Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure Review

I finally had the opportunity to experience #HagRide at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando Resort. After two previous attempts to ride the mindblowing attraction, I was able to mount my motorbike and be hurled into a world of adventure. My experience was enhanced because my sister and brother-in-law were visiting, and we got to ride it together for the very first time! Additionally, I was able to share the experience with my friend Dani (her review here) because she was just 30mins ahead of us in queue–we found out each other was at the park in queue for HagRide on Twitter–small world! If you’ve heard it characterized as a storycoaster, you’ve heard correctly. HagRide represents the best of coaster and dark ride technologies all rolled up into one innovative attraction that is unparalleled by any other I have experienced. And if you’re like me–averse to the proliferation of screen-based attractions–then you’ll be immensely delighted that this storycoaster is full of practical effects, sets, props, and groundbreaking animatronics. And to answer the question that is likely on your mind, I only waited for 1.75hrs. Would’ve been 1.5hrs but it was momentarily delayed–no surprise there. Is it worth the 3+ hour wait that many are still reporting? For that, I will not provide commentary; however, my brother-in-law who isn’t a big theme park fan because of the wait times said, and I quote, “that was worth the wait.” Thankfully we had unlimited Express Passes because we were staying at the Royal Pacific Resort, but HagRide does not offer an Express Pass queue nor does it open during the hour-early resort guest hours. Bottom line, this coaster is one that you do not want to miss during your visit to Wizarding World Orlando!

I feel that I have been in the Forbidden Forest ever since I began receiving the Press Releases containing artwork, progress photos, and descriptions of the highly anticipated addition to Hogsmeade at Universal Orlando. Every time I read about a new magical creature or the animatronics, I grew increasingly excited. Unfortunately yours truly still isn’t important enough to Universal to be invited to the media events, but I am glad that I at least get the media emails from the resort to keep up with the goings-on at the park. Thankfully, I can now provide you with the review of my first time on the motorbike (I rode the motorbike, my sister and brother-in-law were directly behind me in the motorbike/sidecar respectively). Although it is not fair to compare it to any existing theme park attraction because of its uniqueness, if you compare it to the two existing Harry Potter attractions, then it has the ride vehicle innovation of Forbidden Journey and the storytelling of Escape from Gringotts. The queue and attraction include more than 1200 live trees to truly immerse you in the forbidden forest. Longtime visitors to Islands of Adventure will recognize parts of the queue as belonging to the former Dueling Dragons turned Dragon Challenge coaster. I love looking for the remnants of the past as incorporated into new attractions.

The story begins in the queue–specifically–the preshow (from which, you are looking at 45mins to 1hr wait). Just as Dumbledore opened Hogwarts to muggles, the premise for the story found in Forbidden Journey, Hagrid opens his Magical Creatures class to muggles! Love the parallel there. During your tour, you will encounter magical creatures with which you are familiar and a brand new hybridization created by Hagrid known as Blast-Ended Skrewt. During the preshow, you also get a first-look at your ride vehicle, Sirius Black’s flying motorbike (that you can also see in the video on the Hogwarts Express as you travel from Diagon Alley to Hogsmeade). After the preshow and prior to mounting your bike, you continue to meander the labyrinth of hallways filled with dragon and other creature eggs, graffiti from Hogwarts Students dec the walls, yes even venders selling food and drink in queue because of the long wait time. Because Hagrid loves the students, their sneaking around and all, he is wokring with Arthur Weasley to finish the train of motorbikes that will take students and you out into the Forbidden Forest in large groups to see the Blast-Ended Skrewt. Of course, something goes terribly wrong and hijinks ensue! Prepare for the ride of your life as there are launches, twists, turns, and even some pitfalls along the way.

HagRide excels in both its delivery of the narrative and spectacle. It is both impressive from a technical marvel perspective and experiential one. The long and short of it is that HagRide is FUN! You will want to ride it again and again. Although you will probably not want to wait 3+ hours, time and time again. Whereas I do not typically scream on or truly get lost in an attraction, this one successfully transported me to the Forbidden Forest in both mind and body. I screamed and whoah’d multiples times! Not knowing what lies ahead held me in suspense, and delivered in spades, after every windup. I was holding onto the handlebars of the motorbike as if I was actually on one. If I closed by eyes, I’m confident that I would truly feel that I was on a motorbike zooming through a forest. Every moment, every prop, set piece, and turn earns your screams and laughter! You’ll be captivated by the production design and incredible animatronics the entire time and even after you exit the attraction!

