Image: Ollivanders
Kevin Kolczynski  /  Courtesy Universal Orlando
Ollivander's Wand Shop.
By
Tribune Media Services
updated 7/16/2010 9:51:11 AM ET 2010-07-16T13:51:11

It's a family vacation first.

No, I'm not talking about how you can feel the dragon's breath as you soar over Hogsmeade with Harry Potter on his forbidden journey, eat exploding candy, ride on a dragon, drink frozen butter beer (tastes like cream soda with a shot of caramel) or have a Wandkeeper in his dusty shop direct you to just the right wand to perfect your wizarding skills.

"Very good for charming work," he tells one young would-be wizard.

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I'm talking about the thousands of vacationing tweens, teens and young adults who, in an effort to beat the crowds, have rousted their parents out of bed before 7 a.m. since "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter" opened with much fanfare June 18 at Universal Orlando Resort (www.universalorlando.com).

"They never get up this early without a lot of prodding," laughed Cherie Schiano of Connecticut, who's here with her 14-year-old daughter Emily and another mom-daughter duo. "Today, they were out of bed by 6 a.m. They've been talking about this and planning for six months." Schiano acknowledges that she is not nearly as big a Harry Potter fan as her daughter but says, "It's fun to see it with her."

Thanks, Harry. Suddenly, young people, who wouldn't spend much vacation time with their folks, much less get out of bed this early if they didn't have to, think family vacations are fun again, especially when mom and dad or grandpa pay for the trip and pop for $100 wizarding robes (yes, despite the 90-degree Florida heat, fans traipsed around the park in the floor-length robes, wearing Hogwarts ties as belts) or $30 wands.

"I about fainted when I went into the castle. It was so cool," said 20-year-old Rachel Mastalski, who arrived before 7 a.m. the other day — her second early morning (early admission is gratis with vacation packages at the three Universal resorts) with her family that includes two older siblings. And she thought it was worth every minute of lost sleep.

This is the generation, of course, that grew up with Harry Potter. They read the J.K. Rowling books with their parents, who were so excited they were reading that they waited in late-night lines for the latest release and then shepherded them and their friends to see the movies. (Some of the scenes from the two latest Harry Potter films were actually filmed here.) Gradually, parents became fans too.

For that reason, says Thierry Coup, the Universal executive who helped oversee "Wizarding World" and himself the dad of a 16-year-old, the World has evoked as much passion amongst the team as with the fans. "There was more passion about this than anything we've ever done," he said. "We've all shared Harry Potter with our own children too."

"I've read all the books twice," said Earl Ward, retired after more than 30 years in the Army. He stood on line here at 7:30 a.m. with his two granddaughters after an 18-hour road trip from Dallas. "This is something we can all do together."

That is as long as you can navigate the biggest theme park crowds I've ever seen. Gary Sain, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau, reports that already, "many of our global travel partners have shared double-digit increases in Orlando vacation inquiries and bookings." (Check out www.visitorlando.com/deals for the latest discounts.)

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Stay at a Universal Orlando Resort and you get early admission and the perk of using your room key to bypass the lines at the Dragon Challenge and Flight of the Hippogriff family coaster, or any of the shops where the lines could stretch well over an hour, as well as to other parks attractions. (Check expedia.com for discounted packages that can save even more when you book flights and theme park tickets altogether.)

If money isn't a concern, opt for a VIP tour (http://bit.ly/bbdqHW) at $150 a person, plus park admission, that will get you into the castle without waiting two hours, but it won't get you into Ollivander's Wand Shop, Honeydukes, the candy shop, the Owl Post or Dervish and Banges, the "magical supplies and equipment" shop, with its copy of the Monster Book of Monsters in a cage.

Throughout the day, people wait on line simply to get into the 20-acre Wizarding World area of the park and then wait additionally for everything else — from butter beer to the chance to pose with the conductor of the Hogwarts Express or to get into Three Broomsticks restaurant. "It's exhausting," acknowledged Sue Gauta, here with her kids from Naples, Fla. "We waited an hour to get into a shop to spend $150. It felt kind of dumb." Of course, her 9-year-old nephew, Jake Waleri, thought the waits were worth it — especially for the butter beer. "It's my new favorite drink," he declared. "And you can't get a wand like this other places!"

Some, though, simply gave up. "The kids didn't want to wait that long so we haven't done anything here," said a dejected Melissa Branch, here with her family from Winston Salem, N.C. "I'm disappointed."

