07 Aug, 2023

Ever since the first Harry Potter book magically appeared, I’ve been captivated by its enchanting world of wizardry. I can still recall the moment I discovered the Philosopher’s Stone stuffed in the corner of a humble charity shop. I’d asked my dad if we could buy it, unaware of the extraordinary adventure that awaited me. That chance encounter sparked an unbreakable bond, an everlasting love affair with a realm that knows no boundaries and never ceases to amaze.

As if destined by the Sorting Hat itself, I reside within apparating distance of the locations that brought the Harry Potter franchise to life. Countless real-world spots scattered across the UK were magically transformed into iconic backdrops for all eight films. But it is the backlot of Leavesden Studios, officially known as Warner Bros. Studio Tour London — The Making of Harry Potter, or simply the Harry Potter Studio Tour, where the majority of wizarding wonders were conjured.

The Tour is located 45 minutes outside of London, in the outskirts of a small suburban town called Watford, easily accessible by car or public transport. Visitors are greeted with signs pointing the way to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, a further 20-minute journey from the train station. Don’t worry about transportation; official buses are on hand to pick up visitors every half hour. During the summer months, they run from 9:20am to 8pm, and during the winter, from 8:15am to 10pm. The return bus journey is included in the hefty ticket price of £52 per person (around Rs19,000).

Yes, it is extraordinarily expensive, even for British standards, and is definitely a rare treat, but let me assure you, it’s an experience that’s absolutely worth it. Tickets are booked online with time slots allotted in advance.

The iconic double-decker buses that shuttle visitors to the studios are decorated in stills from all eight films, immersing passengers in a visual nostalgia. A TV screen inside the bus adds to the excitement, showcasing a specially recorded welcome video by one of the beloved cast members. These videos rotate periodically, ensuring a fresh experience for visitors. During my last visit, the onboard TV screens welcomed us with Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy).The iconic ‘Hedwig’s Theme’ constantly plays in the background.

The gateway to the studios also undergoes periodic transformations, unveiling a brand new concept for each season. This time around, my husband and I were welcomed by rows of motion-censored illuminated wands flanking the pathway, while strategically positioned sculptures from Hogwarts Castle stood proudly behind them.

After successfully passing through the rigorous security checks (no Alohomora shortcuts allowed), visitors find themselves in a small hall with cloak rooms, toilets, and other facilities. It acts as a hub for purchasing an afternoon tea or a lunch tour, allowing fans to feast like true wizards before embarking on a spellbinding adventure through the entire set.

But this small hall is a mere portal to the grand entrance. Adorned with a towering dragon and a three-story souvenir shop (brooms not included), it’s a haven for eager fans seeking to procure their own piece of Potter memorabilia. I’m a proud owner of Queenie’s wand from the spin-off franchise Fantastic Beasts — I mean, how could I not be?!

When hunger strikes, two bewitching restaurants await in the grand entrance — The Food Hall and The Chocolate Frog Cafe. Both cater to most dietary requirements and offer bespoke food items inspired by the meals in the books themselves.

For the ultimate indulgence, the afternoon tea experience should be on every fan’s itinerary. Served on a three-tier tray underneath floating candles, it’s laden with sweet and savoury treats designed like props and items from the books and films. However, be prepared to dig a little deeper into the Gringotts vault, as it comes with an added price tag of £70 per person (Rs25,500), on top of the ticket price.

My husband and I opted for steaming mugs of hot chocolate and a handful of raspberry-flavoured snowmen, ensuring enough fuel to sustain us for the next seven hours. The studio’s exterior perfectly mirrors its colossal interior, which can easily occupy visitors for anywhere between four to eight hours. And for us ardent fans, the timeframe can stretch up to an easy 10 hours.

Once inside the studio, fans find themselves free of the worry of being kicked out, unless it’s closing time or they willingly decide to leave. The dedicated time slots only ensure scheduled entry, not exit.