Impressive. That is the one word, aside from fun, that truly captures what it is like to experience HagRide. The combination of technologies integrated into the design of the attraction has never been seen before. No flight simulator can replicate what Universal Orlando Resort was able to deliver in this attraction. There is even a moment that you shot up a nearly vertical ~70ft track section, just to pause for a few seconds then shot backwards through the dark–think Expedition Everest, but BETTER and more intense. That’s not the surprise that awaits you on HagRide, there are seven launches and a 15ft drop (won’t tell you were it is). There was such a huge possibility that the focus could have so easily been on the technology–see what we can do now–but I am pleased to report that the technical advancements never take away from the narrative. There is a perfect balance of spectacle vs narrative; the show and ride technology serve the park guest by enhancing the experience. HagRide effortlessly weaves the story into the mechanics of the attraction in such a manner that you will truly want to experience it again and again to witness what you may have missed on the first time around. I certainly need to return for more re-rides to continually take everything in.

With so much to see on HagRide, you will likely notice some detail in the queue or on the ride that you may have missed before. Definitely make the time to experience Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure!

You can catch Ryan most weekends at Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld Orlando, Universal Orlando Resort, or Walt Disney World. So if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him in the parks.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and has been writing on theme parks for more than five years. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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Christmastime is “Magical” at Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando guests can now experience the magic of Christmastime in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (WWoHP) Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. You’ve asked for a holiday overlay in the Wizarding World, and now you can experience it. From Christmas Pudding at the Leaky Cauldron to the Magic of Hogwarts Castle mapped projection show, your holiday spirits will be uplifted throughout the Wizarding World. This marked the first year that the WWoHP receives a Christmas overlay during the holiday season, and it is not to be missed. Between Grinchmas (see my review from last year as it is largely unchanged) at Islands of Adventure, the Mannheim Steamroller, Holiday Parade, and Harry Potter Christmas at Universal Studios (as well as HP IoA), you will find plenty to fill your day. In fact, my friend Dani and I found so much to do that we didn’t experience one ride because the time just wasn’t there. But when you’ve ridden everything hundreds of times, you feel that there is the time to spend on the limited time engagements.

For months, I have been looking forward to the brand new Harry Potter Holiday offerings at Universal Orlando. This will be the first time that JK’s WWoHP will receive a seasonal overlay of decorations and attraction offerings. Now that WWoHP has received the Christmas treatment, perhaps Halloween will be next! Between both parks at Universal Orlando Resort, there is a world of holiday happiness around every corner, or in this case, through walls. With so much going on, it can be a little daunting to try to fit everything into a day. For annual passholders who visit regularly, this won’t seem as tough because the rides can be skipped. For those who are visiting on vacation, definitely consult the Universal Orlando app or website for show schedules in order to map out your day to make sure you get everything in (for vacationers, you definitely need to plan 2 full days minimum). On our way to the park, Dani and I looked at the park schedule on our way across the I-4 and made a general itinerary of the order in which we wanted to experience the limited time engagements. If you plan out your itinerary, you’ll find that getting to see the shows and parades you want will be much easier and definitely less stressful once in the park.

Our first stop was Diagon Alley to see the There’s Nothing Like a Holiday Spell Celestina Warbeck show. I adore this show, and often watch it when I am in the park. Her voice, the costumes, and music genuinely create the atmosphere of a 1940s jazz nightclub. The Celestina Warbeck show still has the quintessential Wizarding flare to it, and the original songs were superb! Expecting no less, Celestina’s Christmas gown was drop dead gorgeous and her Banshees were killer as well. Although the vocal artists/character performers who portray Celestina always look like they are having a great time, the degree of enthusiasm from Celestina was greatly increased during the show. I imagine it’s due to the show being new, and it’s a break from the regular song lineup. If I could suggest one way to start your holidays at Universal Orlando, this is the show that I would recommend hands down. And get this, at the finale of the show, Diagon Alley is covered in snow flurries!

