Hogwarts or Bust! Building Excitement for a Universal Trip

Before my family visited Walt Disney World in spring 2013, I went a little crazy.

I poured over hotel room plans on Disney planning websites before we even selected a site. I studied restaurant menus and booked all our major meals at 180 days out. I joined multiple Disney forums, talked to countless helpful people, and actually made friends that I retain to this day.

As a family, we watched every Disney movie I could get my hands on. I haunted the Disney Store website for sales. I made tie-dyed T-shirts with Mickey heads on them. I made Mickey-shaped cookies. I made Mickey-shaped pancakes.

Yes. Just a little crazy.

This spring, we’re going to visit Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in Orlando, spurred on by a pair of little boys who love Harry Potter, Spider-Man, and the Jurassic Park movies. (OK, I just might be a little excited about the Wizarding World myself.) After we made the decision, I immediately jumped online and started to look into all the wonderful possibilities for researching and obsessing and planning and counting down the days. Did I have enough time to make dining reservations? How many hotels were there, again? What sort of touring plan would we want?

I was, perhaps, a tiny bit dismayed to find that obsession and long-range planning isn’t quite as necessary with the Universal parks. Dining reservations might not even be necessary with the dates we had planned, let alone reservations made 180 days ahead. Touring plans were much looser, if they were needed at all. And there didn’t seem to be many ideas for the build-the-excitement type activities I love so much. I saw a few tales of parents surprising their children with letters from Hogwarts. That was about it.

What’s a planning-happy mom to do?

Create her own, of course. Continue reading Hogwarts or Bust! Building Excitement for a Universal Trip

Confessions of a Recovering Ravenclaw

I never got around to joining Pottermore the first time around, so the new Sorting Hat Test is the only official sorting test I’ve ever taken. I don’t know what the old test would have given me, but I was just as befuddled by my result as the people who were finding themselves suddenly re-sorted.

Gryffindor? Seriously? That was third most likely. The only less likely house would have been Slytherin—not so much because I have anything against potentially hanging out with Dark Wizards, but more because my utter lack of ambition is at marginally dangerous levels.

On the other hand, who knows? I don’t think this particular test is very accurate, but it’s not impossible for me to be Gryffindor. I do have a tendency to jump to other people’s defense whenever someone needs defending. Maybe I’m like Neville Longbottom, all my Gryffindor energy pent up inside until I grow up enough to embody it.

I wonder if the real Sorting Hat, in the universe where it really exists, does take the course of a person’s entire future into account. I wonder if it sees the ultimate end of one’s life philosophies, or if it takes the average of one’s philosophies over the course of one’s life. A friend of mine wondered what would happen if Hogwarts students got re-sorted each year. “Wouldn’t it be interesting? As people change, and grow, and develop, so might their Houses change. Because who we are when we are eleven is not (so I devoutly hope) who we will be the rest of our lives.”

I am positive I am not who I was when I was eleven. Continue reading Confessions of a Recovering Ravenclaw

Social Identity: Why It’s Not Silly To Be Upset if Pottermore Changed Your House

Tentatively, I clicked Log In. At every response, I questioned whether this was the true response I wanted to give. I wanted my answers to be right. It wasn’t life and death, for sure. Still, it mattered. It mattered immensely to me. I’ve identified as this for years. Somehow, it became part of my sense of self. I watched the little pinwheel spin as the new Pottermore algorithm worked behind the scenes.

Then, the result. I might have held my breath a bit.

As the air rushed out, I saw the conclusion: You are a Ravenclaw.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

Continue reading Social Identity: Why It’s Not Silly To Be Upset if Pottermore Changed Your House

Return to Potter in 2016

It could easily be argued that 2016 is the year that Harry Potter returns. Of course, the boy wizard has never really gone away as the large crowds at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, or the Harry Potter Studios Tour in Leavesden will attest. However it has been five years since the last Potter film—Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II—was released, and a frankly astounding nine years since the final book was launched. 2016 will give us our first new material in the Potter universe (excluding updates to Pottermore) since then, so it’s only right that Potterheads are celebrating, even as they continue to mourn for Alan Rickman. A whole host of things are happening in the Potter world this year so let’s take a look at them. Continue reading Return to Potter in 2016

Don’t Be Afraid to Grieve for Professor Snape

Twenty years ago I was in the same room as Alan Rickman. It was 1994, in between my first and second years of college, and I was in Oxford, England, studying with the British American Drama Academy. During the five-week summer program I was privileged to attend Master Classes and Lectures given by various British actors such as Fiona Shaw, Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons — and Alan Rickman.

Unlike the others, he was completely disinterested in inspiring us as young and hungry acting students. Although it was years before he took the role, he was very like Professor Snape: arrogant, vaguely bored, amused by our passion, deeply British, and utterly magnetic.

I will never forget it. Continue reading Don’t Be Afraid to Grieve for Professor Snape

Geeks in Sneaks: Running Virtual Races Through Hogwarts and Beyond

Before I got pregnant, I would go running several times a week. I would use different training apps like Couch25k or Zombies, Run!. I was by no means “good”; I frequently felt that people walking could outpace me. But I did enjoy running different routes through my neighborhood.

Now going on walks throughout my neighborhood brings back memories of the time I spent running. My running hobby was put to on hold when, towards the end of my pregnancy, I developed high blood pressure and was put on bedrest. I’ve only recently started to get out and get walking with my baby.

A few months ago, I discovered a community on Facebook called Hogwarts Running Club. It’s a virtual race.

Continue reading Geeks in Sneaks: Running Virtual Races Through Hogwarts and Beyond

Between the Bookends Dec 2015: Ms. Marvel, Teen Angst & The Science of Parenthood

This month the GeekMoms have been preparing for the holiday season, but we have still found time to do some serious reading. Selections this month include bad teenage poetry, a Hobbit-style adventure in post-war England,  advice for hosting a steampunk tea party, and a bad-ass female superhero trying to manage her own life as well. Read on for our December recommendations. Continue reading Between the Bookends Dec 2015: Ms. Marvel, Teen Angst & The Science of Parenthood

Best Audiobooks for Family Road Trips: Holiday Edition

It’s that time of year when families gather for togetherness and merriment, and it reminds me of childhood hours spent in the car heading to this relative and that relative. Carols, snow, big family meals, presents, baking. So much good stuff.

This made me think about books. That’s what happens when you’re a librarian, everything makes you think of books. Our original list of audiobooks for family road trips has some truly great picks, but what if you’re feeling a little extra festive? This is a list of great audiobooks that are about the holidays, but also some that are about families, and the love (and humor) that binds us. It’s a great list for that drive to grandma’s house, but maybe you want to stick one of these on when you’re wrapping presents and need a break from Rudolph and Burl Ives, too.

The 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith, read by Martin Jarvis
We all know the story of those adorable puppies and the dastardly plot to turn them into a coat by ultimate villainess Cruella de Ville. But if you haven’t read the original 1956 novel it’s really a treat, and this narration is wonderful. The plot to rescue the puppies unfolds on the streets of London with a plan to get all the little ones back home just in time for Christmas.

The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle” by Sherlock Holmes, read by Alan Cumming
Every year, Audible gives away a free short story for the holidays. A few years ago they offered this Alan Cumming version of the Sherlock Holmes story of a holiday goose and a missing gem. It is so superb, and short (about 45 minutes), and available for $1.95. Continue reading Best Audiobooks for Family Road Trips: Holiday Edition

Geeky Coffee Cozies to Knit and Crochet

Even though paper coffee cup sleeves are biodegradable, they still create unnecessary waste and use needed resources. Most of the time these sleeves end up in the trash instead of recycled. Why use a boring paper sleeve when you can rock a piece of geeky art work instead?

These projects are very quick to finish and require only a small amount of yarn. They make good stocking stuffers or birthday gifts. They are practical, unique, and sure to please. I use mine on both disposable and reusable cups. Here are six free patterns for coffee cozy sleeves you can knit and crochet:

Continue reading Geeky Coffee Cozies to Knit and Crochet

Flummoxed by a Phone Booth at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Despite the countless times we have made the trek to Florida, we have never taken the time to head over to Universal Studios. Our days in the Sunshine State are reserved for one place and one place only—Walt Disney World. It isn’t so much that we hate on Universal, but that we love Disney so much we don’t want to spend time elsewhere. That finally changed when we made a trip several weeks back, unexpectedly, and for just a few days.

