Trip to Universal starts adventure of a lifetime

My memories of taking Ainsley to Disney World when she was 5 are magical.

We rode many wonderful rides, met many princesses and ate dinner at Cinderella's castle, with Ainsley dressed as a perfect miniature of the palace owner. We picked a week when attendance was historically low and never waited more than 40 minutes in line.

We had a slightly different experience over spring break when we visited a crowded Universal Studios and its Islands of Adventure.

I usually don't travel over spring break and certainly hadn't planned on doing so during the pandemic. But these circumstances were unusual. I'm adopted and last fall discovered my half-sister, Chris, and birth parents (that is a story for another day). We wanted to visit my birth father, Bob, and his wife, Shari, before temps in Florida hit triple digits this summer.

We decided to spend a day at a theme park, and I eagerly suggested Universal with one thing in mind: Harry Potter World.

The trick with Harry Potter World is that you have to go to Universal Studios to experience Diagon Alley and Islands of Adventure to visit Hogsmeade. The plus is you get to ride the very fun Hogwarts Express from one park to the other. The downside is you need to spring for the higher-priced, two-park ticket. Bob, a Harry Potter neophyte, agreed to the plan.

So the seven of us (Chris and her husband, Ken, came, too) arrived at Universal on a gorgeous, sunny day and headed to Diagon Alley. The warning sign outside Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts listed too many reasons why many of our group members should not ride, so we bowed out. Fortunately, the line for the "wand experience" at Ollivanders was just around the corner, so we joined the queue.

Two hours and more than $200 later (after various family members purchased a Gryffindor sweatshirt, Bertie Bott's Every Flavored Beans, a chocolate frog, taffy, a strawberry sundae, a phone case, three masks and two Butterbeers), we found ourselves at the door. A kind gentleman invited us inside, where we had to wait only a little longer to get into the actual shop.

Finally, we were led to a dimly lit room, which left Ainsley a little uneasy. She tried one wand, but it did not perform as instructed. The second one failed her as well. Then a third - made of ash with a Phoenix feather core - was taken out for a try. The wand chooses the wizard, as all Harry Potter fans know, and this one chose Ainsley.

We all agreed that the experience was pretty cool. Then we left the room to get in line in the gift shop, where we were able to obtain said wand for only $59.99.

I loved seeing Ainsley get her wand, eating in the Leaky Cauldron (just as cool as I had hoped it would be) and watching the Gringotts dragon roar and breathe fire every 10 minutes while we waited in line for Ollivanders.

Did we have the same magical experience at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure that we had at Disney? No - in part because Ainsley is 12, not 5. Also, the theme park was something for us to do as we all got to know each other better, not the sole focus of the trip.

So perhaps a better question to ask is did we have an adventure? Absolutely. A fabulous one. And it's just beginning.

- Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean. Readers can email her at [email protected].

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Pamela Lannom is editor of The Hinsdalean