It was with puffy eyes and groggy minds that Hypable writers Selina and Harri arrived at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, London. Starting the day at 4 A.M. to arrive at Leavesden by 10:00, we were obviously feeling weary – but none of that mattered. As the shuttle bus (plastered with pictures of Diagon Alley) pulled out of the lay-by, we were greeted by the comforting sound of “Hedwig’s Theme” and watched by the towering Wizards’ Chess pieces that guarded the entrance. Any fatigue instantly dissolved and was replaced with bubbling excitement and anticipation.
Note: This review contains spoilers for the tour setup.
It was over eight months ago now that J.K. Rowling told us Hogwarts would always be there to welcome us home. For any witch or wizard, arriving at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter will feel like returning home after a long time away.
When the doors of the Great Hall swung open, we embarked on a journey of wonder and magic. Yes, magic. It may be one of the most clichéd (and least imaginative) words anyone could use to describe a behind-the-scenes tour of the Harry Potter studios, but, trust us, it’s the only one that can even begin to explain the experience.
Sure, it’s not perfect. There is a bit of a clunky start, with the forced video introduction from Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint (some dodgy dialogue and clear reluctance on their part made it all a bit awkward), but once the tour suddenly and brilliantly kicks off, the real enchantment begins: goblin faces, floating candles, portraits, potions, pets, stunning Yule Ball gowns and so much more.
Experience everything you love about the films, from memorable sets like the Great Hall, the Gryffindor Common Room, Dumbledore’s office, and Diagon Alley to breathtaking props like Ron’s howler, U-NO-POO, the Marauder’s Map and Harry’s Hogwarts letter. Everything is handled with such care and consideration, even tiny papers that never appear on screen are faithful to the continuity and have artistic merit. When you aren’t staring open-mouthed at the craftsmanship, you can be riding a broom, sipping a Butterbeer or magically chopping carrots at the Burrow.
We want to focus now one some specific parts of the tour that we absolutely loved. There are also a few areas we feel have room for improvement – but don’t worry, WB, we’ve got you covered with our brilliant suggestions!
Top 5 reasons to visit the Harry Potter Studio Tours
#1: The staff
This sounds weird, but one of the best things about seeing the sets of Harry Potter is the presence of the staff members. We might just be cynical Europeans, of course, but neither of us had ever experienced such pleasant and consistently friendly treatment – even the guy behind the Starbucks counter in the foyer wanted to know all about our tour! Every member of staff was eager to get our input on the tour and hear about our personal experiences with Harry Potter, and they also had interesting stories of their own to share. One story in particular stuck with us: manning the Yule Ball section of the big room of sets was a former extra on the films! He’d come from one of the local schools, and, according to him, had spent more time being a Hogwarts student than an actual student! But he’d loved every bit of it, and when he realised he could continue to work within the fandom, he jumped at the chance. Another member of staff revealed to us that they’re actually quizzed on their Harry Potter trivia and that they’ve had extensive training by the actual set and visual effects designers to make sure they are absolute experts on how it all came together. They aren’t messing around. These people are professional Harry Potter fans. New dream job?
#2: Diagon Alley and Hogwarts
We both felt that the tour got better and better as it went on, and some of the final areas took our breath away. First there’s Diagon Alley, with its incredibly detailed shop windows. We probably walked up and down the street a dozen times, just because we could, and there was always more to discover! McMullpepper’s Apothecary almost made us wish Pottermore was working again, with all the incredible ingredients we could stir into our potions, and Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment was packed with trinkets (“bits and bobs for doing your wizardry,” eh??) that we really wish had been available in the gift shop! The best windows to peek through are probably those of Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes and Flourish & Blotts, though. An incredible Gilderoy Lockhart display fills up the latter, and you know all about the Weasley products – only this time they are right in front of you! If only we’d have been able to enter some of these shops… but maybe some day they’ll expand the accessibility. The only reason we managed to tear ourselves away from Diagon Alley though was because of what awaited in the next room: Hogwarts. Scaled down of course, but still absolutely massive. And unbelievably real. We stood there in silence for a good 20 minutes, squinting to make it seem like we were really seeing Hogwarts. The detail of this model is unreal, and seeing it really encapsulates how the movies have brought this incredible story to life.
