The Night Of a Thousand Wizards

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It’s 1:15 AM and the natives are getting restless. Young lasses dressed as British school girls are bumping and grinding to “Let’s Do the Time Warp Again!” in front of the Three Broomsticks pub. Us older folks have taken to the benches outside the Owl Post, watching the festivities with wistful eyes. Harry and Voldermort have locked arms together and are skipping through the streets of Hogsmeade. And the Buttertbeer is flowing freely tonight!

This is the Night of a Thousand Wizards — well, in the end, when they got some more guest passes, it ended up being something like 1.7K wizards, but who is counting. Altogether, more than two thousand hard core Harry Potter fans have come to Orlando to attend Infinitus 2010, which the organizers described to me as the largest gathering of enthusiasts of J.K. Rowling’s franchise ever.

And as a result of arrangements made before they even started construction on The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, they’ve been invited into the park after hours (from 11-1:30 or thereabouts) to see for themselves what Universal’s Islands of Adventure had constructed. My wife, Cynthia (my photographer) and I are embedded journalists amongst the fans –and I put it that way because while I consider myself a serious enthusiast of the Harry Potter world, I do not know a fraction of what most of the people around me know about the series. For the past three summers, I’ve come to speak and spend time with these fans and each year I come away with a deeper respect for their knowledge, their commitment, their creativity, and their passion.

There have been discussions at the past few conferences about whether the fandom will survive the completion of the current film series, which wraps up with the two part version of Deathly Hollows all too soon, and how they are going to make the transition to a world where there will be no new Rowling-sanctioned Harry Potter content. Anyone who questions the strength and commitments of these fans must not have heard that the Harry Potter Alliance, an activist/charity group which has used Rowling’s world as a platform for their own civic activities, had just won $250,000, beating out more than 200 other organizations, in an online competition to show support, sponsored by the Chase Manhattan Bank.

For tonight, at least, as people are singing Wizard Rock songs on the boats transporting them from the hotel to the theme park, as they are parading through Seuss Landing, across the Lost Continent, and into the Eight Voyages of Sinbad auditorium, there’s no question in anyone’s mind that Harry Potter fandom is here, loud and strong. As I look around the auditorium waiting for the program to begin, I see Snape dancing in the aisles and I see Harry and Voldermort, not yet the BFF they will become before the nights over, staging their own duels in front of the crowd. They don’t need anyone from the park to entertain them.

But I see something more — I see the fans who have spent more than a decade editing websites, writing fan fiction, organizing conferences, producing podcasts, performing and recording their own Wizard Rock songs, and creating activists organizations, all gathered together in one place and one time to celebrate what they had built together from the resources that Rowling, Scholastic Press, and Warner Brothers has provided them. There will be no Muggles in Hogsmeade tonight! We are indeed all Wizards here!

If there was a mainstream journalist in the house, they would no doubt have had trouble seeing past the costumes: that seems to be where the line between the fan and the mundane world comes. Not every fan wears a costume but the wearing of costumes seems to be where the nonfans start to draw the line, start to look at us as strange, so for the moment, look past the costumes and think about what the people in this room have created around a book they cared about and the costume just becomes another extension of the creative spirit.

The conference organizers had to negotiate hard for the fans to be allowed to wear the costumes into the park that night. Universal didn’t want there to be any confusion between who the “guests” were and who the “cast members” were — largely for liability purposes. They wanted to demarcate who worked there and who played there. The fans were to wear their membership bags at all time, but in the end, the fan organizers were allowed to bend the rules for this one night and the fans were invited to come dressed as they wished, a hodge-podge mixture of characters, some named, some generic, from the world Rowling created.

