In the Shadow of the Mouse

Secrets of a theme park obsessed local who lives next door to Mickey, with annual passes to every Central Florida park

Hilarious Harry Potter video from Jimmy Fallon and lots of celebrity interviews in Diagon Alley

I’m going through a bit of withdrawal after an amazing three days of exploring Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida, but I got a bit of a fix by watching the hilarious Jimmy Fallon video below. It was filmed in Hogsmeade, so I got a small Wizarding World of Harry Potter fix. But better yet, it made me laugh until tears were running down my cheeks as I watched parents struggle to answer Harry Potter trivia questions. See for yourself:


I also have several videos of my own to share. I got to meet several Harry Potter stars for one-on-one interviews, and I participated in many panel discussions. Here are the videos. Let’s start off with Helena Bonham Carton and Tom Felton:

Next up is Warwick Davis, Robbie Coltrane, and Domnhall Gleeson:

Here’s my interview with Oliver Phelps:

Here’s my chat with Matthew Lewis:

And here’s a panel with both of them, along with James Phelps, Evanna Lynch, and Bonnie Wright:

And a final Q & A with the Phelps brothers, Matthew Lewis, and Evanna Lynch to top things off:

As you can see, it was a star-studded preview of Diagon Alley. This new area opens to the public on July 8, and I promise you’ll be just as impressed as the stars when you get to see it for yourself.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Diagon Alley features two new rides in richly themed environment

Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida could easily stand on its own as a place to eat, shop, and chill, but it also has two new rides as an added treat, sort of like getting a thick layer of shortbread cookie crumbles on top of your scoop of chocolate chili ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.

e6The first new ride will actually be boardable at both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. It’s the famous Hogwarts Express, which takes you between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Have that two-park ticket ready and use it as transportation between the two locations in the Wizarding World.

Diagon Alley doesn’t officially open until July 8, but I had the pleasure of riding the Hogwarts Express both ways, and I’ll confess to a preference for the Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios leg of the trip. I loved seeing Buckbeak and the Weasley fireworks out the window. Watch the interior, too, as you’ll have plenty of foot traffic passing by your coach during the journey that you can see (in shadows) and hear.

Of course, the Hogwarts Express fun begins right in the queue line. Yes, you really do get to go right through the brick wall. You’ll notice lots of details as you wind your way toward the ride. My favorite is Harry’s luggage, complete with a moving Hedwig in a cage. Expect long wait times, but if you’re a Harry Potter fan, it’s a must-do experience. Here are some photos:







d1Next up is Harry Potter and the Escape From Gringotts, which I didn’t get to experience. Fortunately, I did get to go through Gringotts and admire the exquisite level of detail put into creating the bank. The goblins are eerily life-like, and the decor is rich and lavish, from the chandeliers to the winding staircase. You can even have your photo taken and get your very own Gringotts ID, which I did get to do.

I also saw the pre-show, which is done in the same way as the shows in Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. You get so mesmerized by seeing the characters that you might miss all the detail of the set. Pause a bit if you can to take it all in. It’s just as well done as Hogwarts. Then you go on an elevator ride that’s a lot of fun on its own, although it’s just a small precursor to the ride itself. Even though I didn’t get to try it yet, I have high hopes as I know how well Universal did with Transformers. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is still a technological marvel today, four years after its opening, so I expect this new attraction to deliver the same kind of “wow.”

Here are some photos from the inside of Gringotts:






If you’ve been following my column, you know I’ve been at the Diagon Alley preview this past week. You’ll find my interviews with two of the Harry Potter stars, as well as a group interview, in this article and some random scenes from the event here. Meet some of the stars with me here.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

My interviews with Oliver Phelps and Matthew Lewis at Diagon Alley preview

One of the best things about media events is getting the chance to meet celebrities firsthand. I’ve met everyone from various American Idol superstars to Star Wars luminaries like Anthony Daniels to classic voice talent like Frank Welker (yes, I met him because of his Transformers work, but I always think of him as Fred on Scooby Doo, and I love the fact that he was Nibbler on Futurama).