It wasn’t a full-on family vacation, but a spur-of-the-moment adventure. My husband had to travel to Orlando for work and we decided to make the best of it by meeting up with him halfway through the week for a little getaway. The thing is, we usually do Disney for 10 days at a time so there was no way we could do our normal vacation in just 5 days.

This had us rethinking our entire strategy and we decided to check out some places outside of the Mouse House. Now, don’t get me wrong, we spent a fair amount of time at our favorite haunts in Walt Disney World, but we ventured forth and tried a few new places, too. On the list was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios.

Universal Studios as a whole doesn’t hold much appeal for my 13- and 11-year-old daughters. They simply have no interest in most of the park and are Disney fans through and through. The only thing that changed their minds was my youngest daughter’s current fascination with Harry Potter. Continue reading Flummoxed by a Phone Booth at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter

Accio Literatia! Information Literacy and the Illustrated Harry Potter

Several years ago, I swooned with pride over a series of student blogs discussing the story ownership through the active process of reading compared to the passive process of movie watching.

My teacher’s heart swelled ten sizes as the group of first-year students debated the difference between reading Lord of the Rings and watching the movies because one student complained that comic book movies were never as good as the books.

Watching the group of engineering first-year students debate how imagining the written word leads to ownership of literature, I smugly sat back thinking that they had learned an important lesson.

Earlier this week, we started reading the new illustrated Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with our son.

I began questioning the viability of reading an illustrated book. Continue reading Accio Literatia! Information Literacy and the Illustrated Harry Potter

How to Introduce Your Kids to Things You Love

I didn’t read to my daughter when she was in the womb, but it wasn’t long after she was born that I started reading to her.

Some of the first books she heard were The Catcher in the Rye, and A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, because they’re some of my favorites. Plus, it’s never too early to know about phonies, and the fact that sometimes the smallest, strangest person can make the biggest difference in your life.

a prayer for owen meany
This is one of the first books I read to my daughter. Really. Image via HarperCollins.

The girl is six now, and reading is still a major pastime of ours. Through the years we’ve been able to introduce a few classics—Charlotte’s Web, The Wizard of Oz—and while it’s hard to wait on some of our favorites, we know it’s important to.

She’s afraid of people in masks, for instance, so the Star Wars movies are flat out. I’m ready to read her Harry Potter but I don’t want to ruin it for her if she thinks it’s scary.

Continue reading How to Introduce Your Kids to Things You Love

Geeky Ornaments to Knit and Crochet

The air cools; fall begins, and out come the sweaters! I love knitting and crocheting, but as a mother of three small children I don’t have the time for large projects like sweaters.

This year I thought I’d spend my autumn months knitting and crocheting some geeky holiday ornaments! Here is a list of both knitted and crocheted ornaments you can make. Keep them for yourself or gift a bit of geek to any nerd on your list! Some of these are actual ornaments and some are amigurumi that you can add a simple yarn loop or a hook to for hanging. Continue reading Geeky Ornaments to Knit and Crochet

How I Became A Cool Geek Mom

Like most supermoms, I wear many capes. I’m a drama teacher by day, an actress by night, as well as a geeky mom, hot wife, and writer.

I was born with an extra dose of confidence and have never been one to worry about what other people think of me. I handle rejection like a seasoned pro and because of this, I have always felt free to dress the way I want to and express my various fandoms out loud for other people to see.

For example, when I drop my kids off at school, I might wear some Hello Kitty shoes with bright pink pants, a Doctor Who belt, and a Harry Potter jacket. Or I may wear my R2-D2 dress or Cinderella costume to promote my drama classes. I am no stranger to a raised eyebrow or sly smiles from onlookers. All of this was “normal” for my two kids until my daughter, the oldest, turned 11. Continue reading How I Became A Cool Geek Mom

Accio, Books! Make a Hermione Granger Bookmark for Back to School

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Go back to school with the brightest witch of her age by making a Hermione Granger bookmark to nestle in her one of her favorite things: a book.

This bookmark is inspired by the look of the new Pop! Hermione Granger recently released by Funko.

What You Need

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox
  • Black, white, maroon, gold, brown, and light tan/peach cardstock
  • Black enamel dot stickers (like these from Doodlebug, found in craft stores with the scrapbooking supplies)
  • School glue
  • Scissors
  • Black marker

Get Started!

Begin by cutting two black strips the same size, approximately 1.25 inches by 6 inches (or 4 inches for a shorter bookmark). Cut a small oval for Hermione’s face, and a strip smaller than the black strip for her neck and shirt.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Next, cut a small shape for the tie out of the maroon cardstock, and a small strip of gold for the tie’s stripes.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Cut a hair shape out of the light brown cardstock, using the oval as a guide for size. (Remember, this is Hermione, so the poofier the better!)

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Now it’s time to start putting it all together!

Glue the oval behind the hair, and then glue the white strip to the bottom of the face.

Then, glue the maroon tie under Hermione’s chin. Cut the gold strip to fit and carefully add two stripes to the tie.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Next, cut a small triangle in the top of one of the black stripes for the front of the robe. Line it up with the tie and glue the robe to the shirt.

Flip the bookmark over, and glue the other black cardstock to the back to finish the robe and give the bookmark a cleaner look.

You can also trace her hair on the brown paper, cut it, and glue to the back of her head to finish the clean look.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

You’re almost done! Place two black enamel dots for Hermione’s eyes, and draw a smile beneath.

Finally, to add some texture, use the school glue to draw waves in Hermione’s hair and down the length of the robe to give it some detail.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

After the glue on the front dries, flip the bookmark over to add waves to the back of her hair with school glue for the final touch.

Photo: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

Allow the bookmark to dry completely, and Hermione is complete.

13 Awesomely Geeky Aprons

My Little Pony via MTCoffinz on Etsy.
My Little Pony Rainbow Dash apron via MTCoffinz on Etsy.

I love to cook, which means I have very few shirts that aren’t stained with sauces, oils, and other ingredients from my kitchen experiments.

A few years back, I went into this super-cute general store in New England and found a handmade apron for a mere $6. It was a no-brainer of a purchase, as well as one that has saved me from having to throw out half of my wardrobe.

Aprons are an essential kitchen tool, which come in a variety of patterns. While the $6 special is hard to come by, if you’re willing to pay a few extra bucks, there are a slew of them out there that allow you to extend your geeky fashion to the kitchen—or even the convention hall. Want to see what’s cooking in the world of geeky aprons? Check out the slideshow for 13 of my current favorites.

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Shopping List:

9¾ x 3: Comparing the Harry Potter Platform Experiences

The Three Platforms : Left © Universal Studios (fair use), Middle © Karen Roe via Flickr (Creative Commons), Right  © Sophie Brown
The Three Platforms : Left © Universal Studios; middle © Karen Roe via Flickr (Creative Commons); right © Sophie Brown

If you want to visit the magical Platform 9¾ from the Harry Potter series, there are currently three places you can do so: The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando, the Warner Bros. Studios Tour in Leavesden, and the real Kings Cross Station in London. I have been lucky enough to visit all three within the last year and I wanted to try to determine which one is the “best” experience by scoring all three across a range of categories, including how much there is to do, the authenticity, and the cost.

