This sweet story that went viral this week about a woman at Universal Orlando going out of her way to help obviously reminded me of our own Universal experience. From 2011, shortly after Harry Potter World opened. Elizabeth was 9 years old.
The first thing I had to do when we got to Harry Potter World was stand in line. This was not unexpected. We had been told by several people to prepare for 1930s Soviet bread length lines. However, it was a bit surprising to find that I had to wait in line just for the right to go into Harry Potter World, where I could wait in those long lines. It turns out that Harry Potter World is rather small, and they can only let in so many people at a time. So, I had to wait in a 45-minute line that twisted and turned through the park just to get a return ticket — which would allow us to go into Harry Potter World four hours later.
It probably goes without saying that I do not like waiting in lines — this has to be like saying that you don’t like traffic or you don’t like doing taxes. But, to tell the truth, I enjoyed standing in the line. It was a beautiful day, and the line snaked through Comic Strip World (or whatever it is called) so while the family was off doing amusement park things I could look at Beetle Bailey and Cathy and Blondie exhibits. Perhaps more than anything I had that rare “I’m a Dad” feeling of pride. I can remember my Dad doing all sorts of awful tasks like this all just so we could do something fun. It seems part of the job. When I finally reached the end of that first line, and got our return tickets I had this great sense of accomplishment. Nobody, for the moment anyway, could argue the point.
Attorney: My client is a great Dad.
Judge: What proof do you have of this?
Attorney: He waited by himself in a 45-minute line so his wife and daughters could go to Harry Potter world.
Judge: Case closed. Defendant is a great dad.
We had four hours before we were to stand in the Harry Potter World lines, and so we went to Dr. Seuss Land, which reminded me once again that Dr. Seuss was a disturbed man. I don’t mean this in a bad way at all — I loved Dr. Seuss as a child, and I love him as a parent, but the world he created is whacked. We had breakfast with the Grinch (who snapped at both daughters), and we rode the “One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish” ride (where you get sprayed with water), and we went into the Cat in the Hat Ride, where you get spun around and constantly taunted by creatures aptly named Thing 1 and Thing 2.
At one point, we also went to Jurassic Park land, and we were taken into a laboratory-themed room where a young man in a lab jacket showed us a rather large dinosaur that he said was brought back to life through cryogenics and cloning and whatever that movie was about. This placed us as parents in a rather odd position: Were we supposed to tell the girls that the dinosaur wasn’t real? Frankly, I have to admit, it gets harder and harder as a parent to remember what myths the kids still believe in, what myths they kind-of believe in, what myths we want them to believe in and so on. I finally made an executive decision: I saw no reason whatsoever for them to believe that dinosaurs still roam the earth.
“It’s a robot,” I told them.
“Are you sure?” they asked.
“And I don’t think Babe Ruth called his shot either,” I said.
Harry Potter World is actually just one cobbled street that features a castle, a wand shop, a sweet shop, a magical joke shop, a restaurant, three rides and 1.9 million people. It is not large, but there is something bewitching about the place. The scene seems pulled out of the J.K. Rowling books. To be honest, it almost feels like you are shuffling about in a pop-up version of the books … assuming that the pop-up book was placed in O’Hare Airport on Christmas Eve.
My point here is to write about the something magical that happened in Harry Potter World and not to give a review of the park, but I will say that it really was great fun despite the crowds and the long lines. In a weird way, it was great fun BECAUSE of the crowds and the long lines. What I mean is: Elizabeth had been so looking forward to the park. She has a natural habit of building things up way too big in her mind, which sometimes leads to spectacular disappointment … a habit, I fear, she may have inherited from her father. It is actually this habit that led to our magical moment.
But in this case, her fevered anticipation for Harry Potter World was met, even exceeded, and against-intuition I think the large crowds and long lines had a lot to do with it. I think this for two reasons:
The long lines meant that we stayed in HP World for a long time. If there had been only a few people in the park, we would have been in and out in an hour and a half or two hours, and she would have realized that the park wasn’t very big. We would have ridden the rides, gone through the castle, visited the shops, and there would have been an “Is that all there is?” feeling. But because just getting into the castle took more than an hour, just getting into the sweet shop was another 15-20 minutes, getting on the ride was another 45, buying a wand from one of the street vendors was another 30 … it all felt to her like an enormous adventure.
