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Wonders at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

September 13, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

Hogwart's Castle in Orlando

Sometimes you look forward to visiting a place to the point that you’re disappointed when you finally arrive. Not so with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando.  I entered Universal’s Islands of Adventure around 4:30 pm on a Saturday afternoon which turned out to be advantageous timing. Hoards of hot, dreary guests were leaving as I walked in. I headed straight back through the theme park, past colorful Seuss Landing, to the 20-acre complex of Hogsmeade.

The snow capped Victorian village feels exactly like stepping into the pages of J.K. Rowling’s famous books.  The place is enchanting, even with throngs of tourists; you feel the author’s dreams and imagination come to life.  HoneyDukes candy shoppe is a luscious allure of sweets, the florists shop window contains screaming mandrake plants and the owl post office sends mail with Hogsmeade stamps.

I didn’t tarry in town, rather high-tailed it to Hogswarts Castle for “the ride.” Signage noted a waiting time of 75 minutes, but I entered the singles line which cut the queue to about 35 minutes. (Hint- families can save time using this approach as long as they don’t mind splitting up for the ride.) While waiting within the castle, visitors are entertained by talking portraits, holograms and the profound sorting hat.

I spoke with Amy from Pennsylvania and her two daughters Elizabeth and Karen. They were repeating their third ride of the day. They’d also visited the park the day before and plan to return for spring break. Needless of say this family of experts cherish all things Harry Potter.

Finally, I was ready to sit down and ride my broomstick on the Forbidden Journey. Off  I flew, up and down swooping to great heights and through narrow alley ways and castle towers. I followed Harry on his adventures, playing Quidditch, escaping from the Whomping Willow tree and immense spiders dangling down to my knees. A fire-spewing dragon roared hot breath at my face, I was squirted by plants, and saw eerie apparitions.  The fast moving thrill was the best amusement park ride I’ve ever ridden: a mix of Disney’s Space Mountain, Haunted House and 3-D Star Wars effects. Just lovely.

I exited and stopped for a Butterbeer– a frozen drink to cool down from the overwhelming heat. Yum- tastes like a cream soda, sweet butterscotch, with a frothy head of a Guinness.

Raising a mug of Butterbeer

I spent about 25 minutes standing outside Ollivander’s wand shop. Upon entering, the costumed shop owner selects one lucky lad to find a wand from the vast collection. The first two offerings were failures, certainly not meant for him, but the third attempt united the wizard and spell caster. Very well done.

I ate dinner at The Three Boomsticks Restaurant, choosing the combo plate of chicken, ribs, roasted potatoes and corn on the cob instead of the more English fish and chips. Far better than anticipated for theme park food.  I completed the meal with a Hogs Head brew, a Sam Adam’s like beer. Total cost of the meal and drink –$19.95. The quantity proved way more than I could eat.

I had a delightful ride on the Hippogriff, a roller coaster which passes by Hagrid’s cottage.  Perfect for youngsters or those who wish a tamer experience. When I was nearing The Dragon Challenge, lightening crackled and the outdoor attractions closed.  I meandered  through the village, stopping to shop on my way out of the park.  The young couple in front of me said they were visiting for the tenth time. The endearing place, built at the cost of $265 million, seems to put a spell on some folk.

In three and a half hours I had pretty well covered the Wizarding World but must confess I saw nothing else in Universal’s huge arena. That’s okay with me, this muggle wanted  to step into Hermione’s shoes and couldn’t have danced through a happier eve.

Evening descends on Hogsmeade

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I Disclose:

While I received a free ticket to Universal as a paid attendee at The Travel Bloggers Show in Orlando, the pass in no way encouraged this blog.  As was previously mentioned in an earlier post, I had planned to visit the park this fall. I do want to thank Universal for the special opportunity and will definitely return.

France ~ Chateau de Chambord, a da Vinci Design

September 16, 2009 by · 2 Comments 

Part III- Day-Trip to the Loire Valley

Chateau de Chambord

Excitement grew as our bus approached the last stop of the day–the famous Chateau de Chambord. To me, even the name sounded majestic. This grand dame, a UNESCO World Heritage site, remains closely linked with Leonardo da Vinci and his imaginative designs.

The sheer size of the chateau tips the scale. Chambord rests within a 13,500-acre national forest, surrounded by a twenty-mile-long wall. The fortress contains an awesome 426 rooms, 77 staircases and 282 fireplaces. But, the guide told us, “King Francois I, who ordered construction of what he called a hunting lodge, spent only 72 days there.”

At first glimpse, the immense symmetrical wonder (almost as long as two football fields) flaunts a fantastic array of towers, windows, dormers and hundreds of decorative chimney stacks. The roofline resembles an Old World town whose buildings hint of Seusical whim. Certainly an ideal place for a game of hide and seek.

