Wednesday, 17 January 2018

My Harry Potter Win: Part 2

Of all the queues, the one to actually commence the tour was the largest and most densely packed. It would probably have been less stressful had my children been on reins, so I will bear that in mind for future reference. That said, as the numbers built up, the oppressive hubbub worked wonders for intimidating them into line, and it was only another twenty minutes or so before we were in the Great Hall.

Many words come to mind on entering this cavernous space, but I’ll settle for ‘Gosh’. The room is so big that I’d always assumed it was shot on location. Well, you know what they say about assumptions. I’d love illustrate the vastness of the set with an awesome photo, but sadly my camera was giving me lip and I was unable to diagnose the problem while my offspring ran pell-mell about the place. Also, we had only about five minutes to take it all in, so by the time the children were contained, everyone was being booted out. In short, you’ll just have to take my word for it: gosh, indeed.

Next was the hangar full of props. Oh my. I can’t remotely do this justice. It’s not just costumes and wands in here, but rooms - whole rooms - like Harry’s dorm, the Griffyndor common room, Professor Umbridge’s office, the Weasley kitchen, and the potions classroom, with the forbidden forest and Platform 9 3/4 just around the corner (along with the Hogwarts Express). You’ve also got a first-hand introduction to the special effects in here - and not some basic show and tell affair either. You want to sit at Hagrid’s table or summon a broomstick? No problem. Heck, you can even buy a video of yourself riding that broomstick or sitting on the Hogwarts Express as it gets attacked by dementors - though you might want a word with your bank manager first, given that photos are (as I recall) £14 each and video footage £25 a clip.
Sitting at Hagrid's table - my eldest is a giant!
I didn’t mention the wand fighting lessons did I? Well, you’ll need them later on when you’re duelling with death eaters on the Hogwarts Bridge. In my case though, my kids were more interested in Hagrid’s motorbike and the flying car from the second movie, which were parked nearby, so the 10 inches of wooden dowel I was waving around like a prat was purely for my own benefit.

It’s about this point that refreshments are called for. Given that the WB studio is one of possibly four places in the world where one can buy butterbeer, we made a point of grabbing ourselves a beaker each. Which is to say, I bought a couple of beakers to share: at £6.50 for a half-pint or so, I’ve definitely bought cheaper champagne. It’s also horrifically calorific, and long-term use is practically guaranteed to require remedial dentistry. ‘But how does it taste?’, you ask. Imagine a blend of butterscotch and cream soda … My children hated it, and personally, I’d stick to the cheap champagne, but if you’re determined to rot your mouth, I understand that Flying Cauldron butterscotch beer is pretty similar.

Outside the refreshment area you can also have a nosey at the night bus and take a quick tour of the Dursleys’ house (again - I can’t believe this scenery was built for the movie - I honestly had to touch it to believe it!). You’re also only minutes away from the incredible Diagon Alley, but don’t get ahead of yourself - there’s all the CGI and robotic FX to take in first!
The Dursleys' front room

Just one of the treats on Diagon Alley

If, like me, your time in this zone is curtailed by one of your offspring having a tantrum while the other harasses the staff, the one thing you absolutely MUST experience is the bit where you get to control a fully-rendered animation of Dobby the house elf via real-time interactive motion capture. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make Dobby dab, dance the robot or whatever else takes your fancy.

The penultimate area is dedicated to the set designers - the unsung heroes of the franchise - the folks who, thanks to their vision, conceived the entire franchise. Their sketches offer a first-class insight into the production process and leave you genuinely in awe of their imagination.

Finally, it’s time for the money shot: the absurdly intricate 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts. That translates to a model almost 50 feet in diameter. I really can’t overstate the incredibleness of this structure - for reference, the man-hours put into building and reworking the model, if totalled, would exceed 74 years!
Hogwarts (only smaller)

More Hogwarts

So, all that remains is to exit through the gift shop. Here’s the sucker punch. Everything - but everything - is obscenely expensive. For example, the markup on relatively pedestrian pocket-money items, such as a pack of Top Trumps, is at least 50 per cent over the standard market rate for similar (but non-Potter) items. You want a magic wand? That’ll be £35 please. Understandably, my son wanted a souvenir, but when a chocolate frog costs a month’s pocket money, the world was hardly his oyster. He settled on a pair of Harry Potter glasses for £4 - of the quality you might expect from a Poundland fancy dress kit, that - yes - also contained other plastic tat. But his red mist for acquisition was at least sated and we could move on.

