My time in London started and ended with a very Harry Potter experience. For the record, I am a Potterhead. The first book was published in the United States when I was 8 years old, and my entire life has been filled with the wonderful wizarding world. When the book series ended, the movies continued, and now with the release of the Fantastic Beasts franchise, the obsession continues. Naturally, being in London I had a few Potter related items on my bucket list.
The first day was visiting Kings Cross Station. After purchasing Oyster Cards (bus passes), a big red double decker bus took us to King’s Cross Station, where the magic of the wizarding world begins. The train station itself is gorgeous, and bustling with commuters and shops. After locating where the real platforms for trains 9 and 10 are, I made my way over to where Platform 9 3/4 resides. The real platforms are separated by train tracks and not a brick wall, so when people began swarming the station to locate the fictional platform, Platform 9 3/2 was installed on a brick wall on the station concourse. A plaque bearing the emblem of 9 3/4 marks the spot, alongside a half disappearing muggle trolley that is embedded in the wall. If you want to commemorate your visit with a photo, you can pick any House scarf and get your photo taken by the photographer on duty for a nominal fee.
It was late at night and I didn’t feel like standing in line for a photo, so instead I happily browsed the Harry Potter shop that is styled after Ollivanders Wand Store, located directly next to Platform 9 3/4. This immersive and beautifully decorated store was brimming will all kinds of Potter paraphernalia. I made it out of the store without spending my life’s savings – although sorely tempted – and posed for a picture outside the shop’s door. This was the perfect way to start off my London exploration.
Three days later, my traveling companions and I had one last stop before continuing on to Heathrow Airport on our way to Paris: Leavesden. Roughly 45 minutes outside of London, Leavesden is home of the Warner Brothers Studios where all of the Harry Potter movies were filmed. We purchased tickets well in advance to ensure entry into the studio tour. The staff was kind enough to stow our luggage in a locked back room so we could head straight from the tour to the airport. Tickets are timed entry, and they request you get there 20 minutes prior to entry to make way through security.
Warner Brothers Studio Tour
This extremely large studio tour is self paced – the cheery employee told our group that the current record amount of time spent on the tour is 13 hours, while the average time spent is around 3. Multiple sound stages were shut down after the filming of the movies, and the sets and props were preserved for tourists like us to view. Before beginning the tour, we were led into a theatre room and instructed to watch a short informational video that was a behind-the-scenes look at the cast and studio. Once the movie ended, everyone rose from their seats expecting to be escorted through a side door to let the tour start. Instead, an employee stood upon the stage and welcomed us to the studio tour as the movie screen behind disappeared into the ceiling. Behind it, the entrance to Hogwarts Great Hall appeared, and the mighty doors opened. A shocked crowd walked on the convincing cobblestones into the Hall itself, where house tables lined the walls. Mannequins wearing character costumes were posed – Dumbledore, Hagrid, McGonagall, Draco, and others were present. I had finally come home to Hogwarts!
Yet this was only the beginning. From the Great Hall you moved into the next sound stage, where the sets for Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor Common Room, Hagrid’s Hut, The Burrow, Malfoy Manner, Umbridge’s Office, Borgin and Burkes, Potions Classroom, the Ministry of Magic, and Knockturn Alley resided. There was a green screen area where you could practice casting spells, and fly on brooms to recreate a Quidditch match. Signs everywhere explained the various intricacies of each set and the amount of detail that was put into each and every carefully handcrafted piece. The Hogwarts entry gates, the door to the Chamber of Secrets, the moving staircase – even Professor Lupin’s self packing suitcase was present.
The next area was the Hogwarts Express. A fully recreated Kings Cross Station, with a real steam engine offered the full experience of hopping aboard the train to depart to Hogwarts. You could walk through the train and peek into the various cars, and even spy the friendly Trolley Witch with her cart of sweets. It was at this gift shop I purchased a few chocolate frogs which of course come with wizard cards!
This was the halfway point of the studio tour, and even though it sounds like we moved through at a quick pace, once we stepped out of the second set, two and a half hours had already passed. There was simply that much to look at! In the middle of the studio tour is a cafe where we purchased lunch, which of course wouldn’t be complete without Butterbeer. Once the Butterbeer steins were empty, the journey continued out into the courtyard where the Knight Bus, 4 Privet Drive, the demolished Potter House, Hagrid’s Motorbike, the flying Ford Anglia, and the Bridge to Hogwarts were on display. I reverently walked over the bridge, while looking to my left and staring in disbelief at 4 Privet Drive. My 8 year old self was jumping for joy and squeeing with glee the entire time.
From there, we continued on to Diagon Alley. The uneven cobbled road led to Weasley’s Wizarding Wheezes, the Leaky Cauldron, Eyelops Owl Emporium, Madam Malkin’s Robes for All Occasions, Flourish & Blotts, Gringotts, and more. The Alley was full of storefronts, and each display was bustling with movement. Even the amount of detail here was astonishing. A plaque on the wall explained that this attention to detail was extremely important to the production crew – they went so far as to hand letter every single wand box in Ollivander’s.
From Diagon Alley we moved into the special effects area. Fawkes, Buckbeak the Hippogriff, Dobby, the Basilisk, and a weakened pre Goblet of Fire Voldemort were all present. Sketches of each set were framed on the walls, followed by concept art, and then miniatures of each set were presented so that you could see and understand the flow of the development process for each movie. As I continued through the building and slowly drank everything in, I realized that I should be reaching the end of the tour soon. What on earth could possibly be left?
My question was answered as we exited one building, turned down a hallway, and went into a new building where Hedwigs Song, aka the Harry Potter theme music was playing softly overhead. I gasped as Hogwarts Castle appeared in the room before me. The incredibly detailed, 50 foot wide model of Hogwarts Castle encompassed an entire room. In some places the turrets of the castle reach 10 feet tall. There are hinges on the doors, miniature owls in the Owlry, a telescope on the Astronomy tower, and over 2500 fibre optic lights on the model simulating candle light and students passing through the halls. The lighting in the room that the model resides simulates natural light cycles, so if you stay for over 10 minutes you can see the castle in daylight, twilight, and at night.
This model is the real Hogwarts Castle. While Hogwarts does not exist outside of Warner Brothers Studio it was modeled after Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle, two very real locations. Every time you see Hogwarts in any of the Harry Potter movies, you are seeing this model. The production company used green screens and CGI to film shots of this enormous to scale model and bring it to life in the movies. It took 86 artists to complete this intricately detailed masterpiece, and according to production designer Stuart Craig “When all of the time spent by 86 artists and crew members is added up, it took an incredible 74 years to build.”
A large, gently spiraling staircase leads you from the top of the castle to the bottom floor, so you can view this absolutely breathtaking art piece from all angles. Honestly, the entry fee for the studio tour is worth it just to be able to view the model alone. I’m not exaggerating when I say I could have looked at this piece for ages; the sheer size and incredible detail was almost overwhelming. Aptly, this viewing of Hogwarts is the end of the tour, and you exit the studio through an expansive gift shop.
If you are a Potter fan and visiting London anytime in the future, I highly recommend visiting Kings Cross and Leavesden for the studio tour. Both of these activities were unforgettable. Despite having a small spot of trouble coordinating transportation to the studio and the airport after, the experience was worth every single penny.
Kings Cross Station and Platform 9 3/4
Location: Euston Road, Kings Cross, London UK
Cost: Free (excluding transportation cost)
Amount of time spent: 1 hour
Warner Brothers Studio Tour
Location: Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden UK
Cost: £39, or roughly $48 USD
Amount of time spent: 4.5 hours