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Universal Studios is where our adventure begins.

To prove it, please see the above photo of my delightfully deadpan Aussie bestie, Megan, standing beneath Orlando’s fervent proclamation that Universal’s Islands of Adventure® Theme Park is in fact, where *the* adventure begins.

The Islands of Adventure side of the park is home to a vast expanse of famous rides like The Incredible Hulk Coaster, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man (love Universal’s unabashed use of superlatives in the names of their rides) and Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls, but let’s be real, I was there for one reason and one reason only.   Yep, you guessed it.

THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER.

Those who know me are well aware of my mild-to-moderate love for the franchise.  And by mild-to-moderate love, I mean burning, passionate, undying obsession.

As we stepped into fake Hogsmeade, we were transported, quite literally into an incredibly realistic and detailed reconstruction of J.K. Rowling’s fictional town.  Never mind the fake snow, incongruous with the twenty-eight degree Florida weather, WE WERE IN HOGSMEADE.  Naturally, this reduced my mental age to that of a seven year-old, and I ran around squealing, fawning over the chocolate frogs in Honeydukes, clapping animatedly at the puking pastilles in Zonko’s Joke Shop, overawed by the huge barrels labelled Butterbeer that lined the streets.

“YOU GUYS, THIS IS LITERALLY THE BEST THING EVER!”

I shouted, unable to contain my excitement.  After five minutes of me running around like a headless chicken, my friends and I headed to Hogwarts, to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.  My roommate had visited the park over Spring Break, and assured me that my mind was going to be blown.

We stowed our bags and joined the short queue, wide-eyed as we made our way through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, the Astronomy tower, Dumbledore’s office and a room in the castle’s ‘dungeons’, which I recognized as a perfect reconstruction of the notorious Defence Against the Dark Arts classroom.  We wandered the moving portrait-covered walls and stood in awe as hologram-versions of Harry, Ron and Hermione chatted to us.  These holograms were not unlike the TuPac hologram at Coachella.  And would you believe it, this was all before the ride had even started!

I don’t want to spoil the fun of the ride itself, as it was the surprise element that made it, for lack of a better word, truly magical.  What I will tell you is that the moving cart coupled with 3D simulation and incredible set-pieces worked together to create the best ride I’ve ever been.  Even Harry Potter naysayers like Megan and Ciarán were awed by the experience, and desperate to do it all again!

While I would normally abhor the pervasive consumerism that American institutions such as Universal inflicts upon its visiting public, I couldn’t help but love the plethora of Harry Potter-related rubbish.  We were all sucked in by the sheer novelty of it all; I ended up buying a Marauder’s Map mug (which sadly, didn’t make it all the way to San Francisco and back in one piece), Clare a Deathly Hallows keychain and Megan Dumbledore’s hat (albeit for a friend).  Satisfied with our purchases, we made our way around the rest of the park, riding literally every ride on offer, and stopping frequently to reapply sunscreen and refill our water bottles like the responsible adults that we were.

It being early May, we were able to enjoy the glorious Florida heat without any of the peak-season queues.  We rode rides like the Dragon Challenge, The Incredible Hulk Coaster and The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man multiple times, drank frozen Butterbeer in The Hog’s Head and giggled as 23 year-old Swedish friend Carl visited an arcade for the first time in his life.

The girls maintain to this day that the only ride that disappointed was Poseidon’s Fury, “a spectacular, special effects-laden interactive show that makes excellent use of water projection screens, fire pyrotechnics and water effects”.  As it turns out, Poseidon’s Fury was a crowded walking tour of a fake temple, with some really terrible acting.  I didn’t think it was that bad.  It was fun!

In fact, the only real low point in the day was being subjected to forty minutes of the most irritating music in the universe as we queued for Dudley Do-Right’s Ripsaw Falls; in short, it was magical.

However, the magic seemed to end where the park did; the moment we stepped beyond the bounds of the Universal lot, we found ourselves caught in a typical, tropical Floridian rainstorm.

