a birthday surprise… we’re engaged!

universal studios florida

My first real job was at a jeweler, where I eventually specialized in diamond sales and helping people plan their engagements and other big life events involving jewelry. Through those years Eric asked me if I wanted any sort of ring in particular if he were to propose one day, and I always said no, that “I would just like to be surprised; that’s really all I could want.”

In the very early hours of January 2, the morning before my 26th birthday, I woke up to Eric yelling at me from the hallway to “Jess, come look at this, quick!” A million scenarios from roof leaks to a break-in went through my mind as I scrambled out of bed. When I ran into the hall, I saw dozens of white envelopes on the ground leading from the front door, up the stairs, and to the base of our bedroom. Eric was faking shock and still shouting about “where did all this come from?!” when I picked up one of the letters addressed to me and opened it. Half awake and completely confused, I heard the Harry Potter theme music playing in the background and scanned the letter that said I was going to Hogwarts for the weekend, starting today. I asked Eric what was happening or if I was dreaming and the first thing he said, looking at me completely seriously, was, “I’m not proposing… But I am taking you to Universal and Harry Potter World for your birthday this weekend!”

hogwarts letters up the stairs

customized hogwarts letter

I believed him about proposing instantly but was still incredibly excited that he had planned such a fun trip for my birthday. Eric had called my bosses in advance to secretly ask their permission for a PTO day. He told them the plan was so to take me on a surprise birthday getaway and he also had already asked friends to watch Ollie for the weekend, so with everything taken care of I was told,” you better go pack if you don’t want to be late to class!” Throwing things in a bag at random at 5:30 in the morning, I have never packed so quickly (or probably as badly haha) in my entirely life.

We were on the road in record time and made it to the Hilton Eric booked us, which was perfectly positioned at a nice short walk to Universal’s entrance. We had been to Orlando together in college to spend a day at DisneyWorld, but Universal was a new adventure for us and he knew I would want to be close to the real magic. It was crowded, but apparently the days after New Year’s are a lull period because we never waited more than 45 minutes for anything the entire weekend.

Like a lot of kids, I went through a long phase where I claimed to not enjoy reading. My parents, both avid readers throughout their lives, tried very hard to share the love with me, but it wasn’t sticking. Then my Gran and Granddaddy bought me Harry Potter and the Sorercer’s Stone, for the Christmas right before I turned 11. I cracked the first page on a whim and saw the dedication page that read, “To Jessica: who loves stories.” Now I had no idea that J.K. Rowling’s daughter and I shared the same name and it would make logical sense her first major book was dedicated like this… but in mind, I felt like I had received a magical sign to read this book. I dove in and was absolutely hooked. As a result, my letterless 11th birthday the next week was mildly depressing, but it sparked something in my imagination that changed my relationship with reading forever. I’m not a diehard fan I don’t think, but I still enjoy the story and try to re-read the series every now and then for fun. If you don’t enjoy the Harry Potter universe, you may want to skip past most of this nerdery, ha!

Hogwarts Castle, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida

As soon as we walked through the Hogsmeade entrance, a woman dressed like a witch was ringing a bell and pushing a fresh Butterbeer Cart towards us. We quickly picked up two frozen Butterbeers to sip as we walked along the shops and looked into the interactive windows. The attention to detail in every corner is unbelievable and we felt like we were on the movie sets. We walked into several stores to start scoping out our preferred souvenirs and fit in a ride trough Gringotts. We watched the dragon on top shoot flames from its mouth before walking around some of the rest of Universal and back to our hotel for the evening.

Butterbeer, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
Grimaula Place, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
trying to get into 13 Grimauld Place (if you touch the doorknob, Kreecher may peek out of the window curtains!)

Eric and Jess Pendergrass, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida

When we woke up on Saturday, Eric rolled over and asked what I wanted to do on my birthday. I said “spend the day at Hogwarts” like a giddy kid and we got ready for another fun day. At the entrance, Eric asked me to hang on a second and went to tell a park worker that it was my birthday, so they gave me a birthday pin to wear. I begrudgingly put it on but it didn’t take long to realize that this meant everyone there went out of there way to make my day special, and it was really nice. For lunch, the two of us were given the big center table at The Leaky Cauldron and the conductor of the Hogwarts Express asked me for an autograph. When we were deciding where we wanted to go next, a team member walked up and asked if I wanted to ride the Gringotts ride again, before personally escorting us to the front of the three-hour line we had passed. In all the pictures we took, I look stupidly happy all day.