#3: Butterbeer and the gift shop
Yeah, we’re materialistic suckers! Anyone who’s been to the Wizarding World in Orlando has already experienced something similar to this, of course – although we CAN confirm that the chocolate used for the frogs is British, not American (and therefore more yummy, in our opinion) – but we were overwhelmed. The butterbeer, which is available halfway through the tour, was probably what we had been looking forward to the most, and it didn’t disappoint! Although it wasn’t served in the iconic pints (hint: we wish it could have been!), the froth was delicious and the drink itself lightly sparkling and sweet, just like J.K. Rowling likes it! And the gift shop, that was an experience in itself. There was just so much to see, we’re sure we missed a lot in our quest for souvenirs. Iconic props lined the shelves along with the merchandise, and we almost missed things like the stained glass window from Goblet of Fire and the lamps from Slughorn’s party in Half-Blood Prince! We also didn’t feel that the merchandise was unreasonably priced. Most of the typical souvenirs like Quaffles, Hedwigs, mugs, and notebooks ranged from about £7-£20, and the candy went for about £2.50-£9. There was definitely something to pick up for everyone, even those who only wanted a small token to remember the trip by. Of course, there were also the pricier items, like a replica of the Sword of Gryffindor, a chess set and a Horcrux ring (something for your Great Hall wedding, perhaps??), and lots more. We tried to control ourselves and just bought some candy (it was like someone was whispering “Anything off the trolley, dears?” into our ears), but there were so many things it would have been amazing to own. Like cuddly Pygmy Puffs (if Selina could have remembered whether Arnold was purple or pink, she definitely would have got one for herself!).
#4: The display cases
Easily one of the tour’s highlights are the display cases littered throughout studios J and K (the lettering a total coincidence, we were told). All the small artifacts that were created for the films can be studied in acute detail, allowing fans to take in things that they couldn’t see in the movies. Staring at the Horcruxes, reading Lily’s letter to Sirius, looking at Hogwarts through the Marauders Map or reading an article from The Quibbler are just a small selection of the things you can do. We could have easily spent several hours giggling, gasping and gawking at the little touches like Cheeri-Owls cereal, the Yule Ball invitations and Dumbledore’s will. While the inability to observe the sets in as much detail was a disappointment, the props are a magical treat in their own right.
#5: The special effects room
After a Butterbeer and a photo in the Ford Anglia or aboard the Knight Bus, visitors start the second leg of the tour in the Special FX/Creatures room. House elves, goblins, mer-people, Fawkes, and even the corpse of Harry and unconscious dummies of Draco, Ron and George stand eerily around you. If you can peel yourself away from these amazing and life-like models for just a moment, you will be treated to a video from Warwick Davies and the Creature Department that shows you exactly how everything was assembled and used. A display case in the centre allows you to push buttons that make Hedwig turn her head or the Voldemort fetus struggle for breath. Go through an archway, and you are face to face with Aragog, staring into the eyes of the Basilisk and looking up at a scaled model of the Hungarian Horntail. Finally, you can bow to Buckbeak and hope that he graciously lowers his head to you. That isn’t even half of it – the Creature room is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
Tips for improvement
#1: More time in the Great Hall
The first official stop on the tour is also one of the film’s most iconic sets – The Great Hall. With an introduction to compliment it in the greatest (pun intended) and most surprising ways imaginable that we won’t spoil for you here, it’s safe to say you really are plunged into the Wizarding World head first. The set itself lives up to even the highest of expectations, with wonderful costumes and props from all of Harry’s years at Hogwarts, as well as tiny little details that you wouldn’t have noticed while watching the films. But it’s all over too quickly. By the time you’ve noticed hidden House crests, or tried to take a fleeting picture with Dumbledore’s eagle-podium you’re being rushed along to the next step of the tour. Understandably, there are plenty of other groups that need to see the Hall, but the beginning of this wonderful experience feels rushed. In fairness, the rest of the tour is unguided and you are free to spend as much time as you like gawking at the names on portraits and inspecting every coloured bottle you find. It just feels that, being the largest and most overwhelming stop on the tour, it would’ve been nice to have the chance to soak it all up.
#2: Such detailed sets, why hide them away?
The tour may be called The Making of Harry Potter, but what’s wrong with letting visitors explore some more of the sets? The detailed exhibits on how the props, costumes and sets were designed, made, and used are undeniably fascinating. But fans can only explore Diagon Alley and (fleetingly) the Great Hall in any close capacity. The rest are fenced off so that you can only peer into your favourite magical places instead of walking through them. It is important that everything is kept clean and undamaged, but, without being able to see everything, visitors can never truly appreciate the hard work that was put into crafting the series. An example of this is Dumbledore’s office. We could just about see what looked like the Headmaster’s living quarters behind the main study, and since we never saw this in the films it would have been amazing to finally see it now. But with only one vantage point, all we could really see was an abundance of green and purple velvet cushions. perhaps with the set walls expanded and a walkway put in place (as was done with Diagon Alley), we would have been able to see everything without actually touching it.
