I’m in a noisy, crowded place. Parents are yelling. My mouth tastes like batteries, my skin is clogged with sunscreen. This is a landscape of plastic, price tags, and corporate synergy; in the last 90 seconds, I’ve heard the voice of the donkey from Shrek and the theme from The Simpsons. Places like this are hell for someone like me, but here I am at Universal Studios Hollywood, lonely and terribly anxious, feeling fat and old and conspicuously alone. I’m standing here, in this place that makes me itch, to enjoy the view before me: a gate, and a train, and Hogwarts.
My little brother tossed J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone on top of the living room bookshelf, unread, sometime in 1999. He didn’t even shelve it. It sat there for months, gathering dust, fading and yellowing as paperbacks do. Books were fuel then, as they are now; I picked it up because my tank was empty. I didn’t expect much. The notion that the “young adult” classification exists mostly to sell books had yet to dawn on me, so it was just a kids book, and I was 15. What could this book possibly offer, besides fuel?
Now I’m standing, staring up at the castle, and it’s as surreal as the raucous mess behind me. But some synapse in my brain fires, and somehow I’m picking up that dusty paperback and standing in this noisy place, all at once. A heavy metal sign hangs from a stone arch. HOGSMEADE, then below, PLEASE RESPECT THE SPELL LIMITS. Between those pages is a world I’d revisit over and over again for the next two decades, a beautiful, sometimes cruel world full of kind, flawed people who kept me company when I panicked, or felt lost and small. It’s in those pages, and it’s through that archway. I fold back the cover, wipe the sweat from my face, and walk in.
The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter is one of the most advanced souvenir-conveyance systems known to humankind. It’s a haven of conspicuous consumption. There are rides, and they’re sincerely lovely, but the draw here is twofold: atmosphere, and stuff.
There’s no need to make visitors exit through the gift shop here (though when you depart Harry Potter And The Forbidden Journey, the flagship attraction, you do so through Filch’s Emporium Of Confiscated Goods—a gift shop.) The retail aspect doesn’t need to be disguised, because the shops are canon. They are an inextricable part of this world’s appeal.
When Ron Weasley fantasized about visiting Hogsmeade—the only entirely non-Muggle settlement in Britain, founded in the 10th century by Hengist of Woodcroft—in Prisoner Of Azkaban, it was Honeydukes Sweets Shop that possessed his imagination. When he and Hermione Granger returned from their first trip there, it was with pockets bulging with stuff they’d bought for Harry, to cheer him up; Harry, in turn, bought Dobby The House-Elf some thank-you socks at Gladrags Wizardwear. Hermione got herself a present at Scrivenshaft’s, just because she felt like it (“I could do with a new quill”), and a major story arc in Azkaban hinges on an anonymously gifted broomstick so expensive that it’s marked “price on request.” Fred and George Weasley spent years fantasizing about their retail empire, then actually pulled it off; they spent the rest of the books buying gifts for themselves and others with their newfound wealth (“Finest dragonskin, little bro.”). Hell, Harry’s first introduction to the wizarding world is a shopping trip. The chapter devoted to this outing is awash with unabashed wonder, filled with all manner of food, drink, and stuff that readers are absolutely meant to covet. These people love to shop.
They also love to eat, and often, the two are mixed. They slurp ice cream and shop, and wander wide-eyed through candy stores. When a dementor is near—Rowling’s take on depression, in monster form—the remedy is chocolate; on one such occasion, Professor Lupin hands Harry “a large bar of Honeydukes chocolate” and tells him to “eat the lot.” Branding is also very important in this world, but whether or not there’s a name splashed across whatever’s being drooled over, pleasure is central. These things—and the process of procuring them—are meant to be enjoyed.
And so my first act when I walk through that arch is to spend, consume, and enjoy.
Tastiness: 3 (out of 5)
Tasty, but extremely sweet. Imagine apple juice as a Pumpkin Spice Latte, or spiced applesauce blended down to a juice.
This seems to be a Rowling invention.
Is it canon?: 5
First mentioned in Chamber Of Secrets, “The Whomping Willow,” when Harry fantasizes about being aboard the Hogwarts Express instead of sweating it out with toffee-induced dry-mouth in the Weasleys’ flying Ford Anglia. Last mentioned in The Deathly Hallows when Harry, Ron, and Hermione drink bottles of it on the shore after jumping off the dragon they liberated from Gringotts. It’s right up there with butterbeer in terms of ubiquity.
