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From butterbeer to broomsticks: Universal Studios Hollywood casts a spell with new Wizarding World of Harry Potter

LOS ANGELES — “Mommy, was that a real hippogriff?”

We had just gotten off a rollercoaster called “Flight of the Hippogriff” that rode past a winged horselike creature with an eagle head that peeked mischievously out at us from an oversized nest. My son’s shaky grasp of reality and fantasy had risen to new heights. I understood his bewilderment. My head was spinning, and it wasn’t just from the butterbeer.

It was spring break in Utah, and my children, 9-year-old Olivia and 7-year-old Dante, had joined me on a road trip for the long-anticipated grand opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood.

We left Park City before dawn and drove nearly half a day to the sunshine coast, landing at our cozy Airbnb in a quiet Sherman Oaks neighborhood with enough time to wander to Ventura Boulevard’s “sushi row” for a quintessentially Californian dinner — hand rolls stuffed with fresh fish — and froyo for dessert. Self-professed Potter nuts, we all hit the hay early and awoke buzzing with excitement.

Walk into the newly unveiled Wizarding World, tucked into a corner of the existing Universal Studios, and you’ll see J.K. Rowling’s vision come to life. The theme park delivered every aspect of the bespectacled boy wizard’s world, down to Moaning Myrtle in the toilets and the costumed hosts who did not break character for a second. One serious witch offered to take a photo for us using our “muggle contraption,” while others engaged the kids in animated conversations about their houses: Olivia belonged to Slytherin while Dante was in Gryffindor.

Two cobblestone streets lay beyond the massive iron entrance gates: Diagon Alley along the main drag and the quaint shops of Hogsmeade town along the other, the rooftops shrouded in a layer of mood-enhancing snow. Beyond the town lay Hogwarts castle (“It’s not life-sized,” noted Olivia, unimpressed), where we dodged a fire-breathing dragon, menacing dementors and the Whomping Willow on a thrilling 4-D adventure, “Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey.”

Getting to the ride was actually half the entertainment as the line snaked through several rooms in the castle — an entry hall with talking portraits, a glimpse into Dumbledore’s private chamber, a classroom where Harry, Hermione and Ron appeared projected on a screen — that built further anticipation for the rollicking ride.

By the time we got to Ollivanders wand shop, we had sampled butterbeer, eaten our fill of British pub food at Three Broomsticks (my kids declared pumpkin juice “amazing!”), bought our weight in chocolate frogs and Bertie Botts Every-Flavour Beans at Honeydukes, and browsed top-of-the-line Quidditch broomsticks at Dervish and Banges. Dante bought a “training Firebolt” and amused passersby in the street with his earnest attempts to kick off into the sky on it, just as Harry and his cohorts had done in the movies.

But it was Ollivanders that held the most allure. Upon entering the dimly lit room, our group was greeted by a wizard who led us through an inner passage with floor-to-ceiling shelves lined with wand cases. A stern-looking witch commanded a wooden counter shrouded in shadows. Behind her soared shelves stacked full of wand boxes.

“I feel a strong magical presence in the room,” she declared, settling her gaze on my youngest. “Ah, yes, it is you.” His eyes widened at her recognition of his gift. “Here at Ollivanders, the wand chooses the wizard.”

With these words, the shopkeeper handed the first wand to him, instructing him to give it a whirl while reciting an unlocking charm that caused shelves to explode from the wall in quick succession above our heads.

“No, not the right one!” she exclaimed before selecting another wand that unleashed more theatrics upon utterance of the proper incantation that left Dante spellbound.

As soon as he grasped the final “rowan wood” wand, one that matched Harry’s wand, a spotlight lit up Dante’s hand and the movie theme song swelled as gusts of wind swirled across the room. The wand had clearly chosen its owner.

“Remember, the wizard learns from the wand, as the wand learns from the wizard,” were the shopkeeper’s parting words as we stepped neatly into the main shop (and a staff person whispered to me, “It’s only $52.50”). Of course, we had to get two.

Now here came the real magic: The wands unlocked interactive, animated features in a dozen or so store windows throughout Hogsmeade.

We spent the rest of our time searching for brass medallions sealed into the cobblestone streets. Each was emblazoned with a pattern in which you needed to wave your wand and the correct incantation to yell in order to unlock “magical” elements in displays that included raising and lowering a Quidditch broom, flowers bursting into bloom and reams of sheet music flying out from a case. Nothing will compare to watching the kids brandishing their wands and casting their spells with firm conviction.

Though the Wizarding World was the highlight of our trip, we managed to hit other iconic spots on our California checklist during our four-night adventure. Hollywood turned out to have a surprising number of kid-friendly attractions.

Being from Utah, we didn’t balk at the “difficult” rating on a 3-mile round-trip hike from the Griffith Observatory that boasted great views of the Hollywood sign and ended with an impressive 360-degree view of the city.

We beat a light rain back to the car then decided we hadn’t come that far to miss seeing the coast. Santa Monica Pier seemed the right spot — end of the line of the famed Route 66, also known as the Will Rogers Highway or the “Main Street of America” as one of the original U.S. highway system fast lanes. It was drizzling by the time we got there, but that didn’t dampen our spirits.

We raced to the end of the pier and gazed at the misty Pacific, posed for a photo with Zoltar, the fortune teller from “Big”; visited the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant from “Forrest Gump”; and hit the education-focused Santa Monica Pier Aquarium under the bridge. It was a welcome break from the day and allowed the kids to decompress.

The next day, we ventured to Hollywood Boulevard and explored Madame Tussauds wax museum, which was a riot given the number of famous world leaders, movie stars and singers my kids hadn’t heard of. Olivia’s highlight was taking a selfie with the wax figure of Taylor Swift, and Dante nearly knocked over Spider-Man when he straddled him, but we made it out without breaking or buying anything, so I considered it a major mom victory.

The Hollywood Walk of Fame conveniently marched straight past the front of the wax museum, so we posed for some photos with names we recognized and checked out the TCL Chinese Theatre a few doors down, with the hand and footprints of dozens of famous stars immortalized in the concrete out front.

We ended the day slurping delicious ramen on Ventura Boulevard not far from our home away from home. When I asked the kids what their favorite part of the trip had been, they couldn’t decide.

“All of it,” they both declared.

No amount of magic could have conjured that response.