Before the fans even arrived in the park, they had an emotionally intense experience. Lena Gabrielle had written and Mallory Vance had directed an original musical depicting the final battle from Deathly Hollows, which was performed by a large cast of amateur and semi-professional performers, many of whom had surprisingly strong voices and acting skills, and the rest made up in spirit for what they lacked in polished. The play should not have been anywhere near as good as it was. A Soul number performed by the Death Eaters after the presumed death of Harry Potter was a highlight here. And tears were flowing (mine among them) as certain key moments of loss and transformation were restaged for an audience that knew the original book inside and out. There were more than thirty named characters in the production and this crowd knew each of their stories well. Watching this, I had a clearer sense of the challenge the filmmakers are going to face in turning Deathly Hollows into a feature, given the sheer density and intensity of its final chapters.

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Now, inside the Sinbad auditorium, there’s a little bit of friction. The Park’s PR people and designers have plopped themselves in front of the room clearly wanting to hear the fan’s praise for the years of work which went into the design, development, and construction of this attraction. And they get plenty of appreciation from the crowd. But they also get a bit more than they expected, given that your best fans are also often your sharpest critics.

They’ve basically brought us to a holding area while they finish sweeping the regular guests out of the park and making the Hogsmeade area pristine and clean. Cluster by clusters, the fans are walking down the aisle and pushing out the doors again — they don’t want to wait, they want to get inside as soon as possible. Sure, they want to hear about the design process which included substantial contributions by the production designers and art directors, not to mention the cast, of the Warner Brothers films. But most of them have already seen the promotional videos that have been circulating on the web and on television for months. They already know this stuff. What they want to do is come and spend as much time as they can in the Wizarding World area which these guys have built for our entertainment. (And I am hoping as I watch this that the designers know what a compliment this really is). Enough words, time to play.

Others, however, have some questions to raise. For one thing, because this is Universal, where most of the attractions are thrill rides, the rides have weight and size limits, and some of the folks gathered here are not going to be able to ride them. There’s a humiliating process outside several of the rides where people get stuffed into a cart to see if they can lower the protective rails over their bodies. Fandom is a place where people of all shapes and sizes are accepted, while the Wizarding World has more exacting and discriminating standards which leave some of the participants feeling crushed (literally and figuratively). Keep in mind also that height requirements will leave many of the books’ youngest fans waiting outside, though there are not very many of them in the house tonight.

Others are expressing the usual fan concerns about continuity issues — how is it that Ollivanders, the wand shop, which the books and films tell us is in Diagon Alley, gets included in Hogsmeade, while the Novelty Shop there is Zonko’s Joke Shop, the Hogsmeade establishment rather than the more fan friendly shop owned by Fred and George Weasley. And all the park can say is that this is the way Rowling wanted it and that she authorized Ollivanders to have a branch office closer to the school, which just never got mentioned in the books.

Others are expressing their concern that so many of the dishes created for the park — from Pumpkin Juice and Butter Beer to Chocolate Frogs, Candied Humbugs, and Gummy Skulls — are confections which should be off limits to people with diabetes and other diet-based concerns, while the park designer explains, not fully convincingly, that there is less sugar in Butterbeer than in some of the things served at Starbucks and tells the fan who had expressed the health concerns about the high sugar content that she should simply indulge herself for the evening. (As a Diabetic myself, I wasn’t very pleased with the suggestion that we can just opt out of our conditions.) Just when it starts to look like this could get ugly, the program ends and people start to move through the gates and past the Hogwarts Express train and into the streets of that enchanted village.

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Make no mistake about it. This is a magical place. Some of the fans spoke of weeping the first time they entered this space. Others described it as a kind of homecoming as they were at last able to enter a world they had previously known only through their imagination. Suddenly, it became clearer that The Wizarding World is not about rides and attractions: it’s about an environment which conveys through sights, sounds, taste, smell and touch, which makes tangible what had felt so vivid in our minds before, and as the fans said again and again all night, they really cared about the details. You can sip the Butterbeer (a concoction which mixes Root Beer and Butterscotch); you can smell the steam coming out of the train; you can feel the speed of a Quidditch match; you can see the wonders of the magical school; and everything is accompanied with the movie’s soundtrack.