The tour commences right next to the souvenir shop, where Harry’s original cupboard under the stairs takes centre stage. Despite the obvious signs of ageing, simply laying eyes on this iconic piece from our shared childhoods is enough to drown anyone in a tidal wave of nostalgia. It’s at this very spot that people begin queuing for an introductory tour, surrounded by walls adorned with stills, filming timelines, and Potter facts. Free Harry Potter Studio Tour “passports” are handed out as souvenirs, so fans are able to get them stamped with each attraction that awaits them inside. At the main entrance, the staff kindly request visitors to stow away their phones, for this is the only area of the studio where filming is strictly prohibited. It’s a heartwarming sight to behold as millennials, who grew up alongside the books and films, now introduce their own children to the beloved heroes of their youth.

Venturing into the forbidden territory of no recording or photography, visitors are led to a cinema where the golden trio — Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint — grace the screen with a video welcome. Just as the video wraps up, the cinema screen rises like a levitating charm, unveiling the wondrous entrance to the Great Hall, with curtains dramatically swept aside.

The Great Hall may appear smaller in person, but its magic remains undiminished. Each side is adorned with lengthy dining tables, full of treats and beverages for students. The food offerings are tailored to the seasons, creating an immersive culinary adventure. For example, during Christmas, the festive puddings melt every 15 minutes to reveal a hidden chocolatey concoction. Lanterns flicker along the walls and wands fly past, while simulated fires cast a cosy warmth throughout the room. Standing at the heart of it all is Dumbledore’s dummy, surrounded by other Hogwarts professors. Each dummy wears the actual clothes used in the films, just like the Harry statue behind the dinner table is dressed in the robes Daniel Radcliffe wore in the first instalment. Not to be outdone, the main stage periodically rotates, and during the holiday season, it showcases the breathtaking ice castle from the Yule Ball, transporting visitors into a Winter Wonderland.

This is the only part of the studio where allotted time slots allow visitors to stay for just 10 minutes. After that, they move on to explore the rest of the studio on their own and at their individual pace.

The Great Hall leads to the costumes department, showcasing the actual robes worn during school days, festive occasions, the Yule Ball, Quidditch tournaments, and even the daring adventures of the trio. Take your time exploring every nook and cranny, from the walls to the floor tiles, and pay attention so nothing goes unnoticed. Personally, I can never help but adore Hermione’s exquisite Yule Ball dress. Everything is preserved so well!

The studio also features a massive wall covered in Professor Umbridge’s countless proclamations, along with the iconic moving staircase. And yes, you’ll be delighted to know that the portraits on the walls actually move! The costume department leads visitors to a series of iconic settings, including the exterior of Dumbledore’s Office, the Chamber of Secrets, the enchanting Mirror of Erised, the narrow alleyway where the trio ventured towards Aberforth’s house in the Deathly Hallows, and even the pendulum in the Great Hall.

The Harry Potter studio is divided into different sections, and each room has its own unique charm. The first section welcomes visitors to the Gryffindor Common Room, where a warm and inviting fire quietly dances, and a staircase beckons to a hidden upper area. The dummies of the trio, dressed in their original outfits from The Prisoner of Azkaban, stand alongside cosy armchairs. Harry’s dummy remains draped in his invisibility cloak. Fun fact: this is also the spot where the 2022 Harry Potter reunion was filmed.

The Gryffindor dormitory is right next to the common room where the four poster beds are comfier than a Snitch’s landing spot. And if visitors listen closely, they might catch snippets of Harry and Ron’s late-night plotting sessions, where they cooked up plans like a potion in a cauldron of magical mischief. Just across the dorm, fans will stumble upon Hagrid’s Hut, where they’ll catch a glimpse of his dog, Fang. Nearby, Dumbledore’s office beckons visitors with Fawkes the phoenix and a grand pensieve that promises to stir up some magical thoughts through thousands of memory bottles surrounding the small basin. And let’s not forget about Professor Umbridge’s pink office, where animated kittens move across portraits and teacups.

Right opposite stands the Weasley Burrow. I pressed every button with childlike sincerity to witness automated and magical household wonders — carrots being chopped, clothes being magically knitted, laundry being ironed, and the washing up being done by itself. It’s a top-notch interactive set, right alongside Snape’s potion room. With simple clicks, fans can brew and stir magical concoctions, all under the watchful gaze of Professor Snape’s disapproving dummy. There is no dearth of interactive displays, and another personal favourite is Professor Lupin’s trunk which opened at the swish of my wand (or motion-detecting buttons).

