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After our two-day stint in Orlando, it was time to hit the road again.  As it turns out, New Orleans, Louisiana is pretty far from Orlando.  640 miles far, and kind of intimidating, considering there was only one of us driving.

Being the only member of the gang who was over 21, Carl had agreed to take on the task of designated driver, a noble feat which had him driving a cumulative 4000 miles over the span of our three-week trip.  Thankfully, Asher and Clare had devised a plan which split the journey up into driveable chunks, laid out in a perfect, pristine spreadsheet.

Day Three, or Day Six for the others, who had flown out to Miami a few days before, had us headed for Brunswick, Georgia.  Clare’s dad (cheers, Alan!) had stayed in a hostel in a Georgian forest back in the 1970s, and had recommended we check it out, it being relatively en-route.  We’d booked one night’s stay, with no knowledge of what the place would be like.

As we drove, I attempted to combat the moody Floridian rain with a mixtape titled “Sorry boys”.

Funnily enough, Carl and Ciarán were less than impressed.

To take the edge off, I began what was to soon become a kind of spiritual practice in the car; using the Yelp for Android app to find food that was a) nearby and b) cheap.  Yelp led us to the nearby Soul Food Bistro @ The Potter’s House, in Jacksonville, Florida.  Thrilled by the possibility of authentic soul food with a four-and-a-half star rating from Yelp and by this point, pretty damn hungry, we pulled up to the parking lot of the restaurant excitedly.

However, what Yelp had neglected to mention, was the fact that Soul Food Bistro @ The Potter’s House was located in the middle of a giant Christian mall.

Bemused, we sat down in the bistro (which turned out to be a cafeteria rather than a bistro), and found ourselves pleasantly surprised to discover that the food was pretty good.  Fried chicken with gravy, cornbread, “collard greens” (kale, slow-cooked with bacon), mac-n-cheese and a syrupy peach cobbler were delicious, and big hits with all members of the team.  After lunch, we had a quick wander around the mall, where we found, I shit you not, a Christian bowling alley.

Sadly, there was no time for bowling, and so it was onwards to the forest we headed.


*Photographs by Clare Anderson.

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.