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Visiting the Making of Harry Potter in London

Okay, so not exactly London, but fairly close to it.  Leavesden in Watford Junction is the home of the Warner Brothers studio, and you can now tour the movie sets in a tour called the Making of Harry Potter.  They recommend leaving three hours for the visit.  We spent over seven and could have stayed longer.  Seriously.

We hoped a train from Euston Station to Watford Junction, and then took a shuttle to the studio.  I have to admit that I got very teary when we stepped out of the train station and saw that big purple bus that would take us to the set.  The shuttle takes about ten minutes or so.

I believe you need to purchase your tickets ahead of time (vs. buying them when you get there), and tickets are on a timed release.  We got there a little early and they allowed us to slip in with the group ahead of us.  After you walk past the cupboard under the stairs…

…and see a gorgeous quote from JK Rowling, you are ushered into a movie theater to watch a brief film.

Once the film is over, the screen snaps up AND YOU ARE LOOKING AT THE DOORS TO THE GREAT HALL (yes, I bawled).

While the Great Hall scenes in the first Harry Potter were filmed at Oxford at Christ Church, all the other films used this set.

You can walk the stone floor, learn how they made the enchanted ceiling, and see the house counters (which caused a bead shortage in the UK).

After the Great Hall, you move onto a series of sets and props housed inside a gigantic warehouse.  There are costumes and wigs.

And you learn that in order to give Harry Potter’s clothing a scruffy look while he’s in the woods, they used multiple copies of the same outfit, each one with a little extra dirt rubbed into the material.

You can see the gates of Hogwarts that the kids pass through when they arrive via carriage or go to Hogsmeade.

The leaky cauldron from the Leaky Cauldron:

And dozens of sets including the Gryffindor common room:

And the boy’s dormitory:

And Dumbledore’s office, which they’ve dissected a bit so you can get a better look at all his instruments and things such as the cabinet that holds all the memory vials.  Most of the sets have a dummy version of a character in place to give you a sense of size:

And just so you understand, this picture of the potions classroom is just a tiny bit of it.  The set stretches on to accommodate dozens of actors at the same time.

And the Burrow where you can see all the various props moving as they do in the film.

And Dolores Umbridge’s office at the Ministry:

And the Mirror of Erised and the big pendulum that swings in the front hall and just about every single prop that you see in the movie from Lupin’s traveling case to Moody’s many trunks to Ravenclaw’s diadem and all the portraits and Quidditch towers and the Pensieve and…

There’s a lot of stuff.  We probably spent about 3 hours alone in that warehouse room.  Just to give you a sense of the size, when the room is empty, you can fit several airplanes inside.

And wait!  Before you can travel onto the next section of the tour, you get to see cases filled with a lot of the smaller props as well as the Black family tapestry (which is really painted on canvas and made to look with trompe l’oeil as if it is sewn into fabric).  There is the Marauder’s Map:

And issues of the Quibbler:

And the letters Harry receives inviting him to Hogwarts:

And Lily’s letter to Sirius found in his home:

And edible treats:

And galleons, sickles, and knuts:

Before we left the warehouse room of sets, props, and costumes, we looked at some of the vehicles AND GOT TO RIDE A BROOMSTICK!

You wait in a 20-minute line and then are taken to the Ford Anglia (which we flew as a family) and directed by the cameraman in order to get our facial expressions to match what was projected on the green screen.  Then we put on Hogwarts robes, and we each got to ride a broomstick.  For an extra cost, we got to take home five photographs of the experience. (It’s the only place where you can’t film at the studio since the picture wouldn’t show up since the background is green screened in.)

We brought a bag lunch but purchased butterbeer at the outside cafe.  Mmmm… butterbeer.  The Wolvog was curious enough to actually try a few sips after I removed all the foam off of his (you know… the issue with white foods).

You are actually eating lunch in the backlot. (I don’t believe you can double back and go to the indoor cafe that is in the front lobby of the studio. So plan accordingly: you will either need to eat lunch outdoors, beforehand, or afterward.) The tables are surrounded by things that you can walk into or up to afterward including #4 Privet Drive:

The Knight Bus:

The destroyed Potter cottage in Godric Hollow:

Plus the Ford Anglia and Sirius’s motorbike and the enormous chess pieces.  And you can walk over the Hogwarts Bridge.

