Harry Potter has been cropping up with some regularity in my London itinerary over recent months. Back in October I saw The Cursed Child at the theatre, complete with a touch tour on stage and audio description during the show, which was amazing, And shortly after that I did the Tour For Muggles, which was a very enjoyable walking tour around filming locations in London. And now this month I’ve also had a couple of things booked into my diary, including the British Library’s History Of Magic exhibition that I’ll be going to very soon.
But last weekend I did something which trumps all of that in the Harry Potter stakes – the Warner Bros Studio Tour – The Making Of Harry Potter. So in this post and video I’m going to tell you all about my experience, including some of my thoughts from an accessibility perspective.
I’ve also been posting photos on my Instagram during the week, and I’ve now uploaded a nmore extensive Facebook album as well. I’ve also posted a video showing the footage I recorded at the studios, and I’ve made a haul post about the merchandise I bought there. So I’ve got plenty to get through, and I hope you enjoy looking through it all!
How I Got Into Harry Potter
Let’s put things into context first, as that introduction probably makes me sound like a huge, obsessive Harry Potter fan. And it is certainly true that I love the books and the films a great deal, I think they’re amazing. But I’m not into it to a huge level, if only because I haven’t put aside the time to commit to it too thoroughly. But it is tempting to, and I admire and understand the people who are really deeply into it. There’s so much detail to enjoy in JK Rowling’s wonderfully descriptive writing, and everything that’s involved in the films (as the tour proves), so it must be fascinating and very rewarding to dig into it all and know every little thing about it. The tour really emphasises that for sure. So it’s not a bad hobby to have at all.
In my younger days, though, my attitude was very different. Out of curiosity, I’ve done a quick search of my old journal entries that I retained from a long-defunct social media site (my first ever online ‘blog’ in effect, and also my first ever personal diary of any sort, which is why I kept it all). And back in 2003 I really didn’t get all the hype. I still hadn’t read any of the books or seen any of the films at that point. So it just seemed irritating to hear people going on about it all the time. I didn’t get why it was so special.
But I was finally introduced to the series on Saturday May 31st 2003, when I watched a DVD of the first film that Dad had borrowed from a friend at work. And I enjoyed it, finding it more grown up and engaging than I’d expected. It wasn’t quite enough to convince me to get the books, but I was glad to finally understand what people were going on about. A year later I then saw the second film, again lent to us by one of Dad’s friends. But then shortly after that I bought those first 2 films for myself to keep, and continued to buy the others from there. And in 2006 I finally started on the audiobooks, which are wonderfully read by Stephen Fry. So the series grew on me more and more as the years went on.
Fast forward to the present and I now own all 7 audiobooks, all 8 films on Blu-ray in their excellent feature-packed Ultimate Edition boxsets, and all 8 soundtrack albums of the gorgeous music used in the movies. So I’m all caught up. I haven’t listened to the books or watched the films too frequently though. I’ve only listened to the audiobook series about 3 times at most I think. I’ve watched the films more often, but again not frequently. And I haven’t done either for a few years as far as I remember, so I really should go through them again soon. Certainly all the Harry Potter stuff I’ve been doing recently is making that very tempting.
So I haven’t gone through the series often enough to be able to remember every single character or location or line of dialogue, and so on. The more obvious stuff I remember, of course, but even now I can still listen to the books or watch the films and come across things I had forgotten about or hadn’t noticed before. I hadn’t bought any other merchandise either (until now), and I still haven’t seen the Fantastic Beasts spin-off yet (which I really must get around to before the sequel comes out in November).
So I’m glad that I’ve been getting back into the world of Harry Potter more and more recently with the activities I’ve been doing. It does help that one of my new London friends is a Harry Potter fan, so they’ve been recommending things for me to do in that regard, and encouraging me to do quizzes to find out which house I belong to and which character I relate to. But I’ll answer things like that in my haul post when it’s more relevant. You can probably guess which house I belong to though – especially if you keep reading this post, as there’s a big clue in a few of the photos later.
So let’s get on to the details of the tour itself, and I’ll start by giving some tips and advice about preparing for it, which I picked up from my visit.
