by Deborah Steele Hazen
I have frequently said that I’ve never had enough snow.
A few winters ago, when it piled up to almost a foot on the valley floor, turned to slush, then froze again, then melted under a warm rain, and flooded the lowlands, I had to admit, that was probably too much.
It’s the beauty of the snow that I love. Living only about four flat blocks from my office, I’m not nearly as inconvenienced as most people.
But early last Wednesday morning (Jan. 18), when most of you were sleeping, my husband Phil, our three eldest grandchildren (Madeline, 11; Jonathan, 10, and Natasha, 9) and I were driving through the heaviest snowstorm I believe I’ve ever witnessed, and it was scary.
About 13 hours later, during a meditative moment, I decided it was as if someone up in the heavens had overturned a huge bucket of big damp snowflakes and dumped them over northwest Oregon and southwest Washington.
That peaceful moment came at about 7 p.m. Eastern Standard Time when I was floating on my back in an open air, half-acre-sized, lagoon-shaped swimming pool gazing up into a soft, star-studded sub-tropical sky.
Gosh, I felt sorry for the rest of you stuck in all that snow!
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
Early in November, Phil told me that he had been putting aside money all year to fulfill a dream of ours – taking our grandchildren to “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” part of the “Islands of Adventure” theme park, which is an extension of the Universal Studios complex in Orlando, Florida.
Our family and many of our friends are fans of both the Harry Potter books and movies. As soon as the theme park devoted to the fantasy series opened in June of 2010, we wanted to go.
I didn’t know we were even close to making that dream a reality, until “Grampa” told me of his “Harry Potter” stash, and his investigation into hotel/park pass packages and airline fares. I was sworn to secrecy on penalty of a trip to Azkaban. (I’m sorry, but if you haven’t read the books nor seen the movies, you might miss some of the references in this column.)
“Well, we’ve got to tell their parents,” I responded. “And make sure it’s okay if we take them.”
Grampa had already planned to take the trip beginning mid-week after Martin Luther King Day in January, in hopes of avoiding the big crowds at the park.
It was okay with their parents, who made arrangements for them to be excused from a few days at school. As it turned out, Madeline and Jonathan only missed two days of school because of the snow closures. Their cousin Natasha, who goes to Nestucca Valley Elementary, missed more days because there wasn’t as much snow on the coast, but she diligently got all of her homework done before we left.
We kept the trip a secret until Christmas Eve when we scattered three decorative Hedwig-type owls around the dining room near the Christmas tree. The owls held in their claws letters on parchment-like paper addressed (in green ink) to Madeline, Jonathan and Natasha. Inside, was writing modeled after the invitation Harry Potter received, personally addressed to each of the three invitees. For example, Jonathan’s read:
“Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry
Christmas Eve, 2011
Dear Mr. Moravec,
We are pleased to inform you that arrangements have been made for you to visit Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the other attractions at Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, from January 18 through 22, 2012.
“You will be escorted by Professor Albus Dumbledore (Grampa) and Professor Minerva McGonagall (Baba).
“Grampa & Baba”
Since then, we’ve all been in a flurry of anticipation, getting our every day work (including schoolwork) done, while anxiously awaiting the morning of Jan. 18.
I enjoyed the first snowfalls of the season Jan. 15 and 16, but with the forecasts of a heavy snowfall in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Jan. 18, I started getting a bit nerovus.
By the time we finished putting last week’s Chief to bed about midnight Tuesday night, what had been a light rain had turned to snow. I went home, took a shower, had a snack, and watched the snow fall. It only got heavier. I’m a problematic sleeper at best, and it just didn’t seem worth it to me to go to bed for an hour or two.
Grampa heard me walking in and out of the bedroom. He’d been sleeping with the shades open so he could watch the snow fall around our lighted flagpole.
We had planned to leave about 3:30 a.m. for our 6:15 a.m. flight from the Portland airport. “I think we should leave a little earlier,” I gestured to the snow falling outside the window when I saw he was awake. He readily agreed.
We were ready to go by 2:30 a.m., and woke up the kids. They’d all gone to bed the evening before at our house. We were on the road in Grampa’s four-wheel drive club cab pickup by 3 a.m., and it was immediately obvious we were leaving none too soon. A couple of semi-trucks and another pickup were crawling up the snow-covered highway, not yet plowed or even rutted with tire tracks. The trees beside the road were heavily laden. “It won’t be long before there’ll be limbs and trees falling,” we predicted.
The snow plow had headed east from the highway maintenance shop on the top of the hill, we caught up to it and followed it to the exit to the Lewis and Clark Bridge. The lights of Longview were invisible. It was hard to see exactly where to turn off the highway. Fortunately, one other vehicle had forged a trail off the highway, so we could see where the bridge approach was.
“I hope there’s no trucks stuck on the bridge,” Grampa said. Fortunately, there weren’t. “Now, it should be better,” I thought, traveling along the relatively flat, straight, well-lit freeway.
Although it was okay through Longview, I-5 was scary. There weren’t many passenger cars, but quite a few semis were out and attempting to make good time.
