The boys and I are Potterphiles, not to a crazy degree but we love the books and the movies. One of the best things we have ever done is go on the Harry Potter Studio Tour at Levesden in London. Therefore, when we arrived at the Universal Studios theme park, the first area we headed to was Harry Potter’s London. The Harry Potter area had been built in the place where the Jaws ride used to be. This caused a great deal of upset for our 7 year old who had been desperately wanting to meet the monster shark. Thankfully we encountered a model of the shark dangling on a pier so the kids could indeed meet Jaws. They were absolutely delighted. The Harry Potter area, therefore, had to exceed the kids’ expectations in order to make up for the loss of Jaws.
After walking past the frontage of Grimmauld Place (where the boys stopped to have their photo taken on the steps of number 12, the safe house for the Order of the Phoenix) and a replica of the Knight Bus, we slipped through a hole in the brick wall and emerged into Diagon Alley. The attention to detail was spectacular, replicating all those wonderful little bits and bobs that made the wizarding world so immersive in the books and films. Everywhere my eyes landed there was something interesting to look at. But there was no time for that because we were on a mission so we clattered quickly along the cobbled streets to Gringotts Bank.
Sitting atop the Bank, poised and ready to take flight, was the poor, pale, maltreated dragon who had guarded several of the vaults and who aided the escape of Harry, Hermoine and Ron after their horcrux search. That was a detail that really packed a punch. My Mother-in-Law decided against going on the ride so she waited in Diagon Alley with all of our backpacks as there was a diktat that bags were not permitted on the ride and were instead to be left in lockers. The lockers were free to use but it was useful to be able to avoid the faff, hassle and time involved in setting them up, which appeared to involve using our fingerprints which had been recorded upon entry. That alas meant leaving my DSLR behind too and relying on my camera phone to record the interior of Gringotts Bank. For someone as snap happy as I am, that was frustrating.
The queue snaked us through Gringotts Bank, first into the marble floored administrative area where goblin clerks beavered away on their accounts below vast, sparkling chandeliers and then into the walkways and winding staircases that led to the wagons that would take us into the vaults. The ride was a mixture of movement, physical and optical effects all seamlessly blended together to make a completely exhilarating ride. Projections of characters from the movie appeared before us looking completely three dimensional, the wagon swung us around at high speed as we navigated the vault chambers and, of course, there was a huge fire-breathing dragon to contend with. It was incredible. I am not one for fast or scary rides at all but that Gringotts Bank Escape ride was the best theme park ride I have ever been on, hands down and no question.
The next ride we went on was the Men in Black ride. We sat in carts that ceaselessly spun as from side to side as we travelled through scenes depicting amusing, brightly coloured aliens rampaging in the city. The idea was that we had to use our ray guns to hit laser targets on each alien character but I think any I hit was out of luck and coincidence because the constant movement and spinning made it impossible for me – with my below par hand-eye coordination – to aim accurately. I just kept my finger on the trigger and blasted. A concluding spin was particularly sick-making. I felt rather dizzy when I left the ride.
However, the dizziness of the Men in Black Ride was nothing compared to the nausea of the Simpsons Ride. Mr Pict, our oldest and youngest boys and I all went on it and – with the exception of the 5 year old who seems to have a cast-iron stomach – we were all green about the gills almost immediately. It was a simulator ride whereby its movements aligned with an animation on a large screen in front of us. The animation was set in a theme park so it was action-packed, fast-paced and involved a lot of chaotic movement as the Simpson family made all sorts of attempts to escape the psychotic clutches of Sideshow Bob. It was the single most nauseating ride I have ever been on. I seriously thought I was going to unload my stomach contents all over the back of the man sitting in front of me. Thankfully – for him and for me – the ride ended just in time to prevent that happening. I was very glad of fresh air and solid ground when we emerged back into the sunlight. Mr Pict and the kids then went on a rotating, up and down ride, sitting in cars at the end of the alien Kodos or Kang which made me feel stomach-churningly ill just to watch them.
Clearly it was time for something much more sedate so we wandered over to Disaster, a combination of a demonstration show and experience exploring the genre of disaster movies. The kids and I love a good, by which I mean cheesy and hackneyed, disaster movie (our favourite being ‘The Poseidon Adventure’). Gathered in the lobby, the first stage of the experience was casting and to our surprise and glee, Mr Pict was selected for one of the roles. The kids were giddy with the excitement of seeing their Daddy participate in the show. Next we were treated to the spectacle of the live person who had introduced the experience interacting with a three dimensional projection of Christopher Walken, portraying the B movie director about to create the film.