Preparing For The Tour
The group I was with just did the tour as normal, walking around together without any extra help, as I’ll explain a bit later. But the first thing I want to mention is that the attraction does offer facilities for people with additional needs, including audio description and sign language tours (where you book a member of staff at least 14 days in advance to accompany your group), plus they allow assistance dogs and wheelchairs, and give free tickets for carers. So if you do have extra needs, read through the information on their website to find out more. You can also watch their Youtube videos on accessibility here and here.
Certainly, if you’re visually impaired, or if you have any other condition that would make navigation difficult or confusing, I would highly recommend going with someone for your first visit. It’s precisely why I chose to go with a social group on this occasion. It is a huge place, and by its nature the lighting and floor surfaces do vary (e.g. the Forbidden Forest is very dark, some other areas are quite dimly lit, and Diagon Alley is cobbled). The person with you can also describe and read things if you need it, and as your carer they would get in for free. But after that, if you have sufficient sight, you might feel comfortable going back again on your own. I think I would be happy to do that now. Granted, the experience is much more fun to share with another fan, but I know I could go by myself now and get a lot out of it if I wanted to, and I may well try it.
They also have a digital guide that you can hire for a fee and carry around with you. It doesn’t give you audio description, but it does provide extra content and behind the scenes information to accompany the tour. Again, I didn’t try one of those on this occasion, so I can’t give an opinion on whether it works or not. But when I go again in the future, I would like to try it, as it sounds like a fun way to get even more out of the experience.
But the main thing you’ll be carrying around is your camera or phone, because you’ll want to take a LOT of pictures and video clips. You can take as many as you like – the only prohibited areas for this are the cinema at the start, and the green screen experience. Everywhere else you can snap away as much as you like. So make sure you have plenty of storage available, with extra SD cards if you’re using a camera, and that your battery is fully charged.
If you’re taking pictures with your phone and you can live without being contacted or using the internet while you’re there, I highly suggest sticking it in Airplane Mode, because it’ll make the battery last a lot longer. You don’t need to post on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc immediately, that can wait until you get home. And we found that mobile reception in some parts of the attraction is quite dodgy anyway. Or you could invest in a battery case, like I have, because you can then give your phone a booster charge while on the move, and you might not need to use Airplane Mode at all then. Otherwise, if you’re not careful, you risk losing power before you get to Diagon Alley and the Hogwarts Model at the end of the tour, as the lady I was walking around with discovered!
In terms of when to go, book an off-peak time if you can, i.e. outside of school holidays. We went for a 6pm Sunday evening tour during term time, and it was nice and easy to get around and see everything, with short queuing times for the various activities. But in holiday season I imagine it must be crammed with families and tourists, making it hard to get close to things. And also remember that you have to book in advance – you can’t just turn up and buy a ticket at the attraction itself.
Give yourself plenty of time for the tour as well. The average tour takes 3 and a half hours, which we did, and that’s just casually walking through and admiring everything, and trying a few of the interactive experiences. But if you really wanted to examine everything closely, read every panel, watch every film, try every activity, etc, then you can easily spend the entire day there – and I’d like to, I must admit. 3 hours was perfect for my first ever visit to get a feel for the place, but now I want to spend longer there next time! Also be aware that the opening times vary during the year, so keep that in mind when booking as well.
And don’t forget you have to plan your travel there and back as well, and leave enough time for it. If you’re driving, there’s a big car park there, with disabled bays if you need them, so that’s relatively easy. Whereas if you’re coming by train, you need to get to Watford Junction. There is a fast National Rail train from Euston that goes straight there.
There is also a London Overground line from Euston to Watford Junction as well. This takes longer, but with Watford Junction being in a special fare zone just outside zone 8, the Overground is apparently the only way for Freedom Pass users like myself to get there by train without charge, according to the Freedom Pass travel map. Otherwise, I could use National Rail to get most of the way for nothing, but then I might have to pay for the last little stretch. And besides, Euston’s a bit fiddly for me to get to and not the easiest place to navigate when it’s busy, so I took a route that used the Bakerloo line to hook up with the Overground, which was really easy.
