Disclaimer: Spoilers, both of the films/books and the tour itself.
Harry Potter is one of the biggest and most popular films and book franchises in the world. Seven books, eight films, and enough merchandise to fill the Grand Canyon has all led to millions upon millions of people crying out for the real school of witchcraft and wizardry. In the absence of a real one, we fans must make do with various Harry Potter experiences. I listed the most popular ones in another blog here.
On my 30th birthday, my amazing girlfriend got us both tickets to the Warner Brothers studio tour in Watford. Reading some of the reviews online, a lot of people didn’t think much of it, which set my expectations far too low. Getting there was easy as Watford is a lovely place in general and the studio allowed for ample parking. It’s completely free to park and it’s only a little walk to the entrance. Be warned though, the car park being free is the only time something won’t have a price tag on it.
Outside the front, you will be treated to seeing several movie-style posters and three of the iconic chess set piece statues. A nice early photo opportunity for fans of the first film or something to do whilst you wait for your tour to start.
You can buy tickets directly outside (£47 per adult at the time of writing) or online in advance and then go through the standard airport-style security. I guess it’s to stop death eaters getting into Hogwarts. Before seeing anything particularly magical, you’ll enter a waiting area where you can purchase an audio tour (£5 each) and use the little wizards/witches room before you get started. There’s also a cloakroom that a lot of people found useful. To my shock, there was a Starbucks as well but be warned, you can’t take any drinks into the tour with you, so don’t go for the large coffee.
With the basics all out of the way, if you look slightly to your left you’ll see the white dragon from the later movies. A Ukrainian iron belly dragon to be precise, casually suspended from the ceiling. It certainly puts you in the mood to watch the deathly hallows again. You can also see the main shop (which is massive), but I’d recommend resisting until the end of the tour. You don’t want to be carrying all your new merch for 3.5 hours through Hogwarts and the forbidden forest. There’s also a beautiful frog cafe, inspired by the chocolate frogs from the first movie. You’re able to purchase more hot drinks and magical milkshakes, whilst being surrounded by the marauder's map and floating candles. All of this, and the tour hasn’t even started yet!
As you enter the first stage of the tour you’ll see various art pieces and get your first look at a set. The little cupboard under the stairs where Harry spent most of his childhood. You’re then surrounded by the posters of all the movies and some character displays whilst the rest of your tour group amasses into a holding area. When everyone is in, the doors will close and various Harry Potter fans will appear as portraits on the wall, all saying how much they love Potter. It’s quite cute. The fans then turn into the staff and they give you the rules of the tour. Then who should appear on the screen but the Weasley twins, Fred and George. Or at least the actors that played them anyway and they then round off the minor details. Sadly no cameras were allowed at this point, so my blog will have to satisfy you for now.
The next area is a cinema, where you sit and watch Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson give you a special behind-the-scenes look at the filming process. This lasts about 5 minutes so don’t worry you’ll get to the tour soon enough. At the end of the film, the screen rises up and you find yourself at the entrance to the great hall. The big doors swing open and you find yourself amazed at the detail and the reality of the situation you find yourself in. You are actually in the great hall, where all the iconic moments happened. Each house has its costumes on display, and everyone gets a couple of minutes to snap some photos. (Side note, if you go during COVID times, then the staff aren’t allowed to take photos for you, but you can ask a fellow potter head).
After the main hall, you enter a massive hanger that contains sets and props from all the movies. This includes:
The Yule ball
The Potions Classroom
The leaky cauldron (that’s in London)
Gryffindor common room
Slytherin common room
The mirror of erised
The ministry of magic
The forbidden forest
And oh so much more!
There are some really cool props on show as well, including the Triwizard cup, the sorting hat and the philosopher's stone. I found the display on the animal actors very interesting. Mrs. Norris for example was actually played by three cats and two of them were boys! Fang was played by eight different dogs and the same goes for Crookshanks and Hedwig.
Throughout the tour, you can move about freely listening to the guide if you bought one. You’ll also have the chance to take part in some interactive activities, such as a quidditch ride, learning how to duel, and telling your broom ‘UP!’. We didn’t get the quidditch photo or videos mainly because there was a huge queue but also they are £14 for a single photo. It’s all starting to add up!
Out of nowhere, you end up actually in the forbidden forest, surrounded by spiders, centaurs, and even buck beak makes an appearance. The fog whisks around you and lightning strike every few minutes to add to the feeling of you being in the movies. A highlight of the tour for me.
As quick as you blink you’ll then find yourself on platform 9-3/4s looking at the Hogwarts express, steam, and everything. You can even walk onto the train, with each cabin made up to represent each film. Adjacent to the train is the platform shop. A one of a kind shop with the merchandise you cannot get anywhere else (apparently). The Mrs treated me to a Hogwarts express stein (big mug - £30) and she got herself two sets of Slytherin pajamas (£40+ per set!!!).
The tour then takes a break and you come to a little cafe selling burgers, hot dogs, and most importantly, Butterbeer. Again for two people, you’re looking at another £40 on lunch here and that’s for hotdogs, chips, and a drink each. Butterbeer is amazing. In reality, it’s cream soda with ice cream flavored bubbles on the top. Regardless, it was nice and we got to keep the special little plastic cups they came in. Whilst in the cafe you can go and see the knight bus, the Dursley house, and the Hogwarts bridge outside before entering the next section of the tour focused on makeup and the creatures.
And then. Once you turn a corner, past the Basilisk skeleton it’s as if a bag has been taken off your head. You find yourself in Gringotts bank. It was beautiful. You felt like you were somewhere like Dubai, but with goblins. Giant chandeliers and what looked like solid marble columns surrounded you as you made your way to the bank manager's desk. The Ukrainian iron belly dragon made a second appearance as you ventured down into the catacombs of the bank into the vaults, but this time as a 3D projection coming to set every member of the tour on fire.
Of course, after leaving Gringotts you find yourself in Diagon Alley. Ollivander's wand shop and the Weasley wizards' wheezes shop were all on display, but sadly, nothing more than a street view on each. The tour then came to an end with a look at Hogwarts castle. A giant model of the iconic school that filled an entire auditorium and was lit up by ambient blue lighting.
No tour would be complete without being put through the gift shop. My lord was this a great place to shop for the Potter fans. Everything you could possibly want, from wands to chocolate frogs. You could even buy a replica sword of Gryffindor for the modest price of £175.
So as you can probably guess from this little account, I think the tour was great and I found myself smiling just trying to take it all in. The only downside was the price of everything. I know it’s ‘expected’ at these sorts of places, but it did make me feel sad for the family of four that got set back a good £500 over the course of the day.
Overall though it was a great day out and one that I would happily do again with another Harry Potter fan. Perhaps we will go back at Christmas when they put on special attractions, but for now, I can certainly say…