I’m a fan of the Harry Potter books, films and associated items, as evidence by the Harry Potter category on this blog. Therefore, it’s surprising that I haven’t included my experiences of visiting the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden (which is not in London, not matter what the website tells you). My partner and I have been not once, but twice, first in 2012 and again in 2017 when new sections were added; we would happily go again. Time to rectify the omission from the blog and talk about the tour, but mostly as an excuse to post some of the many, many photographs that were taken.
The first time we visited was with deliberate planning: go on a weekday that isn’t during a school holiday so that we could lessen if not avoid the crowd. We also had to time our travelling because we don’t have a car (the second visit would see us in a rental car we had got for the week, booking tickets on the morning as we woke up and then tearing around the M25 to get to the studio for our allotted time), so had to take the train and the special Harry Potter bus that runs twice an hour to take you on the 15-minute journey to the Leavesden studios, just outside of Watford.
When on the train, we noticed some people who had some Potter-related clothing, so it prepared us for the fact that we weren’t the only ones who had made plans to visit the studio tour, and that it would be busy. When we were queueing for the bus (alas, not a triple-decker Knight Bus, but an ordinary double-decker with Harry Potter film imagery on a dark-blue background), there were lots of tourists waiting, which makes sense because it is the easiest way for them to visit.
When we were on the bus journey, there was a short introductory video to get you in the mood, if you weren’t already, which fortunately didn’t last too long. It was odd, travelling in the big bus through normal roads and avenues, a strange sight that people living there must have got used to by now, but I suppose it makes thematic sense with the journey of the first film from the Muggle world to the world of magic. The appearance of a sign to Leavesden suggested we were nearing our destination, and soon we could see the huge aircraft-hangar-sized buildings (with handy Harry Potter imagery on the side). The excitement was palpable …
We arrived around 11am and had to pick up our tickets, which were printed out: one had Hedwig on it, the other had Fang, and you are half-tempted to go back so you can get them all. There were a few of the huge chess pieces from the first film outside, which were the first things to be photographed (we went crazy on the digital cameras – we had deliberately charged up the batteries for the DSLR and the separate compact camera the night before to ensure maximum capacity – and took approximately 700 photos between us).
Inside the Studio Tour
After entering the building, we popped into the store to see what prices were like – in short, ridiculously expensive. I felt sorry for parents because there was nothing cheap to buy as a small memento of the day; I think the cheapest thing I saw was a lollipop for about £2. There were house scarves (about £25, I think) and posters and wands and sweets (Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans were £8 for a small box of Jelly Belly Beans, chocolate and white chocolate wands for about £7, chocolate frogs for £7). There were lots of very furry cuddly animals, such as Hedwig and Buckbeak and Crookshank, but also a Scabbers. You could buy wizarding robes and house ties and brooms (small toy ones), as well as the more expensive memorabilia such as replica wands and time turners and Slytherin lockets.
We returned to the foyer, which has lots of large photos around the upper walls, as well as a large planetary model thing, before deciding to join the queue before our time – even though it was a non-holiday Friday morning, there were still lots of people. We joined a snaking queue that took us past a replica of the room under the stairs before being allowed in at almost 11.30am, which happened to be our entry time. We went into a dark room where a person introduced us to the event, with the wall covered in foreign-language posters of the films, before being taken into the cinema auditorium next door. When everyone was seated, another person got us ready for the next stage with some humour before introducing the short film, which had Dan, Emma and Rupert talking about the exhibit and how lovely it was that everyone could see it. They went through the large doors to the Hogwarts Great Hall; the film ended, the screen raised, and it was exactly the same thing – the doors to the Great Hall through which we would start our tour.
We were eventually let in – there is a timing schedule between groups – and allowed into the Great Hall itself, with the original floors and tables and fireplace, and various house robes and costumes. There was another person talking about the various things in the Great Hall, but we were too busy photographing things. It was fantastic to be in there, to be on what was the set, with the lights above and the attention to detail on the tables and on the walls. At the far end was the high table with costumes for all the professors, and we could easily have spent a lot longer there; however, this was the only part of the tour where time was limited and we were ushered out for the next group to come through.
After that, there was no time restriction and you could wander around and be as slow as you like, which we did. It was amazing: the amount and the level of detail involved was unbelievable. There were various areas from the films, as well as themed collections of things, so there was Umbridge’s room in the Ministry, plus her costume and associated items, or the kitchen in the Burrow with costumes and various props, including buttons for kids (and adult) to press to move things such as the pan scourer or the iron on the ironing boards. There was a huge collection of wands, there was the Mirror of Erised, there was a huge cage in the middle that had a massive collection of background objects, perhaps from the Room of Requirement, all in exquisite detail for a moment’s screen time, such as the huge troll armour and the tiny house-elf armour, plus a royal skeleton with accompanying jewels and sceptre.
