It was amazing. Of course if you read this blog with any regularity you knew I’d say that.
I absolutely adore Harry Potter, and for superfans like me getting to go behind the scenes of the movies and see the actual sets, props and costumes was a dream come true!
The Making of Harry Potter is the current (and only) exhibit at the Warner Brothers Studio Tour at Leavesden Studios. Leavesden is where all eight Harry Potter films were shot, and once filming wrapped a couple years ago they wisely decided to keep all the sets around and create an attraction out of it. So what exactly was a day in Harry’s world like? Well…
First you take a 20-minute train from London to Watford Junction, and then a Potter-themed bus takes you over to the studio. As soon as we stepped on the bus Nick exclaimed “If they know what they’re doing they’ll play the music now!” Sure enough the famous John Williams score starts blaring from the speakers a moment later, setting the scene for an exciting day. The announcer goes on to talk about the history of the WB and Leavesden Studios (it used to be an airplane factory) but my brain was just like “Who cares?! Bring on the butterbeer!”
Mercifully the ride is short and we were soon walking into the lobby surrounded by enormous portraits of our favorite characters – Ron, Hermione, Hagrid, Malfoy, Mad-Eye, Luna and of course our dear Harry. The gift shop looked tantalizing but we decided to leave it until after the tour (I planned to buy plenty of Peppermint Toads).
Once you’ve got your tickets and digital guide (which costs an extra £5, but has tons of behind the scenes video and is narrated by Tom Felton aka Draco Malfoy!) you line up next to the cupboard under the stairs. The real one! Of course, everything here is the real thing, but it’s quite surreal when you weren’t expecting it to be right there in line with you.
Once you get in to the first waiting room there’s a briefing from a staff member (take all the pictures you want!) followed by a quick film about the Potter phenomenon, after which you’re escorted into a theater for another brief film. This one comes with an absolutely spectacular ending which I won’t reveal here, because some magic is best experienced in person.
Once the tour officially begins you find yourself entering the Great Hall of Hogwarts. Even without it’s enchanted ceiling (which was added in post-production) it’s overflowing with magic. I have to admit I teared up a bit while walking on it’s hallowed stones.
Two of the long tables are there, with the original cutlery laid out for the students, along with displays of Hogwarts school uniforms from each House. A staff member gives you an overview of the room and points out some of the more interesting features, such as the Hogwarts crest inside the fireplace which was never visible in the films.
The guided tour was now complete and we entered the first of three self-guided sections of the tour. The first section is the most impressive. It’s all-encompassing, with each of the major indoor sets making an appearance.
There’s the Gryffindor Common Room, the Weasley Burrow, the Potions classroom, Dumbledore’s Office and the Ministry of Magic. There’s the floating candles of the Great Hall, the portrait wall, a piece from the Yule Ball and The Leaky Cauldron. There’s sections for green-screen effects, makeup and props. Every time I turned around there was an audible gasp as I glimpsed something else from the films. They say each of the sections should take about an hour, but we were in this first area for over two hours and I could easily have spent longer just admiring the details.
That’s honestly the most fascinating part of this tour. The level of thought and painstaking detail that was put in to each piece, from the largest set to the smallest prop, is just astounding. This is where the digital guide really shines. Each subsection is numbered, and you can listen to Tom Felton describe what each department went through to make the world come to life. There are also incredible behind-the-scenes videos and interviews that help you understand how each piece was made and why it was important.
I could write an opus for each set, but since this is not an encyclopedia and you probably want to experience it yourself, I’ll just show you some of the highlights.
The Gryffindor Common Room looked so cozy I wanted to flop down on the sofa and read a Quibbler. The point was for it to be the home Harry never had with the Dursleys, and I think I can say they achieved the homiest place on Earth. Favorite part: the portrait of a young Minerva McGonagall on the wall that I never noticed in the films!
Dumbledore’s office is a revelation, and I could see much more detail here than in the one at Wizarding World in Orlando. Favorite part: the telescope.
Though it’s not anyone’s favorite place, the Ministry of Magic sets were by far the most impressive. From the enormous fireplaces to Umbridge’s pink-stone office, they were really something to behold even though they couldn’t bring the whole thing in because it was just too large. Favorite part: the emerald green fireplaces.
The Potions classroom & the Weasley’s home at the Burrow both featured moving parts, like self-stirring cauldrons and knitting needles, some of which can be controlled by visitors. Favorite part: the hundreds of bottles in Potions, each with a hand-written label!
When you’re finally satisfied that you’ve seen every amazing detail in the first section (you probably haven’t, but they’ll kick you at after 6pm) you enter the outdoor space – and this is when I finally got my Butterbeer!
Outside you can see Privet Drive, the Potter’s House from Godric’s Hollow, and take pictures on the Knight Bus (All Destinations, Nothing Underwater) and the Weasley’s Ford Anglia! There’s also the Hogwarts bridge that Neville and the gang blew up in the final film.
The final section is back inside, and this time you’re staring all the movies’ creatures right in the face! Trolls, werewolves and mermen were all meticulously created by the Creature Shop, and I can attest to the fact that they all look intensely creepy in real life. I could not spend more than a few seconds in the presence of Aragog. I knew he was fake, but having a giant spider hanging over me was still too much! You can see friendly faces, too, like Dobby, Hedwig, Fawkes and an awesome moving Buckbeak! They also created life-size versions of each of the actors (some of which were used for scenes where they look dead) which are very, very, very creepy.
Then you round the corner and are greeted by a much cheerier sight: Diagon Alley! Arguably one of the most incredible parts of the films, this magical place is cool to see up close… but I have to say I prefer the walk through Hogsmeade in Orlando. WIthout the hustle and bustle of people, Diagon Alley was a bit sad, sort of like in the beginning of Book 7 when the Death Eaters have made everyone too scared to shop.
That said, it’s still incredible to see all the small details you could never have noticed on the big screen (sign: “The Sale of Unicorn Blood is Forbidden. DO NOT ASK.”). I was especially happy to see Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, which is inexplicably absent from Wizarding World.
Finally you get to see some amazing drawings and models of Harry’s world before coming to the big finish: Hogwarts! Or, a smallish version of it. The 1:50 scale model takes up an entire room!
This model was used for every exterior shot for the first six movies. After that the CG technology was sophisticated enough that they didn’t need it anymore, but it’s probably the most impressive thing on the tour. Once again, the level of detail is incredible: from the hand-painted bricks to miniature owls to tiny lamps ablaze in the windows, they did not cut corners!
They say to allow three hours for the whole tour, but we moved quickly and needed over four. If we didn’t have a dog to walk as part of our housesitting duties that week I would’ve been here five or more! Before you leave you have to walk through the shop, which I challenge you to do without buying anything! They have the usual range of wands and shirts, but you can also buy a complete Hogwarts uniform or even an authentic Dumbledore costume! I made sure to stock up on wizard treats, since they’re hard to come by in the Muggle world.
Though perhaps not as immersive as Wizarding World of Harry Potter, being able to see these sets, and the behind-the-scenes work that went into making them, was like nothing else in the world. I learned a lot from this tour that even a superfans like myself probably wouldn’t know before coming. The level of thought and love that was put in to this magical world is extraordinary and really adds to the realism of the movies. Not that J.K. would have accepted anything less!
You can read more about the Harry Potter Studio Tour and book tickets here. “Nitwit, blubber, oddment, tweak!”