A mere skip away from the special effects department — where daring visitors can also hop aboard flying brooms, the Weasley’s Ford Anglia and Hagrid’s mighty motorbike — lies the Dark Arts with the grand Ministry of Magic. It stands tall and majestic, just as it did in the films, with Death Eaters lurking along the sides of the green and black tiles. Voldemort sits at the head of the table at Malfoy Manor, as Nagini lunges towards a suspended Charity Burbage. Scenes from all eight films dance before our eyes, like a marathon on repeat. But beware the towering “Magic is Might” statue, for it reigns supreme, paving the way to the mysterious Forbidden Forest. That is also where kids (and adults) are taught wand motions and waltz moves through practised choreography by trained staff.

I merrily skipped my way through the forest to say hello to Buckbeak, but came across Aragog, the giant tarantula, first. It’s customary to bow down to the hippogriff to say hello, as she returns the greeting. The forest started with a mix of real-life locations and studio wizardry in The Philosopher’s Stone, but as the Chamber of Secrets opened, the entire set migrated to the studios. It needed to make room for Aragog’s creepy lair, and it continued to expand throughout the film series. When The Deathly Hallows came along, the talented scenic artists conjured up backdrops that stretched a whopping six hundred feet! Now, at the Studio Tour, visitors will find the Forbidden Forest filled with 19 majestic trees, each boasting a diameter of over 12 feet.

Perhaps the most otherworldly experience for every fan is turning the corner from the forest and coming face to face with the Hogwarts Express. Parked on Platform 9 and ¾, the original steam engine train lets visitors board the train and tour the trio’s infamous carriage. There are photo booths opposite the train where fans are green screened into the train carriage. While most of the scenes at Platform 9 ¾ were filmed at King’s Cross Station in London, The Deathly Hallows Part 2 decided to bring a piece of the platform right to Leavesden. They recreated it on a soundstage, complete with the track and, of course, the train itself.

The Hogwarts Express brings visitors to the middle of the tour, marked with the Backlot Cafe and another souvenir shop. I prepared to have my taste buds enchanted by the creamiest, frothiest, most heavenly concoction ever to grace a tankard (which comes as a free souvenir with the drink). Butterbeer is the real deal, fellow nerds. It’s icy cold, with a tantalising blend of butterscotch and vanilla that’ll transport you straight to wizarding heaven. In the books and films, it is a drink enjoyed by young witches and wizards. So, in true magical fashion, this version is completely non-alcoholic and suitable for vegetarians.

When it comes to enjoying my butterbeer, I personally prefer the outdoor area on the backlot, right next to iconic outdoor sets like Number 4, Privet Drive. Thankfully, fans don’t have to worry about Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon scolding them. Instead, their dummies can be seen inside the house, witnessing the hilarious sight of Aunt Marge floating away like a balloon. Harry’s Hogwarts acceptance letters zoom out of the fireplace, while poor Dudley is sprawled on the floor, completely flabbergasted. The kitchen area remains just as untidy as when Harry cleaned it up in The Prisoner of Azkaban. Every little detail is meticulously arranged, even the outside patio capturing Aunt Marge’s floating moment with remarkable precision.

A whole magical neighbourhood exists besides Number 4. There is Hogwarts Bridge, Number 3 Privet Drive, the outside of the Weasley Burrow, and let’s not forget the eccentric Knight Bus, proudly purple and ready for adventure. Visitors can step inside and climb aboard to catch a glimpse of Stan and Ernie gearing up for a bumpy ride.

The last of the backlot is home to Professor Sprout’s Greenhouse — a new fan-favourite set — which recently replaced the exteriors for Godric’s Hollow and Tom Riddle’s grave. Crafted by the brilliant minds behind the Harry Potter films, the greenhouse is a haven for extraordinary and enchanted plants. Just like a true Hogwarts student, visitors can step right into the greenhouse and get a chance to pluck a potted Mandrake as part of an interactive experience. Familiar Venomous Tentacula are seen dangling from the ceiling, just like in Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets. During filming, the Tentacula’s sinuous tendrils were created with the help of CGI magic, while the Mandrakes were controlled by sneaky animatronic gizmos hidden beneath the table. Fans get the chance to experience the exact same thing as the second film.

