I’m a Halloween baby so I’ve got a natural affinity for witches and wizards. While planning a recent trip to London, I was so excited when I realized I could go to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour and see where the Harry Potter movies were made.
Setting aside my own witchy bias and any J.K. Rowling transgender controversy, the Harry Potter franchise has become one of the great myths and story worlds of recent generations. Even those who aren’t fans would probably admit that the production value of their films, experiences, and theme park attractions have set the bar for modern fantasy.
I was embarking on an immersive safari in London and I wanted to go learn from some of the best, and I’m glad I did. The Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter is a masterclass in designing an experience from a film-related IP.
Not every film series will be able to retain their studio lot and dedicate vast real estate to a fan experience and experiential behind-the-scenes deep-dive film production extravaganza, but maybe more studios should start planning that from the start. At least for their major franchises. The Harry Potter studios are packed every day with large batches of humans entering via timed tickets from 10:00 am through 6:30 pm. With adult ticket prices starting at £51.50 (~$65.50 US), guests are willing to pay over three times the cost of an original movie ticket, and that’s not even including any F&B, souvenirs, or upsells.
From the outside, the studios are nothing special. They look like a couple of large nondescript warehouses with a rotunda-shaped entrance and a few large statues from Wizard’s Chess. Inside however is a magical movie wonderland with three acres where you can explore the actual sets where the Harry Potter films were made, and featuring costumes, wigs, props, miniatures, special effects equipment and explanations, graphic design, creatures, directors' insights, actor interviews, photo ops, interactive elements, animal actors, and of course, a little bit of magic.
Guests can capture embossed stamps on an activity passport. There are additional content and games available via the Harry Potter Fan Club App and the digital guide. There are interactive kiosks and push-button effects such as making Mrs. Weasley's magic pot stir by itself. Souvenir photo and video opportunities are sprinkled throughout that let us non-movie magic muggles get the experience of being filmed on a green screen. There are three food areas, two or three gift shops, and a large entrance lobby with a giant dragon, and displays of costumes from other Warner Bros. films.
I hadn’t been to London since 2016 and didn’t know when I’d be back so I was on a mission and I planned to make the most of this opportunity. Usually, my plans come together quite nicely, but this time I wish I did it differently. I did not get the Harry Potter experience that I intended. I’m happy to share what I learned so others can benefit from my mistakes.
Here are 8 tips for a magical visit to the Warner Bros. Studios Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter.
TIP #1 - Buy your tickets months in advance
Tickets to the studio tour sell out weeks and sometimes months in advance depending on the days of the week and holidays. Even several months out, the tickets that are available are often for a less desirable time. (I’ll get to that in a minute.) When I first checked the Warner Bros. website a few weeks before my trip, there were still tickets available for the studio tour. When I came back two days later to book, they were all gone!
TIP #2 - Tickets might be available through partner bus packages
Thankfully, after calming down from my initial panic and doing some research, like reading further down the Warner Bros. website, I learned that a partner called Golden Tours offers bus rides to the studios. They also have packages available that bundle a bus ride and a ticket to the tour, and they had just a few spots left! A few clicks later and my mission was back on track.
When a friend decided to join me a few days later, there were no tickets to be found, either on the main Warner Bros. website or as part of the bus package. Please note however that I mention the bus package as a last resort to get tickets instead of a recommendation for travel. Keep reading to learn why.
TIP #3 - Take a train to Watford Junction, then the shuttle to the studios
There was nothing really wrong with the bus journey depending on your mission. The double-decker buses are clean, well-operated, and wrapped in Harry Potter graphics so you can really feel like a tourist. They show videos of Harry Potter movies on the seatbacks during your journey. (Bring your own headphones to plug in if you want to hear the sound.) The trip from my chosen pick-up point in front of the Allsop Arms pub, near Baker Street Station, to the studios was only about 45 minutes. The problem with the buses, instead of the train and the shuttle, is that you are beholden to your allocated bus departure time from the studios.
