Harry Potter Festival 2017

On Saturday we went along to Chestnut Hill’s annual Harry Potter Festival.  This was a make-or-break year for us: we had loved the first two years that we had gone but last year the crowds were just far too intense for us to enjoy the experience.  We had decided then that we would give it one more go to see if the organisers could make the required adaptations to accommodate the growing popularity of the festival and, if not, then it would be our last time going.  I do very much feel for the organisers.  They had come up with the brilliant idea of a themed local festival but its popularity had evidently snowballed faster than their ability to creatively problem solve.  I am, therefore, happy to report that they had done a sterling job of resolving last year’s aggravating problems.  There were far more portapotties than last year (though happily none of us ever had to use them); they had extended the stretch of Germantown Avenue that was pedestrianised;  there were more police officers on duty to enforce the road closures; there was pre-paid wristband entry to specified activities; and there were designated parking lots around the area, including some with shuttle buses.  As a result, it was a much smoother and pleasant experience than last year.


We parked on the campus of a church and from there it was just a gentle stroll to the centre of Chestnut Hill and all of the Harry Potter themed activities.  We decided to start at the top of the Festival, the furthest point from where we had parked, and then work our way back down Germantown Avenue.  We arrived there just as Professor Dumbledore took the stage to officially open the day’s event though we could not get close enough for anyone other than Mr Pict to be able to see over the heads of the crowd gathered around the stage.  We did, however, bump into Lupin, Tonks, and Sirius Black who happily posed with my kids for photos.  That is one of the things we enjoy most about the Festival, seeing all the cosplayers, the visitors dressed in costumes, or the Potterphiles wearing themed clothing.  We saw even more dogs in costume than last year, including one dressed up as an acromantula and one dressed up as a golden snitch.  The common nerdiness generates a warm family friendly atmosphere and a feeling of camaraderie.



We had decided not to buy the wristbands that would have given us access to certain activities.  Partly it was down to expense but it was also because my kids had “been there and done that” in previous festivals.  That did free up funds for indulging in butterbeer, chocolate frogs, and every flavour beans.  Mostly, however, we just enjoyed absorbing the atmosphere, browsing fun stalls full of Potterphile wares – my 10 year old was sorely tempted by pocket watches – looking at displays in shop windows, and enjoying all of the costumes.  The three younger boys did participate in some free activities too and came away with some goodie bags filled with freebies.  My 14 year old was accompanying us under an Imperius Curse so was refusing to engage with any activity beyond strolling and inadvertent people watching.







There were on-street performances to watch too.  We arrived too late to get within eyeballing distance of some of them but we did stop to watch a man carve a block of ice into Dobby the House Elf, we watched some great breakdancers (the Potter connection being unclear), and an acrobat performing in Hogwarts uniform.  There was ample to see and do and this year we were not fighting through crowds or feeling like we were drowning in a sea of people.  After a few hours of ambling, perusing, and taking photographs, however, it was time to return to the car.  Aside from anything else, the younger boys were getting a bit crotchety from the heat and we needed a break from the glare of the sun.  Once we got back to the church campus, however, the younger boys got a second wind and decided to play in the shade of the trees.  They decided that the buildings could be Hogwarts and a wooden platform on the grass could be used as a stage for wizard dueling.  It was a chilled way to end a day of Harry Pottering.  The whole event passed our litmus test.  They had made enough changes to make the growth of the Festival function effectively again and we are very pleased as it means we can return again next year.



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Harry Potter Festival – Our Year Three

On Saturday we visited the Harry Potter Festival held in Chestnut Hill, another suburb of Philadelphia.  This was our third year of visiting and it has become a family tradition to attend.  We almost did not go this year as we had a three way schedule clash to contend with, I have a pretty debilitating chest cold, and the weather was cold and rainy.  My Potterphile kids were aghast at the idea that we might not go along to the Festival this year, bottom lips pouting out like open drawers, so when our schedule clashes were cancelled because of the weather we decided to head on over to Chestnut Hill.

