Wandering around London, I have on occasion seen the big double-decker bus painted with the Harry Potter logo and the words “Studio Tour.” I’ve been intrigued but not enough to go it alone. A friend of mine proposed the idea, and off we went to Potter-land. When making plans to do this tour, something to keep in mind is it is a whole day event. We signed up for the 1pm tour, but the bus to pick us up told us to be ready by 1045 in the morning.
There was, thankfully, a shuttle bus option to pick us up from central London. I had no idea that the studio was so far out of town close to Watford. But that meant leaving the flat by 10a to get to central London to board the bus at 11a for the hour and a half commute to Watford.
We arrived to the studio lot at 1230, so we had some time to wander around and peek into the souvenir shop. The line was starting to stack up pretty high, so we went ahead and decided to begin the tour with the hundreds of other people that decided the same. Elizabeth did get the audio tour, which she would tell me things said to enhance the tour, but as a note, I didn’t get it and felt I got tons of information without it. So, if you want to save the extra quid, just something to keep in mind.
We snaked around the line and were first met with the set piece for Harry’s muggle bedroom. The tiny closet under the staircase. We both looked at each other and remarked on how small it was. I know I complain about the size of my flat, but at least it’s not quite that small. After just waiting for about 20 minutes, we were let through the first doors to a black room lined with 8 screens showing movie posters from all around the world for all 8 films. It was actually pretty cool to see how they marketed to different corners of the world.
A very enthusiastic girl stood a whole 5 feet tall and spoke to us for a bit about what we were about to see. One of the tidbits she shared was that Harry Potter was very aptly shot on two studio lots called J and K. Elizabeth and I were the only ones who chuckled or nodded to which she pointed out us getting the joke referring of course to the author herself, J.K. Rowling. We watched a quick video about how Harry Potter came to be from book to screen and then we were ushered into a larger screening room to watch another video about what we were about to see this time narrated by the three main cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson.
Then, as if by magic, the screen rose and the gates to the Harry Potter Palace were before us. We pushed past the hordes of people and found ourselves in the permanent installation for the cafeteria or Great Hall for the series. It was set for Halloween with a plastic candy feast before our eyes. Also lining the room were costumes of the various characters in their different ages. These were the costumes actually worn in the film, perfectly preserved and displayed on dummies. We had a very enthusiastic guide just chat to us about the room before he let us go on our merry way through our own walkabout.
After we saw everything there was to see in that room, we were then in the path linking us to the first studio lot. We were immediately met with videos about cinematography, set design, and screenwriting coupled with more costumes and set pieces. It was as if we had stumbled into the film with how everything was set up. Every 100 meters or so was a new short video with one of the cast or crew members telling us all about their role in the film. But the main thing we heard over and over again was how much the entire crew became a “family” over the decade. “Family, family, family” was ringing in my ears by the time we left. They really wanted to emphasize the long duration of the shoot.
As I turned a corner, I nearly jumped out of my skin as a woman dressed as a Death Eater jumped out. Apparently there were several costumed people lurking about posing for pictures and making little kids jump.
I was most interested in the filmmaking aspect of the displays. There was definitely elements sprinkled throughout including a scale model, which I’ll talk about later, but it was mostly props, costumes, and set pieces. One of the tidbits told us the set of Harry and Ron’s room in the dormitory was never enlarged as they grew. They were having to sleep in the fetal position or not on the bed in later films, which I found hilarious. When staring at these prop beds, you can plainly see how tiny they are!
In the center of the room was a huge pile of props from the various films. I was floored by the detail especially in all of the paintings that are shown on the dormitory walls. Each one of the paintings is an actual painting. I realize that sounds strange, but it’s not just a printed-off-the-internet picture. Most of the props were never seen in the film, but it didn’t matter. Painstaking detail was put into every single thing from hand-lettering books to scale size jars in the potion class room.
We did miss out on seeing the large snake featured in the first film. We didn’t realize he/she was there for public viewing, but it could also have been the one large queue I walked right past thinking it was for a photo opportunity.
We walked out of studio lot J and ventured into the back lot. This is where the suburban street of the Dursley’s was set up and the triple-decker bus featured in the third film was parked. I couldn’t believe the bus was a real bus. The filmmakers had to shoot the bus scenes over the course of eight weeks, one night a week on specific routes through London due to low road crossings. That’s what a big budget will get you in this town.
It was also back in this lot where you could imbibe in some non-alcoholic butter beer of which I abstained. But I’m sure you could get your entire sugar allotment in one cup.
After a few photos, we headed into Lot K. This is where the creatures were housed. We were instantly met with dozens of goblin faces and dummy replicas of some of the actors that were featured in the fourth film underwater with the vicious mermaids. But if that doesn’t scare you enough, don’t worry–the eight foot long spider is hung gently just above your heads as you turn the way toward Diagon Alley. I felt the need to duck and cover while staring at the monstrosity, but then staring in wonder at the full alley featured so famously in the film. I was almost disappointed each door didn’t open into the respective store, but I realize that was a separate set and this alley was for exterior shots only.
The very last room in this wonderland was reserved for the scale model of Hogwarts. What a sight to see! It took 8 months to build and 40 days to put together. The detail was exquisite with even optic lights timed to simulate students walking down the hallways. Each director made modifications to it over the years adding an owlry that was actually never filmed, to using real vine plants on the archways.
Elizabeth and I were lucky to be able to get on an earlier bus than was allotted to us and made it back to London just before traffic got really bad, but we are both really glad we went on this adventure. It was quite an experience for those Potter-heads out there. However, it was not a cheap affair. The tour itself was £31.00 and the shuttle per person up there was an additional £29.00. Any audio guide or booklet was also additional. You’d think they were still in debt with what they charged for souvenirs! But it was all good fun, so if you have a full day in London and you have a group of Potter fans, it’s a fun day.