Later, when I was only halfway through the tour, at the very back of the facility, I checked out the minuscule printing on a wristband that was haphazardly tossed to me by the bus driver. At which point I realized I had to catch the return bus in.... exactly 10 minutes. I literally had to sprint through the entire second portion of the experience or else be left behind. A former, less evolved version of myself might have burst into tears at that moment, especially since I was crashing after a Butterbeer sugar high.
In hindsight and with a little more information later, I realized I should have ditched the bus, even though I already paid for the ride back, and taken the shuttle and the train back a few hours later. It would have given me the flexibility I needed and is cheaper than an Uber back to London.
TIP #4 - Get tickets for as early in the day as you can
The studio tours open at 10:00 am and you’ll see on the website that tickets before noon are sold out well in advance. That is partially because of the kid-friendly content and parents wanting to get their little ones back home before any dinnertime meltdowns. It’s also because the experience is much larger than you expect and will take much longer to explore than you would think.
The website and docents who give a brief introduction say the experience takes about 3-3.5 hours to complete. “Codswallop!” I say. For a first-time visitor like myself who was reading every sign, pushing every button, and listening to the extra content on the digital guide, I could easily have spent a full day there.
TIP #5 - Get the digital guide
The digital guide can be pre-booked or rented in the lobby for £5.25 (~$6.60 US) and it's well worth the extra cash. A few of the videos from the digital guide were repeats of videos on display in the exhibits, but for the most part, there was a lot of additional interesting content. I was there to absorb it all, so it felt like I was watching the extended bonus materials on a DVD. (Remember those?)
Another benefit to the digital guide is it came with headphones so I had a bit of an audio buffer from all the tiny giggles, squeals, and other chatter going on around me. For the record, even though the experience sells out, it was not full to the point of being unpleasant. There were often spacious locations and moments when no one else was around.
TIP #5 - Arrive early
Apparently, there is a Food Hall with the Chocolate Frog Cafe right off the entrance lobby. If you arrive early, you can satisfy any pre-tour hunger, or get hopped up on sugar before your tour time. I completely missed this as the bus and I arrived just in time so that I could take a quick look around the displays in the lobby and then took off into the experience itself. Leave some time before your tour to explore.
TIP #6 - Sneak in some snacks & water
About midway through the experience, there is a vast indoor/outdoor courtyard with the Backlot Cafe featuring Potteresque drinks, snacks, and bathrooms. The outdoor area also has structures to explore like the Dursley home and outdoor set pieces such as the Hogwarts Bridge. There is a fun experiential stop in the Herbology Greenhouse. Because I was so engrossed in the content, it took me about 4 hours to reach the Backlot Cafe area, by which point, despite eating a bar I had smuggled in along the way, I was verging on delirium and tempted to become a death-eater.
TIP #7 - Return to The Making of Harry Potter throughout the year
The experience is modified several times a year with different set treatments and varied content from the films. As an example, this coming fall they will focus on the dark arts and Halloween decorations before switching over to holiday treatments and a gloriously decorated main hall at the end of the year for "Hogwarts in the Snow". During my visit through September, they were showing the "Discovering Hogwarts" collection. There is also a "Hogwarts After Dark" experience. At this point, I am officially jealous of my friends in London who are nearby.
TIP #8 - Try a Butterbeer
At this stage in my life, I keep most sugar at arm's length so this is quite an indulgence. I have had 4 Butterbeers so far in my life, each at a different Harry Potter experience. Butterbeer is like an extra buttery butterscotch soda that has been frothed like a latte. Each comes with a generous dose of sticky frothy goodness on the top just like in the movies. You also get a souvenir mug. Don't worry, they have mug washing stations so you aren't sticky for the rest of the day. Butterbeer is something to try at least once. This is the only place in all of Europe where you can get a fresh frothy Butterbeer right from the tap.
Next time I make it to London I will definitely go back to finish the rest of The Making of Harry Potter. I hope these tips and my brief description have motivated you to check it out if you get the chance, and that if you do visit, you will do it better than I did my first time.
Immersive experiences and fictional worlds are invitations for us to play, no matter what age, race, gender preferences, or belief system. Be we magic folk or muggle. The opportunity to delight in movie magic, and to discover its hidden secrets is a universal language and shared human experience... and so is a mustache of Butterbeer foam on your face.