I’m not ashamed to admit that I got Gryffindor pajamas for my 40th birthday.
That wasn’t so much the case in 1999, when I was trying to read my copy of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban while awkwardly hiding the blanket on my train ride to work. At the time it was billed as a children’s book, a magic game that riffed on Roald Dahl Matilda and Tolkien The Hobbit.
But beneath his youthful exterior lurked a world that adults also secretly enjoyed. It was smart, inventive, witty and a chance to get out of our adult worlds a bit. For me it was a pure escape into a fantasy world of sorcery. But it was also about optimism and courage – a belief that you can be your own magical self, that no one should live in a closet, and that love trumps hate.
When the last Harry Potter book came out in 2007, I read it straight for 10 hours non-stop and felt something like grief when it ended. When my three children were old enough to understand what a dementor was, we read the books together, then watched the movies, which we regularly immersed ourselves in. Our Halloween costumes usually feature one or more of the characters from the books and movies: The Dementors, Professor Snape, Hermione, Harry, Professor McGonagall and, more recently, Moaning Myrtle, complete with toilet seat.
Needless to say, we were dyed-in-the-wool Potter fans looking forward to another deep dive into the wizarding world with a trip to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour in London.
After such strong relationship to the books and movies, however, I wondered if a behind-the-scenes look at the chemistry that made JK Rowling’s series so popular could, well, ruin the magic. Would the kids be a little disappointed to find out that, during filming, the butterbeer was actually apple juice? Or that Hagrid was often played by a much taller actor with a fake Hagrid head?
Of course, secrets are revealed. But being able to walk down Diagon Alley, peer into the Weasley burrow and ride a broomstick was exactly what we all wanted. If you can get past the slightly dark industrial look of the gigantic airport hangars outside Watford, which feature all the decor, there’s plenty of non-Muggle magic to enjoy.
The tour begins with a short film that traces the history of the film and features actors Oliver and James Phelps (the Weasley twins) as well as Daniel Radcliffe (Harry), Rupert Grint (Ron) and Emma Watson (Hermione), but the magic begins when the doors to “the one and only Great Hall at Hogwarts” fly open.
Although the long oak tables, flagstone floors and stained glass windows are all intact, the “enchanted ceiling” is a collection of stark lighting and metal bars. But I’m soon distracted by a penguin skating on a Christmas cake and several plum puddings that have just caught fire at the push of a button on a guide.
I would have liked to linger here a bit longer, but we were quickly ushered into the next set, the first soundstage. From there, you can go at your own pace, thankfully, and you’ll have to take your time to digest and appreciate all of its magic.
The ingenuity and craftsmanship of the films becomes evident as you walk through the various sets. You learn how decorator Stephenie McMillan aged the furniture and tapestries of the Gryffindor boys’ common room, that the hundreds of books lining the walls of Dumbledore’s office are actually leather-bound British telephone books, and that the burrow Weasley’s twist was designed to look like Mr. Weasley built it all and it’s the result of construction workers removing the support beams for a quirky look.
Familiar rooms and settings rub shoulders: Hagrid’s hut; the potions room, lined with 500 bottles; the dark and misty Forbidden Forest; the Ministry of Magic and Umbridge’s feline-adorned office. It’s a little dizzying and sometimes you have to go back in time to fully appreciate the magic of the movie that helped create them.
An audio guide and information panels help, but the curators are often the most knowledgeable. “It took 15 people to operate the Aragog animatronic spider, and each hair was individually sewn by hand,” a guide tells us as we look up to see an 18-foot Aragog hanging above our heads.
Creature effects take up a good portion of the tour as the films feature many fantastic animals. We turned a corner and practically stumbled upon a life-size model of Buckbeak the Hippogriff, for example. We then discovered that when creating the models, real feathers were used and each was individually inserted and glued by the creature effects team to ensure they had the correct shape.
