Most American Potter fans know that Universal Studios has created a little piece of Hogwarts heaven in two locations—The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Hollywood and at Universal Studios Orlando—but it should come as no surprise that the true center of the Potter universe is in London, England, where all of Harry’s adventures began. Apart from all of the real life British places a muggle might want to snap a photo (e.g. Kings Cross Station for platform 9 3/4, which British Rail good naturedly erected a few years back), the true wizard Mecca is Warner Brothers Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter, housed at the film studio that was Harry's world for the decade or so that the films were in production. Fans of wizardry and magic can walk in the very footsteps of their heroes at the Warner Bros Tour.
Although the eight films based on J K Rowling books appear to have been shot at a variety of locales, they were in fact almost entirely filmed at this one studio lot, where every location described in the books was painstakingly created in almost obsessive detail. Knowing that they were committing to an unusually long haul of filming, the producers put in an unusual amount of effort to build the world of Potter, from Harry's home on Privet Drive, to Hogwarts Castle, to Diagonal Alley. When the decade of filming ended, Warner Brothers decided, rather than dismantling the marvelous land of make-believe, to give it an afterlife as a tourist destination. And the tourists haven’t needed any prodding; from the day the studio tour opened in the summer of 2013, tickets have sold out daily, usually many months in advance.
My family got our summer plans in order this year with enough notice to successfully schedule tickets and so can at last report on what's so special about the London Harry Potter experience. For starters, in spite of its name, the studio is not in fact in London but in Watford, about 20 miles to the north and a commuter train ride away from the city. I'll explain the intricacies of getting there below-- suffice it to say that the day you go on this tour, don't plan on doing much else. Getting there takes a little work, and once inside you will want to spend at least 3 hours—likely closer to 4 or 5. Photo ops are voluminous, and oohs and ahs at least double that.
The experience is, as the name implies, a tour, but mostly a self-guided one. It is, if you like, something akin to the most interesting museum you could ever take your kids to. The path leads in one direction through one sound stage after another, each one a familiar room or location from Harry’s adventures, decorated with props and mannequins wearing original costumes. Several of the exhibits are interactive—guests can make the magical appliances at the Weasleys’ Burrow work, mix potions in Snape’s laboratory, summon broomsticks, and practice spells—and all beg photos, so bring a back-up battery!
Every window is worth looking in on Diagon Alley.
Truth be told my son was doubtful going in, because—as a SoCal boy spoiled by Universal's Wizarding World—be couldn’t wrap his mind around how this experience could be fun without rides. Five hours and several Instagram posts later, his mind was fully wrapped. Walking through the real Great Hall, meandering down the real Diagon Alley, running down the real bridge that Professor McGonagall told Seamus to blow up— these are things that don’t need a roller coaster to make them fun. We also walked through the forest, interacted with a robotic Hippogriff, prowled around the house at Privet Drive, caught the Knight bus, and rode the Hogwarts Express (with a little help from some movie magic).
Other highlights include exhibits that demonstrate a variety of special effects, many of which I would never have guessed (no spoilers offered!), and video interviews with actors, designers, directors, producers, etc... Particularly impressive is the enormous scale model of Hogwarts, and the intricate ways it was filmed to look real.
The Great Hall is both familiar and awesome. Photo by Karen Roe/CC BY 2.0
About halfway through the tour is a cafeteria serving classic British and wizard fare, though picnic lunches from outside are also welcome on the green spots of Privet Drive. Butter beer is probably the most popular item on the menu (though truth be told it doesn’t fully measure up to the Wizarding World version at Universal).
Since this studio was created as a place of work and not a source of amusement, it was not placed in the heart of anything, so don't expect to find much in the way of restaurants, hotels, or anything else to do in the immediate area. Watford itself is a fairly far-flung suburb, and the Studio Tour location is in the far outskirts of that suburb. Many people opt to take a charter bus directly to the tour from central London. This method may be the simpler but not the most economic approach. If you aren’t intimidated by public transport, regular commuter trains run from Euston Station (accessible via the Victoria and Northern underground lines), and at Watford Junction a dedicated Potter bus runs directly to the studio tour for about £2 each way. If you have an Oyster card for travel around London, you can even pay the train portion using that, rather than buy a special train ticket. Insider tip: if you go this route, do check the commuter train times and catch the shorter, direct train to Watford Junction; the slow train takes literally twice as long.
Everyone wants to see the cupboard under the stairs.
Warner Brothers' Making of Harry Potter tour is an outing for serious Potter fans; it could be downright dull to someone who'd never seen the films, but for anyone who knows and loves the movies it's definitely a must-see. If your child dreams of chocolate frogs, plays fantasy quidditch, or has ever uttered the words Expecto Patronum, you must not visit England without scheduling a day at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour.
Tickets for The Making of Harry Potter cost about $50 for adults and $40 for kids (under 5 gets in free), depending on exchange rates. But making your child's every Hogwarts dream come true? Priceless.
All photos by author unless otherwise noted