As with many a Halloween decorating scheme, this one started with a simple idea that got out of hand. In five years, a few floating candles have blazed into a full-blown reproduction of the magical Diagon Alley from the world of Harry Potter books and movies.
Amanda Pace, a colleague from my Texas Community Education days, and her family have created this virtual Potter world in their south Austin neighborhood.
“In 2015, we started putting out a few floating candles on our porch, threw on some robes and called it good,” Pace said. “The neighborhood kids loved it, so we repeated it the next year.”
Her husband, Joel Pace, decided to up the game. Prior to becoming an attorney, Joel spent three years studying engineering at the University of Texas. So he was good at figuring out how to make things work.
At first, he used cardboard boxes to construct the brick wall the young wizards enter. Unfortunately, rain on three Halloweens in a row destroyed his handiwork. It didn’t matter. People came out anyway.
Then 2017 happened — a “brutal year for our family.”
“After my breast cancer diagnosis, we went into survival mode,” Amanda said. “There was not a whole lot to make us smile and be happy.”
Following Amanda’s medical procedures, the family spent time at a resort to recuperate.
“I commented, so I guess we aren’t doing Halloween this year,” she said. “That was all Joel needed. He said, ‘Nope, if anything we are going to do something bigger. I think I can build the Hogwarts Express.’”
So they spent the rest of their vacation figuring out how to do it. Back in Austin, they worked the entire summer pulling it together. Joel switched from cardboard to pink insulation foam board, a material that was lightweight, and easy to cut and sand, and best of all, waterproof.
When the famous train engine was completed, the Pace family stepped back and had a revelation.
“We thought it would all look silly with just floating candles and a train. Joel said, ‘I bet I can build a few storefronts.’ That is when things went out of control!”
As Joel built the shops in the driveway, neighbors started drifting by to watch and were soon volunteering to help. Friends of their teenage son, Grant, who is actively involved in the Austin theater scene, showed up to contribute their scenery building skills. As Diagon Alley took shape, Amanda realized they were creating more than a replica of a movie set.
“It became a thing that feeds my soul,” she said. “It is a real community effort. We had neighbors we hadn’t met before. That was the year I was recovering from a bilateral mastectomy, so I couldn’t lift, but I could paint. It became a labor of love, and we were all participants.”
The activity was the family’s therapy.
“When we were looking at it, we weren’t thinking about my health issues. It allowed us to bond over something that wasn’t a medical issue.”
Austin’s version of Diagon Alley has attracted state and national attention the past two years. The story was featured on Austin news stations and picked up by Teen Vogue, Buzz Feed and Pop Sugar. More than 3,000 visitors showed up last Halloween.
The display now comprises six storefronts lining the driveway, including Eeylops Owl Emporium, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlor, Flourish and Blott’s bookstore, Weasleys Wizard Wheezes, Ollivanders, and Quality Quidditch Supplies.
At the head of the drive sits Gringott’s Bank. The Hogwarts Express stands ready to make its imaginary run to the school of wizardry. This year the Knight Bus will be parked at the street.
The magic has grown beyond the façade. The family puts out original issues of the Daily Prophet for people to read while waiting in line. Dozens of volunteers show up dressed in costume, to interact with the crowd. Austin Scoops Ice Cream Parlor now carries Butter Beer ice cream that they provide as samples in Fortescue’s. That pairs nicely with samples of “unicorn blood” and cookies.
Mostly, it’s fun.
“It is hilarious for us,” Amanda said. “I think in a world so divided and negative all the time, people are craving something good to get behind. For kids, it’s their childhoods. For adults, it is about reliving nostalgia across generations. The depth and power of Harry Potter fandom is incredible.”
That is evident on those magical nights the exhibit is open.
“Once people step through the brick wall, they have entered that world they dreamed about. The joy is contagious. Everyone is smiling and happy. In the beginning we were doing it for ourselves to heal and to laugh. The fact it meant so much to everyone else was a bonus. We weren’t anticipating so many would care about this.”
Diagon Alley ATX is located in the South West Austin neighborhood of Circle C (in the Vintage Place subdivision). While the Paces won’t give out their precise address, they will give the cross streets of Slaughter Lane & Bungalow Dr. It is open free to all on Halloween night, from 5 to 10 p.m. On November 1-2, it is open 5 to 9 p.m. with a suggested donation to Foster Angels of Central Texas or Variety Arts.
“This shows that happiness can be found even in the darkest of times if only one remembers to turn on the light. We’re just turning on lights. We’re delighted it speaks to others, too.”
Phil Houseal is a writer and owner of Full House PR, www.FullHousePR.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.