Harry Potter World

Just yesterday (as I write this), my super amazing girlfriend and I went to Harry Potter World!!!! It was quite the adventure. It was also very hot.

My super amazing girlfriend, who features prominently in this story and of course also my heart, had wanted to go while we were on vacation down here in Florida. She is a big Harry Potter fan (I have read the books, and as of writing this, I have watched most of the movies) and had last visited 11 years or so ago when there was only one Harry Potter World, which was Hogsmeade over in Universal’s Islands of Adventure. She wanted to visit again, and so we did. Along with many, many other people.

We started the day driving the two hours or so to Orlando and made our way first to Islands of Adventure. My super amazing girlfriend had mapped out a bit of a strategy which involved trying to get in line for one of the more popular rides first thing in the morning as soon as we could in order to beat the crowd. This strategy went the way most did in contact with the enemy. The park was CROWDED that day. Super crowded. Packed. A seething mass of humanity desperate for butterbeer and chocolate frogs. And we went on what we thought was going to be a “slow” day. Next time we go, it’s going to be in January or something and we’re splurging on the Fast Passes.

Nonetheless we approached Hogsmeade and we were quite impressed! The Hogwarts Castle is really impressive, I think, with its forced perspective and detail making it look pretty big. It housed the first ride we went on, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.” This ride was a lot of fun. I didn’t really understand the storylines for most of the rides, but the conceit with this one is that the Harry Potter gang want to take you somewhere, and the best way to do that is to make the suspiciously ride-looking set of chairs they have fly. I looked out during the ride and it seems the way this one works is having you on the end of a big robotic arm that is on a track, and it moves you around. A lot of the action comes from moving you around in front of these big screens to give you that 4-D ride effect of feeling like you’re flying around. The strategy of having you jostled around in front of screens in the midst of a roller coaster was used a lot through Universal, in this ride to great effect, though with less success (in my opinion) on most of the other rides that used this technique.

With that complete we headed across the path to “Flight of the Hippogriff,” which was a pretty small coaster, but was fun with a payoff commensurate with its (relatively) short line. At this point we were growing increasingly startled at the inexorably lengthening wait time estimates for all the other rides provided by the Universal App thing they had. We decided to poke around the shops, which were also very crowded but had some neat trinkets. The only souvenirs we picked up through the day were two lapel pins for me and a Ravenclaw bookmark for her. Then we tried to get a snack. In retrospect, I don’t know what the best food strategy would have been. My super amazing girlfriend was excited to try butterbeer, so I got in line. After waiting for ten minutes or so, I took the picture below. You can see the butterbeer stand in the middle, off in the distance:

You couldn’t do anything in the park with a less than 30 minute wait, and this included getting a refreshment or snack. And it was HOT. This is not surprising, given that it was Florida in June, but man Universal needs to invest in some awnings. The wintry-wonderland decorations of Hogsmeade started to feel a bit mocking. We did eventually survive to the front of the line and obtained our butterbeer (we tried every butterbeer-flavored thing they had in the park, as far we could tell, and frozen butterbeer is the best), but our dreams of snacking on various Harry Potter themed treats were a bit dashed. During one of the many times I was whining about extremely slow food service, my super amazing girlfriend pointed out that Universal might be suffering from the same food service hiring troubles that is affecting the rest of the industry, but I hope they get that sorted soon.

Fortified with butterbeer, and with lines having died down from their 2.5-hour peaks, we opted to wait in line for “Hagrid’s Magical Creature Motorbike Adventure.” This was the best ride we went on that day. It’s a roller coaster, but with more cool features. It’s got drops and you go forwards and backwards and all that stuff and it was awesome. Highly recommend. From there we went over to the Jurassic Park section in an overly optimistic attempt to get some lunch without dealing with the Harry Potter crowds, and then hopped on the Hogwarts Express to go over to Universal Studios to see Diagon Alley.

