Potter After Hours

potter after hours at the franklin instituteKatie is once again off on wild adventures. Remember that time she spent a year in Europe? Or how about when she dropped by Antiques Roadshow? This time, Katie journeyed to the Franklin Institute for a veeeeeery special Harry Potter event. Take it away, Katie!


It’s universally understood the Harry Potter series has captured the hearts of children, but adults are just as passionate about Harry and his adventures at Hogwarts. I count myself as one of those adults who is a Harry Potter fanatic, so naturally I leapt at the opportunity to attend Wizard School, an after-hours adult only program held at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia.

katie at the franklin insitute science after hoursThe Franklin Institute is one of the oldest museums in the United States dedicated to science education and research, and it is absolutely one of my favorite places to take my son when we have a free day. Named after Benjamin Franklin, the Franklin Institute has four floors of amazing science exhibitions, a planetarium, IMAX theatre, and even a telescope observatory on the roof.

Science After Hours is a series of events the Franklin Institute holds for adults 21+ and is designed around a specific theme, like Wizard School, with demonstrations, live speakers, music and dancing, activities, a chance to explore the entire museum at night, and…a cash bar.

As soon as I arrived, I snagged a cup of Butter Beer and started wandering through the museum to various activity tables. Wizard’s Chess anyone?

wizarding chess at the franklin instituteIn the Giant Heart exhibit, I tested to see if I was a pure blood by pouring a glass of clear liquid into a second glass of clear liquid. If the mixture turned red, you were a pure blood. If it didn’t, you were a Muggle. The magic is a pH indicator, phenolphthalein, being mixed with water and reacting to sodium carbonate, which is present in the second glass. The sodium carbonate and phenolphthalein react and turn the liquid red. If one glass didn’t have the chemical, the liquid remained clear. My glass turned red – I’m a pure blood witch!

pure blood testing at the franklin instituteI made my way past a very long line of people waiting to make a magical amulet so I could watch part of the Raptores Maximus show. Mike Dupuy, a local falconer and educator, introduced several of his birds of prey. Including Mr. Big Owl, a Eurasian owl who had the most stunning orange eyes.

mike dupuy with mr. big owl franklin instituteNext, I journeyed on to Pepper Hall, where I was greeted by 2 very long lines: 1) Make your own wand; and 2) Visit the Slimy Serpent, Critter, and Creature Magic Supply Shoppe. The Supply Shoppe was a tremendous display of potions ingredients and various critters you may discover as a student at Hogwarts, including snakes, spiders, frogs and even a jar of leeches. But I opted for wand making because I was curious to see how the Franklin Institute would handle a wand craft for well over a thousand people after our experience with our much smaller Wand Works event.

The wand craft was impressively simple, but quite impactful. As you approached the front of the line, you selected a colored light bulb with wire legs (identical to the bulbs we tested in the Circuit Clay kit). You moved forward and were given a small button cell battery and a paper straw that had been cut on one end to provide a slit for the battery to rest. Volunteers demonstrated how to slide the two legs of the bulb onto each side of the battery, illuminating the bulb, and then gave you two pieces of tape to secure the bulb onto the battery and secure the battery into the slit at the top of your straw.

The final step was a wood clothespin, which is where you insert the paper straw. The clothespin is wrapped with more tape to keep the straw from falling out and becomes the handle of the wand. After the wand is complete, there were tables with markers, star stickers and tiny jewels to bedazzle your wand. No two wands were alike!

wand making at the franklin instituteI tried to attend a presentation called The Absolutely True Fake Story of the Philosopher’s Stone. I should have used an Apparition spell to get me to the theater faster because the seats were full by the time I arrived. Not deterred, I walked through Platform 3.14 to see the Hogwarts Express (cleverly disguised as a Baldwin 60000 locomotive engine, which is on permanent display in the Train Factory exhibit).

platform 3.14 at franklin instituteMany of the demonstration tables had student volunteers from nearby colleges, including Drexel University, Temple University, and the University of Pennsylvania. The students were enthusiastically full of scientific information – such as the possibility of real-life invisibility cloaks (i.e. lasers and thermal imaging cameras). They were ready to be peppered with questions from everyone. Including Voldemort.

voldemort at the franklin instituteThe OwlCapella group from Temple University was serenading those in the ticketing atrium who had paused to rest their feet or have a snack, and I got a good laugh when I noticed Harry Potter conducting, unbeknownst to the choir. Total Potterbomb.

owlcappella at franklin instituteThe grand finale was held in the Franklin Memorial Hall, in front of a giant statue of Benjamin Franklin. Everyone was asked to raise their newly made wands and chant the Incendio spell. The result was a mighty green fireball explosion, courtesy of about a dozen large balloons filled with hydrogen. Very cool.