Rooftop and Chimney Stacks of Chambord

Rooftop and Chimney Stacks of Chambord

The architecture consists of a central square, called a keep, with rounded corner towers, two wings and courtyard. A medieval curtain wall encircles the building and beyond that, a partial moat. I’d say a cross between a fortified, ancient castle and the timely, delicate flourishes of Italian Renaissance.

Begun in 1519, the massive construction project was interrupted by the King’s Spanish imprisonment (1524-1526). After his return, plans were scaled back, truly hard to imagine, since it took twenty minutes just to walk to the entrance.

Francois died in 1547, leaving the royal residence unfinished. His son, Henry II, ordered work to continue, which it did until his death in 1559. One hundred years later, King Louis XIV, who loved hunting, made a few changes but used Chambord just nine times. The French government bought the decaying estate in 1930, and it remains under renovation.

Researchers credit Leonardo da Vinci (whom Francois brought to France) with conceiving the general design and famous double spiral staircase. The structure comprises, “two concentric spiral flights of stairs that wind independently around a hollow central column, so if two people each take one flight, they can each see the other through the opening in the center, but never meet.” Like most visitors, we tried this for ourselves-fun!

Lantern detail on the roof of Chambord

Lantern detail on the roof of Chambord

Needless to say, our tour visited only a small portion of the rooms, but highlights included the ornate carvings on the vaulted ceilings, the grand staircase, king’s chamber, lantern and the chimney stacks. Laura liked the winding stairs and rooftop best. I enjoyed looking out at seemingly endless vistas from the terrace, originally planned as a vantage point for hunt spectators.

 

As with the other stops on our day-trip, we didn’t have nearly enough time to absorb Chambord. I understand the mansion and park dazzle with lights, lasers and fireworks on summer nights. How I would enjoy that! If planning a tour of France, I suggest a stay in the Loire Valley to include the grand illumination of Chambord.

Aerial View of Chambord

Aerial View of Chambord

US ~ Stopping by a Ghostly Castle: Gimghoul

October 15, 2008 by · Comments Off on US ~ Stopping by a Ghostly Castle: Gimghoul 

Gimghoul Castle

Gimghoul Castle

I can’t think of a more perfect name for a castle than Gimghoul. The word just sounds eerie and mysterious. And, as it turns out, so is the place.

When researching a trip to Chapel Hill, NC, I unearthed an intriguing legend about Gimghoul Castle. Back in 1883, Peter Dromgoole (again, I’m crazy about the name), an 18-year-old student vanished. The rival for his love supposedly killed him in a duel and then tried to hide and bury his body under a large stone. Strange bloody red splatters appeared on the rock, staining it.

The next day beloved Fanny came looking for Peter, but Dromgoole had disappeared. All that remains is the reddish rock. Some say his ghost haunts the property, or is it Fanny?

Believe what you want; Gimghoul Castle was built on the site of the boulder, near the university campus. Completed in 1926, tax records reveal it is owned by a secret society: none other than The Order of Gimghoul. The fraternity-like group was founded in 1889, based on the legend of Dromgoole and the ideals of medieval times, similar to the Knights of the Round Table.

On my visit to the Tar Heel state, my curiosity was up. I had to find the foreboding estate.

I drove over to Gimghoul Road, a neighborhood street lined with two-story colonial homes and picture-perfect yards looking like they were maintained by gardeners. I stopped a lady trimming her bushes and asked for directions. She told me, “You’re almost there. Keep on going when the road narrows and turns to gravel. The castle will be on your right; you can’t miss it.”

And, sure enough, the street dwindled to a rocky path, bordered by overgrown hedges and ivy. The Norman-looking structure appeared, the top of its round tower shining in the sunlight. Small Rapunzel-like windows dotted the column. Ominous “No Trespassing” signs surrounded the grounds of the brown stone masonry mansion.

Entrance Tower

Entrance Tower

Instantly, my mind conjured up images of local kids daring one another to ring the doorbell or run around the fortress. I bet you don’t find many trick-or-treating there.

Being by myself, I certainly didn’t want to stir up any ghosts or Gimghoul members. I approached the property’s edge and set my camera on a tripod. As I shot these photos, I noticed a car semi-hidden in the driveway, but no other signs of occupancy.

I returned home more curious than ever and turned up a listing on the International Registry of Castles and another with the NC Historical Society. A prior investigator uncovered the Order’s records in the UNC Wilson Library. Some, interestingly enough, have restricted access. Those materials include a few past membership lists naming prominent students, professors and noted alumni as part of the group. Today, most believe the fraternity initiates ten male juniors a year.

But, keeping mum is what secret societies are all about, and like good mysteries, no one is talking, not even the ghosts.

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This article appeared in AutomotiveTraveler.com

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