Going over to this side of the park was especially exciting because my super amazing girlfriend had never been there so we were able to check it out for the first time together (awwww, very cute I know). As impressed as I was with the castle, we were even more impressed with Diagon Alley. It looks super cool! Also a large section of it has an awning to keep the sun from beating down on you, and it has a super cool Knockturn Alley section, and overall the tall walls mean the sun just isn’t quite as oppressive. It had some neat shops and I made sure to check a good chunk of them out.

The big (and only) ride on this side is “Escape from Gringotts.” We took advantage of the single-rider line despite being a very cute couple, my super amazing girlfriend and I, and briefly chatted with a kid who must have been like 10 and had been to the park five times already. Tired of our conversation I suppose he just up and left the line at one point however. The ride itself was so-so with a storyline I didn’t get at all but which they really tried to sell you on via screens and 3-D glasses and all that. There were some cool sections in the dark, and the payoff was again commensurate with the shortened single-rider wait times. One thing I have noticed about Universal though is these guys are into fire. A lot of the rides incorporated fire and pretty close. We went on “The Mummy” ride eventually and like, they had the whole ceiling on fire. The dragon atop of Gringotts also breathed fire at intervals, and you felt it when you were anywhere in that courtyard. I got what I think are some pretty cool pictures of the dragon:

Having ridden all the big Harry Potter rides, we did take some time to venture out into other sections of Universal and ride some other coasters. I personally wonder how often Jimmy Fallon thinks about the fact he has a whole Universal Studios ride and gift shop dedicated to himself. They were pretty neat but we preferred the vibe in the Harry Potter sections and as a final big thing got dinner in the Leaky Cauldron (standard but good English fare), having earlier gotten some ice cream at “Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour.” Universal was closing but we then dashed back over to Islands of Adventure to jump on two more non-Harry Potter rides to round out the day and then make the long trek home.

Harry Potter world was a lot of fun! My mood soured while waiting for slow food service in a very hot sun, but overall I had a really good time and there were lots of interesting things to do and see. I’m looking forward to next time, when we’ll have a better strategy. That strategy will be to go in the off-season and also get a fast pass.

Ringling Museum

Like last week, both in blog-time and in real-time, my super amazing girlfriend and I are on our fantastic Florida vacation. We’re down a bit south of Tampa, and there are plenty of things to do in the region. We’re at my grandma’s house, and since she has been my grandma for quite some time and has lived here for quite some time, I have visited many times in the past and I have gone to most of the places that my super amazing girlfriend and I want to visit. This is good! This is good both because these places we are visiting are interesting, and also because it gives me a good chance to blog about them in order to maintain a constant production for the content mines! This blog post is about Ringling Museum.

A large banyan tree on the grounds. I’m a big fan of banyan trees.

The Ringling Museum is situated on the grounds of the former home of John and Mable Ringling. John Ringling is of Ringling Bros’ Circus fame, and apparently that old-timey circus money used to be real good money because this dude was rich. He was also the last surviving of the Ringling brothers and lived out his retirement down here in Florida. The museum is really three museums, or maybe three and a half. There is a Circus Museum, all about the circus, an art museum, which John and Mable collected art to be viewed by the public, and then a house tour of their very nice crib. There are also a pretty large and landscaped grounds, which got me my half in three and a half.

The first place we went upon entry was the circus portion of the museum. This in turn is split into two buildings. The second building mostly serves to house a variety of circus wagons and other large artifacts, including John Ringling’s private railroad car which seemed pretty nice. The first building tells the story of circuses and the Ringling circus specifically with a bunch of different displays and old posters and all that. One of their major displays is a gigantic scale model of the whole circus operation, built over 50 years by a very dedicated dude. The above picture is of a bandwagon housed in the main part of the museum. It is a wagon for the band, and it is included because I had never before considered I think that a bandwagon was an actual thing. Learning about the logistics operation of the circus was pretty interesting, and they have a huge section on circus advertising showing the importance of getting your message out. They also had some displays where you could sorta try out being a circus performer yourself, which is why I am expertly riding a horse in the top image.