I didn’t mind.

Tiny brown lizards whizzed across the shiny, rain-soaked pavements, before the rain eventually cleared to make way for a balmy summer’s evening.  We sat in our hotel room, cross-legged and slightly damp, drinking red wine out of polystyrene cups and eating take-out from a nearby Thai restaurant (the first of many Yelp finds!).

Surrounded by five of my best friends, I couldn’t help but already feel oddly wistful.  I was nostalgic for something that hadn’t ended yet, for something that had barely even begun.

*Photographs by Clare Anderson.

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Orlando, Florida is known affectionately as the land Where Dreams Come True™, so it seemed only fitting that I begin my road trip there.

The flight down to Orlando was surprisingly easy; Newark airport didn’t even make me check my duffel bag!  This, of course, turned out to be both a blessing and a curse; a blessing in that I didn’t have to pay the $25 checking fee, a curse, because I had to drag my enormous blue duffel across the entire airport by myself.  Several kind strangers tried to help me, all of whom instantly regretted offering their services. I was asked if I had a body in there on several occasions (I didn’t).

I arrived in Orlando in the evening, where the rest of the gang picked me up.  As the others helped me load my bags into the car, I held up a Ziploc bag of CDs, smiling from ear-to-ear.

Easily the most sentimental member of the group and on a never-ending quest to make my life feel more like a movie, I took it upon myself to provide at least part of the soundtrack to our road trip.   Keen to set the scene for the day to come, Clare slotted my “Orlando mixtape” into the car stereo as we pulled away from the airport.  Hedwig’s Theme by John Williams, the memorable main theme song from the Harry Potter films blared.  They laughed, but it was kind of perfect.  We drove through downtown Orlando, the sky a brilliant, beautiful, mottled pink.

Food was a priority, but with the evening pressing on and an early start in the morning, we decided to make things easy by pulling into a nearby Burger King.  What better way to start our American adventure together than with the cliché of all clichés?

In hindsight, this was a terrible idea.  We joined the queue behind a couple of terrifying, heavily-built truckers, feeling smug that the line was so short.  Oh, if only.

The burlier of the two men tried to pay for his burger with a $100 bill (and thus received the nickname, $100 Bill Man).  At 10PM, this particular Burger King was understaffed to say the least, with only three minimum-wage student-types running both the restaurant and the endlessly busy drive-thru.  The guy in charge told $100 Bill Man that the safe had rejected his $100 bill, and that he couldn’t accept it.  Predictably, $100 Bill Man was furious.  Loud and large, $100 Bill Man contained about three times the aggro of any normal person, and continued to hold up the queue for almost 20 minutes.

“Haven’t you ever seen a $100 bill?  This is the most money you’ll see in your lifetime!”

Burn, $100 Bill Man.  The poor Burger King dude probably wasn’t authorized to open the safe, but this rational explanation seemed to get lost in translation.  Hungry, tired and unimpressed with $100 Bill Man’s rudeness and mild racism, we started to tire of waiting.

WE JUST WANTED OUR BURGERS.

And we got them, eventually.

After $100 Bill Man’s dramatic outburst, we headed to our hotel, which turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Ideally located, it was a 15-minute walk from Universal Studios, and amazingly, it wasn’t a shit hole!  At $15 per night, it was a steal.

The next morning, we woke up early and headed to Universal Studios, where the adventure really began.

*Photographs by Clare Anderson.

So, I’m back in England, and I’m writing this from my bedroom, listening to Galaxie 500, hardly able to believe that I’m home.  My American adventure is finally over, or at least, this chapter of my American adventure is finally over.

But fuck me, it was amazing.  That’s not to say that this trip was without its challenges, but believe me when I say, the five months I spent in the US have been the best five months of my life.

And while all of it has been new and shiny and exciting, my three week-long road trip has to be the highlight.  It was everything I could have ever wished for and more, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it.