Way back in July, it was my birthday. One of my presents was tickets for the whole family to go on the Warner Brother’s Harry Potter Studio Tour. The original date I was given was in September sometime, but we discovered that clashed with an concert, so we paid £10 so we could change to a date in November. Then I got ill, so we postponed our visit yet again, to last Sunday, the 15th of December.
The multiple postponements frustrated the kids but turned out to be fortuitous, as soon after we changed dates for the second time, Warner Brothers announced that the studio tour would take on a Christmas theme for a few months. We would not just be visiting the Harry Potter Studio Tour but would also get to enjoy ‘Hogwarts in the Snow’.
We were delighted to discover that it wasn’t just snow that came to Hogwarts; Christmas has arrived too. There are fantastic trees and decorations everywhere, from the ceiling-less Great Hall, to Gryffindor Boys’ Dormitory and Common Room. Look for the little witches instead of angels at the top of the Christmas trees.
The overall effect is fabulously festive but doesn’t detract in any way from what we were there to see; the sets, costumes, props and animatronics involved in the making of the Harry Potter Movies.
From the moment those huge doors swing open, and we found ourselves in the Great Hall of Hogwarts, the whole experience was really quite magical. The behind-the-scenes attention to detail and the effort that went in to making these movies is absolutely mind-blowing.
It is amazing to find yourself face to face with sets from the films. There is a little thrill each time you find yourself looking at one; a little like when you recognise someone famous out in public.
The very first set you get a chance to look at is Harry’s cupboard under the stairs. As you line up to go through into the introductory part of the tour, you walk past it and from then on, the sets get bigger and more intricate.
But the exhibition is not just about the sets; you also get a chance to see the little details that were so carefully planned and crafted as they made the films. The costumes, the hair and makeup techniques, the masks and various tricks used to make characters seem bigger or small than they really were, are displayed and explained.
We only live half an hour away so drove and used the on site parking. The studios were easy to find and the parking was free. We had tickets for the morning, and I’d recommend visiting earlier rather than later, as it was noticeably busier in the foyer as we exited the shop.
It took us around 4 hours to do the tour, which is mostly self-guided. We could have done with another hour, but DS was getting a little impatient and we had to be somewhere later in the day. There are two large buildings to explore, with an outside ‘backlot’ in between and once you’ve left the first building, you can’t go back, so make sure you have seen everything you want to.
We got an audioguide each ( £4.95) although we were advised that DS was too young at almost 6. We ignored this and got him one anyway, and it was a good move. He was quite happy to listen to commentaries and watch the videos preloaded on the device when he got sick of wandering around. To be fair, I think he was quite young for the exhibition but because he’s got older siblings, has seen a couple of the movies and listened to the audio books, he has had quite a lot of Potter exposure. If he’d been our oldest, I don’t think we would have taken him.
In the first building , you also can also find out what it’s like to be filmed on a greenscreen. The lines for this looked horrendously long but moved quickly, so don’t be put off by them if you fancy having a go. Our kids flew the old Anglia over the Hogwarts Express and then took a ride on a broomstick. There were plenty of adults taking their turn as well. We bought the photos at £6 each, but passed on the videos as the whole lot would have put us back £90! This is the only area of the tour you can’t take your own photos and videos; you will get told off if you try!
Our three younger ones also enjoyed the nearby ‘wand workshop’, which was free AND you could take photos.
There was quite a queue though and our kids were the only children in it. There are a lot of adults out there who take the whole thing very seriously. Now is probably quite a good time to warn you that you will also see a few fully grown men wandering around dressed like Harry Potter, complete with glasses and lightning scars. These are NOT members of the staff but instead are fully paying tour customers, just like you and me. If you are going to be taking children who are likely to point at these die hard fans, it would be a good idea to prime them not to stare too much before your tour.
We also got to get up close and personal with the different types of ‘snow’ used in the movies. It was a good lesson for everyone that just because it looks white and fluffy, it doesn’t mean its made out of frozen water!
We picked up free ‘Passports’ for the kids from the information desk but you can get them from any member of staff. All the staff were friendly, informative and very helpful. We approached them several times; to ask where toilets were, one of our audio guides reset itself and they were happy to give the kids hints about where the golden snitches were hidden.
There are stamps to get at various points in the tour, and golden snitches hidden for them to find. Just make sure you eat before starting on the tour as you can’t eat or drink inside. There is a restaurant next to the foyer, or you can stop halfway round in the backlot area for a snack and some butterbeer. We had a very nondescript hotdog each, a hot drink and got a couple of cups of butterbeer between us. A few sips was enough; it’s very sweet and few people seem to be able to stomach an entire glass.
Because the backlot is outside, it is recommended you keep your coat with you to wear when you get to this part of the tour. We needed it when it reached this point as it began to rain as we were eating. There isn’t a lot to do out there but there are plenty of photo opportunities, so you could spend 2o-30 minutes standing in line waiting for your turn.
My favourite exhibit was in the second building. The Creature Effects display was truly amazing and I could have spent ages here. There were shelves and glass cases of animatronics, special effects and models used during filming. We saw the ferocious Monster book, a ‘life sized’ Buckbeak, Thestrals, Aragog, dragons, mandrakes, goblin masks and several body casts that had been made of actors for scenes involving deaths, petrifications and stunning spells.
I found it all fascinating, but the kids’ favourite exhibit was the next bit- Diagon Alley. They loved being able to peek into the various shop fronts and especially liked the advertisement for Puking Pastilles.
We had to rush through the next couple of sections, which included technical drawings, concept art work and small scale models of various sets that were built later on. The kids were starting to lose concentration by this point but I managed to stop and look properly at some of the mock ups on display.
Finally we got to the huge model of Hogwarts in the Snow. This was absolutely incredible; you could walk around it and if you stay long enough ( around 10 minutes) you will see it in simulated dawn, daylight, dusk and at night time.
We left through the rather expensive shop relatively unscathed as we specified sweets only, and trotted back to our car for an uneventful exit from the parking lot.
It had been a long day with lots of walking, although there were plenty of benches around to use if you need to sit. Everyone was tired and felt like they had had their fill of Harry Potter for the day, but we all felt this was something we could come back to at a later date.
The tour for 6 of us wasn’t cheap, but given the time we spent there it wasn’t bad value for money either.
Hogwarts In The Snow is open from the 15th November to Sunday the 2nd of February and it’s well worth seeing. I can promise you it doesn’t matter if you are not a massive Harry Potter fan; if you’ve only just seen one or two of the films, or even if you simply have a passing interest in movie making in general; you will find something to interest you here.
I just want to know how they are going to get all the snow off the model of Hogwarts for the 3rd of February…