There is perhaps nowhere more hellish for an adult to be than trapped amid the crowds at an American theme park. Certainly nowhere as hellish that you have voluntarily spent so much money getting to. Definitely nowhere where the only available food vendor is a nearby Crusty Burger.
But that was where I was, pressed among the throng of people, in the dark heart of California’s Universal Studios resort, just having spent one hour queuing for a five minute ride. The only accessible lunch option was an imitation of The Simpson’s fast-food chain, proudly offering just as heart-attack inducing meals as the cartoon series always promised.
That can be the problem with holidays. Where you choose looks great in the adverts – and me, my wife and our two young daughters had pored over the online videos of Universal Studios for weeks marvelling at fake Minions and the recreated Hogsmead with ever-growing anticipation – but the reality rarely matches the edit.
We were in Los Angeles for our family holiday. Some, on hearing our plans, had questioned the choice of location. A town renowned for freeways, a history of gang violence and the nagging terror that today might be the “big one”, when the San Andreas fault finally rips apart was, some suggested, an unlikely choice.
But I knew what I was after. Two weeks of guaranteed sun in a city that, away from the giant roads that bisect it, can be as much a place of narrow streets winding up canyons, pool parties and barbeques, and miles and miles of perfect beaches.
This is the laid-back Los Angeles we know from music, films and books. The place of Laurel Canyon, Malibu, Mulholland Drive, the Griffith Observatory, Venice. The place where, despite all the craziness of the city around it, people go to relax.
Until Universal Studios, our break had been exactly what we’d hoped for: days doing nothing but lazing by the swimming pool at our Airbnb; lunches of freshly prepared Mexican food; walks along Santa Monica beach; an afternoon climbing up to the Hollywood sign, horses ridden by men and women in cowboy hats ambling past as we hiked up the dirt track that looped through Griffith Park.
There had even been an opportunity for culture when we took the opportunity to visit the California Science Centre and marvelled at the real Space Shuttle on display there – the once regularly orbital Endeavour – before eyeing the incredible selection of Egyptian artefacts from Tutankhamun’s tomb housed in the King Tut exhibition next door.
A day at a theme park, however, could not be avoided. The children, 10 and six respectively, were adamant any trip to California must include a visit to one of these fun emporiums.
I tried to break us in gently. The oldest and I went to the Warner Brothers movie lot for its studio tour. My inner geek burst with excitement as we were taken through their prop department and our guide nonchalantly pointed out the chairs used in The Matrix when Laurence Fishburne gives a confused Keanu Reeves the choice of a red or blue pill (seats that were now gathering dust in the corner of a giant warehouse surrounded by piles of equally iconic film bric-a-brac).
My daughter – a massive Harry Potter fan – couldn’t get enough of seeing real Sorting Hats, wands, costumes and other kit from the film franchise laid out for her to marvel at. Both of us agreed it was a brilliant day out.
Universal Studios, though, was on a whole other scale. There were huge queues (two hours for the frankly terrifying ride in its fake Hogwarts), massive crowds, endless shops filled with endless shelves of tat and, of course, the constant walking as you sought to find the next ride amid the sprawl.
An argument over a newly-bought unicorn whose wing had already fallen off left all four of us fraught from the overwhelmingness of it all.
But then, just as I feared all was lost, there was a perfectly timed moment of magic. It was in the recreation of Ollivander’s wand emporium, the shop where wizards go to buy their most important implement.
We had patiently queued, and finally been ushered inside; a group of 20 or so of us now amid shelves of boxes and books, waiting for Harry Potter’s wand seller to come and impart his wisdom on the complexities of choosing the right wand for the right wizard.
When he emerged, Ollivander did so in a cloud of smoke through a door in a bookcase, robes billowing, a stern expression stilling us all into immediate subservience. Beckoning with a finger, it was my oldest daughter he pulled forward as the subject for this wand testing.
In the semi-darkness, they talked of phoenix feathers and dragon skin as around us modern mechanical trickery made books fall from shelves and flames flash as she waved the wand he had provided for her and repeated the spells he instructed.
The only way to describe it is spellbinding. The guy who played the wand seller threw himself into the part with such sincerity that all present were audibly gasping at his performance. People lined up to shake his hand as we left, me among them; my daughter now clutching her newly-awarded wand with delight.
After that we finally found the Minions, who more than lived up to our expectations as we were spun around on their 3D ride, had the pleasure of seeing the Back to the Future town square, witnessed a fake gunfight between people on jet skis and caught sight of Jaws, rising from a lake to attack us.
As they buckled themselves in, I asked what they thought of it all. The oldest, wand still gripped firmly in hand, answered immediately. “The best day I could ever have had,” she said. Which, above all, is what you want to hear on your family holiday.