Platform 9¾ at Universal Studios © Universal Studios (Fair Use)
Platform 9¾ at Universal Studios © Universal Studios

What Can You Do there?
Universal Studios definitely wins when it comes to the total Harry Potter package. As well as Platform 9¾, guests can experience Diagon Alley, which features Harry Potter and The Escape from Gringotts, Ollivanders, and dozens of shops and restaurants. After riding the Hogwarts Express to Universal’s Islands of Adventure, they can also visit Hogsmeade where they can ride the Dragon Challenge, the Flight of the Hippogriff, and explore Hogwarts itself in Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey. There’s more shops and restaurants there too. I recommend a cauldron cake from Honeydukes—yum! 10/10

At the Warner Bros. Studios Tour, Platform 9¾ forms part of the overall tour, which takes you through dozens of original sets from the movie series. In addition, there’s a cafe where you can drink butterbeer and two shops—the Platform Shop, which sells merchandise specific to the Hogwarts Express, and the more general shop at the end of the tour. Other than a few staged photo opportunities throughout, there is little else to do other than the tour itself. However, more is constantly being added and the Studios run special events every few months. Look out for the Sweets and Treats event this summer, with prop makers recreating the food used in the films. The tour is an amazing experience (my husband and I took seven hours to go through the first time and its has been extended since then), but not ideal for younger children as it is very much a case of look don’t touch throughout. 8/10

Kings Cross station is a real working station not a tourist attraction, so naturally, there is little to do here in comparison to the other locations. However, the designers have packed plenty of theming into their small space. You can take your photo pushing a trolley through the station wall and browse the impressively themed shop, which packs an incredible amount of detail (and spending opportunities) into a very small space. 3/10

Platform 9¾ at the Warner Bros. Studios Tour © Sophie Brown
Platform 9¾ at the Warner Bros. Studios Tour © Sophie Brown

Universal Studios struggles to earn many points when it comes to authenticity. Existing as part of a theme park, the station and train have been built purely for that purpose and were not involved in filming in any way. However, Universal Studios is the only one of the three which allows guests to board the Hogwarts Express and take a real journey (from Diagon Alley in Universal Studios to Hogsmeade in Universal’s Islands of Adventure or vice versa). Because of this, guests pass through a real ticket check (only guests with a park-to-park ticket may ride) before entering the queue for the train. 3/10

For authenticity, almost nothing can beat the Studios Tour. The train sitting in the station is the 5972 Olton Hall—the actual locomotive used in filming—and you can tour the carriage used by Harry, Ron, and Hermione in the films. Each “room” along the carriage has been set out for a specific film with different props strewn around. For example, in the Order of The Phoenix room, you can see Luna’s copy of the Quibbler lying on the seat. 9/10

Kings Cross station also fares well when it comes to authenticity. After all, you’re really in Kings Cross station! If you step just outside, you will even see the building used for exterior shots in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. Sadly, the Platform 9¾ area is not located between the real platforms nine and 10 (to do so would have required architects trained in real magic), but that’s easy enough to overlook. 9/10

Pushing the Trolley to Platform 9¾. When you're already standing on Platform 9¾... © Sophie Brown
Pushing the trolley to Platform 9¾—when you’re already standing on Platform 9¾. © Sophie Brown

Realism of the Platform Effect
Universal Studios is the only one of the three locations to use an effect to make guests really walk through a wall. Sadly, you won’t realize you’re doing it. The effect is used in the queue line where guests at one part of the line will see those further ahead of them appearing to walk through a brick wall. However, once you get to that point, there is nothing to see because the effect is only visible further back. Regardless, it’s an impressive effect that was amazing the children in the queue. 7/10

At the Studios Tour, there is no special effect to greet you as you move from the previous room of the tour onto the platform. I felt this was a wasted opportunity because guests walk down a fairly blank corridor and out onto a very realistic platform, so it’s a shame nothing was made of this transition. Instead, guests can pose with one of four luggage trolleys fixed halfway into the wall. Three are for the official photographers to take your picture, while the fourth is for guests to use their own cameras. While having four trolleys is great to reduce waiting times for the photo opportunity, having them together in a line does unfortunately take away from the realism of the setup. 2/10

At Kings Cross station, the same trolley photo opportunity is available as in the Studios Tour. However, there is only one trolley. This can lead to fairly big queues (even late at night), but the positioning of the trolley (on the same wall as access to real platforms) and the fact that there is only one “entrance” makes the experience impressively believable. 5/10

The Train Rides: Left © Universal Studios (Fair Use), Right © Sophie Brown
The train rides: Left © Universal Studios; right © Sophie Brown

The Train
At Universal Studios, guests can board and ride the Hogwarts Express between the two theme parks that house the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Although the ride isn’t a real train (it’s actually closer to a cable car), the appearance to guests is almost completely immersive. Guests queue up on the platform, wait for the train to arrive, and squeeze into carriages identical to those seen on-screen. During your journey, the “windows” of the carriage look out onto scenic British countryside with a few visitors. Look out for the Knight Bus, Hagrid, and the Weasley twins, to name a few. The journey going the opposite way has a different “story” happening outside too. Add to this the fact that the train journey is a real-life journey, and you couldn’t ask for anything more from the experience. 10/10

At the Studios Tour, guests can meet the real Hogwarts Express and climb aboard one of her carriages. The train is static, but will occasionally blow her whistle and make noises like she is getting ready to depart. A steam effect as seen at Universal Studios would have been a great addition here, but may be difficult to implement given that the train sits within an enclosed room. Across the platform, guests can sit in a semi-open “carriage” with green screen windows to recreate a short journey. This is very similar to the experience of the Hogwarts Express ride at Universal—some of the same footage appears to have been used—but lacks the immersive nature of its counterpart as you are clearly sitting on the platform while it happens. 6/10

Kings Cross station comes up dead last in this area, as there is no train experience at all. You could always board a real train and head off somewhere, but sadly, it won’t be the Hogwarts Express. 0/10

The Shop at Kings Cross © The Harry Potter Shop  (Fair Use)
The Shop at Kings Cross © The Harry Potter Shop

Cost (For a Family of Four)
In order to experience Platform 9¾ at Universal Studios, guests require a park-to-park ticket, as the train ride really does move its passengers between the two parks that make up the resort. Single-day tickets cost $147 per adult and $142 per child making the total cost a whopping $578. However, it is worth remembering that multi-day passes come at a significant discount if you’re planning a trip. 1/10

At the Studios Tour, the cost per adult is £33, while children age five to 12 are £25.50, and children four and under attend for free. A family ticket is available, so the cost for our hypothetical family is £101 ($160). Tickets include access to the entire tour, although extras such as butterbeer and photo opportunities are extra. You can also purchase a digital guide and souvenir book; these come at a reduced cost if purchased as part of your ticket. 6/10

The clear winner in terms of cost is Kings Cross station, which is freely accessible to anyone visiting the area. Photos and souvenirs are obviously available at a cost, but it is free of charge for anyone to queue up and take their photo at the entrance using their own camera. Total cost for a family of four: $0. 10/10

How Does It All Add Up?
The grand totals for each experience are as follows:

Universal Studios: 31
The Warner Bros. Studios Tour: 31
Kings Cross Station: 27

Despite providing dramatically different guest experiences, the two bigger attractions came out, amazingly, with identical scores. Both are must-do attractions for Potterheads and with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter now open in Hong King and soon to be arriving in California, hopefully there will soon be an attraction within a reasonable distance of even more fans. Although it didn’t reach the same total as its bigger siblings, Platform 9¾ at Kings Cross station still fared well, mostly because of its price point, which makes it refreshingly accessible to everyone—a rarity in the world of tourist attractions. Whether you prefer thrilling rides or authentic experiences, there’s a Platform 9¾ experience for everyone.

GeekMom received complimentary entry to the Warner Bros. Studios Tour.

Scholastic Books Saves the Summer

All Images from Scholastic.com
All Images from Scholastic.com

This summer, I’m determined to keep my son from playing Minecraft, Roblox, Blocksworld, Eden, Terraria, Splatoon, Disney Infinity, and any other game he has an obsession with 24/7.

Instead, I plan on helping him keep this new found love of reading by stocking his bookshelf with interesting things to explore. It’s taken a long time for us to get him into the world of the written word and I don’t intend for him to slip out of it over the summer.

I reached out to Scholastic Books for help and not only did they send me a few recommendations, but they nailed it by sending books that matched my son’s interests. In fact, he couldn’t grab one of the books fast enough.

The Unbelievable Top Secret Diary of Pig by Emer Stamp
“This is me. I is Pig! If you is reading this, you can read Pig, and you is very clever. Unless you is an Evil Chicken, in which case, don’t read this!”

Those are the first words in Pig’s diary and it only gets funnier from there. To get my son interested, I only had to tell him about Pig farting on the evil chickens in revenge. After that, I never had to argue with him to read it again.