And just in case you’re wondering, Dr. Dana has ignited giant fireballs in the name of wizardry as well. You’ll find that here.

Wizard School was so popular, the Franklin Institute added a second date at the end of November! Dr. Dana and I are eagerly awaiting the Science After Hours schedule for 2019 with hopes there will be another literary related evening for us to enjoy. Stay tuned!

The Pumpkin Pro

Alex Wer the pumpkin geekWhat crafter, artist, or DIYer doesn’t dream of making a living off their creativity? From the women who invented those awesome fabric snowballs to the vast empire of Young House Love, you always wonder how they managed to turn fun time into full time.

Today, we are delighted to introduce Alex Wer, a.k.a. The Pumpkin Geek. It all started in 2009, when Alex’s wife asked him to carve an artificial pumpkin for her office’s open house. It was a huge hit, and orders – from company logos to children’s portraits – started rapidly accruing. Alex’s carving talents and his expansion to Comic Cons earned him a Geekie Award in 2013. In 2017, he left his day job to be a full time pumpkin carver.

Katie caught up with Alex to ask him about his incredible creative journey that we’re NOT envious of. Well, maybe we’re a little envious. OK…we’re totally envious.


You started carving pumpkins as a favor as your wife, and now you do it full time. Did you ever imagine your career taking this turn?

Of course I never imagined it! At the beginning of what I call my “orange obsession,” it was just – how detailed can I get? Or, how photo realistic can I get? Then, my wife and I were talking and I said, “If I do a Comic Con instead of just waiting for people to find me, I’m going to be in front of tens of thousands of people. That will be a true test to see if anybody is really interested in what I do.” That conversation sparked what is now my full time job.

20000 leagues pumpkin by the pumpkin geekHow many Comic Cons do you attend each year?

I do two Comic Cons a month. I just came back from Baltimore and I think that was my 18th or 19th convention this year. I’ll be in Atlanta at the Walking Dead convention the last weekend of October. That’s my last convention for 2018, but I’ll start again in January.

What tools you use when you carve the pumpkins?

I use a Dremel. I basically have two Dremels with two different bits, so I don’t have to change them. I use a standard drill bit for cutting out things and then I use a shading and graving tool to flatten areas of the face when I need to smooth it out. It’s pretty much just two bits.

Can you describe the process of carving a pumpkin from start to finish?

Let’s say someone wants an Indiana Jones pumpkin. Unless they have a specific image they want me to use, I look online for Indiana Jones images that I think might work and will look good. Once I find the image, I create a template by enlarging it and stenciling it onto the pumpkin. Once it’s drawn onto the pumpkin, I start carving.

harry potter pumkins by the pumpkin geekWhat happens when you make a mistake?

I’ve been doing this long enough to tend not make mistakes. I tell people to think of me as a tattoo artist. Tattoo artists, once they place the image template on your skin, are just filling in the gaps. I’m basically tracing with the drill.

How long does it take to finish a carving?

The drawing and the carving portions – probably about 4 hours. The online research portion can be 5 minutes, to 5 or 10 hours. There are some images and some characters that are very hard to find, and sometimes finding the image takes me just as long, or longer, as the physical carving portion.

lord of the rings pumpkins by the pumpkin geekTell me about your five layer carving process.

If you look at my carved pumpkins, the brightest, almost white, portion is cut all the way through. That’s the first layer. Then there are three graded layers coming closer to the surface. This is where I define cheekbones, eyebrows, hair texture, things like that. Then there’s the fifth layer, which is untouched for dark eyes, black hair.

What is your most popular design?

People are really shocked when they find out about my number one design. Number 3 is Beetlejuice, which makes sense. Number 2 is Harry Potter, which also makes a lot of sense because in the Comic Con world, Harry Potter is popular with both adults and kids.

