“Welcome, Harry, to Diagon Alley.”

In February 2012, I took a trip to Orlando, FL with the express purpose of visiting The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studio’s Islands of Adventure. It was, without overstating it, the best trip ever.

That is, until this one.

Because this time, I not only got to go back to Hogsmeade, but I also got to visit Diagon Alley, the newest part of Universal Studios Theme Park and without a doubt the most magical place on Earth (take that, Disneyworld!). Now, most of you know that, if we’re putting it mildly, I [email protected]#%-ing love Harry Potter, so consider this your warning that things are about to get real nerdy real fast.

It. Was. Glorious.

I feel it is important to note that Diagon Alley is not visible from the streets of Universal Studios Theme Park. Rather, when you enter what is clearly marked as “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley” on the park map, you find yourself standing in a London street.

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It’s all an homage to HP, of course, but it really does have that London feel. They even have a stand selling England-y things set up right outside — union jack t-shirts, “Keep Calm and Carry On” mugs, etc. Looking around, you’ll see the entrance to the Leister Square Tube stop, King’s Cross Station, and, of course, Number 12 Grimmauld Place.

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The Knight Bus is also set up right outside, complete with conductor extraordinaire Stan Shunpike and his little shrunken head sidekick who yells things at people walking by. It’s pretty great.

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Then, you walk through an inconspicuous-looking opening, around a corner, and suddenly find yourself gazing upon that magical brick entryway…

And there it is.

First off, it absolutely feels like you’re stepping into a different world, because you’re basically BEHIND the main street of the park. You can’t really see any of the other park areas once you’re inside Diagon Alley, which is awesome in and of itself.

And it’s just perfect. You walk down the lane and it’s ALL there. On the right, Quality Quidditch Supplies, where Harry first laid eyes on the Nimbus 2000 broomstick in the window display.

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On the left is the back-entrance of The Leaky Cauldron, where you can grab a bite to eat… and where we did just that. Obviously. The food was actually really good! Expensive as all get out ($70 for lunch for 4 people, oyyyy), but still pretty impressive both quality- and variety-wise.

Walk a few steps further, and there’s Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, complete with a giant Fred or George raising his top hat to everyone passing through the Alley.

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Further down the way lies Madame Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, where Harry bought all his school robes (and where a very generous Sean bought some for me, heehee!) Hufflepuff reppin’, yo!

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And that’s not all, by far! I haven’t even mentioned the Magical Menagerie, where Hagrid bought Harry his very first birthday present ever — Hedwig. Or Flourish & Blott’s, complete with moving poster advertising Gilderoy Lockhart’s latest book (of lies).

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There’s Florean Fortesque’s Ice Cream Parlour, where Harry, Ron, and Hermione spent many a final day of summer enjoying ice cream after a long day of school supply shopping. They offer both hard-packed and soft-serve ice cream in flavors like Earl Grey & Lavender, Clotted Cream, Sticky Toffee Pudding, Apple Crumble, and, of course, Butterbeer. Plus normal ones like chocolate and vanilla for boring people. 😉

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Of course, there’s another Ollivander’s here (the REAL Ollivander’s), and the park peeps clearly learned a lesson from the Hogsmeade side of the park, because instead of having to wait in the sun while 20 or so people went in group-by-group, they built several wand rooms into the Diagon Alley attraction, so there was literally no wait time at all for us.

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Best of all, OLLIVANDER CHOSE ME THIS TIME! I mainly credit the hair for getting her attention (it was a lady Ollivander, heh), but then again, it might have been my huge dumbfounded grin. So I got to try out several different wands to find The Wand, and then OF COURSE I had to buy it since it was, you know, the wand that chose me! Duh!

Luckily, I was planning on buying one anyway, since one new feature that they added since I last visited the park are that they now sell interactive wands, which allow you to “cast spells” at various locations throughout both Harry Potter parks. So you can walk around and cast Wingardium Leviosa on a sign, or  Aguamenti on a water fountain, or Tarantella on a window display to make a puppet dance, etc.

