The little girl must have been 10 or 11, old enough to know you shouldn't throw things at strangers' faces in hotel elevators. Her mother was telling her to stop, but the girl couldn't hear her -- she couldn't hear anyone anymore. Her eyes were going in two different directions. It was like she was high on angel dust or maybe floo powder. The girl was bouncing a pink Arnold the Pygmy Puff toy off my face, over and over again, as her mother simultaneously tried to reprimand her, apologize to me, and explain why her daughter's faculties had momentarily escaped her.
I have a 4-year-old and an 18-month-old back in Philadelphia, so I quietly mumbled something about no apologies being necessary. I was also pretty hammered. Rocking back and forth with my eyes closed I was willing the elevator to get me to my floor before I got sick or fell over -- all I wanted to do was bite the head off the complimentary Chocolate Frog that the bellman had dropped off earlier and pass out in my big comfy hotel bed. Flump! -- I felt Arnold the Pink Pygmy Puff bounce off my forehead. In the distance, I could hear the sound of the mother's pleading, but all I could focus on was the sound coming from the little girl's mouth, a peal of high-pitched laughter ...
As for why this kid had gone loco -- no explanation was needed.
Harry Potter; it was his fault.
Chapter 1: The Beginning
On June 16, I was flown on a junket to Orlando, Fla., to help shill the magic of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the new mini-theme park located inside Universal Orlando resort. This was a work trip, but in many ways, it felt more like a pilgrimage.
See, I love the Harry Potter series. I am slightly embarrassed to admit how much those seven books have meant to me as an adult.
The Potter books provided a much-needed dose of escapism when I started reading them in New York after September 2001. J.K. Rowling's universe was a place to find joy and innocence at a time when those things seemed to vanish from my life and my city. Even Harry Potter's tragedies were small and personal and -- most important -- fictional. You could stay up late thinking about those stories; they were not stories that kept you awake.
Later, when I took a job working with kids who were incarcerated for fairly gruesome crimes, I sought refuge in Hogwarts. I absorbed the crushing true stories from my work day and tried to counterbalance them with Rowling's heroic adventures. In a real world that felt hopeless, and a future that I saw as increasingly bleak, I looked forward to each Potter book with as much earnestness and glee as any 7-year-old.
I guess you could say, for a good portion of my 20s, Harry Potter was my Prozac.
So, with a wand in my hand (actually they confiscated it at a security checkpoint) and a spell in my heart, I boarded a plane bound for Florida, or as I like to think of it: America's witch's tit. I was excited about going -- especially the chance to meet J.K. Rowling -- but ominous signs loomed over the trip from the beginning. As we taxied into the terminal in Orlando a fellow passenger announced that they had started finding oil in Pensacola. Florida's grim reality began invading my fantasy. The spell I was under began breaking.
Chapter 2: The Stinky End of the Broomstick
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is no silly little theme park addendum, no crappy moneymaking afterthought to the successful movies. This is the world of Harry Potter come to life. No Coca-Cola, no M&M's, no earthly concessions are found within the walls of Wizarding World. Instead, we find Butterbeer, Chocolate Frogs, Pumpkin Juice (which I concede is pretty good), and attractions found in the books and visually inspired by the movies. Those films? I wasn't much of a fan. But even I can't deny what Disney expert Jim Hill had to say about the Mouse's new competition. He dubbed it "the new gold standard when it comes to taking a fantasy film and its characters and then translating that into an immersive theme park environment."
As I wandered through all the elaborate manufactured fantasy, however, I kept tripping into life's suckitude.
I met a lovely mother named Kathy, who had journeyed to Orlando with her two adult daughters (one of whom wore a loud turquoise tank top with the words "Legalize Gay" emblazoned across it). That they made the same trip every three years since the girls were little seemed like a fine example of how Universal and Disney can become heartwarming family traditions.
Only Kathy had just been laid off. She found out she'd been let go only after she'd finalized her vacation plans. Not long before, her daughter had been laid off too, and they weren't sure what they were going to do once they got home.
In fact, from the kindly security guard who got in trouble for letting me into the Wizarding World attraction at the wrong time, to the ex-Universal H.R. coordinator who had been laid off when the Universal Dubai project was suspended indefinitely (Jesus, did someone just bring up Dubai outside the gates of Hogwarts?), to the psychic who read my palm and then confessed that she was very concerned what the hurricane would bring ashore from the Gulf -- everyone I met seemed to be getting the stinky end of life's broomstick.
I left the premises for lunch to get a fresh perspective and -- considering I ended up at Hooter's -- maybe to check out some boobs. The 23-year-old waitress and native Orlandoan, Britnie, told me that life in the orange short-shorts and tank top was a preferable way to make money than her old job "processing foreclosures at the local courthouse," a job that apparently had tremendous security but got a little depressing when she came across paperwork for people she actually knew. She regretted her career change at times; the lunch crowd had disappeared over the last year or two, and she wasn't making very good money; like a lot of people I met, she was pinning her hopes on Harry Potter to bring the customers back.
Deflated by her tale, I asked, "Is there a larger size of beer I should be drinking?"
"Yes," she said. "Several."
Tired, hot, thoroughly depressed and now slightly buzzed, I skipped the opening night celebration of Wizarding World, went back to my hotel and got for real drunk. I sat at a poolside bar drinking $2 Buds and watching 47-year-old Phillies pitcher Jamie Moyer pick apart a powerful Yankees lineup through eight innings -- it was the first magical moment I had experienced since arriving in Florida.
I didn't even flinch when I found out later that Rowling made an appearance at the opening to give the park her blessing. Just 24 hours before, I would've given my left snitch and both bludgers to meet that woman, but now all my frustration at the universe was directed toward anything that had to do with Harry Potter. My disillusionment was complete.