The first year we went to the Festival, it was a delightful experience.  There was lots of space to wander around and really absorb the magical atmosphere and observe the efforts the people of the town had gone to in order to turn their town into Hogsmeade.  There were also very few long queues so the kids could get involved in all sorts of activities and really make the most of the day.  Last year when we went, it was evident that the organisers were struggling to manage the vastly swollen number of visitors.  Longer queues and more crowds meant we had to get the kids to prioritise what they wanted to do because there was no way we could complete their wish list.  This year, I would estimate that the number of people attending had increased tenfold.  It was unbelievably busy for what, in essence, is a local fete – albeit one with a theme that has massive appeal.



We were very lucky to secure a parking spot a few streets back from the town centre so that our walk was not too long, especially given it was cold and raining.  As soon as we hit Germantown Avenue, however, we were met with a wall of people.  I will state that the atmosphere was still brilliant.  A large proportion of those visiting were either in full costume or were wearing clothes related to Harry Potter.  My own children were wearing Harry Potter themed t-shirts but did not have them on display since they were wearing two layers on top.  We had a great time seeing people all dressed up, including a baby in a front carrier dressed as a mandrake and a dog with a harness that turned him into Fluffy the three headed dog.


The crowds, however, were just intense.  There is no other way to describe it.  They got so thick at the train station end of town that it was impossible to move other than be carried along by the crowd.  I spoke to two cops who were being pushed along beside me and one commented that it was a bit crazy thinking about how challenging it would be for them to move quickly towards an incident.  I do not do well in crowds at all.  It makes my anxiety spike and makes me feel aggravated and, with the kids, a little panicky.  Everyone was being completely lovely about being squashed together and were being very accommodating and understanding but it was still pretty stressful.  The numbers of people also meant that the queues for every activity, stall, and shop were staggeringly long.  I overheard a whole lot of people complaining about the dearth of portapotties in town and that queues were often an hour or more long for those that were available.  We were lucky that none of us ever needed a comfort break.



We did manage to squeeze into a couple of activities.  Two of the kids bought potions in the grounds of the Jenks Elementary School and the other two snagged the last two bottles of butterbeer.  They also got to have a go on some manual typewriters which they loved.  It was peculiar to me to think that a machine that saw me through my undergraduate degree was now being considered something antiquated and alien to kids.  They had no idea how to operate them, tapping the keys way too lightly as they would a computer keyboard.  Furthermore, the children (not just mine) seemed to have no idea what to do when they reached the end of the line.  I could  see mine searching the keys for a return button.  I showed them how to push the lever and move the roll along.  And then I realised that a mother standing next to me also had no idea how to operate a manual typewriter.  That made me feel very old.






As Potterphiles, we will definitely return to the Festival next year.  Hopefully lessons will be learned and adaptations made but I wonder if anything can be done (beyond more portapotties and perhaps pedestrianising a larger stretch of road) to really accommodate the massive crowds in attendance.  But we will give it another go next year and see if things have improved so that we can enjoy the Festival again as much as we did in our first two years.

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Pottering at the Harry Potter Festival

We had such a hoot at Chestnut Hill’s Harry Potter Festival last year that we have been counting down the days until it returned.  It was held this past weekend and on Saturday Mr Pict and I took our four boys plus our 10 year old’s friend along to join in the fun and experience the magic.

The first thing that was immediately apparent was how much the Festival has taken off: we thought the place was absolutely packed last year but it was bursting at the seams this year.  It was great to see that the Festival was being so enthusiastically supported and all of the wizards, witches and muggles milling around certainly added to the buzz of the place; however, it was a little too crowded for me.  I don’t do well in crowds anyway but I also don’t do well herding five kids through swarms of people or dealing with the moans of five kids in long queues.  This year they had closed off some cross streets in order to have more space for stalls, activities and events.  I think they would benefit from extending this idea and pedestrianising a section of the street.