I tell ya, these park people really know how to get suckers like me to part with their hard-earned Galleons. 😉

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And speaking of money, right at the end of Diagon Alley is Gringotts. Yes, Gringotts Bank in all its glory, complete with fire-breathing dragon perched on top. The dragon breathes fire about once every fifteen minutes and it’s hot and it’s loud and it’s fun and you seriously never get tired of it. It’s awesome.

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This is also where the new ride, Harry Potter & the Escape from Grigotts is located. The ride actually broke down right when we first got in line but don’t worry guys, I only hyperventilated a little. And thankfully it was back in working order with even shorter lines just an hour later! Also, the ride is really great, in case you were wondering. It’s pretty much what you’d expect if you’ve watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt 2 and saw what happens when they try to break into Gringotts and secretly wished it was a ride. Well, now it is!

Some people might be surprised to learn that Harry Potter & the Escape from Gringotts is the only actual “ride” in this entire part of the park (if you count the Hogwarts Express as more of a transportation attraction than actual ride.) Yep, just the one. But honestly, there’s so much to see and do you’ll barely even notice. I’m just as happy sippin’ on my Butterbeer and watching Celestina Warbeck & the Banshees perform, or one of the park’s puppet reenactments of the Tales of Beedle the Bard, as going on thrill rides. Just sayin’.

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It really is just astounding how MUCH there is. They even have Knockturn Alley ready and waiting for all you dark wizards and/or people who can’t correctly pronounce “Diagon Alley” when traveling by floo powder. I swear, they must pump in cold, clammy air as you make your way down to Borgin & Burkes, because it event felt creepy.

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And of course, who can forget about the Hogwarts Express? You need a Park-to-Park ticket to ride it, since Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios park and Hogsmeade is located in Islands of Adventure, but it’s so, so worth it. The Hogwarts Express functions as both an actual train ride from one park to the other, and as a little interactive movie-type thing, where you get to see various things out of the window and happening in the hallway as you travel to and from London/Hogsmeade.

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Honestly, I could probably write an entire post JUST on the Hogwarts Express/King’s Cross Station. There are so many awesome little details that they put into what is basically a shuttle! As you enter King’s Cross, there are fake muggle billboards advertising things like “Magic, the Perfume”, piles of luggage strewn about (including one trunk I spied with the initials H.G. on it), and a little snack shop that carries ALL BRITISH FOOD AND DRINK ITEMS. Stuff like Prawn Cocktail chips — sorry, I mean, crisps — and REAL Mars Bars that you can actually buy while you wait in line.

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There also is a really special way that they did the entrance to Platform 9 3/4. I SO wish I’d gotten a picture of it, but basically they have a pane of glass up that works like a hologram and makes it really look like the folks in front of you are disappearing through the wall between platforms 9 and 10! Ungh, it’s sooooo gooooooddddd.

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So yeah, for those of you who might end up debating about whether to get a Park-to-Park ticket, if you’re any kind of Harry Potter fan you’re definitely going to want to do it, even JUST for the experience of going through the Hogwarts Express stuff. Plus, c’mon, are you honestly telling me that you’re gonna go all the way to Universal Studios as a true Potterhead and NOT get the park-to-park ticket?

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I mean, at the very least Hogsmeade still has Hogwarts, amiright? And I’d been to the Hogsmeade side before and it was still just as great the second time! They also made a couple of changes that helped space-wise, like moving all the merchandise that used to be at Zonko’s Joke Shop over to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, which left a much more open, easier to navigate space inside Honeydukes. And that really worked out well for me when I decided to peruse the shelves at Honeydukes because, well, I just hadn’t spent enough money yet.

You’re looking at $40 worth of candy that will probably never be eaten, FYI.

And so, my friends, that about does it. There are more than a few things that I left out because I A) definitely didn’t take enough pictures (too busy stifling my tears of joy) and B) there is just SO MUCH it would literally be impossible to describe within the confines of a single blog post.