Please do not quote me Baudrillard’s comment that Disneyland is fake so it can trick us into believing the rest of America is real. Don’t pull out Umberto Eco’s discussion of “Hyperreality” and the ways that the “absolute fake” is realer than the real. These are, to put it bluntly, pseudo-insights.

Everyone here knows that Hogwarts isn’t real. What would it even mean to create a “real” Hogwarts. At best, they can judge this environment for its fidelity to the details of the film — and that’s a set of criteria which comes up frequently here. Even there, the analogy is not right. As we are told, the film producers never made a large scale version of Hogwarts — what we see is a combination of models and digital effects and some isolated sets. There never was a full reconstruction of Hogsmeade — we don’t get to wander its streets and see from one end to the other in the films.

But just as often the fans are talking about how it “feels right,” how it achieves a kind of emotional integrity, which fits their impressions of the world where one of their favorite stories is set. This is where the postmodernists get it wrong. They start with a basic contempt for the content of the stories represented in the theme park and so they do not invest themselves deeply enough in the experience. For them, it is about surfaces and empty signifiers. There’s nothing empty here — all of the details matter here and are meaningful in relation to the books and the fantasies they inspire.

For the people here, the park is a play set, and I mean this in two senses. First it is a site of play — a invitation to flesh out this world through their own creative and imaginative acts of performance. The Wizarding World is something like the action figures I discussed in my essay on He-Man a few months ago. And second, it is a set — a place where they perform, where community rituals can be staged.

I don’t like to draw analogies between fandom and religion, since the comparison is always misleading, especially given the historic association of the word, fan, with false worship. But let’s think of this as a ritual space. When tribal communities dance wearing clay masks and straw costumes, they re acting “as if” they were the animal spirits. The performance is a recognition of shared beliefs and mutual emotional experiences. They’ve all worked to construct the costumes so they know that they are not “real” but it does not diminish the emotional intensity of the experience.

Cornel Sandvoss has proposed we use the concept of “Heimat”, “homeland,” to describe the kinds of emotional experiences when fans are allowed to visit spaces associated with the production of their favorite programs. For Sandvoss, we experience this Heimat when we visit these places through texts or physical places. That seems a very good concept for talking about what these fans, myself among them, were experiencing — a sense of coming home. I like this analogy because it pulls the intensity of experience out of the realm of the spiritual and plants it much more appropriately in the realm of the cultural.

Hogworts is a special place in the utopian imagination of the fan community. For many who grew up reading the books, it represented a vivid alternative to their own school experiences, a space where their gifts were recognized and valued, where learning served a higher purpose, where they were part of a community that grew to feel a deep commitment to each of its members, and where their acts of resistance to unreasonable authority had a larger significance. As they grew deeper into the fandom, they set their stories here and fleshed it out with their own imaginations: it is a space they created through their own ink, blood, and tears. And it was also a shared space which became associated with close and lasting friendships and a larger sense of collective identity. And this space, however over-commercialized, represents the closest the community is going to come to an actual homeland.

One of the great things about the design of the park is that once you are inside the Harry Potter area, you don’t see outside it — you can’t see the other attractions and areas; nothing jars you from the immersiveness of the experience. Well, very little. It is a typically hot and muggy night in Orlando. During the day, the sun can broil your flesh through your SunScreen and at night, you are going to be soaked with sweat no matter what you do, so there was something pretty amusing about the piles of snow on the roofs of the Hogsmeade buildings or the Snow Wizard and Snow Owl (pun no doubt included) which decorates one of the spaces. The snow looks real but unless they pumped substantial air conditioning into the open air attraction, it isn’t ever going to feel quite real.