And speaking of Transformers, which is, of course, at Universal Studios Florida. that’s also where I met my latest round of talent. Part of this week’s Diagon Alley preview event consisted of meet and greets and panel discussion with some of the stars. Here are two one-on-one interviews for the Harry Potter fans among my readers, as well as a panel discussion. First, Oliver Phelps, better known as George Weasley:

Next up is Matthew Lewis, also known as Neville Longbottom:

And finally, a panel discussion that includes both of those stars, as well as James Phelps and Evanna Lynch, who played Luna Lovegood:

With their firsthand knowledge of the world of Harry Potter, or at least the movie version of it, you can trust them when they say that Universal Studios Orlando has created something very special with Diagon Alley. I’ll have more coverage over the next several days as I get caught up after the whirlwind event. In the meantime, here are some random scenes from inside Diagon Alley in this previous article.

Random scenes from Diagon Alley as whirlwind preview event continues

The whirlwind preview event continues at Universal Orlando Resort, and this morning I attended talks by some of the Harry Potter stars, when headed into Diagon Alley for several hours in which I was able to wander around, take photos to my heart’s content, watch the fire-breathing dragon, explore Gringotts, take in the shows, and just generally immerse myself in this amazing environment.

The bad news is, I didn’t actually get to ride the Gringotts ride. The good news is, I did pretty much everything else, including the casting of magic spells (for a muggle, I didn’t do too badly), tasting some of the best that the Leaky Cauldron has to offer, and just generally soaking in the ambiance in the lull before the summer crowds descend on July 8. I talked to a goblin, proved that even muggles can walk through walls if they believe in the wizarding world, drank Fishy Green Ale, and had so many wonderful experiences overall that I’ll barely know where to start when I wrap it up. I’ll also have plenty of video footage of interviews and question and answer sessions with various Harry Potter stars.

I don’t have much time to go into detail, since there’s one more special event tonight because the big preview bash is over. The new Cabana Bay Resort just opened its second half, so there’s a party at the hotel tonight that’s calling my name. I’ll have plenty of wrap-up coverage in the coming days, and in the meantime, please enjoy these random photos from Diagon Alley:












Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

My initial thoughts on Diagon Alley preview at Universal (with photos)

Tonight was the night! I had a great day at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure riding the rides and meeting several Harry Potter stars, but nothing could top the evening. After all, it was my very first chance to experience Diagon Alley first hand.

What can I say about Diagon Alley but “Amazing!” Yes, that dragon on top of Gringotts really breathes fire, and the goblins inside are so lifelike you’ll swear they’re watching you. Alas, the Gringotts ride broke down, so I didn’t get to ride it yet, but I get another chance on Thursday. Meanwhile, here’s one of the goblins:


The closest I got to actually riding the Gringotts ride, other than touring the bank library, was trying out the ride vehicle’s tester seat:


d2I did get to ride the Hogwarts Express. What fun! Because the event was just at Universal Studios Florida, I had the rare pleasure of riding it round trip. The leg back to Universal from Islands of Adventure is my favorite. It has the Knight Bus, Buckbeak, and other fun touches, although really, you’ll enjoy riding both ways. You can see me in the photo enjoying the illusion of going through the wall.

I also visited Ollivanders and was chosen by a wand, so of course I had to buy it. I also got a wand as swag, so my chosen wand will go on display in my house while the swag wand will become my working wand, since it’s one of the new interactive versions. I already cast my first spell!

I also tried lots of food and drink, including Fishy Green Ale, which is a new favorite for me, since it’s heavy on the cinnamon. I’m also in love with the ice cream shop, where I’m sure I’ll spend way too much time this fall (I stay away during the summer crowds).

You can see me giving a big thumbs up to Fishy Green ale in the photo below, although the orange drink is no slouch either. That one’s pictured too:



What about the wand that chose me? There it is in the photo below. I’ve already learned to cast simple spells with it:


And here are some witch and wizard friends I met along the way:


I’ll have more details tomorrow, but I wanted to file a quick report. Meanwhile, here’s an earlier past of the report in case you missed it.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Diagon Alley opens July 8: Second day of event (meeting Harry Potter stars, enjoying the parks)

Day two of the Diagon Alley Preview event at Universal Studios Florida started bright and early, with a “State of the Universe” event at Blue Man Group theater. It was well worth rolling out of bed with only a few hours sleep, and it marked the spot where Universal Orlando Resort finally announced the official opening date for Diagon Alley: July 8.