We hadn’t gotten to Kalama before we saw flashing red and blue lights in the right lane, and a semi jackknifed and off the road.
If the freeway was being plowed between 3:30 and 4:30 a.m. that morning, they couldn’t keep up with the volume of snow. You couldn’t see where the lanes were. If you tried to move from one set of tracks to another, you had to drive over a hump of snow. The trucks were jockeying for position, sometimes dangerously.
As we were traveling in what appeared to be the middle lane, one semi passed us on the right, going foolishly fast for the weather conditions. I held my breath as he pulled in front of us, then boxed in a struggling little two-door, caught in the ruts in the deep snow, between him and another, more sanely driven truck in the slow lane.
Grampa and I agreed that if we could have seen a license plate or other identification on the truck we would have called 9-1-1, but we couldn’t, and it disappeared into the snow ahead of us.
“Kids,” Grampa said. “This may be the scariest ride we’re on all week.”
They were in the backseat, and seemed more fascinated by the winter wonderland outside than any danger it posed.
After we left I-5 and got on I-205, there was far less truck traffic. It also seemed to be a bit warmer. The snow was less deep, and actually turned to rain for a mile or so before returning to snowflakes. We pulled into the airport parking lot at about 4:30 a.m., and found a spot in long-term parking that was close to one of the shuttle bus shelters.
We were dressed more for our destination than our point of departure, so we tiptoed through the slush, then huddled together shivering as Grampa carried the bags from the pickup to the shelter. Fortunately, the shuttle arrived in just a couple of minutes.
We’d all packed in carry-on bags, and the kids were troopers as we marched through the airport in what we came to refer to as the“Hazen Nut” sandwich – Grampa (the top slice of his favorite hazelnut bread) in the lead, then the three kids (meat, cheese and tomato) in the middle, then the bottom piece of bread (Baba) bringing up the rear.
Slytherins in Security
The PDX security line at 5 a.m. on a snowy Wednesday morning was longer than I expected, but we got through it with only one hitch. Used to checking my baggage, I had a three-ounce bottle of mouthwash in my lingerie bag, and got lectured by a snippy security guard.
She didn’t hold a candle, though, to the cranky Transportation Security Agency (TSA) supervisor we encountered on our return trip from Orlando to Portland Sunday afternoon.
We’d spent three days in “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” but she was the only mean witch we’d met. She growled and snapped at us when she realized that Phil was being followed by three children.
Without one shred of common courtesy, she ordered us to another line. There was no sign directing families to a different area. None of the several pleasant TSA people we’d passed had said anything. Some of the people around us expressed surprise and disgust at how she talked to our family. She must have been a Slytherin.
For you “Muggles” (non-magic folks) out there, Slytherin is the “house” at “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” of which all the bad witches and wizards are members.
But back to the first day of our trip…
After the drive through the snowstorm, and the lecture from the Portland TSA Slytherin, the rest of our trip to Orlando, with a change of planes in Denver went uneventfully, except for a bout of turbulence that reminded us that one of our grandchildren suffers from motion sickness – that includes some kinds of rides in theme parks.
On the return trip Sunday, we gazed out the plane windows in fascination see the clouds light up in flashes as we flew above the vicious thunderstorm that struck Alabama and Arkansas.
On a lighter note, and while I’m on the topic of airports, am I the only one who has issues with motion detector water faucets and toilets? I sometimes have to try two or three sinks in airport and other public restrooms before I get one that will respond to the motion of my hands under the faucet. Even more annoying is the problem of placing a toilet seat cover and successfully sitting on it before the motion-detecting toilet pulls it off and flushes it down.
On this trip, which included multiple visits to restrooms with these kinds of facilities, I experimented with various methodologies, none of which proved reliable. I believe these devices were invented by male Slytherins, or possibly the Weasley twins.
Perhaps the Department for the Misuse of Muggle Artifacts ought to look into it.
Poolside at the Royal Pacific
While booking the rest of our vacation, Grampa arranged for ground transportation. After making our way through the Orlando airport, we were met in the baggage claim area by Bob, our van driver.
A 60ish man with an East Coast accent, Bob kept up a constant stream of friendly chatter all the way from the airport to our hotel, including through a late afternoon traffic jam – about a half hour drive. He asked us where we were from, and knew about that morning’s snowstorm in the Pacific Northwest.
I asked where he was from originally, and he made me guess. “New York?” “No” “New Jersey?” “You’re getting closer,” said Bob. “I’ll give you a hint. I’m from the oldest of the United States.” I was trying to choose between Delaware and Rhode Island being the first of the 13 original colonies to declare independence from Great Britain, when Grampa correctly guessed Delaware.
Bob was impressed. From then on there was a constant stream of chatter on politics, respect for veterans, sports, history trivia, bits of local information and advice – “go to the park early, use sunscreen.” Bob kept us engaged the whole way to Loew’s Royal Pacific Resort.
