The Boy Who Lived
Years ago, when a close friend suggested that I read Harry Potter, I couldn’t imagine enjoying a book about witches and wizards. Fantasy books just weren’t my thing. However, the more I refused, the more insistent he became. I finally gave in when he offered to lend me the first three books. By this point, my defenses had been worn down. I knew I wasn’t going to make it past the first chapter, so I figured it would be a ten-minute commitment, at the most. Boy, was I wrong! To my complete and utter surprise, I fell in love with the world of Harry Potter. I devoured all three books, and the wait for the release of the fourth book seemed interminable. Never have I been so happy to be so wrong!
Much like her mother, my daughter had to be dragged kicking and screaming into the world of Harry Potter (metaphorically speaking, of course). Seven books, eight movies, and a Hermione Halloween costume later, I think it is safe to say that I was right. When she asked for a Harry Potter-themed birthday party, I was only too happy to grant her wish. It was more work than waving a wand, but I loved having an excuse to return to the world of Harry Potter.
The Letters from No One
The first thing on my to-do list was to design the invitation. I played around with a few ideas, such as creating a custom Daily Prophet or Marauder’s map. However, in the end, I decided that Harry’s Hogwarts acceptance letter was the best option.
In a perfect world, owls would have flown all over the tri-state area to deliver our letters. But since I am a mere muggle, I had to accept the unfortunate fact that my Hogwarts letters would have to be delivered by USPS in envelopes that wouldn’t land them in the undeliverable bin. Hmmm…
That’s when the wheels started turning. I realized that this USPS envelope was an opportunity to do something fun and original. An owl couldn’t actually deliver the letter, but maybe the owl post could provide the inspiration for my graphics! I placed an image of an owl carrying an envelope addressed to each guest on the front of the outer envelope. Next, I lined the interior with an image of the same owl leaving Hogwarts with the letter. The inner envelope was a replica of the one that Harry receives from Hogwarts. It contained a signed letter from Professor McGonagall inviting our guests to a special session at Hogwarts in honor of the birthday girl. Each guest also received a gold-leafed Hogwarts Express ticket (you certainly weren’t expecting them to arrive via car!).
It’s Elementary, My Dear
With the invitations completed, it was time to figure out how I was going to keep a room full of seven-year-olds entertained. Inspiration sometimes strikes in the strangest of places. In my case, it struck in a children’s museum. A few months before the party, we took the little one to the International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes. The exbibit led the children through a set of clues to solve a mystery. It did an amazing job of explaining the role of science and technology in crime-solving and forensics. But it was the realism of the sets and props coupled with the immersive experience that absolutely blew me away. I knew immediately that I wanted to create a similar experience for our Harry Potter party, albeit on a much smaller scale.
I created a simple backstory for our party. Ollivander’s wands had disappeared and the children were being asked to find them. To complete the escape room challenge, they would have to solve a series of puzzles that incorporated props from the movie. Some of the guests were superfans who knew the Harry Potter books backward and forward. I knew, without a doubt, that I could count on them to help with the obscure clues. However, I wanted the game to be fun for everyone, including those who had not read the books or seen the movies. To this end, I included basic elements like jigsaw puzzles that all of the children could solve.
The World of Harry Potter
I had a ball creating the Harry Potter props. The movie’s graphic design team had done an unbelievable job bringing the wizarding world to life, and as a result, creative fans have devoted countless hours to recreating the props. There are a ton of amazing resources for free printable paper props, such as the Marauder’s Map and Daily Prophets. Their generosity saved me a lot of time and allowed me to focus my efforts on creating three-dimensional objects such as the Nimbus 2000, mandrake, and Harry’s trunk.
I also spent a good amount of time sculpting wands for each child. I based each wand on a specific character’s wand from the movie. To ensure that the wands would be able to stand up to a fair amount of abuse without breaking, I used epoxy clay. Epoxy clay sculpts like modeling clay, but it isn’t nearly as fragile. While the wands were drying, I created the wand boxes. I centered a silver foiled Ollivander’s logo on each lid and placed a fabric wrapped foam cushion inside each box.
Another labor of love was the Advanced Potions textbook. Because this book played an important role in the escape room, I wanted the children to have a fully readable prop. However, try as I might, I could not find the full text online. It was like searching for the Holy Grail of Harry Potter props. I was left with no other choice but to create my own from scratch using screenshots from the movie. Because I have a little experience with graphic design and layout programs, this project was not completely out of my wheelhouse. I began with the cover and then moved on to searching for potion recipes. When the layout was complete, I printed and bound the book by hand. Although it wasn’t a faithful reproduction of the movie prop, I was happy with my version.