We enjoyed seeing the town all decorated so that Chestnut Hill was transformed into Hogsmeade.  There were dementors floating around – including three on a construction site – and owls hiding in trees and giant spiders crawling across the fronts of buildings.  Shops had been transformed into locations from the books, most with some sort of connection such as the sweet shop that had been turned into Honeydukes.  It was even fun just to wander around, look at the people – and pets! – dressed up in costumes and look at window displays.  We were particularly wowed by a trio of cakes in a bakery window: a sorting hat, a wedding cake decorated with golden snitches and a monster book of monsters.



As with last year, the boys enjoyed taking part in lots of the free events.  The grounds of the Elementary School had again been given over to lots of craft activities.  The boys had great fun making wands using all sorts of materials and then they visited the potions stall to buy some bottles of butterbeer and popcorn.  We also visited the Franklin Institute’s stall where they were each given crackers from a cauldron of liquid nitrogen so that they could breathe steaming dragon breath.  We went along to an open air theatre performance of a Defence Against the Dark Arts lesson.  It looked to be fun – and the actor being Harry Potter even had a passing resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe – but there were just too many people in too small a space.  Furthermore, my kids are not very pushy-shovey so could not get anywhere near the front when it came to the interactive elements.  The kids were getting frustrated and hungry so we left part way through and scuttled off to warm up with butterbeer and muffins.






We were too late to go and spectate at the quidditch matches again so we will need to make that a priority next year – because we will definitely return for more magical fun next year.


Child-free in Chestnut Hill

Opportunities for my husband and I to have child-free time are scant.  We don’t especially mind since we actually rather like hanging out with our kids, had a decade of life together before we became parents and their childhoods are so fleeting.  However, ever so often it really does do us the power of good to have a wee ration of time when all we have to focus on is each other.  The last time we had a kid-free outing was in Florida in December when we went out on a nature trail.  However, on Friday my husband was off work for Memorial Day weekend while all four of our children were at school.  We, therefore, had a few hours in which we could go for an explore without tailoring the trip to kids, their wants and peccadilloes.


Since I receive a phone call from the school nurse roughly once a week, we did not want to go too far so we ventured to Chestnut Hill.  We had been there back in October for the Harry Potter festival but this was our first time exploring the town properly.  We had a casual amble around the main streets, popping into any shops that took our fancy.  Normally I would fret about taking my kids into antique or junk shops not so much because of the risk of breakages these days but because they have magpie eyes and would be asking “Can I buy…?” too much for my tolerance.  It was, therefore, nice to be able to have a fret-free poke around in such shops.  We even bought a framed print of a collage for a spot on our kitchen wall.  We mooched around in a deli where we bought fun snacks to take home for the kids and the aroma of freshly baked bread dragged us, nose first, into a bakery where we bought a few crispy, plump loaves.



Best of all, Chestnut Hill has a great camera shop staffed by a very friendly and knowledgeable man.  My sensor has been dirty and creating spotty images since we visited Jamestown over a year ago and my 9 year old was scattering “spirit dust” everywhere, including over my camera.  I have been tempted to clean it myself and even watched a few YouTube videos as a learning tool but I kept chickening out.  I was, therefore, glad to have the opportunity to have a more experienced person take a look at it.  The chap in the camera shop was able to confirm that the dirt was indeed on my sensor and he gave it an efficient and effective clean and all free of charge.  How is that for great service?  I will definitely return there again any time I need photographic stuff.

We had time for a late lunch so we took a quick hop, skip and jump in the car to try out a restaurant named Tiffin.  Like most Brits, Mr Pict and I are big lovers of Indian cuisine.  Since we emigrated to America 19 months ago, the only Indian food we have consumed has been cooked by me.  I do make a mean curry, if I do say so myself, but it is not quite the same as having an authentic curry cooked for you – especially since it gives me a welcome break from cooking.  We started with some onion bhajis largely because we always love the sauces and dips for Indian food.  Neither the light but crispy bhajis or the delicious sauces disappointed.  I was particularly taken with a creamy coriander sauce even though usually I am all about the chutneys.  We also had cauliflower bezule which is cooked in coconut.  That was a dish I had never had before and it was delectable.  My entree was Dhaba chicken, a variation on curry I have not had before.  I could have stood for the spice level to have been a lot hotter as I love my curries to pack a punch but the flavours were wonderful and the chicken was tender and cooked to perfection.  Along with rice and naan bread, we were stuffed way beyond our gunnels by the time we departed to head home.  Like anacondas, it was quite some time before we felt the need to eat again.