I think seeing how many people from all over love Harry Potter — there had to be five or six languages going at once, not including intense Alabama accents (the Alabama-Michigan State Bowl was a day away) — made her feel a part of this larger community. This very sweet young woman from Dothan, Alabama lifted Elizabeth on her shoulders so she could see a little show (I had our younger daughter, Katie, on my shoulders), and then they talked all about goblet of fire and the Mirror or Erised and the spiders in the Forbidden Forest and whatever else. I remember as a child desperately wanting something to make me feel connected — for me it was sports. Sadly there was no Cleveland Indians world, unless you count the bleachers at old Municipal Stadium where factory workers drank schnapps from flasks and swore liberally and rubbed your head when the Indians actually scored.
So if somebody would ask me: “Should we go to Harry Potter World?” I would simply ask how much their children love Harry Potter. Because for an adult who loves Harry Potter … I don’t know what the expectations would be, and so I don’t know how annoying and off-putting the lines and the claustrophobia and the general inability to get around would become. For a 9-year-old who dreams nightly of J.K. Rowling’s imaginary and wonderful and frightening world, it was fabulous — even if Elizabeth was scared to death on the park’s main ride.
Now, finally, the magical part. As we were getting ready to leave, Elizabeth was granted her one wish, which was to buy something from the gift shop. This, even under the best of circumstances, can be a gut-wrenching experience. Every now and again, I will take the girls to Target, and they are allowed to buy one thing, and Katie tends to pick out a Polly Pocket doll or something like it within about 45 seconds.
Elizabeth, meanwhile, proceeds to turn the trip into Hamlet Act 3, Scene 1. She puts intense pressure on herself to make the right decision, as if every Target will close tomorrow, as if a meteor will crash into the earth if she chooses wrong. If she had found herself faced with the bluepill, redpill choice from The Matrix, I have little doubt the movie would have lasted 37 hours and in the end she would have asked once again if there was a purplepill in a different aisle.
So, if trips to the local Target turn into traumatic experiences, you can only imagine the anxiety and torture of picking out one thing in Harry Potter World. My wife Margo, being smarter than her husband, announced that she was taking the younger daughter back to Dr. Seuss World — because getting drenched while riding in flying fish is far superior to dealing with the older daughter’s “what should I buy” anxieties.
It was every bit as stressful as you might imagine. There were, of course, way too many people inside the secondary gift shop (the MAIN gift shop, where there is some show involved with picking out a wand, had an hour-and-a-half wait). It was difficult to move. And Elizabeth was in her rush-from-one-place-to-another frantic mode … she was in the 9-year-old middle ground between elation and panic.
And then we ran into Katie the Prefect. Katie was about 18 or 19, I’m terrible about judging ages, and she worked in the store and, as such, wore the robes that students wear at Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter books. I know she was a prefect because she wore a prefect’s badge, which is the first thing that Elizabeth noticed.
“Are you a prefect?” she asked, and her face lit up.
“Yes,” Katie said. “What house are you in?”
There are four houses at the Hogwarts School in Harry Potter. The main one is Gryffindor, which is the house of Harry Potter and his friends. For some reason, Elizabeth had decided that her house was Ravenclaw, which in my own memory plays only the smallest role in the books.
“I’m a Ravenclaw,” Elizabeth said.
“Are you now?” Katie said, and she was clearly amused, and Elizabeth was absolutely smitten.
It’s easy to forget this … but anyone can be a star to a 9-year-old. Yes, Elizabeth is hypersensitive to stardom, she likes the tween fan magazines so she can read up on Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift and Selena Gomez (her favorite) and Demi Lovato and the Jonas Brothers and … if none of these names are ringing a bell, I can lend you a 9-year-old girl for a while.*
*Update: It’s amazing how famous those names are NOW.
But the truth is that to a 9-year-old, a star can be almost anybody older — the police officer standing outside the mall, the soldier who walks on the plane, the boys and girls in the choir at a recital, the actors in a community theater play and, most definitely, the girl wearing robes and a prefect badge at Harry Potter World. They talked for a couple of moments, Katie the Prefect was kind and patient, and then we were back on our never-ending adventure of buying something that would somehow meet Elizabeth’s impossibly high hopes.