Hogwarts Express, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
The Hogwarts Express
Herbology Greenhouse, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
the Herbology greenhouses
House Points gems, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
the gems keeping score of House Points
Ceiling in Wiseacre's Wizarding Equipment, Diagon Alley, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
I need this ceiling from Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment in Diagon Alley in my house
Dumbledore's Office, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
the secret entrance to Dumbledore’s office
Hogsmeade, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
Hogsmeade skylines

London p[hone booth, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
Guest entrance to the Ministry of Magic (I pulled out my phone and looked up the number Mr. Weasley/Harry dials and entered it into the phone – you get a recorded message from the Ministry!)
We were both dragging by the late afternoon, so we opted so walk back to the hotel for a quick nap before coming back for the evening. Eric had pointed out and mentioned a strip of Universal property that was between our hotel and the Universal entrance, noting casually how it would be pretty at sunset he thought. It was designed to replicate Venice, Italy, but was surrounded by thick Florida wildlife. The weather was perfect as we strolled around the water and Eric asked if I was enjoying my birthday. I was too busy gushing about how it was the most magical birthday of my life to notice the little box Eric was holding in his pocket.

Empty gondolas on a lake

sunset over a lake

Timed to the exact minute of sunset, we turned a corner when Eric grabbed my hand, kissed me, and started telling me how much I meant to him… I thought he was just being really nice for my birthday and was like, “Awe, yeah, thanks babe.” Then he dropped to one knee and asked if I would marry him! I actually could not believe it and had a very TV-worthy moment where I stared at him for a second before melting into tears of happiness and responding with a big, cliche, “YES!” that echoed over the lakes. Wearing jean shorts with chipped nail polish and messy nap hair, I was 100% taken by surprise and couldn’t believe what Eric had just pulled off. The whole Harry Potter weekend was a distraction – the biggest, most magical distraction Eric could think of to be sure I was truly not paying attention to anything else – and planned a perfect, secluded proposal in the middle of everything that had nothing at all to do with Harry Potter. Well done, Mr. Pendergrass.

We called our families and friends to share the news as we walked the rest of the way to the park entrance. We shared a couple pictures online and put our phones back in our pockets for the rest of the night – we were still at Hogwarts!

We had been avoiding visiting Ollivander’s Wand Shop because of the line that typically formed out front, but the magical birthday pin caught the doorman’s eye who led us right in. Once inside, they do a wand-choosing presentation where one person is called out to help. I don’t know if it was the birthday pin or the new jewelry and gigantic smile plastered to my face that did it, but I was picked out of the crowd to assist as the new witch picking out her wand. If you know me, I don’t have to explain how hard it was for me to keep my cool at this point but WE JUST GOT ENGAGED 45 MINUTES AGO AND NOW I’M GETTING A WAND AT OLLIVANDER’S WHAT IS HAPPENING. Eric is terrible and wonderful at the same time for catching it on video because the wand maker talked about love and marriage and I look like I’m going to faint with excitement the entire time.

After the ceremony was done, an Ollivander’s worker came up to me and asked if we would like to purchase the wand from the presentation. I asked “whose” wand it was – thinking that it was one modeled off the character’s like what sell in the shop. Completely serious, he looked at me and answered, “It’s your wand. It chose you.” like he believed it. Sold. I bought the interactive one that you can actually cast spells with around the park and cause displays to react (I.e. real life magic – this place is everything).

wand boxes in Ollivander's, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
wand boxes in Ollivander’s

With our park pass still active, we got up early enough on Sunday to head back to the park for a few hours before we had to head back home. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is most definitely the most thoughtful theme park design I’ve ever seen and it will leave you feel completely immersed in the experience. Diehard fan or not, spend some time there if you’re going to Universal. My favorite part was watching all the kids with interactive wands casting spells on things, causing lights to flicker or water to shower on an unsuspecting victim. They made each one different and specific, so the kids would be trying to several minutes to wave their wand just right to make it work. Their faces when the spell finally took are nothing short of MAGIC. It was just so cool.

We can’t thank all our friends and family enough for the kind words and well wishes over the weekend. We are so excited to start this next chapter on our journey together with you all by our sides. And thank you to my future husband for the most epic birthday weekend ever! I don’t guess I can propose to you for your birthday next month too, huh?

Believe in magic – it’s real if you look for it!