And then you go into the third piece of the tour which is sound, special effects, animals, and lighting.  You get to see Aunt Marge’s blown up body:

And bow to Buckbeak:

And hang out with a thestral:

And learn how they made Robbie Coltrane look so much larger than the kids (hint: it’s not just a camera trick).  There’s the Monster Book of Monsters and Hedwig and the mandrakes and a few films you can watch that show how they do some of the cool special effects.  The twins are no longer scared of seeing the dementors in the films now that they’ve seen the dementor puppets (which sort of look like ripped up toilet paper).

And then you turn the corner of the last room AND YOU ARE IN DIAGON ALLEY!

I cried quite a few times during the day because I was so overwhelmed and getting to walk up and down Diagon Alley (which was transformed with snow and different store fronts to be Hogsmeade in the movies) was one of those times.  I just remembered how I felt when we saw the first film and Harry stepped onto Diagon Alley; I involuntarily stood up in the theater for a moment because I was so surprised at how the image matched what was in my head.  And now I was walking on the actual stone floor, looking into the actual shops used in the film.  We spent over an hour just on Diagon Alley alone, examining all the tiny details in the store fronts such as Flourish and Blotts:

I really loved Flourish and Blotts.  Like really really loved it.  Like took probably 40 pictures of it.  They were featuring Lockhart’s books in the window.

And Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment:

And the Weasley twins’ joke shop:

At the top end, you can see the wall that you need to tap in order to get into Diagon Alley (the twins tapped it but disappointingly, nothing happened).  I took several hundred pictures in Diagon Alley alone of each of the store fronts.  It’s really an amazing place, and the lights continuously move from day time to night time to give you a sense of the way it was used at various times of day.  You can see literally every store and the outside of Gringotts in the alley.

Afterwards, you go into a lot of the art of film making: the blue prints of buildings, the sketches artists created before making the various creatures, the cardboard models.

Many years ago, I took a trip out to Figueres, Spain to see Dali’s crypt.  You get to it by walking through this darkened room filled with cases of jewelry he designed for Gala.  It is easy to see how much love Dali had for his wife as you walk through the room, and your mind sort of focuses on that love to the exclusion of everything else.  And then you turn a corner and there is Dali’s stone crypt with his name starkly chiseled into the side.  I remember having this physical reaction to the movement from love to death that occurs as you round the corner, feeling physically overwhelmed and weepy, and that is the only way to explain how it feels to move through the fifth part of the tour: the model of Hogwarts.

You go through a similar hall filled with glass cases of cardboard models, and you can feel the love the film makers had creating this world.  And then you turn the corner and you are staring at this ENORMOUS, detailed model of Hogwarts castle.  It was so overwhelming that the kids and I sat down and cried for a few minutes.  And then we walked the perimeter, talking with various interactors (the names for the people who are standing about and can answer all your questions) who pointed out windows in the castle, drawing your imagination back to various scenes.

I took a lot of pictures of the model, but I don’t want to show them to you because I want you to experience it as we experienced it: turning the corner and having no idea what we’re about to see or how it looks.

Finally, the tour wraps up in a room that contains over 4000 wands in boxes, one for every person who worked on the film.  They are all mixed up, in no particular order, and we spent a bit locating JK Rowling, Danielle Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson’s wands.  And then just perusing names and deciding which names we liked.

Oh, and then the tour really wraps up in the gift shop.  We got off easy.  The kids wanted the official book for the tour and we bought them each a Gryffindor patch that I’m sewing onto gold and maroon reading blankets (you know, to wrap around as you sit on the sofa in the winter and read the books).

So we spent a little over seven hours and could have easily stayed for an additional seven and still not really absorbed everything there.  It was easily one of our favourite parts of the trip.

Coming up: how to plan an Alice in Wonderland trip to Oxford.


1 Heidi { 10.31.12 at 8:33 am }

I am in tears just reading your description. I about died of glee in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, I cannot imagine how I would react with the actual sets. I am so beyond envious of you!

2 Meghan { 10.31.12 at 10:59 am }

This sounds amazing. The only thing stopping me from booking a flight right now is that the girls haven’t read the books or seen the movies yet. But I can’t wait to go

3 a { 10.31.12 at 11:14 am }

This sounds so fantastic! I hope my girl will want to read the books – she’s going through a scaredy cat phase right now, so I don’t know how it will work. But she’s only 6, so I will work on her for a couple years, I guess. And then we can take our trip to London to see all this stuff!