Once you get to Watford Junction, you can then get the dedicated shuttle bus, which runs about every 20 minutes, and takes 15-20 minutes to get to the studios. So aim to get to the station at least 45 minutes before the time of your tour, as that gives you a good chance of arriving at the studios on time. A return ticket will cost £2.50, which has to be paid in cash, not card (so have the right change handy), and you’ll need to show your ticket or booking confirmation email with reference number in order to board.
The bus itself is easy to spot, because it’s emblazoned with Harry Potter imagery, and has the destination on the front. It leaves from stop 4, which you find by walking directly ahead and slightly to the left when you exit the station, crossing the road that leads into the bus station. You may also see the bus directly to your left by stops 1 to 3 when you exit the railway station – but that’s where i drops off on the return journey, so you can’t get on there. You have to go to stop 4 opposite.
And when you get on the bus, that’s effectively when your tour starts. Which is where my experience comes in, so now we can finally talk about that!
My Tour Experience
I was attending the tour as part of a 6-person group from Thinking Bob and Spice London, and we were there for he Hogwarts In The Snow experience. So it was a very festive and social occasion. I’m not going to tell you everything because there’s tons of stuff there and I don’t want to give too many spoilers. But I will give you a general overview of how the tour played out.
If you use the shuttle bus to get there like I did, then you get an introductory film to watch during the journey featuring an actor from the series, effectively acting as a trailer for the tour along with some useful information about what to do when you get there. The bus then drops you off directly outside the studios. Before you go inside you can see some big posters up on the exterior walls, and statues of pieces from Wizard’s Chess, so take a few moments to enjoy those first.
Inside reception, there was a massive Christmas tree, as per the festive theme, as well as photos of characters from the films all around the upper walls, and a small costume display from Fantastic Beasts. Plus there’s a cafe and toilets you can use before you start the tour – which our group did, because we had arrived with a good 45 minutes to spare.
As our 6pm slot approached, we then joined the queue for the start of the tour – which takes you past Harry’s cupboard under the stairs that you can see inside. That’s where Harry lived before his journey began, so it’s very appropriate to see it there. And then the tour begins properly.
Then the tour starts properly, beginning with a couple of short films. One tells you how the movies began, which you watch while standing in a small room. Then you’re ushered into a comfy cinema where you get a proper introduction to the tour from Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint.
Then the time to explore begins, as you’re taken through the large ornate double doors into the Great Hall, which is huge and very impressive as you’d expect, with so much attention to detail. Everywhere you look there’s something incredible and gorgeous to look at. Especially as, on this occasion, the hall was all decked out for the Yule Ball. So the long tables were decked out with Christmas food, there were Christmas decorations all over the place, and at the far end were a few massive Christmas trees and an impressive ice sculpture. We were also shown one of the special effects used to generate fire beneath the Christmas puddings, which was fun.
Your stay in the Great Hall is time limited, as it would get too crowded if too many people were in there. But once you’ve left that room, you can take as long as you like over the rest of the tour. There is a set route through the attraction as well, so you won’t miss anything. But how long you spend in each area depends on how much it contains, as some are very expansive while others are smaller, and how much interest you have in certain areas of the production. Though I find all of it fascinating.
Our group split up at this point, with people looking at different things at their leisure. I walked around with the host of our group, so I didn’t get lost and could get help looking at things if need be. And we enjoyed looking at everything together.
So, from the Great Hall, the next space you come to is an enormous studio area, containing many sets and thousands of costumes and props. So you could quite easily spend hours just in this first area, and we probably did spend an hour here, I didn’t track the time. Among countless other things, you’ll be able to see a Hogwarts staircase, the Gryffindor Common Room and Dormitory, Hagrid’s Hut, the Potions Classroom, the huge pendulum from the Clock Tower, the Mirror of Erised, Dumbledore’s Office, parts of the Ministry Of Magic, Professor Umbridge’s office, the Gringott’s vault door, The Burrow where the Weasleys live, and the Meeting At Malfoy Manor and so much more. And because of the Christmas theme, we were even able to feel some of the different materials used to make snow and fire on set, which was fun.
Here and throughout the rest of the tour there are panels, videos and touch screens, telling you all sorts of behind the scenes secrets about the items on display. I only looked at a few of these, as it would have taken far too long to do it all given that we only had a few hours. But it would be nice to go back and look at it all more closely, spending a day there as I said earlier.