But, hey, I tried. And anybody who is planning a trip down to Universal Orlando in the future, I’m more than happy to answer any questions you might have! I know it basically seems like I spent every minute of my time at Universal immersed in Harry Potter World, and while I may have wanted that to be the case, we did manage to fit in some other stuff too:

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So, yeah, best trip ever still seems to sum it up.

Slytherin Hair, Hufflepuff Spirit

Those of you who have been longtime readers of this blog know that at one point in time, I was a daily blogger. Yes, every single weekday, and even some weekends if there was anything particularly exciting to report, I would open up a fresh post page in WordPress and type, type, type my heart out. I would detail everything from my latest weigh-in what I made for dinner the night before, to what I had been up to that weekend, to just all of the random thoughts that ran through my noggin.

Of course, part of the reason for that daily blogging was the accountability I so desperately needed to keep myself on track with weight loss, but another (rather sizeable) contributing factor was the fact that my job, well, let’s just say it didn’t exactly keep me busy 100% of the time. And during the rare times when I was busy, I was doing things I wasn’t exactly jazzed about having to do. So what better way to keep myself from going cuckoo behind a cubicle than to take to the magic of the world wide interwebs, right?

Well, as it turns out, me running to this very blog on an almost-daily basis was the very thing that honed my writing and social media skills to the point where I was able to land a full-time job that took advantage of those very things. A job that honestly felt tailor-made for me. My dream job. (I know how obnoxious it is that I still say stuff like that, but, hey, honest is as honest does!)

But, of course, suddenly having a job that not only required more of my time, but that I also wanted to devote time to, meant that I found myself starkly lacking in that ho-hum, what-to-do-what-to-do downtime where I was able to do a lot of my blogging. And so, those daily posts suddenly dropped to a few times a week. Then maybe once a week. And now… well, I think we all know I’m not the greatest at updating frequently.

And the funny thing about blogging, for me, at least, is that the longer you stay away, the harder it is to jump back. Logically, you’d think it’d be the opposite scenario. I mean, I have so much to report on, so many things to tell you about, so many photos to embed, I should be cranking out post after post, right? But it’s actually more like, there’s so much to say, I don’t really know where to start.

Funny, right? When I was writing at least 5 times a week, I rarely struggled to come up with content, and yet here I am with a multi-part dream vacation, a very stressful and frightening hospital stay for my dog Harry (don’t worry, he’s okay now, thank goodness), a friend’s wedding, and tons of events, cooking expeditions, and restaurant recaps stirring around in my brain, and I hardly even know where to start.

Well, I guess I should follow Fraulein Maria’s advice and start at the very beginning, eh?

A couple of weeks ago, Sean and I headed down to sunny Florida for a vacation that basically consisted of all the best possible things in life: my niece Mia, Harry Potter, Disney, a cruise, Sean’s birthday, the Kennedy Space Center, and, of course, more Harry Potter. (Duh.)

It was a pretty long trip and as you can see, we did quite a few different things, so I’ll try to tackle this chronologically. The trip can essentially be broken up into thirds. Part I consisted of being together with my sister, brother-in-law, and Mia, who drove over from Georgia to visit Universal Studios and Disney’s Magic Kingdom with us!

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Mia’s first trip to Disney, though she will not in any way, shape, or form remember it, was so much fun! I’m sure I would have still had fun even if it was just us “grown ups” touring Magic Kingdom, but I have to admit that it’s all the more special with a little princess in tow.

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And even though I’m sure parts of it were really overwhelming, I think Mia really had a great time! We basically had to pry her off of the teacups, and she was so excited to meet Belle, well, see for yourself. She was literally head over heels for her. 😉

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I will, of course, do a much, much (much much much much) more detailed post on Diagon Alley, the newest part of the Universal Studios Theme Park and literally the most magical place on Earth, but for now, suffice it to say that it was absolutely amazing and perfect and wonderful and I almost cried but didn’t quite so be proud of me.

