We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task in life is to find reality.Iris Murdoch
“Grandma, if you get scared, just close your eyes and hang on.” That is good advice in general; in fact, that pretty much sums up how I often live my life. Still, in this instance, she was referring to Escape from Gringotts, an indoor roller coaster at Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida. My aversion to thrill rides is well known in my family, but there I was, joining the queue and moving toward an unknown destiny.
My daughter and granddaughter…huge fans of theme parks…especially Universal, were surprised when I expressed an interest in the Harry Potter section of the park and my desire to go there if they’d agree to be my guides. They, of course, jumped at the chance.
“Are you sure you want to do that? Do you really want to go to a theme park?” Jen asked in disbelief.
“Yes,” I assured her. “I don’t think I’d like to do it repeatedly, but I would like to do it once.”
When I was about six years old, Disneyland opened in California. But, of course, for a girl from a middle-class family in rural Michigan, the possibility of ever seeing Cinderella’s castle or meeting Mickey Mouse was remote at best and, realistically, nonexistent.
Throughout my growing-up years, programming from Walt Disney played prominently on our large, wooden cabinet-housed black and white television…The Mickey Mouse Club was on every day after school with Mouseketeers, cartoons, songs, dancing, and serial stories like Spin and Marty, The Hardy Boys, and Corky and White Shadow. And The Wonderful World of Disney was part of the Sunday evening line-up. Mouse Club and Wonderful World both contained advertising and clips from Disneyland and all the fun that could be had there. It looked amazing. I dreamed of going, even when I knew that dream was out of reach. When Disney World opened in Orlando, Florida, in 1971, I had two small children, a marriage that was ending, a college degree to complete, and very little money…and yet…the possibility was getting closer. Driving to Florida was doable…even if still improbable.
“Laughter is timeless, imagination has no age, and dreams are forever.”Walt Disney
Fast forward a dozen years. Happily married, with a college degree in hand, gainfully employed, and…with family in Florida, a day in the Magic Kingdom was finally going to happen. Driving one of the model-T cars had lost its appeal, but I was finally going to ride in one of those spinning teacups! Motion sickness be damned. I was getting on that ride! Not the wisest decision on my part, as you might guess. Some things are better left to the imagination, but I did it!
“We think you can handle the Gringotts ride, and if we get to the park when it opens, we won’t have to wait long in line,” my guides predicted. “There are lots of things to see along the way, too,” they continued, “and you can always decide to skip the ride before getting on if you decide you really don’t want to do it.”
Entering Diagon Alley was like stepping into another world. Even the light was different…shadowed and cooler than in the streets outside. Storefronts with familiar names from the Harry Potter books lined the street leading to Gringotts, the wizard bank. Gringotts was difficult to miss, with the enormous dragon leering down menacingly from atop it.
With backpacks quickly stowed, we entered the building effortlessly. But, of course, things can be deceiving. There was no line of fellow adventurers waiting to be admitted outside the door, but once inside, the queue serpentined inside, outside, and upside down. Well, not actually upside down at all, but definitely up the several sets of stairs.
Our fellow line-dwellers were courteous, friendly, and filled with excitement. I rather enjoyed the equalizing and leveling effect of the queue. Without knowing the barriers that might have come between us…religion, politics, age, or even taste in music…we were all simply a group of Muggles anticipating the adventure and the illusion that awaited us. Eventually, the queue entered the lobby of Gringotts bank. It felt as if we were stepping into a movie scene as we passed silent Goblins shuffling papers, balancing accounts, and tending to the Knuts, Sickles, and golden Galleons…currency of the wizarding world.
Beyond the lobby, we were ushered into the bank’s internal workings, passing office doors and portraits of past leaders. At the end of a long hallway, we entered an enormous elevator built to transport a large number of visitors. It would carry us deep inside the bank and closer to the well-protected vaults. We emerged to discover we’d need to climb more stairs. I found that slightly odd since the elevator had just seemingly taken us down. Oh, well, I just kept following along like a lemming heading for the cliff.
“Don’t forget your safety glasses,” a disembodied voice commanded. Safety glasses? We’d need safety glasses? Oh, that’s a comfort.