After leaving the Celestina show, Dani and I made our way to the Leaky Cauldron to see the decorations and to see if they had some seasonal offerings on their menu. To our delight, there were some additional items AND a Christmas Pudding for dessert! I’ve read of Christmas Pudding in Charles Dickens’ timeless masterpiece A Christmas Carol, but never had the opportunity to try one. Without even knowing what was in it, Dani and I both ordered the pudding with her banger sandwich (her regular) and my Guinness lamb & beef stew (my regular). Although the interior of The Leaky Cauldron is not nearly as decorated as the streets of Diagon Alley, the subtle additions of pine garland created a festive atmosphere. After eating out main courses, it was time to dive into our Christmas Pudding. The mini pudding came out in the shape of a bundt cake with icing on the side to drizzle over top of the pudding. I was aware that British puddings were more like buddy cakes, but still to see a pudding in that shape was pretty cool. Once the icing was drizzled, Dani and I sunk our forks into the moist pudding and took our respective bites simultaneously. It was unanimous–YUMM! We both absolutely loved the pudding. Its flavor reminded us both of a spice cake with currents. Hints of cinnamon and sugar were also found in the pudding. We would both definitely order the Christmas pudding again.

After our early dinner, we were ready to board the Hogwarts Express to Hogsmeade for the Magic of Hogwarts Castle show. Upon approach to Kings Cross Station, we saw the wait was 60mins; so needless to say, we decided to walk to IoA. On our way, we stopped in the Universal props store where they sell old props to attractions. With HHN having ended just a couple weeks prior, there were many HHN props and decorations for sale. Annual Passholders do not get a discount at this store, but it’s definitely worth a browse because you may find a piece to a show or ride that you enjoy. Once we arrived at IoA, we were greeted with a new holiday mix of music at the Port of Entry instead of the whimsical tunes that are present for most of the year. On our way to WWoHP Hogsmeade, we passed through Dr. Seuss Landing. In no area is there a greater feeling of Christmas than in Seuss Landing. Much like Dickens is credited for inventing Christmas in how we commonly celebrate it, Seuss has also been incredibly instrumental in fostering the Christmas spirit through his brilliant book How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Since we saw the show last year, we did not make the time to see Grinchmas again this time. But, I plan to watch it before the holiday season is over. If you haven’t seem it, definitely check it out as it is the live theatrical presentation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. As The Lorax is a favorite book of ours, we stopped to take a picture with he who “speaks for the trees” since he decorated the Onceler’s place for Christmas.

We arrived at the base of Hogwarts Castle about 1hr prior to showtime, and there were already about a dozen or so groups of people sitting down in the taped off viewing area for the show. With the queue for Forbidden Journey reading 45mins, we decided to go ahead and select our spot for the new show on its debut weekend. It’s a good thing that we did, because in no time at tall, the area was filling up quickly. Since the show begins at sundown (the times guide states dusk–believe me, it’s after sundown), the start time varies based upon sunset. As the sun goes down, you’ll notice that the cliffs beneath the castle begin to get covered in snow. I’m aware that is mapped prediction, but the snow dropped cliffs look quite real. You’ll begin to hear the familiar Harry Potter theme as snow falls over the castle, and that marks the beginning of the show. And, such an amazing show it is! Simply breathtaking. It has a great blend of familiar images from the movies as well as Christmas animations. The song selection was excellent and paired with eat animations nicely. Whether you have seen the Harry Potter movies or not will not negatively impact your experience of this seasonal show. It is enjoyable for everyone! There is a warmth that iminates from Hogwarts during the show that will have you completely wrapped in the magic of the season.