Yes, that’s the day that all muggles can officially visit London, slip through to Diagon Alley, and board the Hogwarts Express for Hogsmeade.

I’ll have a chance to do all that myself tonight, but in the meantime, I had a wonderful opportunity to meet some of the Harry Potter stars, take part in a group interview, and even do one-on-one interviews with Oliver Phelps (George Weasley) and Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom). I’ll be posting videos once they’re edited, but in the meantime, here are some photos:




Once the announcement and interviews were over, I headed out on a VIP tour of Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure. I’ve experienced the regular VIP tours before, and as I reported in that previous article, they’re a great way to see the parks, learn trivia, get front of the line access to the rides, and even get some special experiences not available to the general public.

This tour was a bit different. We still rode rides and experienced special things, but they were even better than getting to go into the off limits area of the Men in Black queue set and going under the Revenge of the Mummy tracks. For this tour, we sampled regular and frozen butter beer. Later we enjoyed Homor sized donuts, Flaming Moes, and Duff Beer while hearing about Springfield from Mike West of Universal Creative. Then Thierry Coup chatted about Transformers. We also met park celebrities like Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob, and Optimus Prime:



We also managed to ride a good mix of attractions, like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Dragon Challenge, and Dr. Doom’s Fear Fall at Islands of Adventure and Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and Transformers at Universal Studios Florida. Remember, that was mixed in with special stops and interviews. If you do your own regular VIP tour that you book with Universal, you’ll be amazed at the number of rides and attractions you can zip through.

Tonight marks my very first experience with Diagon Alley, other than eagerly watching the construction as it rose from the ruins of the old Amity area. Stay tuned for lots more coverage here in “In The Shadow of the Mouse,” as well as live tweets via @themeparkwriter throughout the event. Meanwhile, if you missed yesterday’ evening summary, go here. For the first part of day one, read here.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Day one summary of Universal Orlando Resort Diagon Alley preview event

c1As promised, I’m keeping my readers in the loop for the Diagon Alley media preview event at Universal Orlando Resort. This event stretches out through June 20, so I haven’t see Diagon Alley yet. That happens tomorrow…woo hoo! In the meantime, I’m still have loads of fun, interwoven with plenty of work. I’m taking lots of photos and video so I can share it all once the event is over and things calm down. I’m covering the event for my HypeOrlando blog, as well as for my column, so that keeps me plenty busy.

In the meantime, here’s a quick summary of my day today, which started when I checked in the Cabana Bay Resort. I love Cabana Bay; even though it’s the least expensive of the on-site Universal hotels, I can’t resist the retro theme. Now that the second section is open, it also has a lazy river. How can you beat that?

After getting settled, there was a guided tour of the other on-site resorts here at Universal. These hotels offer benefits like early park entry and unlimited use of the express lines, which is a huge help in the busy summer (Cabana Bay doesn’t offer express). There are even themed Minion rooms, and the Minions themselves were there for the tour. Check out these scenes from the hotels below:




Next up, it was off to CityWalk to party with stilt walkers and sample some of the cuisine. Antojitos and Vivo are both currently open; I’m a huge Antojitos fan, but I’d hadn’t tried Vivo yet. Now I can honestly say that it gets two big thumbs up. I also sampled hot dogs from Hot Dog Hall of Fame, which is opening soon. Ah, it felt so good to bite into an authentic Chicago dog! Nathan’s is good, but Vienna is the real thing. You’ll even be able to paint your own wiener there. We also heard about Cowfish, another fun place opening soon. Below are some photos from the restaurants:





Next up, it was off to Blue Man Group, one of the most eclectic shows I know. We weren’t allowed to take photos during the show, but I had a chance to mingle with one of the Blue Men and a band member afterwards:


Now it’s time to crash so I can bring my readers plenty of reports tomorrow, including my first impressions of Diagon Alley.It was fun to find some goodies waiting for me:


More coming tomorrow! Follow me at @themeparkwriter on Twitter for my live impressions, and check out “In the Shadow of the Mouse” for my ongoing trip report.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Day one of Diagon Alley preview event: Settling in at Cabana Bay resort

Update: You’ll find the next part of my trip report by going to this article. For day two afternoon, with Harry Potter celebs, go here.