Is it magical?: 4
Ask yourself, when is the last time you had pumpkin juice? If your answer is anything other than “the last time I went to Universal” or “at that Harry Potter party my friend Tina threw in college,” I do not believe you. Magical.
Is it butterbeer?: 0
No, it is not butterbeer. It’s made from apple juice, pumpkin purée, apricot purée, and presumably 15 different kinds of sweeteners.
Given the chance to step inside these books, to not only see them, but to smell them, to taste them, and I will absolutely mute the chattering piece of my mind that knows I’m being fleeced—and I will savor the experience. Anyone can wait in line. I want to linger.
Lingering to get into Ollivander’s Wand Shop is a trip. You inch forward in the line, fully aware that you’re waiting to get into a souvenir shop shilling plastic replica wands. You can enter that shop through another door immediately, without waiting at all. But going through that the front door means you get to see what’s essentially a live teaser-trailer for the shop beyond.
That’s the scene that made me love these books. Harry’s terrified. He picks up wand after wand, and none of them choose him. He imagines there’s been a mistake. When one finally lights up he’s elated, then learns its twin belongs to the man who killed his parents. Imagine being a kid, and that happens. Imagine imagining what will happen when people find out.
It’s enchanting, but not sunny. Before I get in line, I stop at the Gringotts A.T.M., and I go to a little cart. Harry didn’t really treat himself, ever. I do, but I make two mistakes.
Tastiness: 4 (out of 5)
Caramel, butterscotch, cream, and a little root beer.
Ice cream has a long history in the U.K., but it’s not quintessentially British.
Is it canon?: 3
Yes and no. Butterbeer is, obviously, exceedingly canon. Florean Fortescue’s ice cream is also canon. Harry’s first ice cream as a wizard is from Florean’s: chocolate and raspberry with chopped nuts. At his first Hogwarts feast, he sees “blocks of ice cream in any flavor you could think of,” and you could think of butterbeer, so it’s fair game. But the nice little cart also sold strawberry peanut butter ice cream, which is way more canon (Chamber Of Secrets, “At Flourish and Blotts”). What was I thinking? Why was the lure of butterbeer so strong? Also, Florean Fortescue was quite possibly murdered by Voldemort or one of his evil bigoted minions, so it’s canon, but also a real downer.
Is it magical?: 4
It’s butterbeer ice cream, the single most dominant brand in the wizarding world. Butterbeer is basically Coca-Cola-level dominant.
Is it butterbeer?: 3
It is butterbeer-flavored. Close, but no cigar.
It tastes like water. Just water. I like water.
Brits have water.
Is it canon?: 0
Yes and no. They absolutely drink water in the wizarding world. But gillyweed makes humans grow gills, and gillywater (first mention: Prisoner of Azkaban) is a notable beverage. And therein lies the problem. This is just water.
Is it magical?: 0
It’s not even carbonated water.
Is it butterbeer?: 0
No, it is not butterbeer. It is water.
Is it just water?: 5
Do not order gillywater. Get a cup of water from one of the pubs. Those are free.
Fandom, for better or worse, is communal. It can be irritating. It can be absolutely destructive, as has been made very clear this year (pick a fandom, there’s a decent chance some segment of the group has been terrible). But it can also make for good company, and great conversations. Before I leave for the park, I meet with another fan. She gives me a piece of advice so good that I’ll be grateful for quite some time.
Eliyannah Amirah Yisrael is the creator of the excellent web series Hermione Granger And The Quarter-Life Crisis. She loves the books as much as I do, if not more; she chose to explore her fandom through creating something new, as opposed to, you know, eating and drinking and thinking about it. We spoke at the Television Critics Association summer press tour, where she was helping to promote PBS’s The Great American Read, in which the Harry Potter series is featured.
“We get such a sense of like the food that they eat,” she said. “Yes, the butterbeer—”
Actually, we’ve been doing this dance for awhile, so let’s get this out of the way...
Tastiness: 3 (chilled), 4 (frozen)
Extremely sweet but also delicious. The frozen one is a little more manageable, presumably because the ice is freezing your palate and dulling the taste somewhat.
Pure fantasy, although there is cream, and loads of British things come with cream.