Recommended for ages 8 to 12, but I’m positive that younger children will enjoy having this read to them.

Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures by Maggie Stiefvater and Jackson Pearce
If Mr. Dolittle had a child with J.K Rowling, this book would be the end result.

Pip Bartlett is a young girl who can talk to animals. Not just any animals. Magical animals. Her gift gets her in trouble and in response her parents ship her off to her Aunt’s house for the summer. This was hardly punishment because Pip’s Aunt Emma owns the Cloverton Clinic for Magical Creatures and she was set for an entire summer of talking (without anyone else hearing of course) to the various creatures at the clinic. It’s a summer full of new experiences, new friends, and a disaster that almost destroys a town.

Recommended for ages 8 to 12.

The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare
Any fan of Harry Potter will want to take a look into this new series. 

As an adult, the similarities between this title and Harry Potter are hard to ignore. A child, on the other hand, might take comfort in the fact that the formula of Harry Potter and The Iron Trial are the same. The familiarity of the story could be what keeps them reading.

Recommended for ages 8 to 12.

Captain Underpants by Dave Pilkey
A superhero who runs around in his underwear and has hilariously heroic adventures? Sign my son up. 

When my son saw that Captain Underpants was included in the books Scholastic sent me, he screamed with joy. Apparently he had been introduced to it at school and he was hooked. I have no idea what the appeal is, but if it’s getting my son to read, I’m cool with it. In my son’s words, “It’s awesome. It’s about a principle becoming Captain Underpants and it’s got him taking down bad guys in it. Two kids come along to help him.”

My son was also quick to point out that he likes the full-color versions best.

Recommended for ages 8 to 12, but I could see younger children enjoy looking at the pages.

Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan and Jedi Academy: The Phantom Bully by Jeffery Brown 
Star Wars + middle school = a year of catastrophe for the force and its students.

This is a comic book style series that has a journal like feeling to it. The pages are not in color, which I think is a hinder to my son, but it’s still a cute series that I plan on encouraging him to at least try. The main hero is Roan, a young Jedi padawan who is eager to become a pilot. He attends the Jedi Academy with various other students from other walks of life. There are some familiar faces in the series including Master Yoda and some other familiar faces with different names (T-3P0 and RW-22).

Jedi Academy: Return of the Padawan is the second book in the series and The Phantom Bully is the third and final book in the series, covering Roan’s last and hardest year at Jedi Academy.

Recommended for ages 8 to 12

If you are looking for books for your incoming fifth grader, you can rest easy in picking up any of the titles above. My son loves them and that’s enough for me to scream from the mountain tops for everyone to READ THESE BOOKS!!

Disclaimer: GeekMom received a review copy of these titles.

Children’s Book Review: ‘The Iron Trial’ from the ‘Magisterium’ Series

The Iron Trial \ Image: Scholastic Books
The Iron Trial. Image: Scholastic Books.

Do you remember when Pixar’s A Bug’s Life came out and then right after that, a knockoff from DreamWorks titled Ants was released? That’s probably the best way to describe the first book in the Magisterium Series, The Iron Trial by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare.

From the beginning, starting with the cover, I could see elements of Harry Potter. Two boys and one girl with magical powers who attend a secret magical school. One of them is a “special chosen one” and one of them was the only one to survive a massacre by an evil magician.

It was difficult to read and not be distracted by the similarities. It’s obvious the authors were inspired by the Harry Potter series, and in some ways, I think they were inspired a little too much.

The lead character, Callum Hunt, has a jerky personality that makes it hard to root for him. He has reasons for being a jerk, mainly his father drilling into him that all magicians are bad and the mages are evil. He’s been conditioned to hate everything around him and in some ways, a part of himself. Despite the fact that I’m not his biggest fan, I’m learning that having a lead character you don’t necessarily want to be successful isn’t a bad thing. I think it brings something new to the reading experience.

In this book, I’m rooting for Aaron, who has a special role to play in the series. He’s one of those kids that is friends with everyone and doesn’t care if someone is popular or not. Every time he reaches out to help Cal and Cal ignores him, I just want to slap the little jerk.

The descriptions of the Magisterium and the characters was done very well. I could easily see the various rooms that Cal and his fellow apprentices were going through and the facial expressions of the characters when something happened. And the overall writing of the book wasn’t bad at all.

I think if I hadn’t read anything by J.K Rowling, I would find it quite enjoyable.

Switching gears, it’s easiest to get a child to read if they find a story “formula” they like. For this one, it has the same basic formula of Harry Potter. With that said, the similarities and the familiarity of The Iron Trial might make them want to read it even more. If nothing else, children will read it not because it’s a different story, but because of how much it reminds them of another one they enjoy.

I hope the next book in the series, The Copper Gauntlet (September 2015), has fewer similarities to a certain lightning scar wizard.  If the similarities continue, I’m not sure I’ll be reading the rest of the books. However, I will be picking them up for my son, who I think will enjoy them immensely.

GeekMom received this item for review purposes.

Harry Potter Prints Are Giving Us All the Feels

Oh, Spoonflower. Your designers just own our hearts. Where else could we go to find the coolest fabric designs for our crafty machinations?

Spoonflower is such a game changer if you love fabric—especially geeky fabric. Anyone can upload their own design and sell it straight to consumers on a variety of fabric options. You can even just have your own stuff custom-printed for a project. And—ahem—the prints are also available as wallpaper and wrapping paper. Squee!!

I miss Harry Potter. All the time. I may just have to save my pennies and support these independent designers. My sewing machine is crying out for these. Click on the images below to buy from the site.

The Sweater That Lived
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

The Sweater That Lived by Designs by Mandrie
It’s a Harry Potter print inspired by ugly Christmas sweaters. What about this is not completely amazing?!

Harry Potter Kids
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

Harry Potter Kids by id_insomniacdesigns
Adorable little cartoonish Harries and Rons and Hermiones. I big glittery heart this.

Under Your Spell (Gryffindor dark)
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

Under Your Spell (Gryffindor Dark) by Implexity Designs
This print is available in a bunch of colorways. It would look amazing in a quilt.

Ravenclaw Argyle
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

Ravenclaw Argyle by id_insomniacdesigns
There are argyles for every house available, so pledge your allegiance.

slytherin baby
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

Slytherin Baby by Small Pirates
Darling little evil ties.

Harry Potter
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

Harry Potter by 3 Peas Fleece
The layout of this print just makes me want to sway and solemnly swear that I am up to no good.

Harry Potter-ch
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

Harry Potter-ch by closet_crafter
I kind of really want to upholster a chair in this print.

Dark Mark
Image courtesy of Spoonflower, used with permission.

Dark Mark by Studio Fibonacci
I find this just darling, and I do not know how to feel about that.

My (Newly Updated) Most Tear-Jerking Moments in Geekdom

My Tear Jerkers © Sophie Brown
My tearjerkers © Sophie Brown.

Back in my early days at GeekMom in 2011, I wrote a post listing My Top Ten Tear-Jerking Moments in Science Fiction. Since then, I’ve watched lots of new TV shows and movies—some of it sci-fi, some of it not (my original list includes entries that are closer to fantasy than true sci-fi and so does this one)—and so I felt that my list was due for an update. Here then are nine new additions to my list. Some are rather old to the world, but they’ve been new to me in the past four years and they have all made me cry.

BEWARE: Spoilers abound from the beginning—and make sure you have tissues in hand.

Fringe – “Peter”
In the latest addition to my list (I only watched this episode for the first time this week), Walter recounts the events of his son’s death in 1985 and his subsequent actions to Olivia. This episode creates my own personal “perfect storm” of things guaranteed to reduce me to an emotional wreck: sick children, dying children, mothers losing their children, and the subject of these events being boys—I only have a son, so anything to do with boys seems to affect me disproportionately. By the end of those 42 minutes, I was effectively one giant ball of emotion and I’m still not quite fully recovered.

Coulson Avengers Poster © Marvel
Coulson Avengers poster © Marvel.