A Memo from the Ministry of Magic
The game began with the birthday girl receiving a Ministry of Magic interdepartmental airplane memo. In the memo, Ollivander announced that all of his wands have gone missing! He asked the birthday girl and her guests for their help and suggested that they might find a clue in a backpack. After a few minutes of frantic searching, the group located the bag in the corner of the room. It contained a Quibbler with Luna Lovegood’s third-year supply list tucked inside. One of the books on the required reading list was circled, and something had been scratched out with a red marker. Hmmm…I wonder if this is a coincidence?
The children correctly concluded that it was not a coincidence and began to look for the highlighted book. As it turned out, Unfogging the Future was actually a book vault. It contained Luna’s spectrespecs and a note from Luna stating that “sometimes things exist even if you can’t see them.” The decoder glasses allowed the children to read the message buried underneath the scribble. The message announced that the Madrakes had outgrown their pots.
Don’t Forget Your Earmuffs!
The cryptic message led the children to the herbology table. When they removed the mandrake from its pot (screaming thanks to a light sensor), they found puzzle pieces at the bottom of the pot. After assembling the pieces, they discovered four runic symbols. However, because one puzzle piece was missing. it was impossible to determine the second symbol. In the upper right-hand corner, a deathly hallows symbol had been written in marker.
This symbol was a hint to find Hermione’s copy of Beedle the Bard. I didn’t want to risk frustrating them by making it too difficult to find, so the book was conveniently located in a stack of books next to the mandrake. Inside the book, they found a runic alphabet with one letter circled and a list of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes owl orders. The missing letter in the puzzle! But now what? And how did the owl list fit into the picture?
Weasley & Weasley
By this point, the children were getting the hang of things. It didn’t take long for them to realize that that they were being led to the Weasley twins’ joke shop. Sure enough, underneath a stack of Weasley Wizard Wheezes catalogs and brochures, they found a padlocked wooden box. But this was not just any old padlock. This padlock required a four-letter runic code–just like the one on the jigsaw puzzle!. Entering the three symbols in the order that they appeared on the puzzle opened the lock and revealed a wand. They also found a postcard from Hermione that mysteriously hinted that there are secrets hidden in Fawkes’ ashes…
They discovered the phoenix’s ashes in an unlocked box. On top of the ashes was a second postcard with holes cut out in a random pattern. When the children placed this decoder postcard over Hermione’s postcard, it revealed a new message. Say revelio and wave the wand over the ashes.
The children were eager to try their hand at a magic spell. When they waved the wand they’d found in the Wizard Wheezes box over the ashes, they uncovered a sheet of paper. The children were amazed, but there was no magic at work here! The ashes were actually lead shavings, and I had embedded tiny magnets in the tip of the wand. As the children continued to shift the ashes, they discovered that the paper was an ad for Felix Felicis. “Make a little luck. Borage 186.” was hastily scribbled next to the potion bottle.
This clue is not as tricky as it seems at first glance. Borage is the author of the potions textbook, but I was not counting on the kids to make this connection. In the wizarding world, Felix Felicis is a potion that brings good luck to the drinker. As long as the kids realized that the next step was to make the potion, I was in good shape. Luckily, this is exactly what happened. The group immediately rushed over to the potions table. There, they found a copy of Advanced Potion Making next to Hermione’s potions box and her cauldron.
Make Your Own Luck
Once the children saw the textbook, everything clicked. They frantically turned to page 186, found the recipe for Felix Felicis, and began to mix the potion. The magic happened when the kids added the final ingredient, which was an ashwinder egg. In reality, the egg was a bath bomb that dissolved to reveal a key. The key opened Harry’s trunk at Platform 9 3/4, which contained a wand for each child. Although the wand chooses the wizard in Harry’s world, I had labeled the boxes with the children’s names to prevent mayhem. This wasn’t my first rodeo.
Let the Good Times Roll
Now that the wands were safely in the hands of their rightful owners, the children were ready to celebrate. They remained at Platform 9 3/4 for Gryffindor sugar cookies, Bertie Botts jelly beans, chocolate frogs, and butterbeer. The witches and wizards were also “introduced” to strange muggle foods like hamburgers and French fries.
The fun continued with the arrival of the DJ, who played music and led Harry Potter themed games. The children also had the option of receiving temporary tattoos. But like all good things, the party had to come to an end. The children left with their wands, Gryffindor notebooks, and quill pens. And hopefully, at least one of them had been converted into a life-long Harry Potter fan.
from my blog