There are a few activities you can try out here too. You can see how brooms were lifted into the air when students commanded “Up”, and try it out for yourself, you can do a bit of wand choreography to learn how to do certain attack moves, and you can have a broomstick ride in the green screen area. I had a go at both the wand choreography and the broomstick ride, and it’s the latter I want to tell you about.
Green Screen Experience
If you don’t know what green screen is, it’s basically a technique (properly called Chroma Key) where actors perform in front of a plain green background, so that the computer can replace the green with any background you like. Or sometimes a different colour like blue might be used, e.g. if the actors are also wearing green (otherwise the computer would wipe that out too). It’s simple but effective.
So the green screen area consists of a number of green screen booths that you queue up for. This is one of the only areas of the tour (along with the cinema earlier) that you strictly can’t take photos in. But then you’re coming out with something much better.
You can actually do 2 things here – a Wanted poster and/or take a broomstick ride. However, with my distance vision being rubbish, and as the lady staff member directing people didn’t tell me, I failed to realise that the Wanted poster thing was there. I think she had told the couple in front of me, but as I hadn’t heard their conversation, I can only assume that. So I just followed them along the queue without any direction to the contrary.
It was only when I was further down the queue that I heard the staff member calling to some people that had just entered the area, to see what they wanted to do. But by that point I didn’t want to duck out and go to the back of the queue again, as I was very close to the front anyway. And besides, the broomstick ride was what I most wanted to do. I’d have done both if I’d known, but it wasn’t the end of the world. At least I know for next time I visit now.
Because it wasn’t too busy, it didn’t take long for me to get to the front of the queue for the broomstick ride. But I imagine in peak holiday season it’s a very different matter. I was asked which house robe I wanted, which I was then given to wear. And then I was taken to one of the green cubicles, which was being looked after by another friendly lady. I was then able to put on the robe and climb on to the broomstick, which is mounted on a set of blocks that are the same green colour as the background. There’s a small seat on the broomstick that you sit on, which your body naturally hides from view, so it looks on camera like you’re actually riding the broomstick.
Once in position, the lady started the film sequence running. It was on a small screen in front of me, so I couldn’t see that of course. But that didn’t matter, because I was given instructions throughout. The broom itself doesn’t actually move – the flying effect is produced by the computer moving the image of you around the screen, superimposed on top of various fast moving scenes – e.g. flying down a road and across the River Thames, and over other scenery until you arrive at Hogwarts. And as you make this journey, you’re told to move from side to side, look around, duck down to become more streamlined for speed, reach down to touch the water, wave at the camera, and so on, all of which makes the flying effect look all the more realistic in the final video. Then, at the end, a couple of photos are taken as well – one from the side and one from above.
After dismounting the broomstick and taking off the robe, I then went to the checkout where I purchased 2 of the photos and the video of my ride. I was shown a preview of the photos – one from the side, and one from above – and I could choose the background on which each was placed. I was then given glossy printouts of them, in a cardboard sleeve with a foldout opening. I was also able to download electronic copies later as well, as you’re given a weblink and a special code to retrieve them, which is great.
You don’t get the video here, however, presumably because it needs a bit of time to be rendered and saved. So I was given a second receipt, which I could take to another desk just before the gift shop at the very end of the tour. I did this, and the lady brought the video up on screen to check it was the right one, and that it was working correctly. She then gave me a copy on a USB stick, which has the tour branding on it, of course. It’s actually a 2Gb memory stick, which is quite a generous size. So if you wish, you can take the video off it when you get home and use the stick to store whatever you like. I’ve left it on there though, and just made a copy of the MP4 file on to my own computer.
The video came out really nicely too. At the beginning there’s a couple of minutes of behind the scenes footage, explaining how the broom flying was done in the films, which is interesting. Then the flight is tagged on to the end, lasting about a minute. As it’s only a basic demo of the green screen effect, it’s obviously not going to be quite as clean and realistic in appearance as it would be for an actual movie production. So occasionally I do appear to lose a foot or hand for instance. But that doesn’t matter. Overall the result looks very cool, because it really does look like I’m flying through all the different locations, and the music from the movie soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment. So I’m really pleased with how the video and photos came out, it’s a lovely unique souvenir!