The thing my super amazing girlfriend was especially interested in seeing, however, was the house, pictured (kinda poorly) right above. They had named their house “Ca’ d’Zan,” which is just Venetian for “House of John,” which makes sense but wow okay I guess we’ll just ignore Mable, huh? Anyways from the fact they named it in Venetian I hope you can guess that they were going for a Venice vibe, and not ever having been there I can’t tell you if they pulled it off but the place is pretty nice! In large parts it was a sorta standard rich person home, and the biggest feature I remember is that they made sure you could move some furniture around and expand the ballroom, because they were into ballroom dancing. They also named this room the “Court:”

They had apparently managed to get rich at just about the right time (or stay rich anyways) and bought a lot of furniture from the homes of formerly rich people who were foolish enough to invest in stocks before the great depression instead of cornering the market on acrobats. Nice! The place is right on the water overlooking the bay between the mainland and Longboat Key and is utterly lovely. The water-side of the Court is all colored glass giving the place a permanent rainbow appearance. Nice lifestyle if you can swing it. Last time I visited they had a full guided house tour, but due to COVID this was self-guided on only the first floor, though they did have an audio tour on your phone if you were patient enough. I’m excited to see what kind of house I build if I become extravagantly rich.

After walking the grounds a bit, the final part of the museum we went to was the art museum. Most of it is the art John and Mable had collected, which was largely Renaissance and pre-Renaissance art from Europe, if I recall correctly (I could look it up but that’s boring and un-exciting). Honestly I don’t really dig all that stuff so much but they did have a very nice collection as far as I could tell. There were some pictures of boats which I always like and also some very very large pictures, the content of which I wasn’t so into but the scale of which I admired. For both me and my super-amazing girlfriend, however, the part we liked the best was a whole section of Asian art, collected more recently than John and Mable’s time. This stuff was more our style anyways, and I think was overall more colorful and interesting.

The picture above the previous paragraph is of a goat they had. In museums I’m actually usually most drawn to the oldest stuff, because I like to think about the ancient people that made the art. I think it really connects the past to the present when you can see the brushstrokes laid down by a person that lived in such a dramatically different time and environment. This particular goat is from the Han Dynasty, somewhere within a century of year 0. That’s a two millennia-old goat. That goat and Jesus were contemporaries. It’s a pretty nice goat! I just like thinking about the Chinese person from so many centuries ago who sat down and made a goat, and now it’s sitting in a museum on the gulf coast of Florida. Wild, right?

But with that, having admired all the components of the museum, we head out and went back home. It is a very nice museum, and I am excited to go back when my super amazing girlfriend can get the whole house tour. Hopefully they get some more Asian art too.

Mote Marine

Reading this week:

  • Child of All Nations by Pramoedya Ananta Toer
  • The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell

A lot has happened, faithful reader(s), since last week’s post about New York. Sort of anyways. We’re in blog time now, which has only a tenuous grip on events as they happened. In our blog timeline, only last week my super amazing girlfriend and I were in New York, spending some time before graduation to try to enjoy our New England environs. In between that blog post and this one, we have both graduated from Yale University. We have also packed up our apartments, loaded them onto a U-Haul without any help besides the two of us, driven that U-Haul to her parent’s place, dropped all that stuff off, hung out for a few days, gotten a bus to Boston, and there gotten on a plane to Florida, where we are hanging out at my grandma’s place. We are hanging out at my grandma’s place not only because she is the world’s greatest grandma (I think I gave her a relevant mug one time to prove it), but also because she has a guest room in her house which is in turn located VERY NEAR indeed to the beach. We are on a month-long beach vacation to imagine that like most of my family at this point we, too, are retired, before plunging back into the world of reality and work, luckily for the both of us in government employ.