Number 1 is Tom Hiddleston’s Loki from The Avengers. I did conventions in Seattle and Chicago and he was at both conventions. I had no idea he had such a fan base! There were women who traveled from Indonesia, Australia, the UK, just to meet him! In one day, I got 17 orders for Loki. Before that, I don’t think I’ve ever had 2 orders for 1 character in the same weekend.

loki by the pumpkin geekWhat locations have your pumpkins shipped to?

Obviously anywhere in the US. I’ve also shipped to Hawai’i, Canada, Germany, and the UK. I just shipped 2 to London. I’ve shipped pumpkins to 7 or 8 different countries.

Are you on a first name basis with employees at your local craft store?

Yes, I am! Everybody there knows me, and have known me for about 8 years.

What’s your favorite pumpkin?

It’s hard for me to say! I enjoy projects of fandoms that I’m not necessarily familiar with. For example, I had heard of Doctor Who, but once I started doing conventions I realized Doctor Who has a big Comic Con and geek fandom. So it’s always fun for me to do something that’s outside of my fandom. And, of course, Star Wars and Spiderman were things that I grew up with. So I love doing those pumpkins.

favorite pumpkins by the pumpkin geek


Images courtesy of The Pumpkin Geek

Give My Regards to Broadway

intro 2A few weeks ago, Katie, Marissa, and I saw Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway. Just…soak up the epic-ness of that last sentence. I’d love to share our theater-going experience, but first, I do solemnly swear there will be NO SPOILERS about the content of the play itself.

keep the secrets 3

Katie was the one who started the Broadway ball rolling. In the fall of 2017, she entered and won the ticket purchase lottery. And that is how, eight months later, Marissa, Katie, and I journeyed to Manhattan to witness wizarding wonders. We were really excited.

dana with sign 3Like, really, really, really, REALLY excited.

very excited 3

The performance is split into two parts. Part I runs for 2 hours and 40 minutes, which includes a 20 minute intermission. Part II is 2 hours and 35 minutes with another 20 minute intermission. The way Katie purchased the tickets, we saw both parts on the same day, with a dinner break.

Cursed Child is playing at the Lyric Theater, which underwent a massive, multimillion dollar renovation in order to host the play. The co-designers (Christine Jones and Brett J. Banakis) must be huge Harry Potter fans because you can absolutely feel the love, care, and creativity that went into creating a totally immersive experience.

For example, there’s a circular room that’s filled with a huge mural of patronus. Their bodies incorporate BOOK quotes! They are the masterful work of UK artist Peter Strain.

eagle patronus 2

doe patronus 4cat patronus 2otter patronus 2

A little further in the theater is a multi-story staircase. Very elegant.

dress circle 2

But the best part is the ceiling. Look at this…!

ceiling 2

The lowest level was decorated to resemble the Forbidden Forest. The pillars are natural wood that has painted over. So they resemble highly stylized tree trunks.

forbidden forest 2

Take a closer look at the carpet, too. A delicate little custom H emblem for Hogwarts.

carpet 3 Custom gilded wall paper too. I fell in love with the the balcony-level wallpaper…

Even the merchandise areas were stylish. The Lyric has a couple shops, concession stands, even bars for the grown-ups! This is a shelf in one of the candy areas. I love the branch, glass goblet, and books. There were cool old books on display everywhere.

candy 2

Finally, it was time for the show to begin. Here’s the interior of the theater. If you look closely at the stage, you’ll see stacks of old-fashioned suitcases. The first scene takes place on the platform in King’s Cross Station.

full theater 2

I promised no play spoilers, but what I can say is…wow. Wow wow wow wowie-WOW. It was a masterpiece of acting, music, choreography, lighting and stage illusion. Some of the illusions were BIG. And some of the illusions were such simple, beautiful little touches, it brought tears to my eyes. There were inside jokes for book fans, and the return of much-loved characters (even if it was ever-so-briefly). Without giving anything away, I will say that the production crews used every single bit of that theater to tremendous effect.

The end of Part I will simply take your breathe away. Seriously. I didn’t exhale for 3 minutes while things played out. Here’s Katie’s son and niece giving their reactions to the conclusion of Part I.

part 1 reaction 4

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child kept us utterly enthralled for 5 hours and 15 minutes. There were 3 curtains calls to a massive standing ovation. The cast and crew deserve every single bit of that applause and more. They put their whole hearts into what will forever be one of the highlights of my literary life. Bravo.