I’ve bored you long enough — but I should say there was still quite a bit of angst before we finally got down to two items. One was a glitzy Gryffindor bag (there was no Ravenclaw merchandise in the junior gift shop). And the other was a cute stuffed-animal owl like the one that Harry uses to send and receive mail. Getting down to these two items had pressed Elizabeth to her decision-making limits, and at this point she more or less shut down.
“Daddy,” she said in a pleading voice. “What should I do? Tell me?”
Believe it or not, there are no classes that tell fathers what to say to their daughters when they have reached a crisis point while trying to choose an owl or a bag. The options, as I saw them, were to say what I was thinking (“I don’t care just choose one already”), to go strict Daddy on her (“If you don’t choose in 5 seconds, you won’t get either”), to take the spoiled Dad route I have always promised myself not to take (“Fine just get them both and let’s get out of here”), or to try once more to guess which one she really wanted and push her in that direction. None of these options seemed to fit the occasion.
And then … I saw Katie the Prefect. And, in an inspired bit of fatherhood, I said: “Let’s go ask her.”
I had no idea what Katie the Prefect would say. Exuberance and enthusiasm can be such rare qualities in people. There are so many discouraged people. There are so many people who appear to be going through the motions — leading those lives of quiet desperation. The older I get the more I have come to believe that we can make such a difference by showing just a little bit of zeal, doing a little bit more, showing just a bit more of our spirit. But it is not easy, and it is not common.
Elizabeth quietly walked over to Katie The Prefect (while clinging desperately to my hand) and said: “Um, excuse me. I wanted to ask you a question, please.”
Katie said: “Oh hello. My little Ravenclaw friend. What can I do for you?”
Elizabeth explained her conundrum. Owl or bag. Bag or owl. Katie the Prefect in real life, I suspect, is a young woman who goes to college, has a life plan, undoubtedly has her good moments and bad, her good habits and bad, parents who adore her, friends who look up to her, friends she looks up to and all those things. She worked at Harry Potter world, which undoubtedly has its good points and bad points and lots of grumpy muggles (muggle meaning “non-magical people” in the Harry Potter books).
But in this moment — and I doubt she realized this entirely — she was the biggest thing in the world to a 9-year-old girl she will undoubtedly never see again. She could have simply said “Get the bag” or “Get the owl” or “Well, what do you want to do?” or anything else. That was, I would guess, part of her job.
What she did, though, was lean down close to Elizabeth and look her right in the eye. And she said: “Well, it’s a difficult choice isn’t it? They’re both such wonderful things. But it seems to me that you could use the bag every day. You could use it to keep your books when you go to school, and school is very important. I had to study very hard to become a prefect. And the owl …”
With this she leaned even closer and almost whispered in Elizabeth’s ear: “I must tell you: Owls are not of much use in the muggle world.”
That was it. That was the magic. Elizabeth’s face lit up like like the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree. She nodded, and she gave Katie the Prefect a huge hug, and for those 20 seconds of her life it was like she was in the Harry Potter book, being offered advice by the most popular student at Hogwarts. Owls are not of much use in the muggle world. Katie hugged her back, disappeared into the crowd, and Elizabeth got the bag which, for once, was EXACTLY what she wanted. It was, in fact, the greatest thing she had ever gotten in her entire life. Every time she drapes it around her shoulder, she tells the story of how she got it and the advice Katie the Prefect had given her.
It was just a few seconds of kindness. It might even just be viewed as part of the job of working at Harry Potter World. But that — more than the multi-million dollar rides, more than the authentic butterbeer or the cauldron made of chocolate, more than the remarkable effects in the castle, more than anything — that is what Elizabeth will remember, perhaps even for the rest of her life. A young woman probably making something like minimum wage, wearing a robe and a badge, had made Elizabeth feel special and magical. Owls truly are not of much use in the muggle world. I thanked Katie the Prefect before she went off to help other customers, but I’m not sure she heard me, and I’m not sure she would have understood anyway. There’s so much we can do in this crazy world with a little effort and imagination. There’s so much we can do that it’s easy to miss what we have done … even after it’s over.