After making our way through the overly crowded and disorganized streets of Hogsmeade (I’ve heard Universal modified the guest flow of traffic on night two, which is good because leaving the courtyard was horrendous Saturday night), we quickly headed for the Christmas Music of Mannheim Steamroller concert at Universal Studios. I don’t know about you, but I grew up with the music of Mannheim Steamroller at Christmastime, and I look forward to their limited time engagement at Universal Studios Florida every year. Even if you do not know them by name, it is highly likely that you are familiar with Chip Davis’ combination of synth and orchestra pieces. The company at Universal is the Mannheim Steamroller Orlando compliment and not the full company (because they are touring at this time), but the sound is just as big and the showmanship is excellent. Since my mom does not live around here, I made sure to FaceTime with her so she could vicariously enjoy the concert with me from 500mi away. Attending the concert was the perfect way to end our day of holiday enjoyment at Universal Orlando.

Suffice it to say, Universal Orlando has done an outstanding job with its special limited time holly jolly holiday offerings this year. The addition of the Christmas overlay in the WWoHP more than doubles the festive events going on now. Don’t miss out on the “magic” of Christmas at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure this holiday season.

 

Family Time at Universal Orlando

UO_NightInstead of researching my next article this past weekend, I spent time with family at Universal Orlando. But, in spending time with my family visiting from out of town, I definitely have some thoughts that I’d like to share. Nothing truly profound, but occasionally it’s refreshing to write on a more personal level instead of always being committed to scholarly writing. Much like thousands of other families, I grew up going to the parks. Needless to say, I did not frequent them like I do now–every week. I did not live in Florida until I was 24, so we would plan family vacations to Orlando every so many years. Since my sister and I grew up on Nickelodeon moreso than the Disney Channel, when we were old enough to appreciate the experience, our parents took us to then Universal Studios Florida to “ride the movies” and experience THE Nickelodeon Studios. Although there is a lot to enjoy about the present-day Universal experience, our favorite stories are from the early days of the park. Obviously, childhood memories are often more powerful than present ones by default, so there is definitely some degree of subjectivity in remembering the original park(s); but I digress.

Check out this promotional video from 1990 when the park opened

It’s been 10 years since the whole family went to Universal Orlando. The last time the whole family was together in the parks was at Disney World in 2011 (when I was a Cast Member). Since I bought my sister a Universal Annual Pass, she gets down here a couple times a year but we had not been to the park as a family since 2010. If you have been going to the parks (whether Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, or Busch Gardens) for as long as I have, you get to witness the evolution of the parks and the continual reimagination of attractions and themed areas. Most of the time the change is positive and beneficial, but other times the changes are disappointing. I think that sometimes we forget that the parks have to reinvent themselves every generation in order to keep the guests coming in. That means that iconic attractions sometimes have to go, despite what long-time fans think. Other times, the addition of new attractions is outstanding! This is certainly the case with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando and the future Star Wars Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As my research has shown, nostalgia is an important element in the success and popularity of a theme park; but there is certainly more to the planning, development, and logistics of future offerings than just nostalgia.

PortofinoNightIf I had to name just one element of my staycation that made it feel like a family vacation, it would have to be pulling up to and staying at the Loews Portofino Bay Hotel on site at Universal Florida. It wasn’t simply the fact that Loews has done an excellent job at recreating the quaint Italian waterside village, but that it felt like an escape from my normal every-day trips to the park. As a kid, I remember when there was no Portofino Hotel period and later on I remember passing it when walking to the park entrance from the Holiday Inn across the street where we stayed multiple times. Now, this was not my first stay at Portofino. I did stay there with my aunt and uncle’s family back in September 2010; but this was the first stay with my immediate family. I arrived before my family in order to get us checked in. When I went out to move my car to the parking garage, I ran into them and it was really cool to get to meet at the hotel. Maybe that is not very descriptive and lacks critical analysis, but it really was memorable since we were meeting at a hotel that we passed by and always wanted to stay at, and not having that opportunity previously, thanks to my annual pass discount haha.