Marvel’s The Avengers
Do I even need to say it? It’s been three years, I’ve even had Coulson given back to me, and yet I still haven’t forgiven Joss Whedon for what I went through in that cinema. The worst part wasn’t seeing him stabbed (although that physically hurt), but watching the reactions of each Avenger as they learn about his death over the comm. A group of “extraordinary people” temporarily incapacitated by the death of one very ordinary man.

Supernatural – “The Man Who Would Be King”
I could very easily make an entire list of sad moments just from Supernatural—and it wouldn’t be a short list, either. The show is probably one of the most consistently heartbreaking things on TV that has nothing to do with Joss Whedon. Most lists I’ve seen out there focus on Sam and Dean moments, but my personal choice is all about Castiel. After an entire episode focused on the (frequently wrong) choices he has been making, Castiel pleads to his father (God, for those of you unaware that Castiel is an angel) to offer him guidance and give him a sign that he is “on the right path.” His face when he is met by nothing but silence is heartbreaking.

Guardians of The Galaxy
I’ve seen this film several times now and yet somehow, I always forget about its opening. I think perhaps it’s just so painful that I block it out. Actually, it seems to be some kind of collective block on the part of all geeks. Google “Guardians of The Galaxy Opening Scene,” and you’ll see almost nothing but references to the scene that comes after this one. You know, the funny one with the dancing and the “microphone” made from a space rat? However, we must all be forced to accept that the film actually opens on Earth in 1988, where a young Peter Quill visits his dying mother in hospital. The desperate way he clutches at her hand and realizes it’s too late breaks me every time.

Aaron Ashmore as Steve Jinks © SyFy
Aaron Ashmore as Steve Jinks © SyFy.

Warehouse 13 – “Emily Lake”
This entire episode is a roller-coaster, with the discovery that Jinks has been working undercover and was not the traitor we worried he was. That relief was, of course, short-lived. The worst part about the scene where his body was discovered wasn’t actually the moment we saw it, but normally laugh-a-minute Pete’s futile attempt to act like nothing is wrong as he asks, then begs Claudia not to go into the room. There’s a lot that could be said about how the show’s only canonically gay character (Helena is bi) was the one killed off. However, in this instance, I’m merely acknowledging those issues because Jinks was fully resurrected shortly afterwards. Somehow, however, even that knowledge doesn’t lessen the impact of that scene.

For the most part, Zombieland is a comedy about Twinkies, Bill Murray, and “The Rules,” but underneath that it’s really a story about family. We spend most of the film believing that tough-guy Tallahassee misses his dog, but over a game of Monopoly one word gives away to everyone, us included, that he has actually been talking about his young son. We see him break down and get a series of flashbacks to a younger, happier man with his adorable toddler. The scene gets some added emotional weight due to how unexpected it is, both in its placement within the story and that it shows the most “macho” tough character unashamedly crying in front of the others.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – “The Magical Place”
Agent Coulson should probably get some sort of award for being the only character to make it onto my list twice. As for Whedon… *Ahem* After his untimely death, Coulson made his reappearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., bringing with him a whole lot of questions about, well, just how it was that he was even breathing. In this episode, we saw him undergo a procedure to help him remember his resurrection and the results are agonizing for both him and the viewer.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part Two © WB
Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows Part Two © WB.

Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Part Two
There are countless moments in this film that made me cry: Snape discovering Lily’s body, Hedwig’s death, the Weasley’s clinging to one another around Fred. But the one that really did me in was Harry speaking to his parents in the forest. Perhaps it’s because I lost a parent at a very young age, but the thought of his being able to speak with some version of them, even if they are little more than shadows, brings me to tears. Tears which peak when he asks that most childish question but one every adult still wants answered, “Does it hurt?”

Twin Peaks – “Arbitrary Law”
In this episode, Laura Palmer’s killer was revealed in the form of the entity BOB, who resided within her father. In this heartbreaking scene, BOB forces his host to violently slam his head into a door, resulting in fatal trauma. As Leland dies, BOB’s spirit leaves him and he finally realizes what he did, begging forgiveness from God, Laura, and the men around him. Knowing that Leland himself isn’t really to blame, Cooper talks him “into the light” and allows him to find peace.

What have you watched lately that’s brought you to tears?

How to Throw a Harry Potter Party Without Spending 1000 Galleons

All Photos: Kelly Knox
Photo: Kelly Knox

My daughter’s favorite film (for the moment) is Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. When she suggested a Harry Potter-themed birthday party this year, I jumped at the chance. After seeing the phenomenal Hogwarts hootenanny Jenn shared last summer, I knew there were a lot of great ideas out there to be found for the big day.

Last year we chose a party at a local venue, and not only did it feel like it lacked my daughter’s personality, the cost was sky high. Determined to make this party one to remember without breaking the Gringotts bank, I handmade almost all of the decorations and activities. Here are a few ideas for your next Harry Potter-themed party, inspired by Pinterest and my own love of all things Hogwarts.

Costumes for Guests

You can’t have Hogwarts students without proper robes, but at $30-$40 a pop for the licensed costumes, there was no way we could afford to get one for every guest. Pinterest to the rescue! Pieces by Polly has the genius idea of turning adult XL black T-shirts into robes with very little sewing. I don’t own a sewing machine, so I sewed nine robes by hand, but I got started early so it wasn’t an overwhelming amount of work. You can find black T-shirts at a craft store like Michael’s for $3-$4 each.

After the kids were sorted, we pinned a paper house crest to each robe. Take a look at the party activities below to see what we did for the ties!

Wands can also be expensive if you look for official merchandise, or you can make your own for practically free that can withstand a lot of dueling during the party.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

All it takes is chopsticks, hot glue, and paint to craft a wand. There are quite a few tutorials out there, but one of the best can be found at Give Peas a Chance.


Guests were greeted by Platform 9 3/4 on the front door, which they had to pass through to get to Hogwarts.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Again, there are many instructions for how to make a brick wall, but it simply takes an inexpensive white twin sheet, sponge, and red paint.

Inside the house, we wanted to re-create the look of the Great Hall, so we hung paper towel tube candles with fishing line.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

This also called for the hot glue gun, along with white paint, cardboard, and battery-powered tea lights. (I found a set of 12 on Amazon for around $6.) Harry Potter Wish List has all the details for creating this magical effect.

By this point, I was having so much fun making Hogwarts-related items that I even carried the theme over to the water bottles for the party.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Or, as I like to call them, Potter Water!


With a birthday in January in Seattle, my kindergartener is destined for indoor parties for the foreseeable future. (So much rain!) That meant instead of playing Quidditch in the park, which would have been highly entertaining for all, we had to be a little creative for our party activities.

After sitting under the Sorting Hat (a witch’s Halloween hat in our version of Hogwarts), kids worked on their first activity for the party, coloring paper ties for the House they were sorted in.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Use this fantastic template to print a tie on cardstock, punch two holes, and tie an elastic cord.

Once the students were in proper attire, it was time to play!

I drew a Pin the Glasses on Harry Potter poster with markers, along with cardstock glasses for each guest.

Harry Potter Party
Photo: Kelly Knox

Partygoers also played Freeze Dance to the wizarding-world hit “Do the Hippogriff” by The Weird Sisters, which you can find easily on iTunes on the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire soundtrack. If dancing isn’t your kid’s style, you can play Freeze Duel instead, where kids pretend to have a wizard’s duel but must freeze when the music is paused to win the duel.

Like Skylar’s birthday party that Jenn attended, we had a “Have You Seen This Wizard?” photo booth made of poster board.

Our one big splurge was the Harry Potter-themed candy we handed out to guests. I ordered Jelly Slugs from Candy Crate for each guest as their “goodie bag” (and they took home their robes and wands as well). I also happened to find Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans in a candy store for less than offered online, so I just had to pick them up. This turned into a hilarious activity at the party, as kids spent time studying the box and daring each other to taste test a flavor.

All in all, our little wizard had a blast, and her guests enjoyed their time at Hogwarts. I hope yours do, too!

Make Reading Magical With Harry Potter Book Night

© Bloomsbury
© Bloomsbury

Wizards and Muggles around the world are invited by UK publisher Bloomsbury to join in the first ever Harry Potter Book Night on February 5, 2015. With a goal of “passing on the magic of J.K. Rowling’s amazing books to the next generation of readers,” teachers, bookshop owners, and other event organizers can download a free event kit to make the evening extraordinary.

