By Ivy Velazquez
The Celebration of Harry Potter has been an annual event at Universal Orlando since 2014. Now in its third year, the event was bigger than ever, with actors such as Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley) and Bonnie Wright (Ginny Weasley) on the guest list. People as far as Norway, Sweden and Germany flew in to take part in the event. And I was lucky enough to be among them.
Day 1: Friday
The event officially started on Friday, Jan. 29 at 7:30 p.m. There, the opening ceremony was held in the Universal Theme Park. Unfortunately, I was running a little late so I only made it for the fireworks at the end.
However, as a guest with the Vacation Package, I had access to Diagon Alley after hours. As soon as they let down the rope, my sister and I rushed through the park, straight to the ride Escape from Gringotts, a 3D motion-based ride that takes riders through the wizarding bank, set at the same time Harry, Ron and Hermione break in during the eighth movie. In fact, we were among the first on the ride. But we ran into a little problem: we ended up getting stuck on the ride for about 10 minutes halfway through.
This was an interesting start to our evening but the staff handled it well, offering to let us ride again but most of us opted out. Instead, we went to get our free butterbeers. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to do after that.
Diagon Alley was the only area open, which made sense, but there were no “special events” going on. We later found out that Hogsmeade was open over at Islands of Adventure but that wasn’t made known. That was something we noticed throughout the event: the event organizers were very stingy with their information.
The schedule wasn’t made very public. If you wanted to try and plan your weekend, you had to go looking for it on the park website. While waiting for a panel on Sunday, I heard many complaints about the lack of sharing and I have to say I agree.
Day 2: Saturday
This was when the event truly seemed to begin. We started with a breakfast at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. While getting into the park seemed unnecessarily complicated, the food was delicious and worth it.
Then we began the real adventure. First on the list was the Exposition. A showcase displaying all things Harry Potter, the Expo has been a central part of the event for all three years. Featured in the Expo were the Exhibition, the new Pottermore website, MinaLima, the graphic designers for the movies, and a miniature version of London’s studio tour, The Making of Harry Potter.
Because the line for the studio tour was long, we decided to walk around the Expo for this day. We each took the Pottermore quiz (or retook I should say; I’m a confirmed Hufflepuff). Quite honestly, I wasn’t as impressed this year. Past Expos have held several displays of actual props used in the movies and while there was plenty to look at, the only thing that stood out was the studio tour.
Later came the panels. Most of the panels are held in Toon Lagoon at Islands of Adventure, a mildly irritating decision when it comes to planning out the day. So, if you’re starting out in Universal, depending on your route, it can take anywhere between 20 minutes to an hour to get there. The reason for such a big time difference is because of the Hogwarts Express and its varying wait times. Often, it’s quicker to just walk.
The first panel I went to was at 3 p.m. It was a props showcase with Pierre Bohanna, the actual prop maker who worked on the movies. Matthew Lewis made a special appearance in order to help explain how some of the “special effects” worked.
Afterwards, we went to a House Rally back in Universal. This was similar to a pep rally at high school. Then came my favorite event for that day: the Harry Potter Film Tribute.
To begin, they had set up a tribute to the late Alan Rickman, who played the role of Severus Snape in the films. As soon as the reel started, everyone in the crowd with a wand took it out and raised it in the air, a way of showing tribute to someone in the wizarding world, particularly one who has passed. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I don’t tend to get emotional. But I have to admit, as I raised my wand and stood with my fellow Potterheads, watching the reel, a lump came to my throat.
Afterwards, the host came on stage, soon followed by all the stars who came to the event: Rupert Grint, Bonnie Wright, Matthew Lewis, Evanna Lynch and Katie Leung. A mini Q&A commenced. My own inner fangirl had risen to the surface and I found myself screaming along with the rest of the crowd.
Along with the Q&A, guests got a special sneak peek at the upcoming play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Both have been long anticipated and are coming out later this year. For Cursed Child, we got a behind the scenes look at the theater that the play will be held, with the producers explaining where they were so far. Fantastic Beasts was a little bit more in-depth, with the actors from the film giving their take on the whole thing. More was explained, like who the main group was and more about the plot of the movie. This year is definitely a great one for Potterheads worldwide.
Day 3: Sunday
This was the day I was most excited for. Guests who had bought the packages were given tickets to a private Q&A with the stars. My sister and I arrived at the park by 8:00 a.m., where we stood for about 30 minutes before they let us in.
This is when it got frustrating. As we rushed to get in line, we were soon stopped at the bridge just before Marvel Island. As we all gathered at the small rope barring our way, we wondered at the point of letting us in the park if they weren’t, in fact, letting us in. One of the employees actually told us that they hadn’t been prepared for so many people at once. This seemed rather incongruous seeing as everyone there had bought the package; one would think how many people did would be in a system somewhere.
But finally security walked us to the amphitheater. I say walked, but despite being told we couldn’t pass the security guards, everyone took off at a steady run, pressing the limits as far as we could. Since I was so close to the front of the crowd, I felt like I was leading a stampede. One woman actually lost her shoes; the park had to provide her with new ones from one of their stores.
Of course, once we were actually in the amphitheater, we still had to wait. But that was made more bearable by the camera man going around and highlighting the different costumes. There was also a proposal minutes before the show started. The ring box was even shaped like the Sorting Hat.
Finally, the Q&A began. After some starter questions by the host, employees went around the crowd, picking people to ask their questions. Some were silly while others required some truly in-depth answers from the actors. One woman actually got Rupert Grint to share a Coke with her.
Afterwards, we went back to the Expo so my mom and I could check out The Making of Harry Potter. As we were in line, Bonnie Wright made a surprise appearance in the Exhibition area. I was two people away from her and close to getting an autograph, but one of the staff yelled for the last person and then Bonnie left.
The studio tour was a miniaturized version of the one in London. One room displayed how they made the wands for the films, where a woman working on a wand as another spoke about the process. Then there was a bit about how makeup worked. The tour ended with a photo op with a Death Eater. The last panel I went to was called The Global Impact of Harry Potter: The Exhibition, which showcased different Harry Potter exhibitions from New York to Shanghai.
The most exciting thing that happened at this event was the awarding of the quaffle prize. For those that don’t know, a quaffle is a ball used in the wizarding sport Quidditch. This particular quaffle was signed by James and Oliver Phelps, Matthew Lewis and Alan Gilmore (one of the producers for the park and a few of the movies).
Then the host picked it up and asked who would like to have the quaffle. Needless to say, several people, including myself, stood up immediately. But they decided to give it to someone who had come the furthest to be there. The lucky winner was a man from Norway; after saying his rather complicated name twice, he told the host that people called him Bert.
Bert was actually a very good sport about the whole thing and allowed people to take pictures with him and the ball. In fact, he even allowed me to hold the quaffle. I have to admit, I have never been more tempted to steal something in my life.
So overall, it was quite a magical weekend with only a few flaws. If you’re interested in attending the weekend festivities next year, special packages will likely go on sale in the coming months, though general admission will grant access to everything at the event except the private panels. No matter how you get there, it is definitely worth it.
Ivy Velazquez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.