Universal Spokesman Tom Schroeder suggests you see the rest of the park (Islands of Adventure) first and head to Hogsmeade later in the day when the crowds have thinned out. The park stays open until 10 p.m. throughout July.

After waiting an hour and being chosen from 25 people by the Wandkeeper to get fitted for her perfect wand (yes, music sounded, lights dimmed and wind rustled), 23-year-old Meghan Pahel said she didn't have enough money to buy it. But that didn't dim her enthusiasm a bit. "How can you not love this," she said. "It's like stepping into your childhood."

For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.

© 2010 Eileen Ogintz ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

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  1. The Hogwarts Express arrives in Hogsmeade Station at Universal Orlando Resort's Wizarding World of Harry Potter. As guests enter Hogsmeade, they are greeted by the iconic, smoke-billowing steam engine, made famous in the Harry Potter books and films for transporting students to a world of magic and wonder. (Kevin Kolczynski / Universal Orlando) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. As guests pass through the arch into Hogsmeade at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they can explore the cobbled streets of the highly themed environment, and will encounter iconic locations from the Harry Potter books and films, like Ollivanders and the majestic Hogwarts castle. (Kevin Kolczynski / Universal Orlando) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Visitors stroll the streets of Hogsmeade in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando theme park. The attraction opens to general admission ticket holders on June 18. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Members of the Hogwarts Choir sing for guests. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter features multiple themed attractions, shops and a restaurant. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A clerk, right, at Ollivander's Wand Shop, helps visitors pick out a magic wand. Park guests will have plenty of opportunities to shop for wands, broomstics, scarves and more. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Mounted on the wall of the Hog's Head pub is the hog's head, which will come alive and puff its jowls at visitors. Adjacent to the Three Broomsticks, the Hog's Head pub is where guests can enjoy a cold Butterbeer, pumpkin juice and other beverages. (Kevin Kolczynski / Universal Orlando) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The entrance to Hogwarts Castle is seen at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Hogwarts Castle is seen at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Construction of the park was overseen by the production manager from the Harry Potter movies. (John Raoux / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. The office of headmaster Albus Dumbledore is intricately displayed at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling, author of the Potter books, is a stickler for details, and Universal worked hard to get her OK on the park's attractions. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Guests will pass by the regal Griffin statue on their way to Dumbledore's office. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Just like the Harry Potter films, portraits line the walls of Hogwarts castle, the home of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. When passing through the Portrait gallery, guests will encounter several magical talking portraits created exclusively for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, including the four Hogwarts founders. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. An authentic replica from the Harry Potter films, guests will pass by Hagrid's hut on their way to the Flight of the Hippogriff family-friendly roller coaster. Just before they board, Hagrid instructs guests on how to properly approach and fly on a Hippogriff. (Kevin Kolczynski / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Kevin Kolczynski / Universal Orlando
    Above: Slideshow (12) Harry Potter's world comes alive
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    Slideshow (10) Luna Park freshens up Coney Island

Video: Al learns about Butterbeer, pumpkin juice

  1. Transcript of: Al learns about Butterbeer, pumpkin juice

    AL ROKER reporting: I got to tell you, that looks pretty refreshing right about now, guys. But another thing that's very refreshing, butterbeer. That's right . The iconic drink that is a delicacy here in Hogsmeade was created by Mr. Steve Jason . He is the executive chef here at Hogsmeade . Steve , good to see you.

    Mr. STEVE JASON: Good morning, Al . Good to see you.

    ROKER: Now, how does a guy from Brooklyn end up in Hogsmeade ?

    Mr. JASON: Good question.

    ROKER: Hey, tell me, so butterbeer, what goes into it?

    Mr. JASON: Butterbeer is a lot of great flavors and a lot of -- we looked in the book, we tried to get a feeling for what we wanted it to be. We put all the ingredients on the table, we worked on it. After 15, 16 tries we got something really great. We flew it over to Edinburgh , we gave it to the author, she gave it to...

    ROKER: J.K. Rowling had this?

    Mr. JASON: Yes, she loved it.

    ROKER: And this is butterbeer?

    Mr. JASON: And this is butterbeer.

    ROKER: All right, cheers.

    Mr. JASON: Cheers to you.

    ROKER: Mm. That's good butterbeer. Mm, I like it.

    Mr. JASON: You like that?

    ROKER: What's the other drink you've got here?

    Mr. JASON: I got a little pumpkin juice over here.

    ROKER: Pumpkin juice?

    Mr. JASON: Another one that we had to create and take over to J.K.

    ROKER: Mm-hmm.

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