe. And no, I’m not getting rid of the cloth, leather, or paperback bound books filling our bookcases. Sometimes I still need the feel and smell of them.