As promised, I’m busily tracking the Diagon Alley preview event at Universal Orlando Resort. There’s a busy day planned, with time tonight on CItyWalk to explore some of the new venues before heading over for a Blue Man Group performance. However, any good trip needs a comfortable base of operations, and for me, that’s Cabana Bay Resort.

food2You might remember my Cabana Bay coverage from the resort’s grand opening. I’m back in the Starlight building, in a comfy Courtyard Family Suite, settling in for several days of both work and enjoyment.I need to get some work done, but I’m close enough to the pool to hear the music, and it’s got a subtle undercurrent of, “Come on out here, the sky is sunny and the water’s fine!” Must resist…must focus on my computer.

I love Cabana Bay because of its retro theme (yes, I’m ancient enough to remember when it was cool the first time around). It also has modern conveniences like free internet, fridges in the rooms, and flat screen TVs, but there are neat nods to the ’50s like classically packaged Zest soap, Alberto V05 creme rinse, and old-fashioned alarm clocks.

I had some fun swag waiting when I got to my room, including tidbits from Transformers, Despicable Me, and Transformers. There’s also a bottle of pumpkin juice in honor of the main reason for this event and even a little tube of sunscreen in the hopes that I’ll make it over to the lazy river, which just opened in the new section of Cabana Bay, which marks the resort’s completion just in time for the busy summer season and the Diagon Alley crowds.

You can see the goodies below:


It’s going to be a fun event, but also a very busy one. Tonight I’ll be checking out some of the new venues on CityWalk, followed by a Blue Man Group performance. They added new sequences to the show a while back, so now it’s even funnier than before. You can see my interview with one of the original Blue Men, Phil Stanton, in the video below:

food3Tomorrow I’ll learn more about all that’s new and exciting in the “Universe” here, followed by a busy day enjoying the parks and a night of fun at…drum roll, please…the one, the only Diagon Alley! I can’t wait to board the Hogwarts Express for the very first time and challenge the dangers inside Gringotts. There will be more to report on Diagon Alley on Thursday, followed by the grand opening of the second phase of Cabana Bay. Alas, on Friday it will all come to an end, but that will give me time to summarize and post my final thoughts and reviews. In the meantime, I’ll be making posts throughout the event so stay tuned here at “In the Shadow of the Mouse” and follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter for live updates.

In the meantime, I’m glad to have a nice, cozy spot at Cabana Bay to do some work and rest my head in between all the hustle and bustle of all the exciting activities coming up in the days ahead.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Watch Harry Potter webcasts and follow my live Diagon Alley coverage from Universal Studios Florida

b16This is it! It’s the week of the big media event at Universal Studios Florida celebrating Diagon Alley, the newest addition to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I’ll be covering the event live, starting tomorrow (Tuesday, June 17), so watch “In the Shadow of the Mouse” and follow my tweets via @themeparkwriter to get a sneak peek into this amazing world.

Universal is also offering some great ways to experience Diagon Alley right from the comfort of your keyboard with live webcasts on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Here’s the schedule:

Wednesday, June 18 at 8 p.m. ~  The Diagon Alley Red Carpet Event

  • Enjoy interviews with some of your favorite Harry Potter film stars as they arrive for the exclusive red carpet preview event for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley.

Thursday, June 19 at 12 p.m. ~ All Aboard: A Journey on the Hogwarts Express with Oliver and James Phelps

  • Join James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as they take you on a journey aboard the Hogwarts Express from Hogsmeade station to King’s Cross Station.

Friday, June 20 at 12 p.m. ~ Behind the Bricks:  A Tour of Diagon Alley with Tom Felton and Matthew Lewis

  • Get a virtual tour of some of the most iconic places within The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Diagon Alley with your hosts, Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films), Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom in the Harry Potter films) and Alan Gilmore (Art Director for the Harry Potter films and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter).

b7You can view the webcasts at For more information about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, visit

In the meantime, in addition to sharing full details on Diagon Alley, the Hogwarts Express, the new Gringotts ride, and more, I’ll also be reporting on Blue Man Group, some of the new venues at CityWalk, Universal Orlando VIP tours, and the opening of the final phase of the Cabana Bay Resort. You can read my earlier coverage of Cabana Bay in this article.