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But you can wander past the various shops mentioned in the books, looking through the windows to see the wands, the Quidditch equipment, a display showcasing Prof. Lockhart’s books, the Owl Post Office, the Boars Head on the wall of the pub, and a display for Puking Pestles which features a green-faced victim spewing an endless flow of purple vomit. Go inside the Hogwarts castle and you will pass through Prof. Sprout’s greenhouse, Dumbledore’s study, the halls full of talking paintings, and the dorm space where the Gryffindor Students live. And then you enter an intense, multimedia experience, which combines digital effects, cinematic projections, and physical models, to send you flying through the Chamber of Secrets, past the Whomping Willow, into the Forbidden Forest, and across a Quidditch match in progress. Here, you are lead on by Daniel Radcliffe’s Harry Potter, in new footage shot specifically for the attraction. It is intense and jolting, but oh so very immersive.

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I can’t tell you about the other two rides, both of which are roller coasters, since I am a notorious roller coaster wimp, and I spent much of my time wandering the streets, watching people, and yes, buying stuff. I was personally disappointed that most of the merchandise targets fans of the two Houses most often discussed in the books — Gryffindor (Harry, Hermione, and Ron) and Slytherin (Draco), but under-represents the two other houses (Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw.) I have been sorted several times — an important ritual inside the fandom — and have always ended up Ravenclaw (Luna Lovegood’s House) so I have to dig around to find a Ravenclaw banner to take back for my office. This is certainly an area where the park’s priorities could better allign with those of the fans.

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The park has made a conscious decision not to feature impersonators of the major characters here. Since they involve the film’s actors in the rides and presentations, they did not want to try to recast them with street performers in the park. So one of my favorite moments came when I saw a row of Beauxbatons, who were hired to pose for photographs with guests, taking great pleasure in being photographed next to fans dressed as Snape, McGonigle, Sprout, and some of the other Hogwarts teachers. This is the moment that the Park management had feared where the lines between staff and guests were starting to break down. Indeed, everywhere I looked, the working staff was getting into the spirit of the evening, asking the fans questions, trying to learn the lyrics to Wizard Rock songs, showing off their own knowledge of the mythology, and otherwise, paying respect to how much the fans knew and loved these stories. In practice, the staff were themselves fans — even if they hadn’t been before they got these jobs — as they had come to spend so much time inside this park.

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If the park is empty, except within the rides, of the characters from the series, the shops evoke moments from the novels — for the most part, happy parts when they went on holiday down to the nearby village, where they congregated over food and drink, where they stuffed themselves with candy, and where they played pranks on each other. In many ways, Hogsmeades functions for the characters much as it functions for us as tourists — as a place to escape your fears and worries. Rowling does a good job establishing this space and then gradually as the series continues, introduces threats and dangers here, showing how the evil that can not be named has penetrated even the safe spaces in the students’ lives, leaving them no escape to do battle. But the Hogsmeades here is not a dark place — indeed, it has been removed from a narrative context. The park is structured around places and not events. We see no signs that the Dark Lord may be returning. And that frees us to construct our own stories here, much as fans construct their own stories on the blank screen and share them through cyberspace. There is such a strong contrast between the emphasis on character and incident in the play we saw earlier this evening and the emphasis on place and activity here, yet we need to realize how much the fans bring the characters, the stories, the events, with them where-ever they travel.

When it came time to leave, there was some experience of trauma. Some of the fans grumbled it was like being thrown out of their home. But many of them were already making plans to come back.

Here’s a final treat — a photograph shot at the China Pavilion at EPCOT. One of the men depicted in this image is the author of the above blog post. The other is a subtle impersonator. I leave it to the reader to decide which is which.

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Comments

  1. cathyjets says:

    Henry, your presence at the HPEF conferences always adds a wonderful springboard for many of us to continue our analysis of the creativity of HP fandom. This honest report on NOATW, warts and wonders, is great for those of us who remained back at the hotel. Thanks.

  2. cathyjets says:

    PS Thanks, Cynthia, for the wonderful photos!

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