You are now caught up to speed! One of the first places we went (besides the beach) here in Florida was the Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium. Mote Marine is a special place! I have visited somewhere between several and many times before, given that it is fairly close to where my grandma lives and also a pretty neat place to go. This visit, however, is the fist time I visited since learning that it was founded by Eugenie Clark. I learned about Eugenie Clark when I picked up at a used bookstore her book Lady With a Spear. The book is about her early life and career as a trailblazing marine biologist. I enjoyed it very much and then put it on my bookshelf. Some time later, I started dating my super amazing girlfriend. For much of her youth, she too wanted to be a marine biologist. I was therefore excited to give her my copy of Lady With a Spear, hoping very much she would enjoy it. She did! Turns out my super amazing girlfriend had also owned for years Eugenie Clark’s second book, The Lady and the Sharks. My super amazing girlfriend had obtained this book when she had visited Mote Marine some years back. We (she) at some point had put all the pieces together of our connection with Eugenie Clark and Mote Marine, and were excited to go back on this visit.

Mote Marine is a pretty nice place! It is split into two parts in two buildings. The main building is more of a traditional aquarium sorta thing. When we approached on this day we were sternly warned by a very nice employee out front that we might want to start with the other building. The main building, she explained, was currently overrun with a collection of kids from a summer camp, and she suggested avoiding them for the time being. So we went to the second building.

The secondary building at Mote Marine had long been their more animal rescue-focused section. You’ll note from the name Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium and it’s founding by a world-renowned shark researcher that the raison d’etre for the place was really animal research and then also marine animal rescue. Since I was at Mote Marine last, the secondary building, as far as I can recollect, as become a lot more “slick.” It used to have I think a much more utilitarian vibe, but now the animals feel more on display rather than just being housed. But you can get rather up close and personal with some rescued sea turtles (see above), and since I was last at Mote they’ve also gained some crocodilians and some aggressively cute otters. The picture at the top is of one of the two manatees they have this side. Given how much they eat maybe it wasn’t so special that we got to see them eat, but I did enjoy watching the manatee shove cabbage into its mouth with its flippers.

Having given the summer camp ample space to get their fill of fishy sights, we head over to take in the main aquarium. They got all sorts of fish, and for a long time the main draw for me was Molly the Mollusk, an at this point long-dead but well-preserved giant squid. It was pretty amazing to me to think about how much we’ve learned about giant squids between the time I first saw Molly and now. Now they film these guys in the wild pretty regularly, you know? My super amazing girlfriend’s favorites however, much like Eugenie, are the sharks. Mote Marine has a rather large shark tank where you can observe sharks swimming around from both above and below. I guess gifs are just my aquarium thing now, and instead of recording the sharks in the shark tank I recorded the school of fish swimming around in a mesmerizing circle:

I was also excited to watch the octopus they had in its own tank. We must have caught it around feeding time, because this guy was way more active than I usually see them in exhibits:

All in all a lovely day. We saw plenty of fish and other animals, got to hang out at the place Eugenie Clark founded, had a lovely lunch at the aquarium’s café, and avoided being totally mobbed my hordes of summer camp kids. Not a bad time!

New York Part IV

I was once again in New York! Except this time the weather was much better! The purpose of this expedition to New York was to see New York. You will recall there has been a pandemic, and so despite spending two years only a very short train ride from the Big Apple, neither me nor my super amazing girlfriend had spent much time there. In the free time between finishing all of our final papers and graduating we decided to head down there and see what there was to see!

The first major thing we went to go see was the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. I had visited both back around Thanksgiving of 2019, but my super amazing girlfriend had never been. Besides the patriotic fervor that of course burns in her heart, she had relatives that came through Ellis Island and wanted to investigate the origins of her family’s American adventure. I, too, have relatives that came through Ellis Island, but she actually knows who her’s are and was therefore much more equipped to gain deep insights from the experience. Visiting the two islands was very nice and made for a lovely day out, and the only disappointing bit was that the area where you can actually research the people who came through Ellis Island was closed for COVID, seriously knocking the knees out of our attempts to investigate people who came through Ellis Island.