The next section was informative, a simple but effective demonstration of how certain effects are achieved in movies using green screen and angles. The delivery was done with great humour and we in the audience were all chuckling throughout. Mr Pict and two other volunteers were told they were representing mad scientists who were filmed open-mouthed and hands flapping as if caught in some dramatic commotion. It was all very entertaining. Filming complete, we were all ushered – cast and audience – into a replica subway train which became the scene of a disaster movie. Earthquake, pipes on fire, rushing water. It was all rollicking fun. The best part, however, the piece de resistance, was getting to see the movie that had made from the footage we had seen being filmed. Obviously the scenes were dropped into a pre-existing movie structure but the speed with which it was edited together even on that basis was impressive. It was hilarious. Seeing the witty way in which each of the elements we had seen being filmed was incorporated into the fake disaster movie trailer was very clever and very humorous. Of course, the kids gave an extra loud guffaw when they saw their Daddy on the screen. It may not have had all the bells and whistles of the big event rides but it was brilliant fun.
Sticking to the “classic” groove, next on the agenda was the ET ride. I had been on the same ride at the Universal in California in 2000. Nothing had changed, not one element evolved or updated to take account of technological developments. I quite liked it for that. Classic movie; retro ride. It revolved around the iconic bike ride scene and the return of ET to his home planet. We clambered aboard sets of bicycles and lifted off and upwards, past assorted random alien chums of ET and finally to ET’s home planet. My kids all gasped in delight during the home planet section, flapping their hands in excitement as they pointed here, there and everywhere, emitting audible “aw” sounds. Before commencing the ride, we had each had to give our first names which had been swiped onto a card that was collected as we boarded our flying bikes. This was so that ET could be programmed to say our names as we departed, a little word of gratitude for us helping him return to his home planet. Back in 2000, that element of the ride had failed on me and, instead of saying my name, ET had made a sound like a liquidy burp. This time, therefore, when he uttered the name “Laura” I might just have bopped up out of my seat a little and fist pumped. Sad yet true.
We left ET behind with his alien friends just in time for an adjacent live show to commence. This was an Animal Actors show that we knew would very much appeal to our youngest two boys in particular. It was ostensibly a demonstration of some of the methods used to train animals for performing on film and television but really it was a showcase for the various animals to perform. The whole show was very well co-ordinated and choreographed. There was never a dull moment as a hawk (from the ‘Mummy’ films) swooped over the crowd, a pig revealed messages on notice boards, cats ran around all over the stage and a flock of pigeons flew over our heads and back again. The stars of the show, however, were definitely the dogs. It was they who did the majority of the demonstrating of techniques and who received the biggest applause. Our youngest boys are obsessed with pugs – and the 7 year old even plans to call his potential pet pug Russell – so they were over the moon to see Frank from ‘Men in Black II’. After the show had ended, the kids got to go and meet some of the animal actors and they were thrilled to meet Frank.
We then caught another live show but an entirely unexpected one. As the boys ate ice cream, we watched a troupe of breakdancers. They had great patter and brilliant moves. They performed solo and impressed but they were magnificent when performing in unison, which they did as their performance’s grand finale, undulating as one long caterpillar and jump-flipping across a line of people. There was also some amusing audience participation that made me very relieved that I had not been plucked from the crowd to join in. I am happy to relive the ‘80s as far as visiting ET is concerned but attempting breakdancing would have been a retro escapade too far.
Our second proper queue of the day was for the Shrek 4D show and it was not a long queue at all by theme park standards, only a fraction of the queue we had had for Gringotts Bank. The animated short made use of the familiar characters from the ‘Shrek’ universe but in a story designed specifically to synchronise with the 4D experience. The 3D was well done and there were the usual jolts and vibrations, sprays of water and blasts of air to create the 4D element. The most effective moment was when a 3D spider combined with our legs being tickled.
From an ogre to monsters. We wanted to see the demonstration of movie monster make-up. The boys and I absolutely love the classic Universal monsters. When our youngest was three, he would tell his friends that ‘Frankenstein’ was his favourite film. A passion for movies is the one geeky thing I have, thus far at least, passed down to my kids. Frankly, therefore, we would have been entirely happy with what we had anticipated, a talk by someone knowledgeable about movie monster cosmetics, prosthetics and animatronics. What we got instead, however, was fantastic and proved to be one of the highlights of the day. I was thrilled to see the structure that operated under the werewolf prosthetics for ‘American Werewolf in London’, one of my favourite films of all time and with special effects that were groundbreaking and which have stood the test of time. However, it was not the educational element that was so entertaining, it was the theatrics. Two actors – one as interviewer and one as make-up artist – performed an extended skit full of audience interaction, witty repartee and slapstick while also demonstrating the odd technique about monster make-up and relating something of the history of movie monsters (permitting me a moment of pride that my children recognised Lon Chaney). It was quite brilliant.