One of the results of going to the park with my family or with those who have not been in a long time, or at all, is experiencing what it’s like to see the sites, hear the sounds, and riding the attractions, or watching the shows for the first time–vicariously anyway. Not that I don’t enjoy frequenting the parks as often as I do, but it’s always refreshing to get to smile, laugh, and enjoy the attractions like it’s the first time all over again. I cannot tell you how much I loved witnessing my parents’ reaction to the rides. I don’t think there is any time like the first. Hearing their respective reactions to what I enjoy all the time from their perspective was as enjoyable as the attraction itself. The expressions on their faces were priceless and created memories that will last for a lifetime. In addition to visiting new attractions (for them), we also revisited the remaining two opening day attractions that we’ve experienced as a family many times: E.T. the Adventure Continues and the Horror Makeup Show. I don’t think I will ever forget what it was like to meander through the E.T. queue as a kid. The feeling of what it must’ve been like to work on the movie will last forever. Even on this recent trip, my family and I still talk about that queue. Just waiting in queue for the timeless dark ride brought back so many fond memories. Although the hotel experience was probably what made this feel like a vacation for me, it is riding E.T. with my family that was the most exciting for me. Even when I am in the parks for a few hours or a day, I still ride that because it always takes me back to being a kid in the 90s at Universal.

GringottsFamilyVacationing in a family favorite theme park is not limited to waxing nostalgic of the past, but it’s also about creating new memories in the present. I think the funniest picture I took of them was when my parents and a family friend tried butterbeer for the first time! They absolutely loved it and got it twice during the 2.5 days in the parks. They were simply in awe at the beautiful architecture and creative engineering of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Forbidden Journey was definitely the favorite attraction between Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Of course, they thoroughly enjoyed the train experience as well. Remarked over and over how it makes them want to take a real train for recreation sometime. For everyone, except me, riding Skull Island: Reign of Kong was a new experience! And, I had only ridden it once before (after which I wrote my critical analysis). Unfortunately, it did not qualify for the unlimited Loews express passes, so it was definitely the longest line; however, a much shorter wait than when I first experienced it. I loved being able to form new memories with my family at this ride. Until this trip, there were attractions that I would experience with friends or when my sister would visit me at which I did not have family memories. And, to that point, there was always an element missing from the experience. Nothing major, just a little feeling that felt empty. Now that we have experienced everything at the park, I have fond memories that I will continue to cherish for a lifetime as I have done since going to the park as a kid. Although there are family favorites that are no longer there, such as: Nickelodeon Studios, Hitchcock: the Art of Making Movies, Murder She Wrote, Lucy: a Tribute, Jaws: the Ride, and Earthquake: the Big One, I have had the opportunity to create new memories that will one day, in and of themselves, become nostalgic.

Out of all the kinds of family vacations that one can think of, I firmly believe that theme park vacations are responsible for some of the most beloved memories. Whether you are from a traditional family or you were adopted, theme parks are places of magic that inspire, intrigue, and beckon for returned trips. I am thankful that I have so many fond memories at not only Universal, but Disney World, Busch Gardens, Carrowinds, Cedar Point, and the little known Magic World (formerly in Gatlinburg). If I was able to anecdotally designate the chief contributing factor to why theme parks make great vacations or simply lasting memories, I would venture to say that it’s because they provide experiences and interaction. Because one is physically and emotionally experiencing something, it is far more powerful than simply visiting a landmark or watching a movie.

Saturday Afternoon in the Park with Magic

magic-wandIf you are giggling right now, then I know you catch the reference in my article’s title this week ;-). Ordinarily, I select some sort of theme to write about in regards to a theme park itself or attraction. But this week, I thought I would take a lighter approach to my weekly article on themed entertainment and write about my experiences this past weekend. Most weekends, you can find me in the parks of Central/West Central Florida. Living within a short driving distance of the parks, I generally do a lot of park hopping. What is park hopping, you ask? It’s when you spend a few hours in different parks throughout the day. Essentially, hopping from one to the other. Since I live here, I don’t feel as if I need to spend a significant amount of time in any one park. Honestly, I find that sometimes you can get just as much accomplished in a few hours in the evening than in an entire day. Anyway. I had a few notable experiences that I just wanted to share. Anytime something extra special happens to me while I am in a park, I refer to it as magic. Partially because having worked at Walt Disney World for a few years, I often referred to extra special actions throughout the day as “making magic.” But, magic in the parks is not limited to just Disney, but they all have a certain magic.

Steamy hot summers are just part and parcel to living in central and south Florida. Living here, you figure out ways to still enjoy the parks while not falling down dead from heat stroke. Haha. From knowing which snacks or beverages are the most refreshing to alternating between indoor and outdoor attractions or simply visiting a store between rides. Sometimes a combination of the aforementioned works out the best.