Is it canon?: 9 (of 5)
Could not be more canon. Butterbeer is the Potter-iest of all the Potter things and it doesn’t even show up until book three. Knocked off a point for no alcohol content (though whatever the ABV of the in-world butterbeer, it’s low enough for 13-year-olds to legally drink.)
Is it butterbeer?: 5
It is butterbeer. I have not tried it hot.
Apologies for the interruption, back to Eliyannah.
“Yes, the butterbeer, but also firewhisky, and treacle tarts, and Madam Puddifoot’s, and rock cakes… Even at the school, you know, it’s very English cuisine, but magical English. I lived across the street [from Universal Studios] and I used to go to the The Three Broomsticks and just work. I would have lunch and bring my laptop and think, ‘I’m a magical person, eating magical food, and having my bangers and mash,’ and it was just very cool.”
“You should do that. Go to The Three Broomsticks, and work on your laptop, and you get to feel like, ‘Yes, I’m a modern-day witch. This is modern-day Hogsmeade. We have laptops now.’”
So I did. It’s exactly the kind of thing I’ve always wanted to do. When I was a kid, I wanted to live in the boxcar belonging to The Boxcar Children. This is the closest I will ever get. I’m anxious again; people will doubtless think I’m strange, and wifi doesn’t work around magic. I do it anyway, and it’s like I’m in a boxcar, or in a tree, cherishing a book that always seemed to cherish me. I pick at my cheese and chutney and wonder why Dumbledore was such a bad administrator, why Ron had such a problem with ghosts, why nobody ever pointed out that a sport predicated on being able to afford fancy equipment is a shitty thing to have in a school. I live there, and it is wonderful.
I should mention the date. It’s July 31.
Are we bringing balloons or something?
That’s the text I get from my friend Zay before I head to the park. It seems everyone but me realized that it is Harry Potter’s birthday; hers is the third such message in as many hours.
I don’t think they’ll let us bring them in bc of litter, I respond. Maybe we could bring a birthday candle.
Hours later, we meet in The Hog’s Head (a dive bar, but for witches and wizards) for a beer while we strategize. We should try to stifle our Midwestern sensibilities, I tell her, and leave food on our plates so we can leave room in our bodies for more food. We drink three beers, in three styles.
Tastiness: 4 | 3 | 2 (out of 5)
All decent to good. The Hog’s Head Ale, a red Scottish-style ale, was my favorite of the three, super drinkable and slightly hoppy.
Britishness: 3 | 2 | 3
Too light for British beers, all, and served too cold (a mercy on a hot day, but not particularly accurate).
Is it canon?: 1 | 1 | 1
Only as much as beer exists within the Harry Potter universe. If The Three Broomsticks wanted to go full canon, they’d serve Madam Rosmerta’s finest oak-matured mead—though in the defense of the Hog’s Head, I didn’t actually ask if they had any mead, mostly because then I’d have had to drink mead in 90-degree weather.
Is it magical?: 2 | 2 | 3
Sort of? The tap handles are magical. You can only get it at Universal Studios locations, so that’s a little magical. But it’s not sparkly or anything. A really magical beer would, I don’t know, smell like an IPA and taste like a porter, or look like a stout but taste like a witbier. These are just beers—but then again, beer is pretty magical.
Is it butterbeer?: 0 | 0 | 0
It’s just beer.
The Hog’s Head smells old, in the best possible sense. The wooden furniture feels aged, worn. A hog’s head is mounted behind the bar, and it snorts and snarls at intervals; the very nice bartender manages to hide his irritation. Almost. There’s a sign on the wall that reads:
To all guests and patrons
When leaving these premises after the witching hour
Please leave quietly via the right hand side door
Or please leave loudly via the left hand side door.
Or please don’t leave
Zay never loved these books like me. Even she likes this sign. We return here later for firewhisky.
It’s a cinnamon whiskey, and thus tastes a lot like Fireball, but this version (also proprietary) is little less syrupy.
In 2014, Fireball was pulled from shelves in the U.K. after Sazerac mistakenly sent a batch of the spirit intended for U.S. shelves, instead of the formula that complies with British standards. The U.S. version contains more propylene glycol than the U.K. considers safe. Propene glycol is also used in antifreeze.
