Last week, I happily accompanied two young Muggles as we explored the universe together.
The universe? Universal Studios in Hollywood, California, plus a few other nearby spots.
The young Muggles? My astonishing granddaughters, both great fans of the series of Harry Potter (HP) books written by J.K. Rowling and the films based on them. Eleven-year-old Beth has read all of the books at least twice, and nine-year-old Shannon has seen most of the movies. Four of us grown-up Muggles came along, all conversant with HP except for me. (I’ve seen only the first film.) According to Rowling, Muggles are people who lack any magical ability and aren’t born in a magical family. I.e., people like us.
For me, our trip down the coast of California was an exhilarating escape from the concerns assaulting me at home: dental issues, efforts to get my third novel published, and—of course—the current political scene. We landed at the very edge of the continent, staying at a newly renovated hotel on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, where we literally faced the ocean and walked alongside it every day.
Bookending our fun-filled encounter with Universal Studios were visits to two great art museums. Coming from San Francisco, a city inhabited by our own array of wonderful art museums and galleries, we didn’t expect to be exceedingly impressed by the museums offered in L.A. But we were.
On Presidents’ Day, we headed to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where a long, long entry line stretched as far as Wilshire Boulevard. Because of atypically overcast skies on a school/work holiday? Not entirely. Admission was free that day (thanks, Target), so lots of folks showed up in search of fee-less exposure to outstanding works of art.
We viewed a lot of excellent art, but when our feet began to ache, we piled back into our rented minivan and went a little way down the road (Fairfax Avenue) to the Original Farmers’ Market. Sampling food and drink in a farmers’ market dating back to 1934 was great fun. We also took a quick look at The Grove, an upscale mall adjacent to the F.M., buying a book at Barnes and Noble before heading back to Santa Monica for the evening.
The next day was devoted to Universal Studios, where our first destination was The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Here I would at last explore the universe with two young Muggles. We walked through other Universal attractions, but they didn’t tempt us…not just yet. The lure of Harry Potter and friends took precedence.
We’d been advised that a must for first-timers was a ride called Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, so we decided to do that first. As we approached the ride, we saw Muggles like us everywhere, including swarms of young people garbed in Hogwarts robes and other gear (all for sale at the shops, of course). As we waited in line for the ride, we entered a castle (constructed to look like Hogwarts), where we were greeted by colorful talking portraits of HP characters hanging on the walls.
Warnings about the ride were ubiquitous. It would be jarring, unsuitable for those prone to dizziness or motion sickness, and so forth and so on, ad nauseum. As someone who’s worked as a lawyer, I knew precisely why these warnings were posted. Universal Studios was trying to avoid any and all legal liability for complaints from ride-goers.
I decided to ignore the warnings and hopped on a fast-moving chair built for 3 people. I was bumped around a bit against the chair’s hard surfaces, and I closed my eyes during some of the most startling 3-D effects, but I emerged from the ride in one piece and none the worse for wear. Nine-year-old Shannon, however, was sobbing when we all left the ride together. Even sitting next to her super-comforting dad hadn’t shielded her from the scariest special effects.
After the ride, we strolled around The Wizarding World, sampling sickeningly sweet Butterbeer, listening to the Frog Choir, and checking out the merchandise at shops like Gladrags Wizardwear and Ollivanders. Olllivanders featured magic wands by “Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.” (Prices began at $40 for something that was essentially a wooden stick.)
Overall, we had a splendid time with HP and friends. But now it was finally time to explore things non-HP. Our first priority was the Studio Tour. We piled into trams that set out on a tour of the four-acre backlot of the world’s largest working studio, where movies and TV shows are still filmed every day. We got a chance to view the Bates Motel (including a live actor portraying creepy Norman Bates), a pretty realistic earthquake, a virtual flood, a plane-crash scene from The War of the Worlds, and two things I could have done without. One featured King Kong in 3-D (the new Kong movie being heavily promoted at Universal); the other offered 3-D scenes from The Fast and the Furious films—not my cup of tea. But overall it was a great tour for movie buffs like us.
After the tour, we headed for the fictional town of Springfield, home of the Simpsons family, stars of The Simpsons TV comedy program as well as their own film. Soon we were surrounded by many of the hilarious Simpsons locations, including the Kwik-E-Mart, Moe’s Tavern, the Duff Brewery Beer Garden, and a sandwich shop featuring the Krusty Burger and the Sideshow Bob Footlong. Characters like Krusty the Clown, Sideshow Bob, and the Simpsons themselves wandered all around Springfield, providing great fodder for photos. For anyone who’s ever watched and laughed at The Simpsons, this part of Universal is tons of fun.
The Simpsons ride was terrific, too. Once again, lots of warnings, lots of getting bumped around, and lots of 3-D effects, but it was worth it. Maybe because I’ve always liked The Simpsons, even though I’ve hardly watched the TV show in years.
Other notable characters and rides at Universal include the Minions (from the Despicable Me films), Transformers, Jurassic Park, and Shrek. Some of us sought out a couple of these, but I was happy to take a break, sit on a nearby bench, munch on popcorn, and sip a vanilla milkshake.
When the 6 p.m. closing time loomed, we had to take off. Once more, we piled into the minivan and headed for an evening together in Santa Monica. This time we all took in the Lego Batman movie. I think I missed seeing some of it because, after a long day of exploring the universe, I fell asleep.
On the last day of our trip, we drove to the Getty Center, the lavish art museum located on a hill in Brentwood very close to the place where I got married decades ago. Thanks to J. Paul Getty, who not only made a fortune in the oil industry but also liked to collect art, the Center features a large permanent collection as well as impressive changing exhibitions.
The six of us wandered through the museum’s five separate buildings, admiring the fabulous art as well as the stunning architecture. We also lingered outside, relishing the gorgeous views and the brilliant sunshine that had been largely absent since our arrival in LA. A bite to eat in the crowded café, a short trip to the museum store, and we six Muggles of various ages were off to Santa Monica one last time before driving home to San Francisco.
By the way, at the museum store you can buy a magnet featuring J. Paul Getty’s recipe for success: “1. Rise early. 2. Work hard. 3. Strike oil.” It certainly worked for him!