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January 26, 2022

Universal Studios Unmasked

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was complete with “Dolores Umbridge” berating visitors about masks.

The Harry Potter novels have stood the test of time and remain a great and incredibly culturally influential work of fiction. Author J.K. Rowling is a self-described left-wing feminist, but she’s not a radical and has even received a lot of hate from her own side for pushing back against the “transgender” movement. She may have had some other point in mind, but her Harry Potter series contains some themes that conservatives love — she vividly illustrates the true awfulness of fake news and the oppressive fascism that all too often comes from the administrative state. It is the last thing that makes this relevant to my family’s recent vacation to Universal Studios in Orlando, which features a number of Harry Potter rides and attractions based on the movies.

We knew going in that masking would be required in some circumstances (while indoors or in line for a ride), but from the moment we exited the van in the parking garage to walk across the bridge into the park, we learned just how unpleasant that policy would be. More on that in a minute.

Fans of the novels or movies will recognize the name of Dolores Umbridge. Introduced in the fifth novel, she is a bureaucrat from the Ministry of Magic sent to “restore order” at Hogwarts, the school of magic Harry and his friends attend, after the Dark Lord returns. The Ministry denies the truth that Voldemort is back, and Umbridge’s task is to enforce that narrative at the school.

Upon introducing herself, she tells the students, “I’m sure we’re all going to be very good friends.” Spoiler alert: They weren’t.

Umbridge is a sickly sweet and proper British lady who loves pink and kittens, but she’s also a sadistic and power-hungry villain who vigorously censors the truth and severely punishes those who speak it, all while never deviating from her polite manner that often includes cute little “ahems” and giggles.

As part of her relentless crackdown, she issues more than 100 “Educational Decrees” that prohibit all manner of previously free activities. Soon after arriving, she’s given even more power as the first Hogwarts High Inquisitor, whereupon she recruits an Inquisitorial Squad — students and staff who will snitch on others and help enforce her reign of terror.

Thankfully, after being revealed as a flagrantly bigoted racist, she’s eventually given her just deserts, though she doesn’t change her ways and shows up in subsequent books.

All that setup is because my family encountered Umbridge, so to speak, on the walk into the park on the first day. A sickly sweet British lady came on the loudspeakers to announce that face coverings would be required while indoors and in line for and on all rides, regardless of vaccination status. “And enjoy your day,” she cheerfully concluded. She might as well have ended with the bit about being “very good friends.”

Fine, fair enough. Universal Studios is a privately owned business, albeit in the Free State of Florida, and it has the authority to set its own rules. At least we don’t have to wear masks outside, we consoled ourselves. But the park elected to be as obnoxious as Umbridge and her inquisitorial squad.

The mask announcement was played literally every 30 seconds while on that bridge walking to the park every day, and every five minutes in the park. I timed it. Not including numerous other announcements or instructions from park staff, that means over the course of four days in the park, we heard “Umbridge’s” spiel roughly 500 times.

Just like the character in the movies, “Umbridge” politely interrupted anything and everything, only without the “ahem.” That included other masking announcements from park staff. And it included the videos and interactive features that are part of the immersive attraction of Universal. Ride operators inquisitorial squad members were likewise dogged in enforcing masks, chastising us if we pulled them below our noses to prevent fogging up our 3D glasses on a simulator or hoped to go without them as our roller coaster left the station.

That’s right — you might catch COVID without one while traveling 70 m.p.h. in the back of a roller coaster. Never mind the crowds of unmasked thousands wandering around the rest of the park.

The worst two instances I encountered were the unmasked staff member who told me to mask up while we were both outside (“Where’s yours?” I asked him), and the power-tripping young inquisitor who smugly proclaimed over the speakers that he was watching surveillance video of the line and could see many of us without masks over mouth and nose. Fail to comply and you’ll be thrown off the ride you just waited two hours for, he said, or maybe even escorted out of the park.

Enforcement was incessant, and it cast a shadow of aggravation over our whole trip.

As for “Umbridge,” what made her constant haranguing worse is that Universal Studios seems unaware — or at least unwilling to admit — the similarity between this regular admonishment and the fact that the voice announcing it is so akin to one of the worst villains in the entire Harry Potter series. As I rhetorically asked my teen kids, “Don’t they know Umbridge is the bad guy?”

We joked that an “attraction” ought to be the scene from the movie where she forces Harry to write “I must not tell lies” repeatedly while the quill magically but painfully etches the words into the back of his hand. I must wear a mask, we teased park-goers could write.

Perhaps all this made her the perfect voice for the COVID tyranny of today, though we can’t say that was the Harry Potter immersive experience we thought we had paid a small fortune to enjoy.

All in all, the trip was an irritating example of exactly what commentator Dennis Prager so aptly describes as the disdain the two parties have for the other. “Watching half of our fellow Americans accept and engage in such irrational behavior (not to mention sometimes hysterically enforce it, as myriad social media videos attest) not only depresses the rest of us; it frightens us,” he writes. Where and when does the insanity end?

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