As you arrive at the studios by a 10 min cab ride from Watford Junction, formerly Leavesden Aerodrome built shortly after WWII, there is little to suggest of the magic and fantasy synonymous with the books and films. Housed in J and K named stages – we are told this is coincidence – one is struck by how open and and isolated it feels standing outside the entrance. Apart from the sign and two of the chess pieces Ron Weasley battles in the Harry Potter and
The Philosopher’s Stone, which seem out of place, nothing hints at what lies ahead.
Standing in the reception area, there are the usual amenities found at attractions. Cafe, cloakroom, loos, gift shop. There is still an unusual feeling of openness, which when open to the public I am sure will remain. However you start to get a feeling of what is here. High above you on the walls hang portraits of Harry, Voldemort, Sirius Black to name a few. The magical car that Ron and Harry travel to Hogwarts in, one of 17.5 made for Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, dangles from the ceiling of the building. Next to the queuing lanes, the infamous cupboard under the stairs stands for all to see into the sad home life of Harry.
On showing your ticket you are directed into a room with poster size screens down both walls. Playing is a slide show of all the film covers for different countries and then once you are all in, a very short film describes how the decision was made to turn the first book into a film.
Now the fun begins. You move from here into a small cinema, where you are greeted by one of the many tour guides who briefly gives you a run down of what will take place. Next you are greeted by Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, sadly not in person but on screen. Here they talk of their journey from 11 years old through to the current day with lots of behind the scenes clips and film footage, while the Harry Potter soundtrack is playing.
Being a big fan myself you can’t but help feel emotional looking back at some of the wonderful film moments along with the more private and intimate moments off camera. The young actors getting birthday cakes and the tears and laughter they share with not just the older actors but the behind the scenes workers.
When this is over there is a surprise that Harry Potter fans will love, which you will have to find out for yourself…
Then we are taken into the Great Hall with its enchanted ceiling, the setting for so many important scenes through the years. With laid trestle tables down both sides; animal gargoyles towering over us on the walls; the Hogwarts fireplace with the Hogwarts emblem and the crests of the four houses carved into the wall above it. The floor is made with real York Stone and the detail in the walls – crumbling stone, worn and tired bricks – add to your experience and transport you to the world that seemed so far away when outside the entrance. For a few seconds you feel this hall has been there for thousands of years but then you have the faceless mannequins dressed in the original clothes worn by the children and teachers that bring a small bit of reality back to the situation.
They model the Gryffindor uniforms worn by Harry Potter and friends, the Slytherin uniform of Draco Malfoy and many others. Mannequins dressed in the robes of the teachers are lined up at the front with Dumbledore behind his Owl Podium and Snape to one side and Professor McGonagall to the other and then Hagrid looming large over everyone.
This is where the organisers have been clever. So far the tour has been timed and structured. Now you are free to leave the Great Hall and move into the next part of the tour where you can take as much time as you like. Then the next party will come through. The staggering of entrances should mean you are never too rushed or cramped as can be the case for so many attractions.
Now to the next area. You need the flexibility in time, as there is so much to see. You start off with display stands that list the producers and one plays a short film with interviews.
On your right there is an area dedicated to the Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire and includes scenery, props and costumes from the Yule Ball. The item that stuck out in my mind was the table covered in all kinds of chocolate puddings that were a small example of one the massive feasts in the Great Hall. Once again the detail displayed is awe inspiring. Tower blocks of profitta rolls with chocolate oozing down them; white chocolate mice making their way over the table; a stunning chocolate statue of a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.
Then you move forward and the area opens. You find Harry Potter’s bed in the boys dormitory in Gryffindor; The Leaky Cauldron; The Burrow. These are just a few of the places, which have been etched into the imagination and memory of Potter fans, that are there in front of you in all their glory. I don’t want to tell you everything that is there but needless to say there are many more of the important places that play such a part in all the books and films.
On top of this are displays and areas with so many of the props from the Harry Potter films in touching distance; Wands including the Elder Wand; Horcruxes; The Golden Egg are just a small taste of what you can expect. And don’t miss Professor Lupin’s self packing suitcase.
There is a wonderful display case with editions of The Daily Prophet, The Quibbler, The Marauders Map, the children’s school books with facts like they printed over 40 editions of The Daily Prophet. So much time and effort to create this magical world making it such a reality.
