Jim Barnes bones up on the Harry Potter books for a family trip (with grown-up kids) to Universal Orlando...
The first minutes of 2020 were unlike any other New Year's celebration I had experienced.
Standing in the chilly Florida night beside my family, I was watching a spectacular fireworks display over the lake at Universal Orlando Resort, my right hand clutching a 17 ½-inch magic wand.
The magic started a year ago, after my son Will remarked that his favourite New Year's had been a decade earlier, at Disney World with his high school marching band.
When my wife, Juli, said she had long wanted to visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Will suggested that the entire family gather the following New Year's.
My daughters, Maddy and Katie, and their husbands, Robin and Mike - who are in their 20s and 30s - were all in. And just like that, we began planning our first family vacation in more than a decade.
We recalled the challenges of shepherding young children - and later, fearless teenagers - through theme parks, and wondered what it would be like traveling with our kids now that they were independent, strong-willed adults. But any trepidation we felt was more than offset by the knowledge that we were no longer responsible for planning and organising everything.
There was only one problem. Although my kids had eagerly devoured every Harry Potter book as soon as it was released, I had never read any, nor had I seen the movies.
I recall lively dinner conversations where I tuned out because my family was discussing characters and plotlines I knew nothing about. Afraid that I would be clueless in Orlando, I made a New Year's resolution to read all the Harry Potter books by the end of the year.
Fortunately, I loved them, and was able to finish them all by summer. When we gathered in Orlando, I knew Snape from Slughorn, was familiar with the defining characteristics of goblins and garden gnomes, and had a rudimentary knowledge of spells such as "Incendio" and "Riddikulus."
Will, a seasoned traveller, handled the ticketing, air transportation and lodging arrangements. And although Orlando fills up with holiday travellers in late December, he found excellent accommodations for us at the Holiday Inn Express at SeaWorld, about a 20-minute drive from Universal.
It took nearly 30 minutes for us to manoeuvre through the holiday crowds as we trekked from the vast parking lot to Diagon Alley, our first stop. Remembering long-ago vacations when we struggled to keep our family together as we pushed strollers through crowded theme parks, I sympathised with the slowly moving parents we passed, glad to be taking advantage of what might be a short window to take trips with our kids before another generation of travellers enters the picture.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is divided between two parks, separated by about a 25-minute walk. Diagon Alley, a representation of the London shopping district where Harry and his friends, Hermione and Ron, buy school supplies, is in Universal Studios. Hogwarts Castle and the village of Hogsmeade are tucked in a corner of Universal's Islands of Adventure.
We had opted for a two-day, "park-to-park" pass that granted admission to both parks, as well as the Hogwarts Express - a five-minute train ride connecting the two attractions - for $294.99/€270 per person.
There were fewer strollers once we entered Diagon Alley. Although most of the families in the Wizarding World included school-age children, we also saw plenty of young adults and some groups that appeared to be multigenerational adult families like ours.
Our first stop was Ollivanders wand shop, where a robed gentleman presided over a wand-choosing ceremony. He selected a boy named Liam, who was about 9, to try out the wands.
Reminding us that "the wand selects the wizard," Ollivander handed Liam a series of wands. On his third try, flashes of light indicated that Liam had successfully cast his spell. He was then dismissed into the store so that his parents could purchase the wand, and the rest of us followed.
The tall shelves were packed with hundreds of wand boxes. The wands start at about $49/€44, but it was well worth paying a few extra dollars for an interactive wand that can be used to cast spells (using LED technology) at about 30 locations throughout the parks. We bought three wands to share among the seven of us and followed the map that came with them to find the medallions embedded at each spot we could use them.
I stood at a medallion near Flimflam's Lanterns, pointed my wand and attempted my first "Incendio" spell, trying to follow the pattern I was supposed to draw in the air. Remembering Hermione's instructions, Katie advised me to use my wrist rather than my whole arm: "Swish and flick." I'll admit that I felt a measure of pride when, after a couple of tries, I was able to successfully light a candle, thereby disturbing a canary.
