Magic behind Magic: Harry Potter Studio Tour
Never before has a children’s story managed to combine real life and magic to such a spellbinding effect. And so it is with the latest UK Harry Potter franchise. The Warner Bros. Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour attraction puts you right in the centre of a truly magical world, while reminding you that it all came from the head of one highly imaginative muggle and the handiwork of a few thousand more. Here’s our verdict after a sneak preview of the attraction as part of our Twin Theme Park Adventure…
There is magic behind the magic
The wow moments come thick and fast. Our tour begins with Daniel Radcliffe walking through the doors of the Great Hall on a giant cinema screen; while seconds later the real doors of the Great Hall open to magical effect, and audible gasps from those gathered for the preview of Britain’s newest attraction. Our tour ends with a twinkling, spellbinding scale model of Hogwarts that even out-Disney’s Cinderella’s palace. And in the middle of it all is three or four hours of pure magic.
We’re all differently interested but it doesn’t matter
I’ve come with the express aim of finding out how they squashed up the nose of ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’. This question niggled at me throughout the latter films. But as a family of five we all have questions about the mystical mythical world of Hogwarts, just as we all have different levels of attachment to this fictional schoolboy who captured the imagination of the globe.
Into a world of magic
I’d say in our family interest in Harry Potter ranges from the mildly interested to the obsessional. But from the moment we enter this powerful attraction, my definition of obsession changes. It’s clear the people who brought Harry from page to screen ooze Hogwarts through their pores. The Making Of Harry Potter Studio Tour skilfully mixes J.K. Rowling’s imaginary world with a vivid portrayal of the blood, sweat and tears that went into bringing the books to life. And from the moment you step over the threshold of Hogwarts, you can see how much these guys really got into the author’s head.
The tour interactors are keen to share secrets
Those involved with bringing this new attraction to life aren’t any less informed. On the floors of studios J and K (see what they did there?) a huge team of people who have been immersed in every detail of Potterdom engage you in the attraction and answer questions you haven’t even got around to thinking up. While Hogwarts had dementors, these are officially labelled ‘interactors.’ But they’re not dark and foreboding; in contrast they really add to the enjoyment of the experience.
Facts and secrets
We each come away with different random facts and secrets, depending on which interactor we speak to. One leads me around the back of Dumbeldore’s office to look through the tiny window, “You only see this shot twice in all the movies,” she explains. Meanwhile Daniel, who was a child extra on the set gives me an insight into his schooling, “Some of my friends got the best grades through wizard school” then explains that the trap door in the floor of Hagrid’s hut is to feed the creature that the designers decided he may or may not be keeping under the floor. Meanwhile my kids are very impressed to hear that Luna’s radish earrings were the actor’s own, and not provided by the costume department.
The craftsmanship and detail will blow your mind
You can see the level of geekiness involved in these films in every pace of the attraction. Attention to detail knows no bounds. Every portrait (and there are hundreds) was painted by hand; I spend half an hour gawping at the gallery of sleeping headmasters in Dumbledore’s study, wondering why only one has woken up. One feather specialist was employed for months personally placing each quill into the animatronic hippogriff. An interactor tells me that if one person had built the scale model of Hogwarts, it would have taken them 74 years to complete. Thankfully there were 60 builders working around the clock. But Rome didn’t get built in a weekend. You do the maths!
Home to the Harry films
It’s fitting that this new attraction is set in the UK where Harry was born. But more authentic than that; it’s based in Leavesden, on the outskirts of London, where the Potter films were made. While vast studio’s J and K of this former airfield are new, and purpose built for the tours, they are situated only a few hundred metres from where the cast and crew created the magic. All of the sets, props and costumes are the genuine article. And you don’t have to be the biggest Harry Potter fan in the world to feel connected to them. From the towering goblet of fire to the horcruxes, and the snitches that hang suspended over the sets, the props are familiar yet startling. There are the forbidding Hogwarts Gates, the imposing Magic is Might statue and a pendulum that marks your magical minutes on set.
The sets draw you into the story
There is the magnificent Great Hall filled with long tables where you feel as small as Harry must have felt on his first day, and I have to admit to a sense of elation at walking down the twisting Diagon Alley, peering in through Wheezleys Wizard Wheezes, for which 40,000 products were made.