My favourite is the display board dedicated to all the animals used in the films. It’s another part that is seamless through the films. You find out that 9 different Neopolitan Mastifs played Fang. And don’t forget Hedwig, Scabbers and Crookshanks. They are integral to Harry Potter, Ron Weasely and Hermione Granger. You forget that these are animals that come with trainers off set. There is a great short film along with lots of facts, which celebrate the part they play.
Further on there is an area that educates you on the CGI and green screen technology, which is fascinating. You even get your own chance of a broomstick ride dodging buses in London and flying over Hogwarts. I am sure most Harry Potter fans won’t mind paying the £12 for a picture of this. I didn’t.
If you ever manage to leave the sound stage – I haven’t done it justice – you arrive outside. You are greeted by the Night Bus and Harry Potter’s old home, 4 Privet Drive to name two of the set here. I found it disappointing. Maybe it was the backdrop of the new looking yellow bricks used to build the sound stage that transported me back to the entrance. It just didn’t feel magical to me when so far in my mind I had been part of the Harry Potter phenomenon since entering the Great Hall over an hour ago.
Still, what comes next over five separate areas rectifies all that. From the outside you arrive at the area dedicated to The Creature Shop. This is so interesting and worth taking some time in. You learn so much of the work that went into all the creatures, make up and prosthetics that are such a natural part of the stories. The finished article on screen does not tell the story of the innovation and craft that took place before any shots. There is an interactive film over three different screens that takes you through all of this. Don’t forget this includes Dobby, Aragog, Buckbeak, the dragons, the Gringot Goblins. There is something slightly disturbing in one of the display cases, which is a fantastic close up but I’m not divulging everything.
Surely The Harry Potter Studios is incomplete without Diagonal Alley? It doesn’t disappoint. As you walk from The Creature Shop, you arrive on Diagonal Alley, which we first encounter in Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone and is so central to the wizarding world. Gringotts Bank, Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes are all there. The lights change constantly from day and night. The atmosphere really changes and if you were alone you would feel the eeriness encountered when the lights change to night. There is something very real when you are here as though you have arrived through the Leaky Cauldron and about to pick out your first wand or shop for Quidditch equipment.
After Diagonal Alley you are nearing the end of your tour. You walk through a gallery of detailed blueprints ranging from Dumbledore’s chair in his office to Hogwarts and The Burrow. The walls are adorned with stunning paintings and drawings of so many of the scenes, animals and buildings we have grown with through the adventures. These are produced by the concept artists and is another display of the high level of skill these people in their field have. You would want them on your walls at home I promise. Included in this part of the tour are scale white card models of places like The Burrow and the home of Luna Lovegood’s father.
Next you arrive at something so beautiful and wonderful, that it is difficult to do it justice. It is The Hogwarts Castle Model. It was built for Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone and is a scale model of Hogwarts and it’s grounds including the Great Hall and the greenhouses housing things like the Mandrakes. It is my favourite part of the tour and you will only understand what I mean if you see it in the flesh.
If you are able to tear yourself from this, before arriving at the Gift Shop, you walk through a display area with wand boxes that that are individually named with the 4,000 plus people that worked on all the Harry Potter movies. This is a fitting tribute. This ranges from the actors, artists, producers, caterers, make up, directors…
You get the idea. I love the delight that the tour guide takes in ensuring we understand that there is no hierarchy here so cooks are put together with actors is an example. It’s a moving end to a magical tour that rarely disappoints.
When you read the books your imagination runs away with you. The films on the whole do the books justice. Yes, looking back at the earlier films, they are dated and want for more but you still feel this is Harry Potter and the magic continues through all the films growing up and losing innocence in conjunction with our heroes.
I was very worried that finding out all the secrets would mean the magic and imagination is lost but I can guarantee that this tour only adds to the whole Harry Potter journey. When I read the final book, I had an emptiness, which the films were able to fill. When I saw the final film that emptiness and sadness returned as the journey was finally over. We have grown with Harry Potter and his friends and enemies. There have been tears, laughter, life and death. It has been emotional. The tour allows you to continue on this journey for that little bit longer and for me helped draw a line under everything. I feel I am not yearning for more and can move on as have all those who have ever worked on the films. The tour certainly does the Harry Potter brand justice and is a wonderful tribute.