Is it canon?: 5
First mention: Chamber Of Secrets, in a quiz Gilderoy Lockhart gives about himself. He would like some for his birthday, thanks. It appears throughout the series from then on, most memorably in The Deathly Hallows, when Bill Weasley pours some for all the survivors of the Seven Potters maneuver. It makes Harry talk loudly, because he’s a lightweight.
Is it magical?: 4
It’s something you have to ask for at the bar, so that felt magical. The label is beautiful and kind of sparkly. And it’s a cinnamon whiskey I didn’t totally hate, which is definitely an otherworldly feat.
Is it butterbeer?: 0
No, it is not butterbeer.
There’s also a secret drink menu, but we don’t ask about that. Probably for the best. Hagrid lets all kinds of things slip while he’s in his cups; Sirius Black seems to develop a bit of a drinking problem; and Winky the House-Elf is a lush.
“The best part isn’t the ride, it’s walking through the castle,” Yisrael says of Harry Potter And The Forbidden Journey. She’s right. You wander through Professor Sprout’s greenhouse, Dumbledore’s office, and the Defense Against The Dark Arts classroom. It’s the only experience I’ve ever had where I wanted the line to move on without me. If there were a bench, I’d probably still be sitting.
The best part isn’t the ride, but the ride is wonderful. It send passengers on a chaotic trip through the Hogwarts grounds with Harry and Ron, courtesy of a handful of floo powder tossed by Hermione. Why Hermione is relegated to the role of tossing floo powder and popping in to whisper some dire warnings, I do not know; yes, she is not confident on a broomstick, but she flew on a hippogriff and a thestral and a dragon, and also got them out of all kinds of scrapes. But Hermione getting left on the sidelines has nothing to do with food, so we shall leave it behind for now.
This Hogwarts lacks benches, and one other thing: a feast. And so Zay and I head back to the Three Broomsticks. She’s brought a birthday candle, I’ve brought a lighter. We order a birthday treat for Harry. It felt very silly—regrets, I’ve had a few.
Excellent. Very sweet, but we loved it.
It’s not pudding, it’s a pudding.
Is it canon?: 0
It is not a treacle tart and therefore gets no points.
Is it magical?: 3
Successfully supported the weight of a birthday candle even though we let the ice cream melt.
Is it butterbeer?: 0
It is not butterbeer.
Our Midwestern sensibilities abide, and we clear our plates; as a result, the rest of the evening is a sugar-laced, over-stuffed, slightly drunk blur.
On the way out, we finally enter Honeydukes, and linger. We look at Fizzing Whizzbees (popping candy) and Cockroach Clusters (no cockroaches involved), Jelly Slugs (gummies) and Chocolate Cauldrons (huge, filled with marshmallow). I am a pushover, and also here for journalism, so I head out with three classics: Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans, a Chocolate Frog, and a Pumpkin Pasty.
To be fair, I ate this the next morning; it might be better day-of. If you like pumpkin pie filling and pie crust, this is the treat for you. (I like those things, so I was on board.)
Cornish pasties are usually filled with savory stuff and are warm.
Is it canon?: 5
Harry buys some on his first train trip to Hogwarts.
Is it magical?: 2
Is it butterbeer?: 0
It is not butterbeer.
As I write this, I’m going nuts on the chocolate frog. The chocolate is chocolate, not mind-blowing. But it might just be location.
The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter never stops being an enchanting, clever cash-vacuum; it gives everyone who visits chance after chance to declare themselves with merch. But the real joy of that experience is doing something routine in a place that’s already alive in your imagination. Going on the Jurassic Park ride doesn’t make me feel as though I’m suddenly in the film. Seeing the spires of Cinderella’s Castle at Walt Disney World doesn’t make visitors feel as though they’ve stepped into that film. It’s a beautiful place, but it doesn’t feel remotely like sitting on a curb and eating ice cream in the shadow of Hogwarts, or heading into the restroom and hearing Moaning Myrtle giggle from inside the U-bend.
The food is good. The park is beautiful. It’s putting them together, linking your nostalgia, your imagination, your senses, and your physical space, that makes the experience special. It’s like reading a book in that way—your mind has to get involved, and in the space between your brain and the page, something all yours gets created. Books are fuel. This place comes close.
I ate butterbeer ice cream in the shade of a tree. I worked remotely from the pub in the village. My Chocolate Frog came with a Chocolate Frog Card. I got Godric Gryffindor. The card is a holographic print, and when I hold it just so, and squint, it almost seems to move.