When visiting the wizarding world of Harry Potter at Universal’s theme parks this August, there were a few things I couldn’t wait to do: ride the replica Hogwarts Express train which carried Harry from King’s Cross Station in London to his magical wizarding school; try Butterbeer, a magical non-alcoholic beverage beloved by all wizards; and check out the new thrill ride in Diagon Alley.
However, there was one thing I was even more excited about: getting my hands on a working magic wand from the film.
When the first Harry Potter theme park opened in 2010 as a new attraction in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Universal began selling replica character wands from the film ranging from Harry Potter and Hermione’s to the villainous Lord Voldemort’s for $34.95.
Sounds awesome, right?
However, these wands didn’t do anything. It was like paying nearly $US40 for a fancy, specialised stick.
Other than a full out Potter nerd (such as myself) or a collector, I’m not sure who wants to buy Potter’s wand if you can’t swish it in the air, say “Wingardium Leviosa,” and make some magic happen.
When Universal Studios opened a new Harry Potter section to its park last month called Diagon Alley, they started selling new interactive wands priced at $US47.
These wands allow fans to run around the neighbouring Harry Potter parks in Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure to “perform magic” with a flick of the wrist at areas marked by gold medallions on the ground.
The magic of the wands lies in a sensor at its end so when a wand is moved in a certain way it triggers another sensor in areas ranging from window displays to water fountains to light up lanterns, squirt water from a frog’s mouth, and so forth.
The magic may not be real; however, it will make any child — or fan of the books and films — feel like a wizard.
When I returned from Florida and told my editors that myself, my brother, and his girlfriend all invested in wands of our own (nearly a $US150 purchase), they thought we were nuts.
But I can assure you, it was totally worth it.
The adventure to acquire our wands
Though various Universal gift shops and carts through the Harry Potter World parks were selling wands, we headed straight to the main source, Ollivanders’ Wand Shop, to acquire our ticket into geekery and wizardom.
That’s where Harry found his wand in the books, and we wanted the same experience as our favourite wizard.
For those who waited in a relatively short line, you could watch a short demonstration where Ollivander himself selected one person from the crowd to demonstrate a wand selection ceremony.
We weren’t allowed to take photos, but here’s what the experience was like:
It was essentially like stepping right into the first “Harry Potter” film.
After the show, we were finally able to purchase our wands from a giant selection.
We were pretty impressed not only with how they were packaged, but at the craftsmanship that went into each individual wand.
The Ollivanders’ box detailed they were “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 BC.”
Here’s the moment we couldn’t wait for: the great unboxing.
I know the wand is supposed to choose the wizard, but since that wasn’t in the cards, I chose Hermione Granger’s wand. She’s Harry’s brainy friend played by Emma Watson in the films.
My brother, Sam, went for one of a few custom wands offered. These ones came in special cases marked with “Ollivanders” on the cover.
Both are incredibly detailed.
Hermione’s is decorated with small branches twisting and weaving through the wand with small leaves protruding throughout.
Here’s how they worked
Each interactive wand came with a map of the two Harry Potter parks highlighting the different areas where fans could locate sensors to try out their wands and perform spells.
The newer Diagon Alley section is home to 16 opportunities to cast spells while the older Hogsmeade section has been updated with nine interactive areas.
Numbered circles show where to locate places to perform spells while diamonds highlighted where restaurants and shops could be found.
Around the maps’ perimeter are instructions on the different spells needed to be used at each location.
Thankfully, little gold medallions were on the ground to identify when we were at a special location so we didn’t have to look at our maps every five seconds.
There were also kids lined up at nearly every location. If there weren’t, and someone saw you successfully “perform a spell,” flocks of kids were quick to come over.
Getting the wands to work at first was a bit frustrating if you weren’t patient enough to make multiple attempts.
Most of the locations asked you to perform simple two or three part movements with your wand that were usually a simple shape, letter, or number. The problem was matching your movements perfectly with a sensor hanging at these locations.
Once you got the hang of it though, the results were incredible.
A simple swirl of your wand and this house elf in shining armour sprang to life.
A triangular movement unleashed a green mist upon a defenseless bird in a window down a dark alley.
A popular attraction involved getting this umbrella to pour rain in Diagon Alley.
Here’s my brother’s girlfriend successfully activating one of her first sensors. This one made a window display come to life.
Another feature we activated was a water fountain with a small frog serving as the spout.
Some of the best features were those found by accident. We noticed if two people activated sensors on each side of the above mentioned fountain at the same time, water shot out from the top at an innocent bystander. It was pretty funny.
There are also a few hidden off-map locations to perform magic we read up on to prep for our visit.
One we found was outside a stationary and ink store called Scribbulus in Diagon Alley. If you flicked your wand in any old fashion near a piece of parchment, invisible ink appeared on the empty scroll. The words we saw were different every time we tried it out.
Both phrases above are about the material wands are made of.
I’m sure there are other secret locations and that Universal will add even more interactive locations throughout the parks over time.
During our 3-day visit, there was only one noticeable issue I noticed with the wands.
Early on at the parks, there was a kid frustratingly swishing and flicking his wand at one window display to no avail. A worker at the parks soon told the distraught little boy and his family he needed an interactive wand to make a “magic spell.”
The parks were still selling these pointless $US35 wands when the real wands any kid wanted were the ones that made things move. It’s an easy mistake to make upon purchase since the wands look nearly identical. There were no easily visible signs in the wand stores to differentiate the interactive ones from the simple replicas. I had to ask an employee in the wand store which wand was which.
One foolproof way to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth is to open up a box and see if there’s a sensor at the end of the wand. (That’s what I did to make sure I purchased the right one.)
Overall, as someone who invested over a decade reading seven Harry Potter novels numerous times and watching another eight movies, $US47 dollars didn’t seem like a huge drain to act out the scenes I once envisioned in my head.
The 12-year-old me had a blast.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series was such a huge influence not only on my life but multitudes of people worldwide.
According to Scholastic, the series has sold more than 400 million copies worldwide while it has been translated into 68 languages. All together, the films have generated over $US7.7 billion at theatres worldwide.
As fans wandered the Universal theme parks dressed in wizard robes, their faces lighting up like the very lanterns and window displays their wands conjured to life, it was difficult to feel like you were anywhere but inside a real Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
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