Less brilliant was the Terminator 2 show. Like Shrek, it was another 4D show. This was another show I had experienced in California back in 2000 and I recalled the 3D being particularly striking. The visual technology for the 3D element still stood up, with molten metal seeming to reach out into the audience. What had not stood up to the passage of time was the contextual element for that effect, a blending of projected film and live action on stage. I confess I have never seen ‘Terminator 2’ but I found the narrative of the show incomprehensible. Bewilderment led to a lack of engagement. The film is loved by many sci-fi fans and vintage it might be but that does not necessarily make it a classic movie. Should Universal Studios be looking for some space for a new ride, I think this is the ride that should be made to vacate and create that space.
We Potterphiles wanted to go and soak up more of the atmosphere in Diagon Alley so, while my parents-in-law went off to the Disaster show, we headed back through the hole in the wall of faux London. While obviously lacking the authenticity of the studio tour, the attention to detail and the quality of those details was spectacular. Painted advertisements on walls, signs hanging outside the different shops, the mythical beast gargoyles on one structure, the mermaid fountain were all enchanting. We had a wander into Fred and George Weasley’s joke shop and the kids loved seeing the shelves full of funny items and the recreated shop décor from the movies. It was jam-packed with people, however, so we didn’t stay long, essentially just squeezing from one door through a pack of people and popping out of the other door. That was nothing, however, compared to Ollivander’s wand shop. There was a long line of people snaking along Diagon Alley just waiting to gain entry to the shop. Needless to say, we did not join them and just skipped that store and experience completely. Mr Pict and our 5 year old had never tasted genuine butterbeer having not accompanied the rest of us to the Harry Potter Studio Tour. It was imperative, therefore, that some butterbeer be purchased.
While Mr Pict and our oldest son queued for that – because everything in the Wizarding World involves a whopping queue – the other boys and I headed to the Magical Menagerie to have a look at some mythical beasties. I was quite taken with the window display which involved some very realistic looking giant toads moving in a tank. For the children, however, it was all about the cuddlies. Our 9 year old exclaimed, “I love the merchandise!” Indeed. The 7 year old already owns Buckbeak the Hippogriff and the 5 year old has Fawkes the Phoenix but I think the boys would have given a home to every single cuddly critter in the store had their pocket money stretched that far. There were shelves stacked with owls of different colours, a whole cubby full of unicorns that the 7 year old had to be dragged away from, baskets containing a clutch of eggs from which Norbert the baby dragon was hatching, boxes containing fabulous dragons, toads, pastel coloured pygmy puffs galore, Hermoine’s cat Crookshanks, Fang the slobbery dog and Fluffy the three-headed guard dog. Ultimately, after a lot of indecision and a generous slice of time, the 7 year old bought Scabbers the treacherous rat and the 5 year old bought Aragog the Acromantula spider. Our 11 year old later bought a pixie. Our 9 year old desperately wanted to leave the shop with Nagini the snake in his possession but did not have sufficient funds. He got over it.
We met up with Mr Pict and our 11 year old in a central area of Diagon Alley. A stage was set up and a trio of female singers were in the midst of performing some Motown tunes. I think they were vaguely dressed as Veela, the siren-like witches who participate in the Goblet of Fire tournament. We enjoyed listening to them as we quaffed and supped away at our butterbeers. Butterbeer is a difficult concoction to describe. It is smooth liquid with a creamy, foam head to it and tastes like cream soda and butterscotch with a hint of malted vanilla. I am not particularly fond of any of those things but I do like butterbeer.
Replenished, we were ready to go and face a long queue. It was time to brace ourselves for the long lines of the Despicable Me ride. The 7 and 9 year olds did not want to do the ride so they had a wander around the park with their grandparents while Mr Pict, the 11 and 5 year olds and I baked in the sun and then got drenched in the rain waiting to enter the Minion ride. Our youngest is a Minion fanatic. He cannot get enough of those crazy little yellow guys. Part way through the queuing process there was even a minion parade. We were behind a tall metal fence at the time so we had to peek through gaps to see it. Mr Pict put the little one on his shoulders so that he could get the best view and he loved every moment of it. After the ride was over, our 5 year old even got the meet a pair of minions. He was over the moon and gave them each a big goodbye hug.
The ride itself was another simulator with the seats jolting around in synchronisation with the animated movie we were watching. If I learned one thing from Universal Studios it was this: I cannot do simulators. It should come as no surprise since I get travel sick but the motion of the seats combined with the visuals made me feel supremely nauseous. I had to close my eyes through a large fraction of the ride. I was both dizzy and grateful when I stepped off the ride and back onto stable, solid ground.