“Row one,” the attendant instructed. Great. Nothing to obstruct our view. I wasn’t sure what we would see exactly, but there wouldn’t be any heads in our way. The car was comprised of three rows, each holding four passengers. Jen and Fi, my confidence boosters, made sure they sat on either side of me with instructions on securing myself in the seat.
WTF…What the…fudge…was I doing? I guess I should have asked myself that question earlier because…come what may…I was doing it. Within seconds, the car was moving, and there was no turning back. Ironically…at that point, there was definitely no escape from The Escape from Gringotts. Immediately, the car lurched to the right, then swung to the left with an unexpected drop of nearly thirty feet. As instructed earlier, my eyes closed involuntarily, and my hands clutched the bar in front of me. I wondered later if this would classify as a ‘jump scare,’ a technique in horror films or movies of suspense…not a fan of either…that involves a sudden or unexpected event intended to startle the audience. The four-minute-plus ride barreled on with terrifying holographic images that seemed to come directly at us and lean into the vehicle. Oh, the front seat…what a great idea!
Everything in this world of Harry Potter was illusion and imagination. A hologram might startle me, but I certainly wasn’t frightened by a projection of an enormous snake coming toward me or the heat from the breath of the holographic dragon. Yes, at times, these apparitions would surprise me, but it was the seemingly random pitch and roll, dip and dive that kept me off balance and, without warning, pulled the glasses entirely off my face. A few seconds of genuine panic until I realized that Fi had caught them and they were only the 3-D safety glasses and not my for-real glasses.
The longer I remained in this land of pretend and make-believe, the more questions arose. They say that your life flashes before your eyes just before you die. I doubt that’s how it will be for me. Nope, I’ll be asking questions until the last, I’m afraid. The answers don’t always appear, but the questions certainly do.
A host of artists, architects, and designers had translated words on a page and scenes from a movie into a concrete experience using skill, expertise, and attention to detail. With a healthy dose of suspended disbelief, it wasn’t too difficult to believe…even if merely momentarily…that you were actually walking the hidden streets of London…in Diagon Alley. There was much to be discovered, but…the entire experience was based on the imagination of others. Was this experience like making a copy of a copy of a copy, with each successive reproduction losing clarity and definition, only to be left with blurriness and a shadow of the original? Or, perhaps, it is more like following a recipe for Chocolate Chip Cookies…you knew there’d be cookies…where each baker builds on the original recipe but is free to decide whether to add nuts, coconut, candy bits, or raisins? Each simply takes the original and expands on it.
Then too, I wonder, does this detailed interpretation in concrete form enhance imagination and encourage further exploration and creativity, or does it stifle and limit it? I was allowed to imagine Diagon Alley…which reminded me of ‘The Shambles’ in York…before seeing it on the screen or exploring Victoria Street in Edinburgh…near where JK wrote the first books and thought to be her inspiration…before walking into it at Universal. Will children visiting this Diagon Alley be able to imagine their own version, or will this illusion be forever locked inside their heads as the real thing?
“I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant.“Ursula K. Le Guin
Just as suddenly as it began, the ride ended, returning us safely to the sights and sounds of this fantastic, imaginary world.
“Well, what did you think?. Did you like it? Would you go again?”
“Yes,” I responded with a smile.”I do believe I would,” I continued, still smiling.”On the other hand, once is probably enough.”
The relationship between imagination, illusion, and magic is more complicated than I thought. That afternoon as we waited to ride on the Hogwarts Express, I chuckled to myself…rather smugly, I might add. Several years ago, we had ridden the actual Harry Potter train in Scotland. In fact, I left some of my husband’s ashes at the base of one of the viaduct’s arches.
Wait a minute! That wasn’t the actual train that took Ron, Hermione, and Harry to Hogwarts! Oh, it was the train used in the movies, all right, but the real train…the real Hogwarts for that matter… only exists in the pages of a book and the reader’s imagination…or does it?
“The greatest thing Harry Potter has given the world, is the freedom to use our imagination”Oprah Winfrey