In sum then, the tour is plainly one of the most magical things I'll ever experience and I totally recommend it to anyone with only a passing interest in the Potterverse. I'd probably counsel against taking small children - or, more specifically, my children - but despite their best efforts, it was worth the wait. It's also worth mentioning that I'm really terrible at getting my act together, so if it hadn't have been for comping, I might never have got round to doing this. To this end, I'm also grateful to this hobby for giving me the nudge to get more out of life!

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

My Harry Potter Win: Part 1

Ten months after winning tickets to the Harry Potter tour, I finally had them booked. ‘Whaaat?!’ I hear you say, ‘Why?! Why did it take you so long?! How could you sit on something so stupidly exciting?!’
I won these tickets on instagram

Point taken. But here’s the thing: I work freelance, and the very the nature of my work (or perhaps just my client) is so very last minute that it’s impossible to say when a quiet spell will be upon me. This makes it hard to forecast my schedule for the next day, never mind six months ahead like most people seem to be able to manage for this experience.

The other thing is that my lads are still small. The oldest has nightmares about Willy Wonka, while the youngest hides under the sofa cushions while Dobby the house elf is on screen. With this in mind, I figured there was a distinct chance that they might take the gloss off the experience.

As such, we waited about as long as we could before booking our visit, in the hope that they might man up a little. However, we never made it past the Chamber of Secrets DVD.

Not to be beaten, we thought we’d make the trip as exciting as possible by staying nearby, so that we could arrive first thing, without the stress of driving across country. I will confess that the experience of driving to the spa break I won a few months previously still loomed large in my mind, and I was anxious not to involve the RAC in our lives any more than strictly necessary.

So far so good. What I didn’t budget for was the four year-old going on a rampage and refusing to sleep till 10. The other one wasn’t much better. As I sat in a dark Travelodge room, drinking whisky from a mug while my wife snored, I reflected on how I’d envisaged the evening going differently.

The next morning, as you might have guessed, the youngest lad was so exhausted that his monstrous screaming fits appeared with the tedious inevitability of January's credit card bill. Given also that I was a few weeks into the stress and blues of a heinous work bender, the day ahead was never going to be easy.

Getting to Warner Bros Studios was a piece of cake. Getting inside was something else.

First we queued to get the tickets. This queue was short but painfully slow, as the dispensing machine was woefully inept. It was also a waste of time as I was unable to provide the telephone number that the promoter had used when booking the tickets, so the machine refused to recognise me.

As such, I joined the longer queue so I could chat with the counter staff. By this point, the antisocial behaviour of my eldest was at peak malevolence, so my wife removed both children from my line of sight.

After this queue, we joined the queue for bag checks. Finally, we joined the queue to get in.

Let’s just say it was a very British experience.

Nevertheless, we were now IN, and the excitement could begin…

[This enormous post continues tomorrow!]

Monday, 8 January 2018

New Year, New Wishlist 2018

I’ve just had a look at last year’s wishlist. It was 28 items long, and while I didn’t tick off much, it’s nice to see that some wishes were fulfilled, namely the flask, a wireless speaker, vouchers and tickets to the football. It’s fair to say that I could have tried harder to win certain items (a major problem when you focus your energies on lower-odds comps) but at the same time, have you any idea how hard it is to find prize draws for tampons?!

With this in mind, I’m tweaking the wish list for 2018. Naturally, some things will never change: like any normal human being, I still want spa days and scotch. Following a particularly vibrant festive period with my children, however, I’m wondering if technology could make me a better man, hence my new-found hunger for noise-cancelling headphones.

Periodic table of desires 2018

As ever, I’m broadly grouping my desires into basics, boring things, tech, experiences and cash & cash equivalents.

Basics are the kind of thing that should come through the door instead of credit card bills. Were granola distributed under a kind of universal credit system, for example, the world would be a better place.