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Just a couple of gals hanging out on Sirius Black’s flying motorbike, nbd.
Sean absolutely gets full marks for being so wonderful through all my insane fangirling, of course. For someone who has only read the first three Harry Potter books, has only seen like movies 1, 2, and 8 (or something equally as ridiculous), and doesn’t exactly have the Disney-obsessed gene that tends to run in my bloodline, he was an incredibly good sport.

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I did not actually end up buying him the “Best Boyfriend” award pictured above, but those of you fearing for Sean’s sanity after what he went through on this trip, don’t worry. Part 2 of our trip was a lot more fun for him, I promise. 🙂

After we said goodbye to Jenny, Dan, and Mia, it was time for Part II of our trip! Sean and I took the world’s most expensive Uber ride about an hour east from Orlando to Port Canaveral — we were going on a cruise! See, my old man’s 30th birthday just happened to coincide with this trip, so I figured that a nice, relaxing 3-day Bahamian cruise was just the ticket to make sure he got a chance to really enjoy this vacation too.

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PS: Traveling as a couple and trying to get pictures together = having to choose between taking yet another selfie OR awkwardly asking other couples if they’ll take a picture of you, since only they truly know your plight.
We were on Royal Caribbean’s Enchantment of the Seas, and the cruise was very nice — lots of downtime, relaxing, and, of course, eating! Oh boy, so much food… it’s really a good thing the cruise was only three days, I tell you what. We left from Port Canaveral and stopped in Nassau, Bahamas, and then we were also set to stop at CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s “private island,” but unfortunately some really bad winds meant we had to skip it, as the water was too choppy to risk taking tender boats to the shore.

Oh well, being on the boat is where most of the fun in cruising is at, anyway, right? I mean, I managed to win $20 in the casino off of a $5 initial investment, so I’m thinking things went preeeeetty well for us. 😉

We actually ended up returning to Florida ON Sean’s birthday, so we headed just a few miles out from Port Canaveral to the Kennedy Space Center’s Vistor Complex and spent most of the day nerding out about space. (Sidenote: we also just saw Interstellar over this past weekend and I tell ya, it was a good combination to have just visited the Space Center, heh.)

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Sean’s a big space nut, so he had a great time checking out the old rockets, the space shuttle Atlantis, and all other sorts of nifty space-race history stuff while we were there. And as for me? Well, I may be as much of a space enthusiast as Sean, but I definitely learned a lot…

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Finally, we ended the day with Sean’s birthday dinner at Luma on Park, a fantastic restaurant that came recommended by my coworker and the Orlando Community Manager for Yelp (she does what I do here, only there.)

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And that successfully wraps up both Parts I and II of our trip! Whew! For those of you still reading, I’m pretty impressed that you made it. And fear not, I shall save Part III for another day, since it pretty much just consists of going back to Harry Potter World, shamelessly geeking out, and totally, utterly, completely loving my life.

Slytherin hair, Hufflepuff spirit.

Hopefully at least getting a significant chunk of my big trip down on paper (so to speak) will help me funnel my blogging mojo back into some semblance of normalcy. I definitely have more to report on, so stay tuned! Especially those of you who are looking for more of an in-depth look at the new Diagon Alley part of Universal Studios, hehe. Oh man, there are so many more ridiculous pictures to come…

‘Til next time!

Of course this is happening inside your head, Harry…

…But why on earth should that mean it is not real?

It probably doesn’t even need to be said, but I am postponing this week’s weigh-in to allow my butterbeer belly time to deflate. So, where did we leave off? Ah yes, it’s Saturday morning, my parents and I have just arrived at the parks, and I am rip-raring and ready to get my arse to Harry Potter World! For those of you who are unfamiliar with the layout, Universal Orlando is split in two: Universal Studios park and Islands of Adventure. The latter is the one that houses the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is a section of the park along with others themed around things like Marvel superheroes, Jurassic Park, and Dr. Seuss.

Hop on Pop

We traipsed through Seussland and The Lost Continent, taking a few giddy moments at the Lorax statue and peering into a shop or two. No time to dilly-dally, though. I was a girl on a mission.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

It actually kind of sneaks up on you. Despite the fact that you’re actively looking for it. You just walk around a bend and suddenly, there it is.