Chapter 3: Potter's Army
"Can one boy wizard save Florida?" seemed to be the words on the lips of every media outlet, from the U.K. Sun to the local Fox news affiliate to Westwood One Radio's statewide news broadcast on the day of the opening.
And it's a legitimate question. With the state's beaches and natural tourist attractions hanging in limbo waiting on the whims of ocean currents, hurricanes and just exactly how much fucking oil is floating beneath the surface in the Gulf of Mexico, Harry Potter could be a port of stability in a greasy oil-drenched storm.
It's as if a giant, glittering, 50-foot Patronus were stalking back and forth along Cocoa Beach making sure it's safe for throngs of British tourists to land and head immediately to Universal Resort (followed by a second stop at Disney).
"We think it's going to be a terrific summer," Universal Orlando president Bill Davis said in the Orlando Sentinel, though he added that "our hearts go out to people affected by the spill. We obviously expect [Wizarding World] to have a very, very nice effect on our attendance ... Hopefully starting this weekend."
Far from being angry at the boy with the scar on his head, I should have been on my hands and knees servicing his Firebolt for what he is about to do for the state of Florida.
And business already looks good: The hotels are filling up, and the tourists are arriving in droves. That's a good sign for Britnie, the Hooters waitress. As I left the restaurant a family of four (and when did people start bringing their kids to Hooters, anyway?) sat down wearing Harry Potter T-shirts and fingering H.P. merchandise.
But even aside from the money being made, everyone but me seemed to be enjoying the spectacle. The superfans who run the Potter fan sites all loved it. I didn't hear a single negative word out of their mouths all week. In fact, they often looked at me like I had crapped all over the lobby couch because I said I felt weirdly conflicted about the whole experience and that I'd been drinking since noon Wednesday -- who is them to judges me?
Emma Sandrey, a blogger for the fan site Snitchseeker.com (incidentally, be careful when typing that -- substituting an "A" for an "I" yields an extremely different kind of Google search), said about the opening of the park, "I actually cried it was so overwhelming." It was not an uncommon sentiment.
Jeff Guillaume of the fan site HPANA.com simply said, "It was all I could have hoped for." During the opening night celebration Ms. Rowling had said "Hi" to him.
"That was all I needed," Jeff told me, taking a deep pull off his cigarette. I then bummed a cigarette from him.
But, most important, the kids loved it. From the little boy in an arm cast who sang about Honeydukes and did a bizarre candy dance when I asked him what his favorite part of the park was to the young at heart, like a couple I met in their late 20s unfamiliar with the books and movies but so mesmerized by an advertisement for Wizarding World that they planned their entire two-week vacation at Universal just hoping to get a sneak peek of the mini-park, everyone was partying like there was no 22-mile-long oil plume in the body of water directly to our right.
Crowds went wild over Forbidden Journey, a pseudo-roller coaster that depends less on movement (although you get belted in and it flips you upside down every now and then) and more directly on a giant screen that simulates the sense of moving through space. Also, there are puppets. Everybody kept asking me if it was the single greatest park ride I had ever been on, as though that were a rhetorical question. (Personally, I'm not a fan of green-screen rides. They're kind of like when I was in high school and I'd get stoned and see that IMAX movie about Africa, except back then I didn't have to wait in a two-hour line and the exits didn't dump me out into a gift shop -- although I often wished for a food court.)
That's why I wasn't surprised by the over-the-top enthusiasm of my whacked-out little buddy on the elevator throwing her Pygmy Puff and laughing like the dentist had made a terrible mistake with the nitrous. Even if I hadn't been drinking since 5 a.m. I still wouldn't have said anything to that demented little angel -- good for her. She's not worried about the oil spill, or her mom's job, or a future of trying to wash the smell of fried out of her hair while she struggles to free herself from a pair of nude leggings. All she knows is that she was just in Hogsmeade -- and if I can help keep it that way for even just the duration of an elevator ride then I'll gladly take a fuzzy pink ball to the face every now and again.
Chapter 4: Meet the New Mouse, Same as the Old Mouse
So why was I still so depressed, why was I so blindly angry with Harry Potter, when half of everyone I met was loving life and the other half was praying for Harry's arrival to make it better?
The truth is I felt betrayed. I recognize these books were always a commercial endeavor. But it is a far cry from investing $6.99 in a softcover and being able to totally disappear out of this world whenever you choose, to investing $116.09 at the gate for a one-day pass to enter a world where every door leads to a gift shop.
Harry Potter is no longer a character in an outrageously popular children's book series or even an outrageously popular movie franchise. In the same way Mickey is no longer merely a lovable steamboat captain or sorcerer's apprentice. He's a global brand -- people can talk about Harry in terms of job growth for local and state economies, and the diversified revenue streams he generates between books, film, merchandising, the theme park, food product tie-ins, etc., etc. People can talk about expansion ideas and new markets and immersion techniques and all that super-villainous-sounding jargon that not only turns my stomach but also scares the hell out of me.
Sitting in Harry Potter's new kingdom of magic I have to acknowledge that every time he gets someone dizzy on one of his new rides and buys a broomstick that doesn't fly for $300, or even a Sorting Hat that doesn't rap for $29.95 -- even though he's generating money for Central Florida (and far, far beyond) -- it feels sort of skuzzy and like everything that's wrong with us instead of everything that was joyful, and wondrous, and innocent. The reason I drank so much this week, the reason I was so depressed, was because Harry Potter offers no escape for me from the real world anymore -- for better or for worse, he is now the proud owner of it.