Insights into the magic of production
The secrets of how the movie was made come in quick succession too. But in case you’re worried, it’s not like The Wizard of Oz when the curtain is pulled back. The real life tricks are almost as breath-taking as the imaginary stuff. You are pulled into the seductive world of movie making in much the same way J.K. Rowling first yanked you into the cupboard under the stairs at the beginning of the first book. You see how the crew built a shared vision of her world piece by piece through draft scripts, drawings, scale models and the enormous 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts. As I stand in awe an interactor tells me to stay around for 4-5 minutes to watch the castle lighting change subtly from day through to night. It’s mesmerising.
Harry Potter films will never be the same again
You hear for yourself the problems the crew faced script editing early books when they were clueless as to what the ultimate ending would be. You view their solution to the cast physically growing out of their little beds and their cramped bedroom set. (When the beds were extended as far as they could go, the actors just had to curl up their legs.) You find out quirky snippets of information; for example Snape’s costume never changed throughout all eight films and the crew had to abandon the idea of suspending actual candles on metal threads in the air above the Great Hall when they started burning through and falling on the cast. But overall you take home a sense of the weight of responsibility that lay behind creating a set that already lived in the imaginations of millions.
Take part in the magic
This attraction is lots of fun. We sit in one of the 17 and a half Ford Anglia’s that co-starred in the films. The boys ride a broomstick over the streets of London. We all hunt for a golden snitch, or fifteen. We hunger after a table full of chocolate cake props before we hear they’ve been in storage for seven years. We watch the cauldron in the Potions Classroom stir itself. Then we find out many of the potion jars are full of baked bones, and plastic animals bought in the Regent’s Park Zoo shop and doctored out of recognition. And we search for Harry’s wand amongst the 4000 hand made and individually inscribed boxes that form a tribute to cast and crew.
I forgot to ask about the nose
When we pick out our favourite wands in the shop; the children go for Harry’s favourite accessory, where Stuart and I are more drawn to Dolores Umbridge’s bobbled affair, and Voldemort’s twisted ivory creation. We don’t buy them though; some things are better in the imagination. Speaking of ‘He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’, I come out into the sunshine having completely forgotten to ask how they made his nose. The kids tell me the answer was there all along. Perhaps I’ll have to go back.
On our way back to our family room at the conveniently placed Park Inn Watford, we pass the free bus to Hogwarts that will take visitors to and from Watford Junction station when the attraction opens on 31st March. For the first time in my life I wish I could get the school bus, and take a second tour of this entrancing celluloid world that has cast a spell over us all.
Practical Information for WB Studio Tour
Tickets: All tickets for the studio tours must be pre-booked at www.wbstudiotour.co.uk or through an approved supplier. No tickets are available to buy at the attraction so do not attend on spec, book in advance.
Practicalities: There are 30 minute timeslots throughout the day to ensure a regulated flow and the tour takes around three hours. Audio guides are available. There’s a small refreshment stand on site and a studio cafe and coffee cart.
Times: Tour times vary according to season and holiday times. First tours are typically at 9 or 10am. Last tours and closing times vary and there is some late night opening. Best to check the website for details when planning a visit. Allow at least three hours to do it all.
Prices: Tickets cost £39 for adults (£37 saver price) and £31 for children (£29 saver price). Family tickets (2 adults, 2 kids or 1 adult + 3 kids) cost £126 (£118 saver). Check website for latest prices and deals. Saver tickets are available on selected days.
Getting there: Watford Junction station is 20 minutes by train from London Euston. A special shuttle bus runs to Leavesden from there, for a charge. Plan to arrive at Watford Junction at least 45 minutes before your tour to allow for connection. The service runs every 30 minutes. The studio is located 20 miles North West of London, and three miles from the M1. There are also transfers available from central London and Birmingham. Check the website for details.
Accommodation: There are many hotels to suit all budgets in the locality including in Watford. We stayed at the Park Inn Hotel, Watford, just around the corner from Watford Junction Station and convenient for the studio tour bus.