Continuing The Tour
After completing the first big studio area, the next part of the tour is a recreation of The Forbidden Forest, complete with thunder, lightning and wind effects. Hagrid and Buckbeak are standing guard as you go through, and you’ll see a few spiders descending on the rocks around you at one point too, as well a demonstration of the Patronus effect. It’s a very atmospheric and dark space, and it does make you feel like you really are walking through the dark and spooky forest. It’s very cool.
You then emerge out to the bright and safe haven of Platform 9¾, complete with the Hogwarts Express of course, which you can go on to have a look inside the different compartments. There are also lots of items of luggage, including a few half-teleported trolleys against the wall if you want to pose for ‘running through the wall’ selfies. And there’s a shop where you can buy various things. So I ended up getting a few sweet treats, which I’ll mention when I do my haul post.
After that you come to the Backlot Café, where you can stop for a rest and something to eat and drink. This is where can buy some Butterbeer to try as well, which of course I did. And it’s not bad. It’s a very sweet butterscotch type flavour, with a thick layer of cream on the top, and it’s not something I would drink a lot of. But a small glass like that was quite nice, or I thought so at least. The lady I was walking with at the time wasn’t so keen!
From there it’s time to go outside, to admire the set of Privet Drive, which looks lovely lit up at night. You can go inside number 4 and see the hundreds of envelopes scattered around the living room, while outside you can pose for photos on the Knight Bus, in the Ford Anglia, on Hagrid’s Motorbike, and on the wooden bridge from Hogwarts.
The Creature Shop is next, where you can see all sorts of models, props and demonstrations of the creatures created for the movies. Among the various delights here are a film featuring Warwick Davis, various moving objects such as Hedwig the owl, and an interactive motion capture exhibit of Dobby, where you can move your body and he mirrors your actions, which is fun.
2 major set pieces follow this, so make sure you have enough power left in your phone or camera at this point. First is Diagon Alley, which looks amazing with all the different shops. You can’t go in them, but you can have a good look through the windows and admire the architecture.
But when it comes to architecture, nothing tops the big model of Hogwarts itself. Once you’ve passed through a fascinating gallery of beautiful concept art (which includes small but very detailed models of Hogwarts and other key places), you then come to a huge room with the stunning Hogwarts model dominating the space, which you can walk around it to view from all angles. It’s absolutely incredible, and because of the festive theme it was all dusted with snow during my visit, which looked really beautiful. There are also screens showing how the model was combined with CGI to make it look even more amazing during the epic fly through camera shots.
It was after this that I collected my broomstick ride video, before passing through a wand room containing hundreds, if not thousands, of wands stacked up on the shelves. And that then takes you into the gift shop, where of course I bought a few things. I didn’t get everything I wanted there though, as there was only so much I could carry, and there were one or two things I couldn’t find. So the following day I purchased some additional items from their online store as well, which I received a few days later. As i’ve said before, though, I’ll cover that in a separate haul post.
And that was it. We finished about 9:30pm, so we had spent well over 3 hours in there, which had given us a good chance to look at everything. and we were able to get the second-to-last bus back to the railway station. And from there it was an easy journey home.
So, all in all, I really enjoyed myself, it’s an amazing place. There’s so much to see and do that it’s impossible to take it all in. Which is why taking photos and videos are great, because you can look back at it all later and spot things you missed. And I’d definitely love to go back there and explore it even further at some point, perhaps spending a whole day there, either with a fellow Harry Potter fan or by myself. It felt comfortable moving around the place and the staff were really nice, so I was very happy.
So if you’re a Harry Potter fan and you’ve never been to the tour, you really do have to go. And even if you’re not, you could still get a lot out of it if you’re a fan of things like movie making, technology and art. And, as I said before, from an accessibility perspective it’s worth going with someone on your first visit, so you can get a feel for what it’s like while having a friend to help you if you need it. Remember to check their additional needs information too in case it’s useful.
So that’s it. I know that was long, but I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience. Don’t forget to check out all my photos on Instagram and Facebook too, the footage I recorded at the studios, and my haul post. And if there are any other Harry Potter themed things in London you think I should check out that I haven’t mentioned already in this post, feel free to let me know! 🙂