Days of Magic

A Harry Potter childhood and the lost dream of ‘family Vegas’

Ten years ago, I was a 16-year-old standing in line with my family for the Excalibur buffet, talking a mile a minute about how Las Vegas should add a Harry Potter hotel to its sparkling list of resorts. Perhaps it was all the armor and the dragon statues, but it seemed to me my idea was sheer genius, and I already had the towers and buffet named and decorated in my head.

I had visited Vegas every other Christmas since I was 6; for me, the city felt like a journey into my childhood bookshelf: exploring the Dark Ages in a giant white castle, gazing upon the great columns of ancient Rome, watching pirates battle on exploding ships and discovering the hidden wonders of the Arabian desert. Hotels such as Excalibur, Caesars Palace, Treasure Island and the Aladdin consumed me, allowing the depths of my imagination to come to life. So establishing a Harry Potter-themed resort seemed like a perfect fit for this town.

Unfortunately, Universal Studios Florida beat me to it—I should have filed for copyright—and recently opened the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The theme park is any Potter fan’s dream, being able to walk the streets of Hogsmeade, drink butterbeer and discover your personalized wand. Yes, this practically screams “Nerd alert,” but it also cements the fact that this fictional wizard has made quite an impact on the world—at least enough to warrant its own theme park and seven blockbuster movies.

And with the eighth and final movie nearly upon us (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 opens July 15), it begs the question: Is it all over now? No more books, no more movies? For those who couldn’t care less about the subject matter, you might already be turning the page. But for my generation, this is monumental.

Many can think back a few years to when George Lucas released the final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith, and understand the mix of excitement and sorrow when a franchise makes its final payoff on our emotional investment. Or perhaps remember when longtime favorites M*A*S*H, Seinfeld or Friends aired their last episodes. Many fans can pinpoint where they were and what they were wearing when the end arrived—cultural icons come and go, but the memories remain powerful. Sure, I’m talking about fictional characters, but for millions these characters took on a reality that could steal your breath and make your stomach drop.

For me, the Harry Potter saga is more than just a nerd addiction. It’s not just a fun read or another mindless popcorn movie. Ask any reader of these so-called children’s books and you’ll find a fascination that reaches beyond a majestic school castle and some kids riding on brooms. It’s an imaginative movement, a 20th-century literary renaissance in the young adult section in your neighborhood bookstore.

Yale, Swarthmore and Georgetown already have courses on Harry Potter. My own alma mater, Saint Mary’s College of California, has started to incorporate the books into a few English courses. It’s only a matter of time before more universities follow suit, studying something that is both popular and profound. Questions of good versus evil, human sacrifice, destiny and choice, civil rights issues and prejudice can be explored and juxtaposed to our real-life past and present-day society. Think Hitler in a magical, modern-day world with some marked kid as everyone’s only hope for survival. And you called it a children’s book!

My generation owes a lot to Potter. His adventures have seeded our imaginations and inspired our own creativity. And they continue to shape our lives in unexpected ways. In 2009, I arrived in Las Vegas knowing virtually nobody and unsure how to connect with this very real city that I had known only as a vacation wonderland. One night I attended the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with two coworkers-turned-friends of mine. There I met a girl named Sara whom they’d invited. She and I ended up spending a three-hour lunch a few days later discussing our life stories, taste in men and—yes—Harry Potter. She’s now one of my best friends.

Las Vegas has come a long way since I was a child. Some hotels have gotten makeovers, while others were demolished to create a clean slate for brand-new shiny ones. I can no longer take a stroll through Arabia (although the remnants are still there), the big white castle has been overshadowed by the sheer scope of CityCenter’s modern beauty, and the pirates now fight for Siren booty instead of treasure booty.

So perhaps my idea of a Harry Potter hotel wouldn’t fit so well in the lingering “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” era of Sin City. But maybe we’ve had enough of ironic sneering at old-fashioned wonder. Maybe, when we start to build again—how’s that for a fantasy?—we’ll find there’s still a place for hotels that appeal to our longing for other times, other worlds.

Theming, after all, wasn’t as much of a dud as it’s made out to be. The approach didn’t include just the oft-maligned Excalibur, but the Venetian and—in the beginning—Caesars Palace, places that promised to whisk you away to empires, not boudoirs.

The Strip has always wanted what’s in your wallet, but it didn’t always so openly judge you by it. It’s ironic that during the flush 1990s the city offered to sweep you off to distant lands, but in the recession years it keeps reminding you that you’re not really rich enough to be here.

In spite of everything, though—the trends, the economy, our own branding—Vegas is still the place for fantastic journeys. This city may have been built on sin, but it grew up on imagination. And it may be time to revive the old magic. Here, in the desert, the spirit of Potter endures.

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