Today I am taking an early tour out to the Warner Brothers Studio where all the Harry Potter films were shot. You can tour original sets, see original costumes and props, and treat yourself to Butterbeer ice cream. From London, you can drive out or take the train. From the train station there is a shuttle to the studios. Because I was traveling alone and wanted the earliest access available, which was already sold out for the day of my visit, I booked a tour. It really wasn’t a tour so much as a bus ride from Central London right to the door and a tour ticket for a specific time. A nice touch was that they showed the first film on the way out and back to/from Leavesden.
Emma and Maggie have been to the studios and recommended going when they first open as the crowds only get larger the later you go; some of the exhibits are rather small so you need to be able to get up close. In some places it was almost impossible to get pictures. On Saturdays, the facilities open at 9 am, 10am on weekdays. The studios are in Leavesden, England about an hour to a hour and a half outside of London by bus, depending on traffic.
I needed to be at the bus depot near Victoria station at 7:15 am for a 7:30 tour. I walked over. There was a lot of construction near Victoria station and I almost made a wrong turn. I arrived about 7:10 and promptly at 7:15 they loaded the bus. I was one of the last people to arrive. By 7:30 we were on our way. Our tickets were for admission between 9 and 9:30 am. We have to be back at the bus by 12:15. Warner Brothers recommends about 3 hours for the tour.
This was probably the only time I crossed Westminster Bridge that it was not packed with people. I was too early for a regular breakfast at the hotel, but once again I grabbed some sliced meats and a roll to enjoy on the bus. Passing by St. Margaret’s Church at Westminster Abbey before 7 am on a Saturday, there wasn’t a soul there. Great time for photographs, but I was in a hurry.
Filming wrapped on the final film in the Harry Potter series in 2010 and in March 2012, tours began being offered in two of the Sound Stages and a backlot. The facilities in Leavesden were originally an aircraft factory. They were used for the filming of the Harry Potter movies for over 10 years. We arrived about 8:40 am and the queue wasn’t open yet, so I made a convenience stop. When I came out of the toilet, the line was forming and I ended up being in the second group to get in. Of course, the gift shop was open when we arrived.
In the lobby area, you can access a cafe, the gift shop, and toilets. You can check packages or coats free of charge (two girls in our group had their suitcases) or purchase an audio guide. Souvenir programs are available in the gift shop. Ticket sales are outside and you go through a bag check to be admitted to the lobby. Our bus stop was very close to the lobby door.
There are large wall size posters of some the actors from the films in the lobby. The only set in this area is the cupboard under the stairs, the smallest of all the film sets. They let the first group into the holding area (after the queue) at about 8:56. Once in the holding area, you are given the rules on the tour and have the opportunity to movie posters from the films from all over the world. From this holding area, you move into an auditorium screening room where you get an additional introduction. At the end of that presentation, the screen lifts up and you find yourself at the entrance to the Great Hall at Hogwarts. If you want to be one of the first people in the hall when the doors open (I wish I had been), sit near the end of the rows around the center section of the auditorium.
The opening of the Great Hall is meant to be dramatic. It is an impressive set with lots of the costumes on display there. The sorting hat prop is also prominently displayed. You are limited in the amount of time you can spend in this room as they want each group to have the feel for what it is like when the door are opened into an empty room. Although you are not allowed to go backwards on the tour, after you leave the great hall, the amount of time you spend in each area is not limited.
The next area is where you want to spend most of your time. You are led to believe that the snack stop and outdoor area is halfway and perhaps geographically it is, but you don’t need to save half your time for that area. This next sound stage was where most of the sets, costumes, and props are on display. You can easily spend hours in this room. There are also a few interactive displays with queues (a good reason to go early). I got in a short line to try having my broom come to me on demand.
They have some great demonstrations on how special effects are done, particularly those involving the actors. Perhaps the most fun (which comes at an additional cost) is the opportunity to work with a green scene, costumes, and props to make a short film of you riding a broom. They also take some still shots of you in the flying car and on the broom. A word of warning for American visitors, the DVD won’t work on your system at home. They will give you a USB of your flight. I knew about the DVD, but the USB is not working on my Mac either. I am determined to convert or otherwise figure it out.
I think the thing that most struck me was that the sets were so small and that the actors were also small as indicated by the small size of the costumes (even the adult costumes).
You move from this soundstage to Platform 9 3/4 and chance to see the Hogwarts Express. You can tour inside and see the cars, one set up for each of movies in which the train was featured. You can also have your picture taken in a train car or pushing a cart into the wall at the platform. I was concerned about having enough time so I moved pretty quickly through this area. It was not necessary. There were very few people in front of me. If you are not on a schedule, take your time. You can not go backwards.
After the train, you come to the snack area where you can try a butter beer or the new butter beer ice cream, which I can recommend. In the adjacent outdoor area, the Night Bus, Hogwarts Bridge, Chess Pieces, and Privet Drive set are on display. You can go inside the house and cross the bridge.
The next building tour begins with the creature creation and the makeup used to make human actors appear as characters from the movies. From here you move to the Diagon Alley set, a bit anticlimactic for anyone that has been to Universal Studios Parks in Florida. That is followed by the illistrations used as a starting place for the films, followed by the small scale models of the various sets.
The final room on the tour is the large scale model of Hogwarts that depicted the school from every angle and was used for the shots of the school in the movie. It was extremely impressive. Leaving the model behind, you pass through the wand room into the gift shop. If you purchased a DVD or USB they are available for pick up here. The wand room features the wand boxes with the handwritten names of all of those-cast and crew-that worked on the movies.
I ended up having plenty of time to visit the gift shop and grab a drink in the cafe before the return bus ride home. Back at bus depot in London, the next group was ready to head out. I walked back to the hotel, stopping for a light lunch along the way. I had seen Westminster Church, the Catholic Cathedral, on my way over and stopped in on the return walk to the hotel.
I was tired and headed back to the hotel for a break before dinner and my last London show. I certainly would have stopped to shop if I had seen anything that caught my eye along the way. I did noticed that there were a lot more people at Westminster Abbey than there were this morning.
I had made reservations at one of the Fuller Pubs, the Admiralty near Traffalgar Square, just around the corner from the theater on Whitehall. I sat on the upper level looking down on the pub crowd. I had some wonderful cider and although I was tempted by the fish and chips, I went for the beef and mushroom pie. It was wonderful. Then I had my second cider. I considered dessert, but I held out for ice cream at the theater.
The play, The Spoils was very good. It was a drama with comedic moments. Written and staring Jesse Eisenberg, it also features Kunal Nayyar from the Big Bang Theory. It was definitely geared to the 20-30 something crowd who made up most of the audience. The play was sold out. I had bought my ticket before leaving on the trip. I experienced great theater while I was in London-a musical, a comedy, and a dramatic play. Love the smaller venues in London too.
It has been a great trip. Tomorrow after breakfast, which I will hopefully not miss, Boris and I go to Heathrow for the return flight to Houston.