Harry Potter enthusiasts and educators are invited to sign up to receive the event kit download. (You won’t receive it right away, so keep an eye out for an email within a few days.)

Grab the kit if there’s even a slight chance that a Harry Potter party might be in your future! The robust 41-page guide is packed with ideas, recommended book excerpts for the book night party, activities, printables, and more for large groups of kids ages 8-10, but can easily be adapted to a small storytime with the neighbors or a mini-party with your own little wizards. Even just the quick facts about Hogwarts and Harry Potter’s magical world make the kit worth the download.

Harry Potter Book Night is a great opportunity to introduce your community, kids, and their friends to the spellbinding story of Harry Potter—not to mention the perfect excuse to read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone again!


Photos From London’s Brick 2014 Lego Show

The Incredible Steampunk/Pirate Land Diorama
The Incredible Steampunk/Pirate Land Diorama

Over the weekend, the munchkin and I were lucky enough to attend Brick 2014 at London’s Excel Centre. It was the biggest Lego show the UK has seen, running for four days and attracting thousands of Lego fans of all ages. There was so much stuff to see that it would take me ages to write it all up, so I’m going to let the photos do the talking for me. Suffice to say that if you love Lego and ever get the chance to go to a similar convention, I heartily recommend it! Highlights for us included:

  • Joining in with the World Record attempt for the largest Lego video game diorama – they opened up loads of the new Minecraft sets and let everyone go crazy building houses, towers, giant creepers, mines and cart tracks. The results were very impressive and certainly got everyone hooked on it – the on-site Toys R Us had almost totally sold out by the end of the day.
  • The videogame area was full of PS4s and Xboxes running the new LEGO Batman 3 game, as well as the older Marvel and Harry Potter ones. Beyond Gotham looks like a great successor to the Lego Movie game, which we had some much fun playing together recently.

Read the rest of Nathan Barry’s post and see more photos at GeekDad.

Exploring the World of Harry Potter: Dining and Shopping in Diagon Alley

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter - Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort.
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando Resort. \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando

The Universal Orlando expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was way to much for one post, so welcome to part two of my Diagon Alley coverage. In this post I’ll be covering the food at Leaky Cauldron and the many shopping experiences for guests to enjoy.

Wit the exception of the menu, the Leaky Cauldron has all the feels of the Hogshead over at Hogsmeade.

I had the opportunity to order anything or everything at the Leaky Cauldron and I took this chance to order two entrees, two drinks, and a dessert to get a nice variety of things you can enjoy. My husband did the same so that we could sample four dishes total.

For me, the Stew and Fisherman’s Pie were the most enticing. The Beef, Lamb, and Guinness Stew ($12.99) was served in a bread bowl and filled with tender meat and hearty vegetables.

Fisherman’s Pie ($14.99) was very enjoyable and was filled with chunky pieces of salmon, shrimp, and cod, blended into mashed potatoes and peas. Both the Beef, Lamb, and Guinness Stew and the Fisherman’s Pie came with side salads.

My husband gave the Bangers and Mash ($11.99) a try and he really enjoyed it. It’s served in the traditional British Pub style with sausage on top of mashed potatoes and gravy with vegetables. The Specialty Chicken Sandwich ($10.99) was a very simple choice and good for anyone looking for something less complicated.

Children have a very small variety of items to pick from including: macaroni and cheese, fish and chips, and a mini meat pie. Our son, the pickiest child on the planet, had the macaroni and cheese ($6.99) and devoured it along with his Butterbeer. For dessert we gave the Chocolate Potted Cream ($4.99) a try and, even though it wasn’t as smooth as what I expected, the flavor was very rich and enticing. My husband and I both agreed that even with its small size, one person can’t finish one by themselves.

In addition to Butterbeer, we also tried the Tongue Tying Lemon Squash drink (around $6.00) and the Otter’s Fizzy Orange Juice (around $6.00). Of the three, Butterbeer is my favorite and Tongue Tying Lemon Squash is a close second. The Otter’s Fizzy was the most disappointing because it tasted like orange juice in a brown sugar-rimmed glass. My husband seemed to enjoy it, but the lack of unique flavor didn’t inspire me to want to order it again.

As much as I enjoyed the food at The Leaky Cauldron, the prices are a bit steep even for theme park food, but it’s the only downside I can see to eating there again.

Something else that guests will enjoy about Diagon Alley is how immersive the shopping experiences are. Each shop is themed to what they sell. The Magical Menagerie specializes in all things fluffy and dangerous in the animal kingdom. Quality Quidditch Supplies sells brooms, robes, and popular quidditch team apparel.

Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes has a really cool store front and if you watch it long enough, you can see Fred (or is it George??) make a rabbit appear on his head. Inside the store you can find all manners of jokes to play on your friends, including some suspicious looking candy. If you can crane your neck and look up, you can see the magical sun roof put on a display of fireworks.

Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment has one of the four known references to Jaws, the ride that previously inhabited this area of the park, in the form of a large telescope that was built using piping from the former ride.

Other recognizable stores in Diagon Alley include: Scribbulus, Ollivanders, and Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions.

For my Butterbeer lovers, you can get your fix at three locations in Diagon Alley: The Leaky Cauldron, The Fountain of Fair Fortune in Horizont Alley, and The Hopping Pot in Carkitt Market (located next to Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour).

Butterbeer prices are as follows:

  • $4.25 for cold in a regular cup
  • $5.32 for frozen in a regular cup (think slushy)
  • $12.77 cold with a collectible cup
  • $13.84 for frozen with a collectible cup

The upside to getting the collectible cup is you can get it refilled as many times as you want with soda or slushy for $.99. If you’re local, bring it with you each time you visit and you can continue to enjoy the $.99 refills.

Other drink choices you might want to consider are:

  • Fishy Green Ale ($5.32) – A mint tea beverage with boba-style balls that give it a blast of blueberry flavor. Only available at Diagon Alley.
  • Pumpkin Juice ($7.50) – Available at Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. My husband tells anyone who needs to wake up to grab a bottle of this stuff.
  • Wizarding Draft Beers (around $8.00)

If you’re in the mood for Butterbeer ice cream, look no further than Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour. This is the place to dip your taste buds into specialty ice cream flavors like: Butterbeer, Earl Grey and Lavender (there’s a Captain Picard joke to be made here), Chocolate Chili, and more. Prices start at $4.99 for a cup of any flavor (or flavors since they allow you to mix in the same cup).

I had a chance to try the Butterbeer ice cream, and it wasn’t really my thing (my husband on the other hand was happy to have the rest of mine).

If you’re more of a Gillywater drinker, stop by Eternelle’s Elixir of Refreshment stand and pick out an elixir to add to your water. Flavors include: Draught of Peace (mix of blueberry, raspberry, blackberry, and cherry), Babbling Revenge (fruit punch), Elixir to Induce Euphoria (pineapple and mint), and Fire Protection Potion (watermelon, strawberry, and peach). We tasted the Draught of Peace and were pretty pleased with it. The flavor wasn’t overbearing and we didn’t crash from the sugar.

Elixirs are $4.95 each and will flavor one 20 ounce bottle of water.

While the dining in Diagon Alley is on the steep side, it’s worth it at least once for the experience. Even as a local I’m not sure how often I’ll eat here, especially when there is a really tasty taco truck not far from Diagon Alley, but I’m happy I had the experience. The shopping is a huge improvement to Hogsmeade with its limited stores and merchandise and I enjoyed walking through the menagerie with all the fluffy items available. The next time you are in Orlando, make sure you stop by and enjoy everything Diagon Alley has to offer. It a three hour wait for a ride isn’t your thing, hit up the shops.

Tickets into Universal Studios start at $96.00 per adult and $90.00 per child (ages 10 and under). If you would like to ride the Hogwarts Express and check out Hogsmeade as well, you will need a two park ticket. Two park tickets start at $136.00 per adult and $130.00 per child (ages 10 and under).