Please Obey the Spell Limits

Hogsmeade. With its snow-crested rooftops and meticulously planned storefronts and Butterbeer barrels lining the streets. Eager children in robes roaming the streets, Hogwarts castle looming in the background. I would be lying if I didn’t get just the slightest bit emotional when I saw it. I’m only ridiculously obsessed with Harry Potter human, after all! And it was quite the magical moment for me.

Hogsmeade-ing

After going through the main gate into Hogsmeade, we were immediately greeted by the enthusiastic conductor of the Hogwarts Express. To the right is the steaming smoke stack of the engine car, set up perfectly for a photo op. As I mentally squeal with utter delight, I see that the lockers for this area are housed under a sign indicating they’re part of the Hogsmeade train station (clever!).

Hogsmeade Train Schedule
All Aboard!Hogwarts Express

Across the cobblestones from the train sits Zonko’s Joke Shop and Honeydukes. At this point, the squealing is no longer just in my head.

Zonko's
Extendable Ears
U-No-Poo

I demand that we go inside right away, and I immediately melt at the sight of extendable ears dangling from the ceiling, wizard chess pieces dueling it out in the store window. Zonko’s and Honeydukes are connected, so it’s a mere hop, skip, and a display of Every Flavour Beans before I’m in the next store.

Honeyduke's
Bernie Bott's Every Flavour Beans
Chocolate Frog

I practice extreme self-restraint and leave the stores empty-handed today. After all, we’re only about 30 minutes into our two-day park adventure at this point! No point in letting my chocolate frogs melt while we’re waiting in line. They’ve only got one good jump in them to begin with.

McHavelock's Wizarding HeadgearOwl Post
Brooms for allSpectrespecs

Everyone keeps asking me what my favorite part of the park was, but it’s hard to narrow it down to just one thing. It was the overall feel, you know? The window displays of stores that weren’t even functional, set up for no purpose other than for us fans. The Mimbulus Mimbletonia in the window of the botany store. The set of Gilderoy Lockhart’s books displayed in the bookstore. Moaning Myrtle echoing from inside the bathroom walls (don’t forget to go to the ‘public conveniences” while you’re there!). I just loved it all.

Dervis & Banges

Besides Honeydukes and Zonko’s, the only other store that you can really go into is Dervish and Banges. This is where they sell all the wands, robes, and various paraphernalia you could dream of. We actually had to wait in a line just to get into the store itself on the first day we were there. Once inside, it’s mayhem, but amazing.

Replica Wands

Ollivander’s isn’t actually a store, so you can’t buy your wand there. We did go into Ollivander’s, of course, but I just wanted to point out the difference. It’s more like a show, after which you can purchase the actual wands in Dervish & Banges (or in one of the many other stores around the park, of course). You’ll find replicas of all the characters’ wands from the movies in addition to 12 wands that are exclusive to the park. The meanings behind these special wands are based on the Celtic rune calendar, so they can match you with one based on your birthday. As it turned out, I didn’t need to have them analyze any dates in order to know which wand to get, but that’s another (infinitely more awesome) story for later.

Pumpkin Patch

We stopped by a merchant so that I could try a pumpkin juice before we went any further at this point. Pumpkin juice, as crafted by the creatives behind the theme park, tastes a lot like spiced apple cider. A quick look at the ingredient list showed an apple juice base, with pumpkin puree, apricot puree, and various spices (and preservatives, of course, but that’s to be expected).

Pumpkin Juice Refreshing!

