The whole Harry Potter phenomenon kind of passed us by. I saw the first film and the second-to-last many years later (which made very little sense but was exciting anyway) but have still to read any of the books. However, our daughter Rebecca discovered the movies a couple of years ago and we’ve been catching up ever since.
In fact we finally finished watching all of them just before visiting Orlando last summer, where we were lucky enough to be among the first guests to experience the new Diagon Alley area at Universal Studios. It was great fun and yes, we now consider ourselves Harry Potter fans. Fans with a small ‘f’, I should probably emphasize. Not the sort of fans who can quote every line of every film or dress up in costume to visit anything remotely related to the bespectacled wizard.
When we heard that Warner Bros. had opened the doors to the studios where the films were made so that guests could go behind the scenes and see the actual props, designs, costumes and sets used in production, this tour shot to the top of the list over things to do on our next trip to London.
So it was that I took contact with the company to see if they were interested in providing tickets in return for a review. They were indeed and managed to arrange entry at rather short notice (my disorganization was the problem here) and we were booked in for 11 am on June 15th.
The Studio Tour is located around 20 miles to the north-west of London and is easy to reach by car from the M1 and M25 motorways. Do give yourself enough time – there are usually queues on the last stretch from the motorway to the studio which get progressively worse as the day goes on – it is a very popular attraction.
Later arrivals will also end up parking a little further from the entrance so I would recommend booking your tickets for the morning if possible. 11 am was perfect; despite the traffic and being somewhat overoptimistic we made it with a few minutes to spare. Try to arrive 20 minutes before your allotted time slot.
Parking is free.
It’s also easy to reach the studio by public transport – you can take the direct train from Euston Station to Watford Junction in just 20 minutes; from the station there is a shuttle bus to the entrance which takes a further 10 minutes and costs GBP 1.50 single or GBP 2.00 return. Have your entrance ticket ready for the bus and aim to arrive at Watford Junction 45 minutes before your designated entry time slot.
Before we go any further – you cannot buy tickets on-site and must book in advance. It’s an easy process, just select the time slot you require and make payment, then collect the tickets at the gate on the day. You can opt to have tickets sent by post but this adds GBP 3.95 to the total and requires 14 days between booking and your visiting date.
Allow a minimum of 3 hours for the tour.
Adult (16+) – GBP 33.00
Child (5-15, must be accompanied by an adult) GBP 25.50
Family (two adults and two children, or one adult and three children) GBP 101.00
Arrival and entry
We collected out tickets from the window outside (hidden behind the chess pieces in this photograph) and entered the lobby.
Hardcore fans were audibly squealing with delight at this stage as they took in the photos of their heroes and the props hanging from the ceiling and located around the lobby.
What makes this tour so special is that every single prop and costume on display – including the ones in the lobby – are the originals from the films.
There’s a cafe here as well as a Starbucks if you have time to kill or need a caffeine kick. You can also leave bags in the cloakroom at no charge, use the very fast and free WiFi and browse the gift shop – although in time-honoured tradition you will be exiting through here at the end of the tour anyway.
We joined the queue and waited for the next group to be allowed to enter. I’ll admit it, I got caught up in the excitement too and there was real anticipation in the air…
I compiled a video with some of the highlights of the Studio Tour for you:
But for more in-depth coverage and a LOT of photos, please continue…
There’s plenty to look at while you wait, including the smallest set used in the Harry Potter films, the cupboard under the stairs.
Finally our turn came around and we were ushered into a large room with cinema screens on both long walls so that everyone could watch the introductory film no matter where they were standing.
One of the screens then lifted to reveal the ornate doors which had been hidden behind it.
As there were two guests celebrating birthdays they had the honour of opening them and our guide took us through to the instantly recognisable Great Hall set.
First appearing in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2000) and then in six more films – it does not feature in the penultimate movie) the Great Hall set showcases the costumes used by students and teachers and includes two large dinner tables.
Our guide gave an interesting talk about some of the tricks used in filming and we were then left to continue the tour at our own pace.
Props used in many well-known scenes lined the corridor as we made our way into the next exhibition space.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the attention to detail and ingenuity used by the crew.
Sometimes it’s the small things that impress the most – like the wigs…
…and the make-up and masks.
As we turned the corner we passed the gates to Hogwarts itself – an irresistible photo opportunity.
Entering a large, open area divided into different sections, we made our way round the edge of the exhibition space. This layout works well so that visitors do not stand in a line following each other around, they can go from place to place in any order.