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Disclaimer: GeekMom attended a blogger event for this attraction. 

Exploring the World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley at Universal Orlando

Diagon Alley \ Image courtesy of Universal Orlando
Diagon Alley. Image courtesy of Universal Orlando.

Welcome to part one of my Diagon Alley coverage. The latest addition to the Harry Potter-themed attractions at Universal Studios Orlando is filled with the magic of the movies from Knockturn Alley to the Leaky Cauldron and all the way to Hogsmeade aboard the Hogwarts Express. I’m not embarrassed to say that my favorite part of the expansion is the ability to get Butterbeer in both parks with just a train ride between them. There was so much to see and do in Diagon Alley, it was almost anxiety-inducing trying to write it all down into one article.

I know you will be eager to run right into Diagon Alley, but make sure you take a moment to look around outside of the attraction as well. Rushing past the London facade can make you miss out on seeing Creature’s appearance in Sirius Black’s window or hearing the wise cracks of the shrunken head over at the Knight bus.

Once you’ve taken in everything on the outside, take a deep breath and walk through the brick wall and into Diagon Alley.

When I first stepped into Diagon Alley, I was reminded of an old Universal Studios’ billboard that said, “Universal Studios. Where you can ride the movies.” In the case of Diagon Alley, you’re walking into the movies and from the tops of the buildings to the streets, you are surrounded 100 percent by Harry Potter’s world. To add to the experience, there are no directional signs anywhere in this area of the park. In my opinion, this adds to the fun of exploring and discovering things on your own. You will also notice that there are no benches. Instead, several of the fake store fronts have stoops for you to sit and rest your feet on.

Something I wasn’t expecting was to pay attention to Diagon Alley with my ears. The sound system pumps the sounds of Diagon Alley into the area and makes it that much more immersive for guests who want to feel like they are visiting the Wizarding realm.

Escape from Gringotts
After walking through the brick wall and entering Diagon Alley, the first thing you see is the centerpiece to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter: Diagon Alley, the Escape from Gringotts attraction. Beware of the fire-breathing dragon perched on top of the bank. I’ve stood halfway down Diagon Alley when this beast let his flames fly and even at that distance, I still felt the heat from his temper tantrum.

The inside of the bank is just as awe-inspiring as the scenery outside. From the moment you step inside, you are in an amazing lobby. The goblins are hard at work and will stare you down if you try to cross them. After the lobby, keep a look out for Ron, Hermoione, and Harry as they attempt to break into Gringotts to steal one of the horcruxes from Bellatrix Lestrange’s vault.

My husband described the ride as a smoother version of Revenge of the Mummy, another popular attraction at Universal Studios Orlando. The graphics and special effects in Escape from Gringotts was far superior to anything else in the park.

A friend of mine had a chance to work on the art for the ride and he told me that one of the other artists left a “hidden Potter” so to speak between scenes nine and 10 (Gringotts is divided up into different scenes to make it easier for maintenance to know where to work when something breaks). You will never see it because of how dark it is, but between scenes nine and 10, he created scene “9 3/4.”

A few words of advice. If you plan on riding Escape from Gringotts, get there first thing. Matter of fact, arrive to the park before it opens so you can rush through the gates and into Diagon Alley. I arrived in the park a little after it opened and the wait time was already up to three hours. Later in the day, it dropped to 2 hours and 40 minutes and in my three visits to Diagon Alley so far, that’s the shortest I’ve seen the line get.

If your young witch or wizard does not meet the 42-inch height requirement, ask for a certificate for them to come back and ride without waiting in line when they are tall enough. For the time being though, you can relax with them in the child swap area while the rest of your party rides and then “swap” the child to them so you can enjoy it as well.

Olivanders is another must-see experience while visiting the Wizarding realm and takes you into the scene in the first film where Harry’s wand chooses him. I’ve never done this myself, but I’ve heard it’s worth doing once to see the show. Hogsmeade also has an Olivanders experience, but the wait time is much longer because of the limited space they have in the attraction.

Something else I wasn’t expecting was for Universal to have shows in Diagon Alley. I’m not usually a show person, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying tales from The Tales of Beedle the Bard and the show was just long enough to give us a break from walking around, but not long enough that we needed to find a seat on the pavement to enjoy.

For those who like a little music in their day, check out the Singing Sorceress: Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees. Celestina was just recently given her own back story by J.K Rowling and her first single, “You Stole My Cauldron But You Can’t Have My Heart” has hit Pottermore for fans to give a listen to.

The stage is located over in Carkitt Market right next to The Hopping Pot drink stand, so grab yourself a regular or frozen-style drink and enjoy the show.

You can’t have the good without the bad and Knockturn Alley brings the bad (in a good way) to this attraction. It’s just as dark and foreboding in real life as it is in the movie (and chilly too). Borgin and Burkes comes to life in the alley and sells all sorts of gifts for the dark wizard at heart. Make sure you look up, down, and all around while visiting, because there are special effects that are easy to miss if you don’t.

Something that’s new to both Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade are the interactive wands. For around $40, you can purchase a wand that will interact with various areas in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Most of the spell-casting areas are marked with a gold medallion in front of the jinxed artifact, while others you learn about through talking with the local wizards and witches. My favorite spell to cast is “Aquamenti” at the Mermaid fountain and “Metelojinx” at the Umbrella outside the restrooms.

Beware of the Mermaid Fountain!
I learned the hard way that talking to a wizard with your wand in your hand can result in an unplanned shower. (On the upside, the wizard I was talking to felt so bad for me that he treated my family to Butterbeers while I dried off.)

When you have experienced all there is in Diagon Alley, take a stroll over to Kings Cross and hop aboard the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade Station. To make sure guests get the full experience of Harry Potter’s world, this attraction is limited to guests with a two-park ticket. Universal has ticketing stations in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade for those who wish to upgrade their park ticket and take a journey on the train.

After I learned that Platform 9 3/4 was going to have a spot in Diagon Alley, I wondered how Universal would get away with the trick. I imagined it working similar to how the mirror trick works at Belle’s Cottage in Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom. I couldn’t have been further from reality. I won’t spoil how it’s done for you, but it’s nothing to write home about.

When we finally laid our eyes on the Hogwarts Express, it took our breath away. It looked like Universal had transported her from the movie and into the park. Each party is put into their own cabin and when it’s time to get rolling, the doors are shut and you are tucked away in your own little world for the 4-minute journey to Hogsmeade. I was surprised at how much happens while you’re in transport. The doors and the windows react with shadows, pictures, imagery, and other effects that bring the train to life. The experience from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade is different from the trip from Hogsmeade to Diagon Alley, so make sure you take the time to ride it twice. On nights where one park closes earlier than the other, the train will stop running until the other park is clear of guests and then you can ride it there and back without having to get off and wait again.

For true Harry Potter fans, this will be an overwhelming experience. From walking into Kings Cross Station and riding the Hogwarts Express, thrilling adventure through Gringotts, and checking out the many sights of Diagon Alley, Universal brought their game face and made this a must-see attraction in Orlando, Florida.

Tickets into Universal Studios start at $96 per adult and $90 per child (ages 10 and under). If you would like to ride the Hogwarts Express and check out Hogsmeade as well, you will need a two-park ticket. Two park tickets start at $136 per adult and $130 per child (ages 10 and under).

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Disclaimer: GeekMom attended a blogger event about this attraction.

A ‘Harry Potter’ Fangirl With Big Dreams

Harry Potter may have ended in 2011 with seven books and movies, but the magic of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world lives on with every new generation.

The magic and wonder of the worlds created in the books is inspiration for so many little imaginations. Skylar was having a birthday party and seeing as how she loves all things Harry Potter, a very Hogwarts birthday party was in order!

Harry Potter Birthday
All images by justJENN

Harry Potter Birthday detailsThis little fangirl got the Harry Potter party of her dreams! Skylar’s very talented parents went all out, creating a 9 ¾ station entrance on their porch, floating candles over the great dining (room table) hall, and there was even a Gringotts where you could exchange money to buy edible treasures at Honeydukes!