Additionally, 250 animals were trained to represent the characters’ various pets, including a team of Mastiffs who played Hagrid’s giant dog, Fang.
Highlights are thick and quick. We watched the Weasleys’ pots and pans wash up and sipped butterbeer (£3.95 a cup) on the backlot. We boarded the Hogwarts Express and saw Lavender Brown’s famous love heart on the car window.
One of the most anticipated attractions was Diagon Alley, where my three delighted at the sight of Puking Pastilles in the window of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, followed by an incredible rebuild of Gringotts Bank – where we learned that the magnificent marble floor marble was actually stained paper.
Appreciating the scale of the operation and the effort and artistry that went into creating it, from the costumes to the creatures, there are so many iconic moments in the studio tour that it’s hard to pick just one. alone. But when the Golden Hall of Gringotts was destroyed by a Ukrainian Ironbelly Dragon right before our eyes, it was a hair-raising but thrilling moment.
My three were too excited at the prospect of piloting a broomstick to hang out for the meticulous detail of the sets, and while I know I was getting ripped off (£20 for a souvenir video / £14 for a photo), I too ended up zipping my way through the streets of London and over Hogwarts on a Nimbus 2000 – which I admit was way more fun than I had imagined. The kids also got a wand lesson with the wand fighting expert from the movies through a pre-recorded video (free).
The technical trickery and attractions continue in a backlot, which is home to Privet Drive, a section of the Hogwarts Bridge, the Knight Bus and Mr. Weasley’s flying Ford Anglia. After that, you come to platform 9¾, with a real scale locomotive and its carriages.
The grand finale is an epic, snow-strewn Hogwarts model render that was used for wide shots in the movies. It’s the final veil of magic revealed, reminding you that here in Watford those stone walls of Hogwarts ring hollow.
Did he break the spell? If anything, this enchanted us more.
Tickets for the studio tour cost £49.95/£39.95 per adult/child or £159 for a family of four. The digital guides cost £4.95 each. Orla and her family visited as guests of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. wbstudiotour.co.uk
Best time to visit
The tour lasts around three and a half hours, but once inside you can stay as long as you like. Timed tickets mean crowds are manageable, but it’s best to book a slot earlier so you can go at your own pace and linger.
How to get there
The easiest and quickest way to get to Watford Junction is by train from Euston (thetrainline.com). Opt for an express train, which takes about 20 minutes. From here shuttle buses run every 30 minutes to the Warner Bros studio (£3 return), about 15 minutes away. The studio also offers bus transfer via Golden Tours from London Victoria and King’s Cross train stations.
Everyone 11 years and older is required to wear a face covering when visiting the studio, unless exempt. Covid passes or vaccination certificates are not required, but there are temperature checks, a one-way system and staggered entry times to control the flow of visitors. Don’t forget to also check all Covid-19 restrictions related to travel, including for your return to Ireland (gov.ie; dfa.ie/travel).
Theme parks have notoriously poor food options, and this is no exception. If you can, eat before you go or bring your own food as choices are limited. The Chocolate Frog Café serves cakes and sweets, while the Backlot Café has a menu of hot dogs, burgers, fries and a vegan burger (meal £9/£5.95). Try the butterbeer, which I can confirm is a heady blend of delicious butterscotch.
Exit through the gift shop
Beware of the singing and dancing gift shop, which is hard to avoid at the end. My three got caught up in a web of souvenir wands and sorting hats until finally I gave in and bought them a Dumbledore wand (£32), Quidditch sweatshirts (£35 each – eek!) and a packet of Every Flavor Beans from Bertie Bott (£15.95). I tasted them and got one that tasted like vomit. Beautiful.
Spend the night
We stayed at the Park Plaza Westminster Hotel. With a terrific location on the River Thames next to the London Eye and three tube stations nearby, this is a solid family hotel with several good restaurants, a gym, a spa, great views and, rare for London, a pool. Family rooms from £392, room only; parkplazawestminsterbridge.com