One of the main reasons my sister and I chose to stay on Universal Studios property was the access to early admission into the park, specifically for the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That in and of itself made it a no brainer, for early access to the park meant early access to blissful nirvana. And while waking up at 6am (especially since Sister in particular is not a fan of mornings), it was beyond worth it. Over the next two days we would discover that that one extra little hour allowed us the ability to win everything.
Fortunately for us, the hotel was equipped with a fully functional Starbucks, so we were able to grab an iced coffee before hopping on the shuttle over to the park entrance. As we approached the gates, coffee in hand, I felt the excitement rise, as if a young spritely child seeing a theme park for the first time. I have no shame in the fact that I immediately started plotting how we could run ahead of the little kids and families surrounding us on either side. I inherited my event/travel planning skills from my father. I really don't know who I inherited my skills of rabid determination when I finally set my sights on a goal. But both of those combined resulted in sprinting tunnel vision as the gates were flung open and we had to make our way to the back of the park where Harry Potter World stands in luminescence. Sister was none too pleased when she realized I was not at all kidding about the speed with which our mission must be undertaken, but she rallied appropriately.
Once we arrived at the WWOHP archway, we immediately put our preconceived strategy into action. Instead of following the crowd through Hogsmeade up to Hogwarts Castle, we instead hopped right in line to get our wands at Ollivanders. We were able to be the first group ushered into the dark and eerie chamber in which Mr. Ollivander himself waits to bestow a wand on one lucky recipient. Tragically, the great wizard chose a young kid who may or may not have even understood the importance of such a ceremony, one of my few complaints with the park being the lack of wizarding education bestowed upon so many wandering youth. Even so, Sister and I were incredibly grateful when we were brought into the adjoining shop and able to choose our wands. It is rather a disappointment that not everyone gets to be chosen by a wand and even more so that you only get to know what wood the wand is made of, not what ingredients make up its core, but in the end we found sufficient soul-matches.
Sister and I decided on wands that corresponded with our birthday so as to relinquish at least some of the decision. Interestingly, when I brought my wand to the register I was told it was actually not meant for September (my birthday), but a different month. Deciding to let fate take its course, I stuck with the beautiful willow wand within my fingertips, knowing in my heart of hearts that the core was a majestic phoenix feather... the wand chooses the wizard.
And so with wands safely in hand, we left the shop and decided to jump right on the Hogwarts Express over to Diagon Alley. Since the rest of the park doesn't open until 9am, we would still arrive before the masses made lines impossible. We were able to cast a few quick spells in various shop windows before boarding the train and finding ourselves in the very first car. This experience is a tame little ride with window projections meant to display the Scottish countryside and various other sights you might see en route up to the school of witchcraft and wizardry. On the other side, you get off at King's Cross Station and find yourself on a typical London road. It actually took Sister and I a few minutes to figure out where the entrance to Diagon Alley was. We even asked a local park worker who replied in all seriousness, "What's Diagon Alley?" The staff was truly in it to win it.
As we bounced around the brick lined walls providing a path into the alley, we had no idea what astonishments we would find. As soon as we stepped into the open space, we saw a giant dragon atop Gringotts Wizarding Bank, a sign for the Leaky Cauldron and a darkened alley sure to be that of Knockturn. We had come home. This side of the park is easily twice as big as the other, providing even more shops, signs and general magic merriment to indulge in visual feast. My breath was physically taken away as we hightailed it to the "Escape from Gringotts Ride", our first truly thrilling experience.
Now, the night before, Sister and I had spent some time obsessing over whether or not these rides were actually "rollercoasters" in the typical sense. I, for one, am no fan of falling a hundred feet to my simulated death. We googled, we asked friends, and we magicked our minds into daring submission. As we stowed our bags in the mandatory lockers outside of the ride, we found ourselves in an incredibly quick line through Gringotts and up to the train cart platform. This ride was set up much more like a rollercoaster, so I admit that my heart began beating wildly in my chest. As the cart proceeded forward and we were momentarily placed at a rather severe incline, I was certainly fearful for my life. That probably explains why, as we jetted down the one and only 30-foot drop on the track, I did in fact scream "I am going to die!" and then proceeded to laugh hysterically for a good minute after.
Irregardless, "Escape from Gringotts" turned out to be my absolutely favorite ride. We immediately got back in line for a second attempt and were able to take a bit more time as we walked through the banking halls observing the goblins and other magical paraphernalia. We spent the next couple of hours wandering through shops like Weasleys Wizard Wheezes, Florean Fortescue’s Ice-cream Parlour, and Flourish and Blotts. We had delicious (though super sweet) frozen butterbeer, pumpkin juice and gillywater. We had lunch at the Leaky Cauldron, accompanied by a stiff firewhisky mixed with cider, and a stout Wizard's Brew.
Once we had had our temporary fill of all that Diagon Alley had to offer (and I say temporary because there is really never enough), we decided to wander through some of the other areas of Universal, leaving a thorough expedition through Hogsmeade for the following morning. We figured this would be the best way to optimize avoidance of lines and excessive crowds. I won't write much about the rest of Universal because it was mainly beneath my notice, but we did have a nice dinner back in the City Walk before heading home to the hotel for an early night.
I remember once telling someone that I was an "actor who didn't like to act." I have long since known that what I never liked about acting is that you were just pretending to do awesome things rather than truly doing them. I didn't want to pretend to be a hobbit in Middle Earth, I wanted to actually frolic through Rivendell and climb up Mount Doom. This day was closer to magical submersion than I have ever yet been. It was magic. It was myth. It was merriment. It was me. (Tra la la ha ha).