With the help of Pinterest, Skylar’s mom created hand-crafted wands out of paper and paint while Skylar’s dad put on a whimsical potions show of scientific magic. To top off the magical evening, The Sorcerer’s Stone shown on a big screen while Golden Snitch-topped cupcakes were served!

Brown UniversityIf you think Skylar’s fascination with Harry Potter stops at the books and movies, you only have to look to her bedroom to see her love of the wizarding world runs deep. Her room is adorned with Harry Potter and Hogwarts house memorabilia, but the most prominent decor in the room is a large Brown college pennant right above her bed. Why Brown? It’s the college that Hermione Granger herself, actress Emma Watson, attended. If there ever was a strong, intelligent woman to admire, both Hermione and Emma Watson fit the bill.

You couldn’t ask for a better Harry Potter-themed party for a bright, young, deserving girl. After all, getting to seven years old in either the wizarding world or the muggle world is no easy task. Just remember Skylar, when you indeed do attend Brown, make sure to use your time-turner wisely.

Click on links for more details on the Harry Potter Birthday and Golden Snitch Cupcakes.

Have You Seen This Wizard

Brand New Harry Potter Story on Pottermore.com

© Pottermore.com

The first installment of J.K. Rowling’s new story about the Quidditch World Cup went up on Pottermore.com in March, but today Rowling released the next chapter in the QWC story–and it reunites an adult Harry, Ron, and Hermione (and Neville and Luna).

This installment is told by Rita Skeeter, and it is full of gossip and snarkiness about our favorite wizarding trio all grown up and in their mid-30s. I particularly loved when Skeeter referred to Hermione as the “femme fatale of the group,” and the idea of Harry introducing his kids to Viktor Krum made me smile. Also, check out the last sentence of the fourth paragraph. Foreshadowing?! I nearly fainted reading that.

Potterheads who are already members of Pottermore can check out the story there, but according to Yahoo! it already crashed that site. Rowling exclusively shared the new chapter with the Today Show, and you can read it in its entirety there.

Take A Geeky Pub Crawl St. Patrick’s Day With DIY Pub Signs

pub sign finished
Pay a visit to your favorite fictional watering hole with these DIY mini pub signs.
All images by Lisa Kay Tate

I’m not a drinker, but I am a mixed-bag of British, Welsh and Irish heritage (heavy on the Irish). As such, I’m constantly drawn to the cozy atmosphere of the pub, where friends and fun can mingle and enjoy a pint, cuppa, or bottle of the libation of their choice. I have a sneaky suspicion there might be a few others enjoying that atmosphere come St.Patrick’s Day.

I also have a geeky affinity for pub signs from both real and fictional establishments, and have made a few of these for my own kitchen, which we like to call our Southwest Pirate Pub. Naturally, when last year’s Pegg/Frost vehicle The World’s End was released with 12 great fictional pubs, including the title pub, I thought, “I must have me one of them nifty signs there.”

I had a similar reaction when I first saw Shaun of the Dead, Fellowship of the Ring, American Werewolf in London, and read all the Harry Potter novels. Rather than wish I could visit fictional establishments, or their real-life counter parts like Hobbiton’s Green Dragon, I decided it’s easier to bring them home by creating mini-pub signs based on my favorite gathering spots.

Screen shot 2014-03-10 at 2.47.14 AM
Clockwise from top left: Gather your materials (listed at right), cut out your pub sign image, cut a balsa or cardboard wood sign to match the image, seal it with decoupage.

What you need:
• Small squares of balsa wood or corrugated cardboard (balsa preferred)
• Print-outs, catalog and magazine cut outs, stickers or photographs depicting your favorite fictional watering hole
• Black or dark brown craft or antiquing paint
• Craft glue and/or decoupage glue
• Yarn, twine, hemp or other ribbon
• A nice cup o’ hot tea for refreshment when you’re done… or have a pint if you’re of age. We’re at the pub, after all.

long signs
Geeking up the kitchen.

Cut out the pub sign image to eliminate any background you don’t want shown. Place the cut out on the wood or cardboard (don’t glue it yet) and use a crafting blade to carefully cut around it. Make sure to leave about a half-inch at the top (you’ll need that space in a minute).

Paint or antique the sign and let it dry. Then use a thin layer of glue or decoupage to paste the pub image where you want it. When in place, paint the entire sign with decoupage or 1:1 water/craft glue mix.

Use a small screwdriver or drill bit to gently poke holes in each of the top corners of the sign, and attach the yarn or other twine. Ready to hang!

Make one each year and build up a collection, or give them as fun housewarming gifts with a coordinating pint glass or mug.

sign and mug
A matching mug and pub sign make a fun gift set for a favorite fandom.

The fun part is being creative and finding fictional pubs that will suit every personality: Mos Eisley Cantina (Star Wars), The Prancing Pony (Lord of the Rings/Hobbit), Moe’s (The Simpsons), Hog’s Head or Leaky Cauldron (Harry Potter series), Merlotte’s Bar & Grill (True Blood), Tapper’s (from the Midway arcade game), One Eyed Jacks (Twin Peaks), and plenty more.

We might not be able to enjoy a pint with Pippin and Merry, but at least we can feel a little more like we’re there.


7 Reasons We’re Counting Down To Universal’s Diagon Alley Debut

Looking down Diagon Alley toward Gringotts. Image: Universal
Looking down Diagon Alley toward Gringotts. Image: Universal

Stock up on floo powder. When Universal Orlando unveils Diagon Alley, the second land in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, you’re going to want to magic yourself there.

Diagon Alley debuts this summer at Universal Studios Florida, joining Hogsmeade, which opened at Universal’s Islands of Adventure in 2010. Here are a few reasons we’re charmed.

  • Two words: Leaky Cauldron. The eatery promises not just pub grub, but a chance to sit down and soak in the Potter-sphere over fish and chips or a glass of pumpkin juice. As much as my family loves the innovative Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride, we find that pulling up a chair at the Three Broomsticks is one of Hogsmeade’s most enjoyable immersions. The Leaky Cauldron could be even better.
  • Speaking of rides: Universal Creative president Mike Woodbury promises that the new ride, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, will raise the bar. It’s hard to imagine topping the excitement of Forbidden Journey, but Harry’s Gringotts adventure seems tailor-made for a show-stopping ride.
  • Just like Harry, visitors will enter Diagon Alley via muggle London. A functional Hogwarts Express will connect Diagon Alley with Hogsmeade (but you’ll need a two-park pass to visit both).
Visitors will enter Diagon Alley through muggle London, just as Harry does. Image: Universal
Visitors will enter Diagon Alley through muggle London, just as Harry does. Image: Universal
King's Cross Station will link Hogsmeade with Diagon Alley. Image: Universal
King’s Cross Station will link Hogsmeade with Diagon Alley. Image: Universal
  • Which new attraction is Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood, excited about? At the webcast revealing the Diagon Alley attractions, she geeked out on the Magical Menagerie shop, where visitors can adopt plush familiars from owls to Hippogriffs. Other shopping ops will include jokes and toys at Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, cosplay heaven at Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, geeky accoutrements at Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, team gear at Quality Quidditch Supplies, and quills and parchment at the Hermione-pleasing Scribbulus.
Shopping at Wiseacre's. Image: Universal
Shopping at Wiseacre’s. Image: Universal
  • If you dabble in the Dark Arts, head to Knockturn Alley, where you can slip into Borgin and Burkes and explore the sketchy part of town.
  • Fans of Hogsmeade’s Honeydukes shop will be glad to hear that it’s expanding, with the jokes formerly sold at the neighboring Zonko’s moving to Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes in Diagon Alley.
Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. Image: Universal
Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. Image: Universal
  •  Diagon Alley-goers will have a new lodging option. (Alas, it’s not a room at the Leaky Cauldron.) But when the ’50s-themed Cabana Bay Beach Resort opens at Universal on March 31, guests will have 1,800 additional on-site rooms to choose from. Staying on-property is well worthwhile for the early admission perk: Resort guests get into the park an hour before opening, which beats not only the lines, but the summer heat.
Cabana Bay will add 900 suites and 900 rooms to Universal's lodging options. Image: Universal
Cabana Bay will add 900 suites and 900 rooms to Universal’s lodging options. Image: Universal