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse.

Dear past me: Guess what, you’re going to live next door to Disney someday

Tonight’s HypeOrlando Blogapalooza challenge is to write a note to my past self back when I was 18 years old. That’s a few decades back now, but in pondering the topic, I’m happy to say that I don’t think my younger self would think her future is too shabby. So here goes:

b34Dear 18-Year-Old Me:

Guess what? You’re going to live next door to Walt Disney World someday. I know how much you loved all those Disney movies and Disney Golden books and watching “The Wonderful World of Disney” on TV. Sadly, you’re not going to make it to Disney World until you’re in your 20s, but I promise you’ll make up for lost time. How would it sound to never have to dig your car out of the snow again? To never shiver in the 30 degrees below wind chill of a typical Chicago winter? And, best of all, to go to Disney any time you choose? Imagine getting a notion to pop over to the Magic Kingdom and hop on Space Mountain or catch the parade. Go ahead and do it. And you know how they just opened that brand new park called EPCOT Center? Well, by the time you turn into old and crotchety me, Walt Disney World will have four…count ’em, four…theme parks, not to mention a couple of water parks as icing on the cake.

You know how you keep saying you’re going to be a writer and a psychologist, too? Well, I’m happy to tell you that you’re one of those rare people who really will become what you said you wanted to be when you grow up. Yes, you’re going to work your butt off in school for that doctorate, but don’t slack off. I promise that it will be worth all the effort. Counseling is one of those rare fields where you really can make a positive impact in someone’s life. Yes, I know it’s an awful lot of school, but someday you’ll be me and all that prep work will be in the past and you’ll be doing something you love.

And as for writing, you know how you’re currently doing it with that Smith Corona Selectric that you think is so cool and state of the art because it was a correction cartridge. Well, just wait until you catch up to me and see how I’m writing this letter to you. I’m typing on a handy dandy device perched on my lap. Not only can I write with it, but I can publish my thoughts instantly and have them accessible to literally almost everyone in the world (whether they actually want to read them is another question). Really, though, you’ll do well as a writer, even though you’ll shift from your magazine and newspaper work to something called the Internet. What is it? Well, imagine having a treasure trove of all the world’s knowledge at your fingertips and the ability to communicate with people around the globe just by tapping a few keys. Then imagine using that technology mainly for looking at funny pictures of cats and you pretty much have the right idea.

I know that you’re going to go through some hard times between then and now. I can’t say anything to save you from them because they’re all part of your development and what turns you into me someday. All I can say is, there’s going to be a happy ending. You’re going to get to do work that you love and visit not only Walt Disney World, but also other theme parks that don’t even exist yet in your 18-year-old world (hint: keep an eye out for something called Harry Potter).

I know that the year 2000 feels like it’s a million miles away, but believe me, it will come in the blink of an eye. Then, before you know it, the new millennium will be over a decade old.This Five for Fighting Song sums it up very nicely:

Technology is going to go into crazy fast-forward mode, so be prepared (psssst…Apple….it’s gonna be huge). And next time you’re scraping the ice off your car window with a credit card and praying that the engine turns over in the Arctic tundra temperatures, just remember…someday, single digit temperatures will be a foreign concept as you shiver any time the mercury dips below 70 degrees. I know you think I’m crazy now, but just you wait….


2014 Barb

b33As a quick addendum to today’s post, my regular readers know that I recently did a couple of posts on Gay Days, which just wrapped up last weekend. I got some colorful comments, including one from a reader named Joel who mentioned the t-shirt he wore to the Magic Kingdom. I invited him to send me a photo so I could post it. You can see it at the right. While I’m usually not offended by the shirts I see on Gay Days, I have to admit it’s an interesting twist on the usual sea of quips and double entendres. Thanks for sending it along, Joel!

Follow me on Twitter via @themeparkwriter and stay tuned for more tips, observations, comments, and rants from someone who lives close enough to Walt Disney World to hear the fireworks from her house every night. I literally write my blog  In the Shadow of the Mouse. Email comments and story ideas to