There were costumes for all the characters around, plus Hagrid’s hut, the Vanishing Cabinet, a collection of books from Flourish and Blott’s bookshop, a portion of the outside of offices from the Ministry, Dumbledore’s office (we could walk into the front section but could only photograph the main desk and then the upper section – the Sorting Hat was there, as well as the sword of Gryffindor and the Pensieve and many, many books, which were apparently old phone books covered in leather). There was part of the massive statue from the Ministry foyer, there were paintings from the walls of Hogwarts (which were mostly members of the production crew – there was an associated video showing you who was who). There was information about the animals used on set, but there was also interaction: there was a room set aside for green screen, so you could fly on a broom or drive the Weasley’s car and get a photograph of yourself with the image filled in; they even had wizard and Quidditch robes to put on to make it more real. We declined because we aren’t kids – there were lots of university-age people who had grown up with the books/films who were very keen, as were the younger kids and tourists. (There were lots of student-age people in various levels of Hogwarts clothes and wizarding robes, cosplaying their time around the tour – it was nice to see the affection people have for the books and films.)
Then there was the Diagon Alley stage – it looked like a smaller-scale version of the main visual, with all the shops (Weasley Wizarding Wheezes, Flourish and Blotts, Madam Malkin, Eyelops Owl Emporium) with various props in the windows, with the lights of the ceiling going up and down in brightness to get different types of shots. It was a particular thrill walking along this street, from the entrance to Gringott’s up the slight incline, seeing wizarding brooms in the window (which levitated), and up to the Weasley head lifting the top hat over the rabbit – it wasn’t like being there but it worked more than the Great Hall because Diagon Alley should be a messy throng of people looking in shop windows and getting in each other’s way, so it felt more natural compared with the artifice of a guide telling us facts and then hurrying us out.
The next stage was the food stop – there was a stall selling sandwiches and a stall selling butterbeer, which is a root beer-like drink with a creamy vanilla topping on it. We got one (we didn’t bother doubling the price to get a glass with the word ‘butterbeer’ on it because it was expensive enough already) to have with our sandwiches, which we had sitting on tables they had outside. Some were under cover next to the building, but some were in the open air, which is where we had ours.
In this outer section they had larger items: there was the Knight Bus (you could stand on the back platform and look inside) and number 4 Privet Drive used in the later films; there was the flying car, which you could get inside and take photos of you in it, as well as Sirius’s flying bike, which you could sit and get in the sidecar as well (we didn’t do either); there was the bridge from Hogwarts to Hagrid’s (not in the books, it was created by Alfonso Cuaron for the third film and then included in the rest); there was the damaged house of the Potters (although no magical hologram); there were more large chess pieces from the first film before you went back inside again.
Inside the Studio Tour, part two
The other side of the tour was about the behind-the-scenes stuff: the first room was all the creature work, with lots of make-up stuff and models of various magical creatures. There was a large Buckbeak model that moved, a dragon hanging from the ceiling, Hagrid’s model head put on the stand-ins for Robbie Coltrane in mid-shots. These were all joined together by several short films hosted by Warwick Davis and the head of the department responsible for all the creature stuff over all the films, which went from one section to the next to explain all the various aspects in a fun fashion. It was another amazing amount of detail involved and hard work to create these beautiful objects.
There was an Aragog model before we went into the art department. There were lots of blueprints of buildings and props (they had the blueprint for the house-elf armour) as well as white paper models of Hogwarts and Hogsmeade, used to work out shots. There were lots of beautiful paintings of the films, used as storyboard/mood pieces, which any Harry Potter fan would be happy to have on their walls and could easily fill an exhibition in their own right. This led into the huge model of Hogwarts that was used for external shots – it was about 20 feet high and about 30 feet wide (I think – see the photos for the scale) and we could walk around it all the way down, with the lights going up and down so we could see it both in daytime and night-time (with lights coming on in various bits of the model). It was another amazing prop, which fantastic detail and scale, something that needed to be constantly worked on throughout the films.
The final part of the tour was a sort of Ollivander’s, with walls full of wand boxes for every one of the ~4,000 people involved in the production of the films (although you couldn’t see the wands in the boxes – they just had people’s names written on the end of the box, but it was impressive to see a ‘real-life’ approximation of Ollivander’s). This was the end of the tour and it was quite sad to leave – we’d been in there for five hours but we could have spent more time in there. I was half tempted to go back the way we came so we could see it all again, even though it would have been against the flow; you are free to spend as much time as you like in the tour and take as many photos as you want, and I think we got our money’s worth. Still, it was a wrench to walk past the sign that said that we couldn’t go back, and then go into the shop.
We were disciplined in the shop – the only memento we have is a fridge magnet of ‘Have you seen this wizard?’ of Sirius Black (although it’s supposed to be a photo frame you can change, we’ve kept Sirius in there and has pride of place on our fridge). The shop was full of people and merchandise, the queues were long, despite many assistants working on the tills – the shop was performing a massive ‘accio money’ on the visitors … We left the building and headed to the queue for the bus back to the station; the weather was grey and a little drizzly now, which seemed appropriate for the mood, but we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.