#3: More photo opportunities
While you are able to take pictures throughout the tour, one of the things the museum-like setup doesn’t allow for is for fans to really get in and experience the story. Of course we get that they can’t have thousands of feet and grabby hands all over everything every day, but only being able to watch the sets from afar is sometimes a bit like freeze-framing a scene from the movies (which you could do at home). One thing we think could improve the tour is to allow for visitors to take more organic, interactive pictures of themselves experiencing the sets. There are already several, great opportunities for this, like getting your picture taken on a broom (see above! Magic is real you guys) or having your face put on an Azkaban poster, and outside you can get pictures in the Ford Anglia and on the Knight Bus, but this could be taken even further. You can’t get up to the actual owl pedestal Dumbledore uses in the Great Hall, so how about making a replica and making a space for it on the side, for fans to get on and strike their best “Weeeelcome, weeelcome!” pose? Also, one of the biggest dreams of most Harry Potter fans is to sit in the Gryffindor common room (or any of the common rooms, actually), and while this can’t happen, perhaps an armchair could be placed in front of the display, so anyone who sat in it would look like they were actually in the room. Just small things like that would really improve the interactivity and give the experience a more hands-on feel.
Selina: Being more of a book fan than a movie fan, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But the tour really won me over – mostly because of the staff. I’ve never encountered such a nice group of people, and they really can’t get enough praise. I’d be curious to see them again after a few months, though; listening to “Hedwig’s Theme” over and over again would drive me up the wall within a week! Walking down Diagon Alley was incredible, and seeing Hogwarts was more emotional than I thought it’d be. But, for me, the very best thing about the tour was really random: I finally saw my name in canon! When I spotted it on the wall of portraits I think I let out a squee worthy of a Mandrake. But that’s okay, I was surrounded by people who got my geeky excitement! Introducing, what I shall henceforth claim is my name… Selina Sapworthy (and note: she’s a Gryffindor. Take that, Pottermore!). I’m curious to see what expansions they’ve got planned though. I really felt the absence of sets like the Slytherin common room, the Room of Requirement and the Owlery, and it’d be great to have more areas you could actually walk through (like Diagon Alley) as opposed to just walk by. But all in all, I had an amazing time!
Harri: The Leavesden Harry Potter tour is an informative, rewarding and touching experience for fans of the films and books. If you’re a hardcore fan, you won’t find out much more about the making of the films then you didn’t already know through interviews and DVD featurettes – but the interactive and immersive nature of the tour is worth it. There is so much to see and do that one visit doesn’t seem enough. The official guide estimates that visitors will spend about three hours in the tour. Selina and I spent five hours going around, and even then we wanted to go straight back in to study everything that we might have missed the first time through which can only say good things for the tour. The atmosphere, staff, and Butterbeer were some of my personal highlights. If you have any doubts about going, don’t worry – you will love nearly every second. But look carefully, there is so much there that you can miss some amazing pieces just because they are hidden above doors or behind ticking clocks, and you won’t want to miss a thing!
Is it worth it?
One of the big questions we’ve been getting has been whether, when all is said and done, the Harry Potter Studio Tour is worth the £28 admissions fee (plus travel expenses). We came with no real expectations and left only with our arms full of chocolate frogs and camera batteries dead, but also with a deep feeling of having come that much closer to Hogwarts. If that’s what you’re looking to get out of this, then yes, it is absolutely worth it. In the words of J.K. Rowling (whose words are immortalized in the wand room), Hogwarts was there to welcome us home.
As far as getting to the studio, once you’re in London it’s really not that difficult. Trains leave regularly from Euston, and at Watford Junction station Mullany’s Buses operate a regular shuttle service to the Leavesden lot. They say the tour takes three hours – we were there for about five (the butterbeer kept us going!). There is so much to see, and rushing through it would be a huge mistake. We’re both already thinking about going back there, because we probably missed loads! Enter a room, turn and look up, and there’s Luna’s lion hat. Blink and you miss it.
If you do go, savour it. Spend ages inspecting all the props in the display cabinet and the windows in Diagon Alley. Imagine yourself at Hogwarts as you watch the lights change from night to day. Gaze at the incredibly detailed concept design artwork. Talk to the helpful, friendly and knowledgeable staff who will tell you amazing stories about how the Harry Potter movies brought the magic to life. Keep calm and have a butterbeer.
We’ll leave you with this incredible piece of artwork by Adam Brockbank, depicting the Dumbledore funeral scene that should have been. It’s for insights like this that you want to explore the movie magic: