Last year I visited Disneyland for the first time at the age of 29. The three-day magical experience came right off the back of a month-long volunteer commitment that ended up being extremely mentally and emotionally draining. Disneyland was a cure for my depleted happiness stores.
The two days that followed my blissful Disneyland adventure were also filled with a couple of other theme-parks in California. I wondered to myself: will I find something as incredible as Disneyland? Will either of these parks even come close to the magic that Disney has? The short answer: No.
Saturday morning, the day after we said goodbye to Disneyland, I woke up feeling deflated. Things just didn’t feel the same as they had the previous day. We had moved from our cute Disney-local hotel to an AirBnB place across town that didn’t feel as welcoming. My mother and sister were both suffering from red, sore and blistered legs. This is actually not an uncommon thing, and Google told us that it is sometimes known as “the Disney rash” (it comes after prolonged walking in the heat, and is super sore). After several late nights (which I simply cannot handle nowadays!) I was feeling very tired, and the mental trials I had faced over the previous month during my volunteer time with the wolves were seeping back into my mind.
But surely, there was hope, no? We were off to Universal Studios!
The most exciting part of Universal Studios for me was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I love Harry Potter. I read the books as a teenager and reread them with my partner recently (he had never finished them before). My sister and her husband are complete fans, too; they had a Harry Potter-themed cake for their engagement, and at their wedding my sister walked down the aisle to the Harry Potter opening theme. I think out of all of us my sister’s husband was the most excited to be venturing to Universal Studios’ version of Hosgmeade, and was literally bouncing with glee once we redeemed our tickets and made our way into the park.
Something I noticed right away was that there was construction almost everywhere you looked. While Disneyland kept their construction to after-hours so as not to disrupt the immersion, Universal Studios didn’t hold back. There were all sorts of machines shrieking and screaming behind walls of thin plywood. Small posters spouting phrases such as “pardon my dust, I’m under construction” did nothing to relieve some of the disturbance you couldn’t help but feel. For me it was certainly a disappointment.
Even so, on seeing the huge archway for Hogsmeade my childish joy ignited completely. We had a quick look at some stores, then made our way in to the Three Broomsticks for an absolutely delicious English-style big breakfast. The pumpkin juice and butterbeer were divine, the food was wonderful, the setting was amazing. After we ate our fill it was imperative that we buy our school robes and matching scarves. Gryffindor for me, Slytherin for my sister and Ravenclaw for my brother-in-law. My partner was not quite on board with that – considering the price of the robes that was probably a wise choice.
Then it was off to the Harry Potter motion master. The line was ridiculous – thankfully we had fast passes (our travel agent had found us a deal where we were able to get one fast pass per ride), so jumped ahead. You weren’t allowed bags on the ride, so we had to pay for a temporary locker space. One thing I noticed about this park was that they certainly like to clip the ticket wherever they can; it’s very, very commercial. At Disneyland I felt like a treasured guest, but here there was a lot of pressure to be a frequently paying consumer. In saying that, the motion master was incredible and certainly worth the small cost of the locker. However I’m not sure I would have felt satisfied after waiting in the queue for as long as people were expected to, but that’s just me.
Then we thought we would have a look at Ollivander’s – the famous wand store. There was a queue outside of it (I wasn’t really sure why, at this point), so we chatted away until finally being let in with a larger group.
On entering the store we found ourselves in a small wooden chamber. We were given a bit of a spiel about how wands work (they choose you, you know) before being let in to the next room. There was a wooden bench top, bookshelves full of books reaching up to the high ceiling, a staircase leading to a mysterious place – and on the staircase, waiting for us, was an intriguing shop assistant draped in magical robes.
I looked around, noting a vase of flowers sitting high up on a shelf. I had heard about this… It was a ceremony. We were here to witness someone receiving their wand. There are blog posts floating around the internet about how to be chosen. I haven’t read any of them. I was surrounded by excited kids and adults alike. I didn’t expect to be chosen. But I was.