It was delicious but VERY sweet. We ended up watering it down quite a bit, and given the outrageous amount of sugar I remember reading on the nutrition label, so it’s probably just as well. Regardless, I certainly found it refreshing! And you better believe I kept the bottle. 😉

Courtyard and towers

The Harry Potter area of Islands of Adventure currently boasts three main rides. First, there’s Dragon Challenge, a dueling roller coaster that they converted from a previously existing ride. I remember going on this particular coaster when I came to the park many years ago, so I didn’t feel the need to wait in line for it again. Then there’s Flight of the Hippogriff, which is more of a kid roller coaster. Dad and I hit this ride up on Day 2, when the line wasn’t too bad. Then, finally, there’s Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This spectacular simulator ride, which features a majority of the original actors, is the real star of the show. We waited in line for 90 minutes for this puppy, and it was so, so worth it (though my mom probably feels quite differently. Those who get easily motion-sick, be forewarned!). I won’t spoil things too much, but just know that I loved it. Once you weave your way through the outside part of the line, you dump your stuff at the free lockers inside and then get to take a tour of Hogwarts Castle!

Entering Hogwarts!

Starting with a few talking portraits (the way they cured the screens really does make them look like paintings! It’s fantastic!) and various decorative pieces that I recognized from the movies easily (the Mirror of Erised, the unicorn tapestry, etc.), you go through a few rooms before being greeted by Professor Dumbledore himself in his office (make sure to look for the Pensieve!). Then, you meet up with Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the Defense Against the Dark Arts classroom and finally learn what the ride is actually going to be about. Spoilers stop here, so if you’re curious for more you’ll just have to go to Orlando and find out yourself! 😀

Three Broomsticks Hog's Head

After disembarking from the ride, retrieving our things, and edging our way back out of Filch’s Emporium for Confiscated Goods (a.k.a. the ride’s gift shop), we headed down to the Three Broomsticks to let my mom’s stomach settle and refresh ourselves. They serve traditional British pub food there, unshockingly, so we got a couple plates of fish & chips to share. It was also here that I had my first (but not last!) taste of frozen butterbeer. Otherwise known as God’s gift to sugar, the aftereffects of which must be a parent’s worst nightmare, hahaha.

Icey Frozen Butterbeer

It tasted like a vanilla and butterscotch milkshake, and was so, so, SO delicious. I cannot wait to try to recreate this at home… with alcohol, natch. I’m thinking something like cream soda, butterscotch liquor, and a blender. Can you blend carbonated soda with ice? Guess we’re going to find out! And on that ominous note, I think we’ve covered enough ground today. Are you still with me? Haven’t jumped ship quite yet? Still to come: Ollivander’s and choosing my wand, Hagrid’s hut and the Flight of the Hippogriff, and many, MANY galleons’ worth of swag!

To be continued…

All Aboard…

… the Hogwarts Express!

Yes, I am FINALLY going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and I don’t care how lame you think it is! Right now I am en route to Orlando, headed towards a totally awesome, totally nerd-tastic weekend with the ‘rents. Though yesterday was full of emotion (thank you all SO much for your kind words in response to my incredibly raw and emotional post, by the way), I know that this trip will be just the thing to pull me firmly out of the doldrums.

Though, to be honest, I’m not really sure why I’m so excited. I mean, it’s not like I’m some huge Harry Potter fan.

It’s not like I own multiple items of Harry Potter clothing and related paraphernalia.

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It’s not like I took off work on the day that the last book was released.

It’s not like I read all 759 pages in one sitting, fell asleep, then woke up and started reading it all over again from the beginning.

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It’s not like I have ever stood in line for hours to attend a midnight release of the movies.

I especially didn’t see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 in the theatre four times.

And I was as cool as cucumber and didn’t freak out at all when I met Daniel Radcliffe.

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Nope, I’m just not that girl.

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BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Clearly, none of you are fooled. I absolutely AM that girl, and I am not ashamed! Harry Potter is awesome, and haters can feel free to hate on me, my inappropriate obsession with my dogs, my laziness, and my hatred of getting sweaty, but don’t mess with the HP, yo. Rest assured, you will be getting a VERY detailed recap of my adventures at Universal Studios this weekend, hehe. I come back on Monday afternoon (Happy Presidents Day weekend!), so I have a fantastic guest post lined up before I overwhelm your eyeballs with pictures of wands, wizards, and the 10 gallons of butterbeer I intend on consuming (“All hands on deck, Granger!“). SQUEEEEE, I AM SO EXCITED!!!!!

Have a magical weekend, friends!