Mingling with Magic and Muggles

The Pictlings and I are all Potterphiles.  I read the books when I was teaching High School English because my students were reading them but was then surprised by how engaging they were.  I really liked them.  I only, however, learned to love them when my kids came along and also started getting into Harry Potter first through the movies and then the novels.  When it comes to geekery, they were very much Daddy’s Boys.  Any geeky thing Mr Pict tends to be into, the boys also end up being into.  Harry Potter is one of the few geeky things I share with my kids (the other main one being classic monster movies) so I have become more of a Harry Potterphile as a result of being able to indulge in it with them.

A couple of years ago, the three older boys and I went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour on the outskirts of London.  It.  Was.  Amazing.  It was crazily expensive but it was one of the best value for money things I have ever done.  We had an amazing time.  Wandering around the sets, seeing the props and the costumes was entirely magical.  We also loved learning about all the technical aspects of film-making, from the animatronic creatures to the skilfully crafted props that I would have sworn were CGI had I not seen them on that tour.  We drank butterbeer, we boarded the Knight Bus, we stood outside 4 Privet Drive.  My Father-in-Law accompanied us and even as someone who had not seen the movies or read the book he was engaged all the way through just because of the quality of the film craft involved.  The whole tour was completely enchanting and it has a spectacular conclusion which I won’t relate so that, if you have not been, I don’t spoil the surprise.

On Saturday, therefore, we were excited to head off to a Harry Potter festival which was being held in Chestnut Hill, another suburb of Philadelphia.  In preparation, my children went armed with their Harry Potter wands and I drew a zigzag scar on one and Dark Marks on the other three.  The youngest two also took their cuddly Phoenix and Buckbeak toys with them to join in the fun.

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We had a tough time finding a place to park and the centre of the town was absolutely hoaching (a good Scottish word for “very busy indeed”).  I would estimate that at least 30% of people milling around were in costume.  There were loads of kids wearing Hogwarts uniforms and lots of adult witches and wizards.  Some of the adults had very professional looking costumes.  Lots of other people had nods to Harry Potter in their dress but had not gone the whole hog into costume.  The whole town was also decorated to add to the magic and sparkle of the event.  There were Dementors dangling from trees, lots of elements of set design and Potter props in the store windows and everything had been renamed to accord with the world of Harry Potter – even the portaloos.  The whole place was just buzzing with imagination, creativity and fun.

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In the grounds of the Elementary School, there were a whole load of crafting tables set up.  My kids elected to make their own wands and had a load of fun selecting just which embellishments to use to make the wand the one that would choose them in Ollivander’s shop.  They then ran around wizard duelling with other kids.  In the same place, there was also a live game of wizard chess going on, with umpteen children undertaking the role of the chess pieces and being directed into position by a Professor Snape and a Professor McGonagall.  They also took the opportunity to refuel so Mr Pict bought them each a poke of popcorn and they each got to order a potion from a table full of bottled potions.  The oldest chose flesh-eating slug repellant, the youngest chose love potion (and promptly declared that it was me he loved) and the middle two chose polyjuice potion.  They plucked a strand of each other’s hair to add to the liquid ingredients.  Little horrors.


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The kids got Harry Potter tattoos, poked around in antique shops, ate British style sausage rolls for the first time in over a year, had wizard battles on a lawn, bought butterbeer (which turned out to be a delicious concoction of hot scrumpy and butterscotch, not like the butterbeer at the Studio but still yummy), found owls and broomsticks and wands for sale, and had ballooon animals made for them.

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We all had a blast – including Mr Pict who is lukewarm about all things Harry Potter – and thoroughly enjoyed the festival.  The festival has been running for a couple of years and we hope it will run for many years as we would certainly love to go back again.