One thing I saw this time that I hadn’t seen last time I was on Ellis Island is a section about more modern-day immigration into the United States. This section had me in my feelings because while it wasn’t exactly jingoistic it didn’t quite reach the full level of reflection that I think the immigration paradigm needs these days. A particular example is the sidebar above. I’ll only bother to link to one random article on the perils of international adoption (which doesn’t even touch on the cultural components that need to be reckoned with), but man that sidebar only bothers to note some minor difficulties before firmly coming down on the side of believing adopting “orphans” from other countries is always a good thing. The National Park could do a lot better than this!

Every time I pose like this I think to myself “why do I always pose like this?” and then I pose like this.

Having gotten a satisfactory fill of American history, our major excursion the next day was up to The Met Cloisters. I am bad at researching the places we go to, especially when my super amazing girlfriend selects the destination, so I didn’t know what to expect. It was nice! When we went they had set up a one-way path through the whole museum for you to go through. When we got to the first cloister (which is a courtyard sorta thing), I took lots of pictures because I was like “I like courtyards so I better document this courtyard, which I assume will be the only courtyard we’ll see, what with most locations in the world only having one courtyard if they have any.” But then we came across several more cloisters and suddenly I understood the name!

Frankly I’m not all that much into medieval art (maybe I mean early modern?), so a lot of the art-art wasn’t totally doing it for me, but I liked The Cloisters a lot. First off, I am still stunned by the concept that you could just go over to Europe, buy loads of bits of old churches and stuff, and then just cart them to the US and use ’em to build a museum. I suppose the Benin Bronzes wouldn’t be surprised, but still. I am also unclear if the various sarcophagi they had still had dead people in them, or if they didn’t where those dead people wound up. The architectural bits were in fact very pretty though! And I like the overall philosophy of just stuffing as many courtyards into a place as you can. We also liked the unicorn tapestries they had, one of which I am doing my pose again in front of above. The Cloisters is nice!

After we finished up at the Cloisters, we took the subway back downtown and wanting to fill our afternoon with something else we decided to go to the American Museum of Natural History. This was nice! I liked the bits about Africa the most. I mostly take photos of very niche things however. The photos above are of some dioramas I found particularly interesting, showing various ways that people had to raise water up. These might have been handy back when I nominally taught people how to fish farm for a living. They had an Archimedes’ screw, which I knew about, but that counter-balanced pot thing on the left would have been a lot easier to build.

I am also a particular fan of reed/grass baskets. This is mostly because back in Zambia I would wake up in the morning and watch my host mom use a winnowing basket in order to winnow, and then go to the Moto Moto Museum and see those exact same baskets in a museum, and I find that funny. The bottom three baskets in the picture above are from various places in Africa, but the basket on top is actually from the United States, woven by the descendants of enslaved persons. I own a very similar one I bought in Charleston, SC. I am writing this blog post from the ~future,~ so I will have even more pictures of reed baskets to show you in follow-on posts.

The various halls of various animals in the museum are a particular bounty for Atlas Obscura, including the gorilla diorama above. I particularly liked it because I have been pretty much literally in the exact spot the diorama shows, which Mt. Nyiragongo in the background. Pretty neat! That’s um, that’s all I have to say about that.

The rest of our time in New York, when not at museums, was very fun as well! We looked around and saw the sights! We met up with a friend of mine for dinner, and also had dinner with my aunt and uncle, and also had dinner with my super amazing girlfriend’s friend! It was great! We had New York Pizza and looked in at least one bookstore! Very nice! All in all a very nice time. On our very last day, as we were walking to the train station, we also got to see “Ghost Forest” by Maya Lin. I thought it was pretty funny that people were just using the trees as like, regular trees, lounging among and against them. On the one hand, maybe that is a pretty blasé way to face climate change and the inhabitability of large swaths of the planet, but on the other hand it’s nice to see people interacting with and using public art, you know?

And so that was our New York adventure. A pretty nice time!!!