The shop assistant singled me out from the crowd, and had me step forward, telling everyone in the room that magical talent can come at any age. In my typical fashion I instantly felt massive guilt for being chosen over my sister or brother-in-law. But I was so excited. I had been chosen to receive a magical wand from Ollivander’s!
The shop assistant gave me some different wands to try. She had me attempt spells – of course, the first couple of wands did not work, and I ended up killing the flowers in the vase high up in the bookcase. But finally, a wand pushed itself out of the bookshelf toward me. The shop assistant held it, and noted that she thought this was the one. I attempted a spell, and it went perfectly. A glowing light illuminated me as I realised: my wand had found me. It was a magical, breath-stopping moment.
The magical spell of the captivating ceremony, however, was broken as soon as we were ushered into the actual store where people could purchase wands of their own. A teller was waiting for me; he congratulated me on being chosen, and wasted no time in telling me the price of the wand. Ah – of course – you have to buy it. I mean, of course you do. Of course. But how lovely would it be if people who were chosen at these ceremonies got to keep their wands? My partner lovingly pointed out that in our group we were the only ones dressed in Hogwarts robes – no doubt the staff are trained to look for people who are fans and most likely to spend the money. The magic was over, and I was just another duped customer.
I gave in and bought the wand. It was a more expensive version than the standard aesthetically-accurate wands, and actually interacted with some of the shop-fronts (you have to perform certain ‘spells’, and certain things will move in the shop windows, etc.). I lost interest in that fairly quickly, though, my feelings of “this place really wants to suck the money out of you” quite overpowering.
There was a lot more of the park to explore, so we left Hogsmeade and headed off to some other attractions. A stand-out for me was the Studio Tour. I didn’t know that it would be a ride in its own right, and it was fantastic. I would definitely recommend it.
The other rides for me weren’t very memorable. Any animatronics were not as well done as Disneyland, and I just wasn’t getting that feel of magic. By the end of the day we were all pretty tired, and quite happy to head home. However, just as we were deciding to leave we noted that there was a stunt show starting soon. Figuring that we may as well use our fast passes to get a seat, we found ourselves in a large arena in front of a set of WaterWorld (a film I still haven’t seen). A cast member introduced himself to us and sprayed people with water, cracking jokes as he did so, as people filed in to the arena. We warmed to him instantly, and it certainly cheered me up a bit.
The Universal Studios WaterWorld stunt show was incredible. The acting was fantastic, the stunts were impressive, and the whole set was simply amazing. There were costumed jet skis, there were death-defying heights, there was a storyline, there were explosions, even an airplane crash-landed (WHAT!!?) – I’m not a huge action movie fan, but I could certainly appreciate the amount of work that went into this show. It was a fantastic way to end the day.
The following day was that of rest for my mum, sister and brother-in-law, but my partner and I were off to Knott’s Berry Farm. My partner was looking for the ultimate rollercoaster, whereas I was hoping for something cute and quiet.
Knott’s Berry was fun – I enjoyed the themed “ghost town” most of all (probably thanks to my obsession with LARPing), and I found the atmosphere to be a smidge more captivating than Universal Studios, but once again it wasn’t Disneyland, not by far. My partner managed to rope me into going on one of the scariest rollercoasters (made of wood; it creaks and strains as you climb higher and higher, and moves so fast going down that I couldn’t breathe!), but even that didn’t satisfy his craving to find something truly adrenaline-pumping. The ultimate rollercoaster remains undiscovered!
Our theme park week lasted five days including Disneyland. While Universal Studios was fun, I enjoyed the atmosphere and rides of Knott’s Berry Farm more, but Disneyland was the absolute winner for me. We also went to Medieval Times for dinner one night (which again, as a LARPer, I quite enjoyed, despite its incredible cheesiness. My partner loved the fact that at dinner there was no cutlery). It was a hectic, tiring five days, and if I did it again I would probably decide to stay at Disneyland. But what a wonderful way to have a family reunion.