The optical illusion of the corridor shown here is remarkably convincing.
No generic wands here – each of these was designed specifically for the character in question.
Note how the furniture in Gryffindor Common Room is realistically battered and worn, seemingly from years of use.
The clothes used by the main actors are also a little battle-scarred.
Remember the intricate door to the Chamber of Secrets? I bet you thought that lock system was CGI – I certainly did. But no, it was hand built and electrically operated by the special effects team.
Of course green screens and digital effects were used in many scenes – the film clips in the background show how the effect of flying was created using motion rigs.
The Weasley Kitchen set is great fun – you can start up the mechanical effects like the chopping knife and the knitting kneedles. You can see this in action in the video I included earlier.
The Griffin stairwell leading up to Dumbledore’s office.
And the office of the great man himself. The working telescope in the background – which was hardly seen in the films – was one of the most expensive props in the production.
Gringott’s Bank took security seriously.
But there were plenty of others – thousands of items were created for the films.
The Golden Snitch – no corners cut here…
The Potions Classroom contains hundreds of jars with assorted contents – including baked animal bones from a nearby butcher’s.
Hagrid’s Hut is a highlight for many fans of the gentle giant.
As well as human actors, the Harry Potter series depended on the animal variety too.
Would-be wizards get the chance to cast spells here, or ride a broomstick against a green screen just like in the films. You can buy a souvenir photo for GBP 12 to take home, too.
Perhaps the scariest – or at least most unsettling – scenes is this one here with a levitating body…
…and a HUGE snake.
Dolores Umbridge was scary on a whole different level – especially in her love of pink.
And the Death Eaters were the stuff of nightmares too…
As of March this year the Studio now has its own Platform 9 3/4 featuring the original Hogwart’s Express steam train.
Having ‘taken the train’ in Orlando what struck us most was the incredible job Universal has done in Florida to recreate the actual engine, carriage and sets.
But there’s nothing like the real thing – what a beauty.
Of course you can get the photo here – but the Orlando version was a lot more high-tech, it has to be said 🙂
The illusion of movement is quite convincing here too.
Round the corner from the station platform, on the way to the cafe area are several display cabinets that really show how much effort was poured into items only seen in the background.
You can’t really come here and pass up on the opportunity to try butterbeer – there are only a few places in the world to do so, after all. I can’t say the taste has grown on me that much since trying it the first time, but it’s interesting, let’s say.
Plenty of other refreshments are available here and we were impressed with the high quality of the food. You can also buy real beer, which might be preferable to the buttery version…
This outdoor area features several of the exterior sets as well as the triple-decker Knight Bus.
Hogwart’s Bridge isn’t actually in the original books but was created by the director Alfonso Cuaron for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).
Another great photo op – inside the iconic flying Ford Anglia.
Back indoors to continue with the second half of the tour, we enter the creature effects area.
Here we got to learn how goblins came to life and giants became so, well, giant.
And let’s not forget that cute and cuddly spider…
Next we entered Diagon Alley – not quite as mind-blowing as the full-size version at Universal Studios, but it does have the advantage of being the real set.
That is one big mannequin – 20 feet tall, in fact.
The Owl Emporium displays its wares…
…as does the bookstore.
Before the sets could be built the Art Department created these amazingly detailed models in white card which helped determine camera angles and consider size and scale. The department created a staggering 588 different sets for the Harry Potter movies.
Concept artists designed, tweaked and re-tweaked their visions for the films.
For me the 1/24 scale model of Hogwarts was the most incredible part of the tour. Sculpted by hand over a six-month period, the realistic detail is incredible.
With 300 lights to simulate torches and lanterns, each section of the model was filmed and digitally enhanced for use on screen. Positioned in the centre of the room, visitors can walk all the way around to appreciate this masterpiece.
The final room on the tour contains hundreds of individually labelled – and different – wand boxes. There’s a good chance you’ll find one with your name on it, too…
You don’t have to be a Harry Potter obsessive to enjoy the Studio Tour – if you have even a passing interest in film-making, design and special effects you will love it. Of course if you ARE a Harry Potter obsessive you will be in heaven.
The tour makes a perfect accompaniment to the theme park thrills to be had at the Wizarding World in Orlanda (and Hollywood, as of next year) and despite being an expensive treat, represents good value. It’s a LOT cheaper than Universal Studios, obviously…
We all loved our time at Warner Bros. and thoroughly recommend you also make the journey to ‘The Making of Harry Potter’.