Despite the fact that he had undoubtedly driven dozens of people back and forth to the airport between Wednesday and Sunday afternoon, when he picked us up for the return trip Bob remembered us, where we were from, and some of the topics we’d discussed.
He was just the first of many friendly, engaging people we met. Of course, they’re in the tourist business, but we couldn’t have asked for better service.
Loew’s Royal Pacific Resort is a beautiful and huge hotel complex within walking distance of the Universal theme parks. It is attractively decorated and landscaped in a South Pacific island theme.
We had adjoining rooms, both with two queen-sized beds, overlooking the lagoon pool and the surrounding area with scores of chaise lounges, tables with sun umbrellas, pingpong tables, pool tables, a covered but open-sided bar, plenty of palm trees, numerous lifeguard stands on the various peninsulas that shaped the huge curving pool which varied in depth from a few inches as you were wading in to just under five feet. Most of it was 3 1/2 to 4 1/2 feet deep. Fine for swimming, but also good for playing.
A volleyball net was strung across one of the inlets, and the centerpiece of the whole complex was a deck built to look like a yacht with jets of water squirting out from all sides and through plastic pipes that swiveled for water fights. The kids loved it!
Despite the fact that I hadn’t slept since getting up Tuesday morning, it was great to get into the pool Wednesday evening after the harrowing drive that morning to the airport, the long flight, settling into our rooms, and eating dinner in one of the hotel’s restaurants.
The kids and I enjoyed the pool each of the four evenings we were there, and Grampa joined us twice. On Friday evening we swam up to the edge of the pool and watched a South Pacific torch-lighting ceremony, with a flame-twirling male dancer, and a beautiful female hula dancer, who gave dancing lessons to a group of young volunteers.
Madeline, Jonathan and Natasha swam again on Sunday after we checked out of our rooms, while Grampa and I relaxed under an umbrella at one of the poolside tables. The kids ate lunch with us in-between swiming, playing pingpong and participating in an organized water balloon tossing activity. They changed into traveling clothes in a pool side locker room, right before Bob picked us up Sunday afternoon.
I didn’t expect the hotel and its grounds to offer so much fun, but it was a happy surprise.
Hogwart’s on the Horizon
Our main purpose, however, was to visit “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter,” which has become a Mecca for Harry Potter fans from all over the world.
Included in the package we purchased was our hotel stay, four-day entry passes to both the “Islands of Adventure” park, of which “Harry Potter” is one “island,” and the original Universal Studios park, “express lane” privileges which allowed us faster entry into the various rides and attractions, the right to enter “The Wizarding World” one hour before its regular opening time – 8 rather than 9 a.m.- and water taxi service to and from the park.
It was expensive, but the convenience, amenities and ability to “express lane” by all the “muggles” waiting in line, made it worth the money in our opinion.
I am not by nature an early riser, but I made exceptions for this once-in-a-lifetime trip with our grandchildren.
After a decent night’s sleep, we arose at 6:30 a.m. Eastern Standard Time – exactly 24 hours after we’d driven through that snowstorm – got dressed, and walked around the perimeter of the lagoon pool to the water taxi dock. We chatted with other hotel guests – we encountered lots of friendly people from all over – shivering a little in the cool morning air before the boat arrived.
The water taxi “captains” during the morning and afternoons were older gentlemen, very skilled at docking the boats. The only non-senior citizen “captain” we saw was on Saturday evening, the only time when we stayed after dark – dining at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in the “City Lights” center that is an extension of the theme parks.
There were also plenty of senior citizens taking tickets, working in the souvenir shops and restaurants, even performing in live shows. Apparently, when you retire in central Florida, you don’t always stay retired.
I dressed in jeans, sleeveless tops with a light button down shirt or hoodie over the top and comfortable walking shoes. Phil and the kids dressed similarly, although the girls switched to shorts as the days got warmer on Friday and Saturday. By noon we were peeling off the outer layers and depositing them in one of the lockers scattered around the park.
The temperatures were approaching 80 each afternoon we were there, but the nights cooled down into the 50s, and the mornings were brisk.
As soon as we got off the boat Thursday morning, we headed up the walkway past a portion of the City Lights attractions, across a bridge, past an other-worldly looking tower/lighthouse that marks the entrance to the “Islands of Adventure,” and through the entrance gates, where our passes and our index fingers were scanned. (I don’t know why, but they scanned our fingers every time we entered the park.)
Ahead of us was a South Seas village street. We passed under an archway which read: “The Adventure Begins…”
From the island market street, we passed into the colorful, wacky “Seuss Landing” – where we would return for longer visits – but our immediate destination was the spires of Hogwart’s etched against the blue Florida sky.
From Seuss Landing we walked across a moat to “The Lost Continent,” strewn with huge boulders, stone faces, a giant stone arm holding aloft a three-pronged trident, and a snoring fountain. (More on those next week).
Finally the arched gateway to “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” loomed above us. In letters cut out of the iron arch it read: “Please Respect the Spell Limits”.
(CONTINUED NEXT WEEK when we will actually walk the cobblestone streets of “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” and visit other attractions at Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida. – DSH)