Then comes the one-off purchases that I keep postponing, on account of my preference for comfort acquisitions, such as trainers and biscuits.

As for tech, not only do I find it hard to justify investing in home entertainment when that money could be better spent addressing the children's most recent vandalism, I am also a documented luddite. My telly, for example, predates HD, and the only reason I don’t still have an enormous CRT one is because my cousin kindly gave me his old one when he updated a few years back!

Cash and cash equivalents are, I’m sure on everyone’s wishlist. I’m desperate to extend into our loft, so if I can divert any of our regular income towards this massive goal then I’d be over the moon.

Finally, experiences fall into three categories: jollies for me; jollies for the children; and jollies for everyone. The colour scheme of my wishlist would suggest that I’ve filed “spa” under “jollies for everyone”. The argument here is that it is actually in EVERYONE’s interest to send me on spa breaks. The simple fact is that if I am submerged in a hot tub for two days, isolated from the incessant hullabaloo of my offspring, I do become a slightly more patient parent. I grant that sometimes the transformation lasts only for an hour or two, but I assure you it’s worth it.

What about you guys? What are you hoping to find in your comping stocking in 2018? Let me know in the comments below!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

About those resolutions…

Back in January 2017, I set myself three comping goals: get organised, run a giveaway, and lay off the protein comps.

One of these was an unqualified success, the other two not so good.

The success was of course my little collaboration with Brush Baby. This opportunity came out of the blue, after my son’s letter from the tooth fairy went viral, and if there’s one thing I like to do with opportunities, it’s bite their hands off. Several hundred people passed through here while the comp was live, and some of you even stuck around, so come here and let me give you all a great big thank you hug (or firm handshake if you’re not so touchy-feely) - you guys are the tops!

My relationship with protein comps meanwhile blew hot and cold. Mainly cold: for the bulk of the year, I managed to stay clean … but then December struck. Due to time restrictions, my Advent season didn’t stray far beyond the confines of Instagram, at which point I became overwhelmed by a tsunami of competitions to win hairbrushes and energy bars. Well, let’s just say I didn’t win any hairbrushes.

Finally, the organisation. This was calamitous. I tried a hard-copy diary, a list on my desktop, bookmarks on Chrome, and even emailing myself, but could I keep a handle on what comps to enter and when? NOPE! I suspect part of the problem is that my work patterns changed this year, leaving me with less free time (or at least, less brain energy). Then again, maybe I’m just getting old. Whatever the reason, my line manager is stamping a great big black FAIL on this bit of my annual review, and I’m under strict orders to get my teeth into this “development opportunity” before it bites me.

So what’s it to be this year?

My counsellor tells me I should make my goals more realistic, so I’m tempted to knock organisation on the head this year … but then again, I do so hate to be a quitter!

My counsellor also tells me to be kinder to myself, so I’m going to keep doing this for the craic. That means enjoying every win, no matter how small, and not beating myself up about days off or missing closing dates - there will always be more giveaways!

As a more formal goal, I’m going to see how well this blog can extend onto Instagram. Possibly it won’t translate at all, but you’re welcome to follow me @garywasabi during my awkward early stages. (Here, I should add that the plan is to use the account for comping natter rather than comping per se, as I’ve neither the time nor the inclination for the moral murk of comping with multiple accounts!)

What about you guys? Did things work out to plan? Let me know in the comments below! Oh, and if you’ve got any tips on organising me - just let me know!

Tuesday, 2 January 2018

2017: A year in numbers

2650: Total prize value (£). Amazingly, that’s the exact same number as last year. Well, semi-amazingly anyway - there’s a fair amount of rounding goes into these calculations as it’s impossible to attach an exact cost to things when most products can be bought at any number of prices from any number of vendors, with the result that RRP is largely meaningless. To further complicate matters, I’ve got some prizes in America that I’m yet to see, so can’t really say what they’re worth. With this in mind, let’s just say that I did no worse than last year, which is pretty good considering my patchy efforts.

1600: Biggest prize value (£). Oh my, this was nice - four mountain bikes and a GoPro camera from WD40! When I read the winning notification I actually felt a bit queasy, and if I’m honest, I’m still a bit numb - one bike would have been a great prize, as would the camera on its own. The fact that it was from an effort comp made it even sweeter! I’m highly indebted to my second-born for this win, as he undoubtedly added a little x-factor to my entry (see below).

