Having been to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios in Orlando after they opened the first phase at Island of Adventure and later when they expanded to include Diagon Alley in 2014, I wasn’t sure what to expect out of a tour of the studios where all eight movies in the franchise were filmed in Leavesden, just outside of London. When you’ve flown through a replica of Hogwarts Castle in a hybrid robocoaster/virtual experience featuring holograms of the original cast and encountered a dragon deep in the vaults of Gringotts, it doesn’t feel like you can get much closer to experiencing Harry Potter’s world as an ordinary muggle.
But while Universal did a phenomenal job replicating things like Ollivanders wand shop or Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter is packed with iconic sets and props used in the actual movies. It’s a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how the movies were made and one of my Potter-obsessed family’s highlights of a recent trip to London.
From the moment we stepped inside the Great Hall of Hogwarts to the final enormous scale model of the castle used for scenic shots, we were awed by the meticulous care that went into both production and preservation of a decade of filmmaking in what was essentially a childhood home for Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and the rest of the young cast of would-be witches and wizards.
In addition to the big stops listed below, I was intrigued by the original sketches, walls full of hats and latex masks, behind-the-scenes secrets, original costumes and creatures, and, of course, the delicious butterbeer.
For Harry, Severus Snape’s cold dungeon potions classroom was a dreaded destination, but it’s one of the coolest sets on the tour with self-stirring cauldrons and actual potion textbooks (with repeating sets of pages) to keep the child actors’ minds occupied when they were supposed to be reading.
Introduced in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the Gryffindor Common Room and its upstairs bedroom became Harry’s first true home. The set is decked out in maroon, from the warm, inviting furniture to the tapestries, paintings and costumes.
From Ollivanders wand shop to Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, Diagon Alley is preserved and film-ready should the need arise to revisit. All that’s missing is young Daniel Radcliffe in Dudley’s too-large, hand-me-down clothes shopping for his first-year supplies.
Most of the books involve an early adventure on the train, from Harry, Ron and Hermione’s first meeting to Harry’s ill-advised infiltration into the Slytherin car. Visitors can check out compartments decorated through the years/films, including that glorious candy cart.
The door to the Great Hall serves as the entrance into the studio tour, and it’s a grand entrance, indeed. Tables are set for each of the four houses, and mannequins for some of the school’s professors are adorned with actual costumes from the films. We could have stayed in that one room a lot longer.
There’s something special about seeing the house where Harry Potter grew up that makes it feel more than just a movie set. The cupboard under the stairs is one of the first things that greets you while waiting in line for the tour to begin, but the iconic suburban drive where Harry was raised is a treat, inside and out, for fans of the series. The living room is preserved with flying envelopes filled with Harry’s first invitation to Hogwarts.
A trip to the headmaster’s office is a must. The three-level room is one of the most impressive sets in the studio and a tribute to the combined imaginations of author J.K. Rowling and production designer Stuart Craig. “I love the look of the films,” Rowling said of her decision to insist Craig was involved in the Universal theme parks. “They really mirror what’s been in my imagination for all these years.”
The studio tour is roughly divided into two parts and the path between them is, naturally, through the Forbidden Forest. While you won’t find Voldemort snacking on unicorns, you will find Aragog and his acromantula family. The forest was rebuilt by the same team who built the original indoor set, complete with a hippogriff, giant mossy trees and animatronic spiders.
The tour ends with the enormous Hogwarts model still used for all the sweeping exterior shots of the castle, including the upcoming Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. The scope and detail is mind-blowing and serves as the perfect ending for the tour.