Although I was hesitant to try casting spells in front of a crowd of onlookers, Juli and our daughters had no qualms about standing in line with young children to test their wizarding skills. I could tell from the delighted expression on Katie's face that she was having as much fun as any 11-year-old when she was finally successful in using a "Wingardium Leviosa" spell to make a feather hover in the air.
There were some advantages to exploring the Wizarding World only with adults. At times, we decided to split up while exploring the quirky shops and attractions of Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley, or when certain rides didn't appeal to everyone in the group. Our smartphones made it easy for us to reassemble when ready.
The Leaky Cauldron and the Three Broomsticks, the main Harry Potter-themed restaurants, had menus that were geared for adults - British pub favourites such as shepherd's pie and toad in the hole, as well as alcoholic beverages.
It can be challenging for the vegetarians in our group to find sustenance in theme parks. But the Leaky Cauldron offered a hearty ploughman's lunch that included salad, cheeses, tomatoes and pickled beets. And I enjoyed my meal of fish and chips.
At the Fountain of Fair Fortune, we sampled butterbeer, which was well-suited for children but a little too sweet for our adult palates. Maddy observed that it tasted like cream soda topped by butterscotch foam. Some in our group also tried pumpkin juice and butterbeer ice cream cones, which they preferred.
A park employee told us that the last two weeks in December are Universal's busiest of the year. The streets and shops were indeed crowded, and long wait times were posted for the most popular rides. If we had been traveling with small children, we might have considered springing for express passes at $90/€82 per person, so as to skip the lines.
We decided we couldn't afford a four-hour wait for the newest ride, Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. But we chose to wait about two hours each for two rides: Escape From Gringotts and the Forbidden Journey, the latter of which we approached by inching through the dim, winding corridors of Hogwarts Castle.
Juli and I enjoyed spending that time in line with our kids, whom we see only a few times a year. Catching up with them and chatting about Harry Potter characters and plot twists was one of my favourite parts of our trip. We noticed another group of adults making the best of the wait, pressing smartphones to their foreheads as they played an uproarious game of "Heads Up!"
Not having seen the movies, I missed some of the frequent movie references in the rides. But, as we dived and swooped to dodge Dementors and Death Eaters, the furious action and big-screen special effects were so intense that it didn't really matter whether I knew exactly what was going on.
Overall, despite being a relative newbie to Harry Potter, I was able to hold my own with my family's self-described Harry Potter nerds. I felt I had much more in common with them than the man Maddy spotted wearing a T-shirt that read, "I'm only here to satisfy my wife's Riddikulus obsession."
Our Harry Potter adventure culminated in a magnificent holiday sound and light show projected onto Hogwarts Castle, followed by Universal's New Year's fireworks show. Best of all, experiencing it all with my family made for a magical beginning to 2020.
Quick Guide: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Harry Potter attractions are divided between two of the resort's parks: Universal Studios (Diagon Alley) and Islands of Adventure (Hogsmeade). To see the entirety of the Wizarding World requires tickets to both parks; the Hogwarts Express train shuttles guests between.
Diagon Alley includes shops such as Weasleys' Wizard Wheezes joke shop; Madam Malkin's, which sells robes, shirts and other spirit wear representing the four houses of Hogwarts; and Florean Fortescue's Ice-Cream Parlour.
Gringotts Money Exchange, topped by a fire-breathing dragon, has the Escape From Gringotts ride.
Hogsmeade features Honeydukes sweet shop; Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, a ride that departs from Hogwarts Castle; and the Wizarding World's newest ride, Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure.
The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley and Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade are the main Harry Potter-themed restaurants and feature British favourites such as bangers and mash and ploughman's lunch.
One-day tickets for entry to both parks are $174 plus tax for adults and $169 plus tax for children ages 3 to 9; children 2 and younger free. Packages including lodging at the resort and access to multiple parks are also available.
See visitorlando.com/en for more.
(c) The Washington Post 2020