All day long I was fixated on the map. I was sure there was a way to get from boring Universal Studios to the much more exciting Islands of Adventure. A way, of course, that didn’t actually involve paying for a ticket.
My family wasn’t listening to me. They were happily going from Jaws to Spongebob Squarepants 3D and back. My 10-year-old brother, Andrew, did desperately want to see the recently built Hogwarts Castle, home of the high-tech new Harry Potter ride, but my frugal father (who had snagged our deeply discounted passes off some Disney-scamming black market) would not oblige him. My husband, James, didn’t believe it was possible.
There was a part of me that wanted to put the “adventure” into Islands of Adventure, a part of me that was just as cheap and subversive as my father, and a part of me that felt there was something ironic about the idea of infiltrating a microcosm of our manufactured society. It felt like something David Foster Wallace would write about.
It was almost evening. I felt guilty about ditching the family on a family vacation, but sometimes people have to go and make their own path. Over some deep-fried amusement park fare, I again studied the map. In the space between the two parks there was a painterly terrain of green vegetation and a large blue lake. I assumed that the periphery of the park was guarded with a tall fence, perhaps barbed wire and surveillance cameras. I would have to crawl through acres of wilderness and take cover under what looked like low-lying trees if a helicopter were to pick up the trail, then climb an imposing fence.
I begged James to walk over to a far back corner with me just to scope things out. He reluctantly agreed.
We stood for a minute watching families take pictures in front of a large façade mural of the New York Public Library. There was a chain-link gate surrounding a ride to our left. James tried the little steel latch. It opened.
We walked through, thrilled at this first bit of luck. Suddenly, we were in what was apparently an employee parking lot — not, as the map had led to me believe, undeveloped Floridian wilderness a la Lord of the Rings. There were small nondescript buildings, a few parked cars, and regular people walking about. “Act casual,” I hissed. “If anyone asks, we work at Dip ‘n’ Dots.”
No alibi was necessary. No one looked twice, presuming we were off-duty park workers. We passed a corner security office, guards standing out front. We turned left, then right. We didn’t know where we were headed, seemingly guided by an invisible Cheshire cat.
We crossed the street into another parking lot, bizarrely adorned at one end with a large funhouse mirror. A guard walked directly in front of us, and we followed him nervously. He was heading into the mirror! At the last minute, he stepped through a small, hidden hole beside it, through a gate hidden by greenery.
We stepped through after him and looked up to see the impressive entrance of Hogsmeade, the whimsical village leading to the great Hogwarts Castle. Happy families crowded into quaint-looking shops to buy overpriced wands; others lined up to buy pumpkin beer from fake wooden street carts. Magical.
“I can’t believe it!” We exclaimed, while still looking over our shoulders. Perhaps they were observing us on a security system and would pounce at any moment! I considered buying an overpriced Grinch sweatshirt as a disguise, but settled for putting on a hat. We threw our things in a locker and began hitting the rides with exuberant, triumphant glee.
But my family was still over at Universal Studios, wondering where we had went. I texted my older brother and urged him to join us. He bravely said he was on his way.
Meanwhile, James and I were having a blast. We rode in a log down a waterfall and snagged an awesome drop picture. We went on the giant green Incredible Hulk Coaster, screaming as we went upside down, feeling like teenagers. We got soaked on the Jurassic Park River Adventure and air-dried as we ran through Toon Lagoon.
Then my brother called – he had made it to Hogsmeade! We met up at the Hogwarts Express and I began eagerly telling him about all the awesome rides we should go on. “I’m going back to get Andrew,” he said, and to my disappointment, immediately left. I did very much want Andrew to ride the famous Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which I was saving for last. I hoped he would make it before the park closed for the night. But I wasn’t about to test my luck.
As we continued our coaster spree, I kept eagerly checking my phone. Finally, I got a call. My brothers had been apprehended. Apparently having a child with you is a red flag; grown adults, presumably, wouldn’t engage in such infantile, unethical behavior. My poor little brother spent the rest of the night locked in a security office, getting grilled and sobbing. My brothers were banned from the park for a year.
What could I do? I was in line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and it was an hour ‘til closing. I couldn’t leave without hitting the creme de la crème, the crown jewel, the grand finale. And it exceeded all my expectations.
By the time I emerged from Hogwarts Castle, it was night. The park was lit up and ethereal. I lingered at the colorful, fantastical Dr. Suess Landing, marveling at the dreamlike scenery. I didn’t ever want to leave.
But all great journeys must come to an end, and so I allowed myself to join the satisfied hordes heading for the exit. But I’ll never forget the sensation of stepping into a wonderland; a wonderland made, it seemed, just for me.