130: Total value of vouchers won (£). This broke down into a £100 Amazon voucher, a £20 high street voucher and a £10 PayPal voucher. The Amazon voucher arrived just in time for my Christmas shopping so was especially appreciated.

44: Number of wins. Actually, my name was pulled out of the hat a total of 47 times, but two of those occasions were for a football match I was unable to attend due to a change in itinerary (the same match!), and I’m reluctant to count the “free” bottle of Lucozade I won during the Made to Move promo as the voucher actually cost me 4p to redeem. On the plus side, my mum gave me the football she won from Walkers, so I’m adding that to the tally!

14: Wins on Instagram. Instagram was my luckiest social channel - but only by a whisker. What’s more, half of my Instagram wins came from the advents, so it wasn’t a consistent source of good fortune. What is interesting, however, is that in contrast to my Facebook success, most of my Instagram wins came from simple comment/tag/regram prize draws. This highlights how much shorter the odds for no-effort comps can be, compared with, say, Facebook or Twitter. Indeed, three of those wins came from comps with under five entrants, while another one had less than ten. On Facebook, meanwhile, all of my wins required some degree of effort.

3: Total piggyback wins. I love piggyback wins! I’m talking, of course, about competitions where prizes are awarded to winning entrants AND their friends - a form of giveaway that I’ve observed most often on Instagram, though I’m sure exists elsewhere. In 2017, I got a free-ride on tea bags, a Corcicle canteen and about £50 of Bach flower remedies, thanks to my brilliant comping buddies - fingers crossed, they’ll get some payback in 2018!

1: Pointless skill learned. I can now flip a half-filled bottle of water. I am so 2015.

I hope you also got a chance to look at your prize spreadsheet in more detail during the festive season - let me know if you spotted any unanticipated patterns! 

Sunday, 31 December 2017

Unboxing December 2017

I'm delighted to report that December turned out to be much more exciting than the last few months and I had real fun putting this month's video together. Of course, the inevitable homage to Monty Python may have had something to with that...

Best wishes for an awesome 2018!

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The wider world in 2017

It’s that time of year again: the point when you’ll surely split your seams if you so much as think about tackling another competition - or am I thinking of mince pies?! In either case, it’s time for a cup of tea and nice sit down, while we reflect on what has happened in the wider world of comping this year.

My sole prediction for 2017 was that we’d probably be saying hello to Roady McRoadface. As ever, the inevitable came to pass. Specifically, a 10-block section of the I-80 in Salt Lake City was officially adopted by one Roady McRoadface in June this year.

Closer to home - by which I mean slightly closer to the world of comping - the highest-profile competition of the year was surely the raffle to win a truly unique, money-can’t-buy experience: a Valentine’s date with Idris Elba. (I confess, I did think of entering, but didn’t want my wife to get jealous!) Bonus points were definitely scored for the video released alongside the campaign, where a room full of children advised Mr Elba how best to handle himself on said date.

Speaking of competitions I didn’t enter, it would be remiss of me not to mention one of the most eye-catching prizes of the year: an 8-foot bust of Jeremy Clarkson. Kudos to the winner for finding one of the lowest-entry comps of the year!

I’ll be honest, I also didn’t enter the South Park ‘I am the Fart’ competition, which required entrants to submit a video of them breaking wind. Much as I fancied being flown to San Francisco to have my Bronx cheer made into 'the official in-game fart' for the latest South Park video game, I'm sad to say that the voting element of the comp hit a real bum note…

Finally, that leaves the lamentable tale of the prankster who, on at least two occasions, convinced members of the public to lick the feet of complete strangers in the hope of winning an imaginary £3000 prize. In the first case, this was in addition to letting Poundworld staff draw on their faces and ride them like ponies. That the Iceland staff merely had to hide under tables and pretend to be vacuum cleaners seems pretty mild by comparison.

There's probably a lesson to be learned from that last story, but I think my tea needs topping up. Oh, and did someone mention mince pies?

What were your favourite comping stories from 2017? Let me know in the comments below!