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Universal's second annual Celebration of Harry Potter turned out to be unexpectedly magical



Fandom can be a funny thing. In my day, I've dabbled in Disney devotion, experimented with being an anime otaku, been sucked into the Buffy the Vampire Slayer convention circuit, and confessed to being a Rocky Horror cultist. In each of those fan subcultures, I've encountered many wonderful people, alongside plenty of cranks and crazies. When Charles Philip Issawi coined Sayre's Law ("In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake"), he was probably thinking of MegaCon costume contests as much as academia.

With that background, you might assume the appearance of thousands of wand-wielding Muggles would encourage me to evacuate the area as quickly as possible, but the exact opposite turned out to be true. Maybe it's the fandom's demographics or the fact that it's based on literature instead of violent video entertainment – or maybe it was just the free Butterbeer affecting my brain – but my recent weekend surrounded by Harry Potter superfans turned out to be more magical than I'd imagined.

The second annual Celebration of Harry Potter event, held over the last weekend of January at Universal Orlando, brought fans of J.K. Rowling's enchanting saga together with some of the actors and artists who helped bring it to life for three days of parties, presentations and autograph sessions. If that sounds an awful lot like Disney's long-running Star Wars Weekends events, it's no coincidence: The sci-fi fest at Disney's Hollywood Studios has helped keep that troubled theme park packed during otherwise slack periods, so it's easy to see why Universal would want to exploit their own mega-franchise to similar effect.

The boy wizard's soirée is currently on a much smaller scale than Mickey's Jedi jamboree, but thanks to some smart changes made since last year's celebration, it's obvious there's room for expansion. For starters, this year's question-and-answer panels and other events were shifted from the sadly neglected Toon Lagoon amphitheater in Islands of Adventure to Universal Studios Florida's outdoor Music Plaza stage, affording anyone who wanted to watch an opportunity to do so without standing an hour in line for a seat.

Likewise, the Harry Potter Expo inside Soundstage 33 was reorganized to improve crowd flow, moving the epic queue for the Sorting Hat Experience outside and adding more film-used props, like the flying Ford Anglia and a complete collection of Voldemort's horcruxes (minus Harry's forehead). On a personal note, I was thrilled to see Universal show directors (and members of the local theater community) Michael Aiello, Patrick Braillard and Anitra Pritchard share stories of their experiences creating the Wizarding World with an appreciative audience.

Most important for some Potterphiles was the addition of autograph sessions with the stars, though logistical issues resulting from guests lining up before dawn for the limited signing slots revealed room for improvement. Speaking of the stars, the Potter actors continue to prove that they are some of the most entertaining interviewees in the entertainment business. James and Oliver Phelps (Fred and George Weasley) made a return appearance, as did Evanna Lynch (Luna Lovegood), who's become my favorite actress ever for her unscripted answers that send PR reps scrambling. This time, she called out Diagon Alley's headliner Escape From Gringotts ride for always being "broken" during last summer's press previews.

Better still was Michael Gambon (Professor Dumbledore), who seemed to be in a constant state of bemused bewilderment, not unlike a slightly sloshed version of his character. When asked about filming footage for IOA's Forbidden Journey, he admitted to being unaware at the time that it was for a theme park, and he flatly refused to ride it (after having been dragged by Daniel Radcliffe onto the Dragon Challenge roller coaster in 2010) unless he was offered money. Gambon also shocked some fans by admitting that he'd never read the Potter novels, saying Rowling herself told him it was OK to just read his lines in the scripts. He did give a thoughtful answer when I asked what Dumbledore was doing during the time period of the upcoming Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them prequels (short answer: "making money"), but also disclosed his delirious desire to have a pet tiger. The weekend's only off note was the absence of Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid), who fell ill on the flight from England and didn't appear.

Finally, I'm forbidden from divulging too much about the after-hours parties held inside the park's Potter lands (what happens in Hogsmeade, stays in Hogsmeade), but suffice it to say that when Universal puts on an exclusive hard-ticket event it is truly exclusive, unlike Disney's abysmally oversold seasonal parties. Walking through Gringotts' notoriously crowded queue without a soul around? Now that's some real magic.

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