"Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light." — Albus Dumbledore, "Harry Potter"
After Amanda Steele was diagnosed with breast cancer and underwent a double mastectomy in spring 2017, there were days when getting up out of a chair at home was a victory.
So her husband, Joel Pace, decided to entertain her by re-creating a version of the blue flying car from the "Harry Potter" books, a series they both loved. He displayed the car and other "Potter"-themed items he created in the front yard, just in time for Halloween.
"He said, ‘I bet I can build that car.’ It was the first time I had really laughed in a long time," Steele said. "We weren’t focused on cancer anymore. We were focused on what he could create and how he would do it. It was a way to distract our family and create a little levity when there wasn’t much."
"She needed something to cheer her up," Pace added. "Every time I built something, it made her smile, and the neighborhood laughed about it. The next year came around and she was like, ‘We’re doing it again, aren’t we?’"
Since 2017, Pace, a lawyer and self-proclaimed "repressed architect," has built an annual, Halloween-timed, immersive Diagon Alley display in the couple’s Southwest Austin front yard and driveway that has featured book and movie staples, including the Leaky Cauldron, Gringotts, the Hogwarts Express, the Knight Bus and, of course, the Great Hall.
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"Delivery people would have to walk through it to deliver something to our house," said Steele, adding that, when it comes to Hogwarts houses, she’s a Gryffindor, Pace is a Ravenclaw and their son, Grant, is a Hufflepuff. "We knew people at least in our Circle C neighborhood would know about it, but we were a little surprised when people knew about it outside of our bubble."
In recent years, their Diagon Alley Austin Halloween House has garnered attention from across the world, drawn lines around the block and raised thousands of dollars for local charities.
"There are some superfans out there, and they’ve helped us along the way. And our son keeps us in check — he knows a lot about the series," Steele said. "What’s surprising is that the series means something different to everyone, from the little kids who just started reading it to the teenagers that grew up with it to the adults who will wait in line for two hours. It casts a wide net."
Pace, who typically begins working on the displays in the summer, added that the end result "winds up being so wonderful. It’s so damn happy. No one complains about the wait. The whole thing has gotten out of hand, but it’s out of hand in a really nice way. It puts everybody in a good mood."
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the couple had to decide if there was a way to safely continue this annual tradition. They decided that instead of offering an immersive, walk-through experience, they would create a display that’s easily viewed from afar by those driving or walking by.
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"We don’t want to encourage people to loiter or hang out," Pace said, adding that visitors should plan to come on a day other than Halloween to avoid causing traffic issues or safety concerns for neighborhood trick-or-treaters. "We want to give people more time to come see it, and I also don’t want them to feel the need to rush out here and see it in one day where it might create a big crowd."
This year, any donations made toward the display, which is located on Hopeland Drive, will be split between three charities: Foster Angels of Central Texas, Variety Texas and Zach Theatre.
"We’ve never charged for this and we never will, but it’s a fun way to take the positive energy of this whole thing and turn it into a focus to support these charities," Pace said. "These nonprofits offer opportunities where you get to make someone’s life better."