Saturday afternoon, following flying around on a bench and helping Harry defeat dementors and such on Forbidden Journey in Hogsmeade at Islands of Adventure, I was definitely in the mood for something refreshing prior to boarding the Hogwarts Express to Kings Cross Station at Universal Studios. My friend Nelson and I were walking past the Butterbeer cart near Dragon Challenge when I decide to get a frozen butterbeer. Often, the line is really long and I just assume wait until the slower seasons but the line wasn’t too bad this time. After about 5mins of waiting, I was ready to place my order when Nelson asks if his Universal team member discount applies to the cart. Much like with the annual passholder discounts, his too was only applicable at indoor locations. The young lady suggested that we go inside Three Broomsticks to the bar and order one there.

Taking her advice, Nelson and I walked over to the former Enchanted Oak restaurant, now the Three Broomsticks, and head to the bar. Didn’t take long to notice that the line for the bar wrapped completely around the room. I commented that we were better off in the outside line and no discount. Back outside we went. Walking past that same cart again, the line was even longer than before, so I decided that butterbeer wasn’t all that important. Or was it? I proceeded to wait in the line again for my refreshing frozen butterbeer. Having to wait 10 minutes this time, I anxiously awaited the frozen beverage delight! Not to my surprise, it was the same citizen of Hogsmeade that I encountered earlier. She was just as pleasant as she was before, which is difficult to do on a blistering hot day. We both exchanged a few giggles because it was obviously that she knew that I had returned to her cart because the line was too long inside. After she poured my butterbeer with marshmallowy froth from the taps, I handed her my card and she replied “no charge.” WOW! How incredibly thoughtful. The last thing I expect is to get anything complimentary in the parks. This incredibly unexpected magical encounter in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter certainly helped to brighten my day and make my friend Nelson a little jealous. Haha.

The magic did not stop at WWoHP, but I experienced some more magic later on Saturday evening. After finishing up at Universal, and making a stop at SeaWorld for a couple hours, my friends and I headed over to Magic Kingdom to meet up with a couple more folks. While on the monorail, the couple of friends that we were meeting starting booking FastPasses and relaying to us which ones the selected. This whole process would’ve been a lot easier had we all been linked on the MyDisneyExperience app. Sometimes, I forget to add people or neglect mentioning to them to add me. Moving along. After some adding, cancelling, and searching, it was apparent that everyone grabbed the last slots except me. Thankfully the lines were fairly short–even for a non summer day. Perks of going in the evening. So, I wasn’t too worried. I imagined that someone in our group would wait in standby with me as as to not ride alone. However, riding alone is something I do quite often, so nothing new there. Out of our group of five, only two were able to snatch up FPs (by was of a re-addmittance card) for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train earlier in the evening. Unfortunately, that meant that three of us had to wait in standby.

After riding It’s a Small World and the iconic Tea Cups (note: the trick to not getting sick is to spin your tea cup in the same direction as the platform) we all decided to get some ice cream. While across from Mine Train, Jason thought about asking the greeter at the attraction if he would add the three of us to his re-add. If you are familiar with how strict FP and re-add policies have become, you know that this may as well be a fool’s errand. Jason told us to start walking to our next stop which was Splash Mountain and he’d catch up. As we began walking across Fantasyland, and commenting how Jason’s quest was not going to pan out well, we did not get past the carousel when he came up to us and told us that we had been added! So, now all five of us could go through the FastPass line. Sweet! And I thought getting my free butterbeer was as magical as it was going to get on Saturday. Experiencing some them park magic in Fantasyland, how apropos!

Whether I experience extra special magic in the parks or not, I will always enjoy going. There is just something so uniquely experiential in the ability to casually enjoy the parks at my leisure. However, it is times like the ones I have mentioned that even surprise even me! In addition to the encounters I highlighted in this article, I also experienced receiving express passes from Universal Guest Relations after leaving a compliment for the Hogsmeade merchant and getting accommodated in the FP queue at Space Mountain. So, four magical experiences in one day in the parks!