4 k { 10.31.12 at 12:37 pm }

This is amazing. I’m planning for this summer to be the summer of starting Harry Potter with the twins. They’ve sort of seen the first movie, but never really sat still enough for it. So I want us to read the book then watch the movie and see how they do. I hope they love it as much as yours do.

5 Kathy { 10.31.12 at 1:16 pm }

That sounds awesome! Sean read all the books this spring and I am still catching up! He (and I) would love to see all of this someday. Thank you for sharing about your experience and all those great pictures! I will have to show Sean this post. He will love it! Did I tell you he is Harry Potter for Halloween this year?! 🙂

6 Elana Kahn { 10.31.12 at 3:54 pm }

I almost cried just reading your descriptions of everything! I’m going to London tomorrow and I wish so much I had time to go to Leavesden, but if I did then I wouldn’t have time to do anything else in London at all. *sigh* Maybe for my next trip…

7 Christa Singleton { 10.31.12 at 5:18 pm }

How awesome!! I can’t wait to visit this place next May. I’ve been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as well as an exhibition in NYC. The one in NYC wasn’t nearly as extensive as the one in London but I’m fairly sure the items aren’t duplicates so you may have missed some costumes and such while they were on “tour”. I mostly remember the outfits from the Yule Ball, etc.

8 Queenie { 10.31.12 at 9:09 pm }

Standing with my kids and looking in the Mirror of Erised was such a magical moment for me.

9 The Steadfast Warrior { 11.01.12 at 4:54 am }

I really want to do this tour! K should be old enough to appreciate the tour (and not to mention enjoy have the books read to her). Thanks for sharing all of this.

10 Waffle-Wednesday { 11.01.12 at 8:50 am }

I cried right along with you as you described the screen being pulled aside to reveal the Doors to the Great Hall. Brilliant descriptions. I have loved each and every book and cannot wait until my boys are old enough to share them. We started one, but my littlest wasn’t quite there yet. Soon. Very soon. I so loved being able to peek in on this trip with you. Thank you so much for sharing!

11 k { 11.01.12 at 12:00 pm }

You know I was thinking about this and reliving some of the first movie in my head the other night after reading your post and recalling how when I saw the movie I was struck by how the great hall reminded me so much of the hall at Cambridge university’s Pembroke college (I stayed there for 5 weeks one summer in college). That one link to the movie made me feel like I’d been let in on a little secret – I can only imagine how overwhelming it was to actually see all of this.

12 Jillian { 11.01.12 at 7:06 pm }

I cried reading your descriptions as well…we are reading the books to our oldest son (7) and we are on Book 5…I showed him your HP posts and he is already planning our next vacation! I have to say since I read them about 10 times through myself, I am just as excited as he is!!

13 loribeth { 11.01.12 at 8:35 pm }

So. Cool!!!

14 Carolynne { 11.02.12 at 12:21 am }

Wow!! I would love to visit this one day. I am headed to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando in less than 2 weeks and this post makes me even more excited. I hope to one day be able to travel to the UK to see this exhibit!!!

15 Anita { 11.04.12 at 3:14 am }

I had no idea that something like this even existed. I was looking at the pictures and reading your descriptions in wonder, I can only imagine what it was like to be there in real life.

Even though it’s not as spectacular as some of the other parts I think seeing the cupboard under the stairs would be a great experience, especially considering that JK Rowling said that set was an almost exact replica of the house she grew up in. Anyway, thanks for this great post :).

16 Betty M { 11.04.12 at 2:41 pm }

We haven’t been yet (typical for people who live not far away) but it sounds better than i thought it would be. I love the idea of wands room – I wonder if you saw the names of my two friends who worked on the films? I think I will go just to check that out!

17 Jamie { 03.13.16 at 3:08 pm }

We have booked a trip to London with the kids in June so I am reading back through your old posts for trips and tricks. We are really excited. We will definitely be visiting Warner Bros. Studio and we are planning to stay in Kensington based on your recommendation. 🙂

18 Jamie { 03.29.16 at 4:50 pm }

I bought our tickets for 10 am. We are staying in Kensington (per your recommendation) and will need to get from South Kensington to Euston and then to Watford Junction plus the shuttle. How long do you think that will take?

Also, for the shuttle that you took, does that need to be booked in advance or can we just show our tickets once we arrive at Watford Junction?

Thanks for the help!!

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