As we bid farewell to the Greenhouse, the creative and arts departments greet us. Behind enormous glass cases, visitors catch a glimpse of body dummies, Dobby’s mischievous heads, the underwater bodies of the chosen six from the Triwizard tournament in the Goblet of Fire, and the watchful eyes of Mad-Eye Moody, all carefully preserved. This is the home of the art department, where original drawings from over 25 years ago, back when the very first film idea was shared with JK Rowling, are carefully held. The area is a maze of creativity, with lanes filled with an array of models, sketches, animations, and intricate line drawings, each telling its own story in three dimensions.

On the cleverly designed diagonal floors of both departments, visitors find themselves in Gringotts as they step off the landing. This wizarding bank is arguably the tour’s most impressive sight, with its towering structure and a ceiling adorned in shimmering gold. The real showstopper is the fire-breathing dragon that gives guests a warm welcome to the bank (pun intended). Goblins stand tall on both sides, ready to assist as visitors approach Griphook to obtain their very own vault key. And oh, the vaults! They are protected by none other than the legendary Sword of Gryffindor, making it a perfect spot for a memorable photo opportunity.

I always spend a good time in Gringotts, taking my time to savour every little detail. Harry’s vault in particular glitters with jewellery, horcruxes, and mounds of gold coins. Did you know the prop-making department created over 210,000 coins for the final two films alone?

Since we know Gringotts is situated at the opening of Diagon Alley, it automatically brings us to the second last stop of the studio tour. In a magical twist, Diagon Alley was no stranger to change. Walls shifted, shop fronts danced around, and entire buildings played musical chairs to create the perfect street seen on screen. Many real life locations were taken as inspiration for set design, such as Cecil Court in London, Victoria Street in Edinburgh, and the Shambles in York. But that’s not all! Many of the Diagon Alley set pieces got a taste of double duty when they were redecorated to become part of Hogsmeade in Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Talk about magical recycling!

It’s also home to Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes — Fred and George’s magic joke shop — offering a treasure trove of delights. The shop itself is a true work of art, designed to resemble a charming 18th-century storefront. It kept the builders busy for over three months, with a hefty chunk of that time devoted to crafting a giant 20-foot mannequin perched above the entrance.

Fans must prepare themselves to be enchanted by 120 different products, each born from the brilliant minds of concept artists who knew just how to tickle your funny bone. Every item in the store carries a hint of Fred and George’s mischievous sense of humour. The Puking Pastilles dispenser in particular is both hilarious and gag-worthy. It’s no wonder stepping into Diagon Alley feels like stepping into a spellbinding story. Here, visitors will find not only Flourish and Blotts and Mr. Mulpepper’s Apothecary, but also the iconic Ollivanders Wand Shop, where Harry’s trusty wand chose him. Fun fact: during filming, Ollivanders was home to an astonishing 17,000 individually labelled wand boxes, which are proudly displayed at the very end of the tour.

 . Speaking of the end, the tour finishes with a giant, intricately detailed 3D model of Hogwarts Castle — the jewel in the crown of the art department. Built for the first film, Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone, the model’s every courtyard, tower, and turret were filmed and enhanced with digital effects to create unforgettably realistic views of Hogwarts. Its lights continuously rotate from day to night, providing a real life feel of how it would have looked during both hours. Fans surround its every corner for photos, as each nook of the castle is uniquely designed. It’s no surprise that the model took a whopping 74 years in equivalent man hours to build, proving the dedication of the artists to their craft.

The tour ends with a special moment amidst wand boxes where JK Rowling’s famous words appear on a TV screen: “Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.” These words aren’t just a saying, they represent a real-life connection shared by millions of fans all over the world. I can’t recommend this tour enough to everyone. Even if you’re not a fan, it will bring back that childlike sense of wonder. And for true fans, it’s like stepping into a nostalgic paradise with a few tears (happy ones, of course).

Upon exiting, we treated ourselves to caramel macchiatos at the Hub cafe, the last stop in the studio.Then we took the official Harry Potter bus back to the train station. I’m always so excited about this tour and can’t help but plan my umpteenth visit to the studio already. As I solemnly swear that I’m up to no good, there’s no doubt I’ll have a magical time yet again!