I love the run-up to Christmas, when work starts to slow down and it’s easier to find time for fun family activities.
This year, I wanted to treat Flea to a day out with her friends to celebrate the end of term, and so we booked tickets to visit the Warner Bros Studio Tour for their annual ‘Hogwarts in the Snow’ event.
We’ve visited the Harry Potter studios before twice, but this was our first festive visit, and I was excited to see what’s new for this seasonal event. It’s also the sort of place you can visit more than once, very easily – each time you visit, you’ll notice new things you never noticed before, the displays are so detailed.
So what can you expect on a day at the Warner Bros Studio Tour?
As before, the attraction gets busier the later in the day you arrive, so book the earliest slot you can. If you’re travelling from the train station, look for the special buses that will take you directly to the attraction. If you’re driving, the studios are just a short drive from the M25, and there’s plenty of free parking.
When you arrive, do leave any heavy coats etc at the cloakroom (it gets very warm inside), and don’t forget to pick up your free passports for the kids in your party – they can collect stamps at various points around the tour, and it makes for a great (free) souvenir.
After you queue up for your tour (alongside the cupboard under the stairs) you’ll be admitted into a small room where there’s a short film intruding the Harry Potter phenomenon – try and stand at the far left side inside this room – because the next stage of the tour involves a cinema and being by this door means you’ll get front row seat.
The cinema segment of the tour doesn’t allow any photography, but it’s pretty cute – and if it’s your birthday, then at the end of the cinema show, if you’re lucky, you might get a chance to open the doors to the Great Hall for the main part of the tour.
Go through the main doors and you’ll find yourself in the Great Hall, complete with stone floors, long dining tables and mannequins dressed in the original costumes from the films – it’s a bit spooky because they have no heads!
The entire hall is dressed with a Christmas feast for the Hogwarts in the Snow event, and it’s really rather lovely! Flea loved spotting all the Christmas puddings (which seem to be on fire), while I loved the Christmas trees with witch ornaments that seem to fly around the top of the tree.
The second stage of the tour is a large open room filled with all the major interior sets from the films – starting with the Yule Ball. Each set includes some costumes and lots of props, and there are detailed information boards with lots of trivia about how the sets were created, and pointing out odd little features here and there.
My favourite sets included Hagrid’s Cottage, Dumbledore’s Office, the Weasley kitchen and the Gryffindor common room. Flea and her friends said their favourite set was the dormitory – I loved seeing the beds, which are so tiny that by the time the actors playing Ron and Harry were 14, they could no longer fit into!
Some of the sets are genuinely quite spooky – you can see Nagini on the dining table with the Death Eaters, and a poor teacher suspended in mid-air overhead. There’s the Ministry of Magic, Dolores Umbrage’s pink office of nightmares, and a collection of grim-looking Death Eater costumes and accessories.
Inside this sound stage there are a number of extra activities – you can line up to have a go at riding a broomstick and driving the flying car (against a green screen, which has a video projected on it) – the kids we took all loved this, and we bought some photo souvenirs – during the Hogwarts in the Snow event, you have the option of a special Christmas-themed photo background, which I thought was a nice touch.
There’s also a wand expert on hand showing groups how to perfect their wand and spell casting technique in front of large mirrors – this was great fun.
During Hogwarts in the Snow, there was also a new stand in this hall where someone was demonstrating the techniques used in the film to make fire and ice – we learned all about the different sorts of snow used in the film, but the real hit here was seeing the artificial fires, which are so realistic the kids were scared to touch them!
Once you’ve toured the interior sets, you’re steered out towards the back lot – an exterior area – where you can see the Knight Bus, the Hogwarts Bridge, Privet Drive and the cottage from Godric’s Hollow where Harry was born.
There are also two refreshment stands – one sells just Butterbeer, while the other sells a range of drinks, a few sandwiches, and hot dogs, alongside Starbucks hot drinks. The queue for just Butterbeer is shorter, so if you just want a drink, it won’t take long to line up. There are a few tables and chairs, and some benches, and we managed to find a spot to perch, while we ate our drinks. You can also bring along a picnic to eat here. There isn’t a lot of seating though – presumably to discourage people from lingering!
At the time we visited (December 2014) building was going on in this part of the attraction, so some of the props we saw on previous visits weren’t on display, and it seemed like there was a little less space than usual. It was also quite noisy. I’ll be interested to see what new feature is being created, though!
Once you’ve finished exploring the backlot, you move into a second sound stage, which kicks off with the Creature Workshop. Here you can see many of the masks and models used in the films, including the grotesque models of goblins, and models of Buckbeak, Aragog and Fawkes. There are some really quite alarming models that you can animate by pressing buttons alongside the display cases – keep an eye out for the foetus Voldemorte, which is wonderfully scary. There are great video films featuring actors explaining how the effects were created.
This is a real highlight of the tour – walking along Diagon Alley and exploring the various shop fronts – from Gringotts Bank to the Weasley’s joke shop, and (Flea’s favourite) Ollivanders. Walking along the cobbles, it’s so hard to believe that the shops aren’t real – you want to open a door and wander in to almost every store. During the Hogwarts in the Snow event, there was a small display at the bottom of the alley, where a cast member was demonstrating how some special effects were created – if you ever wondered how you create footsteps in the snow made by someone who’s invisible, now’s your chance to find out!
Walk along the top of Diagon Alley, and you’ll reach the art section of the tour – there were thousands of original drawings used in the making of the Harry Potter films and it’s wonderful to see the original scale drawings for the sets, alongside paintings and sketches of characters and sets. There are also some wonderfully detailed models of buildings, ships and homes used throughout the films.
The Model Room
We’ve been to the Warner Bros Studio Tour three times now, but walking around the corner into the Model Room still takes my breath away, and is hands down my favourite part of the tour. This room is home to a MASSIVE scale model of the Hogwarts castle, perfect in every detail. The lighting changes so you’re gradually seeing Hogwarts in the daytime, evening and night – and during Hogwarts in the Snow, the entire castle is covered with a perfect dusting of snow, adding an extra magical touch. The 1/24 scale model is HUGE, and you can walk all the way around it, with interactive screens explaining just how the model was created and used in the films. It’s really just as spectacular as you might hope.
The Wand Room
The final stop is rather small – it’s the wand room, which is lined with 17,000 individual wand boxes, each inscribed (by hand) with the name of someone who worked on the Harry Potter movies. It’s a small space but kind of mind-blowing, as it really helps kids to visualise just how many people are involved in making a large motion picture. And isn’t it lovely that every single person was commemorated in this way?
On the other side of the wand room is the gift shop – and the end of the tour. The gift shop is enormous and you could spend a small fortune here. Some of the most affordable souvenirs are edible – there’s a wide range of sweets that tie in with items you’ll have seen in the films. You can also get inexpensive magnets, key-rings, postcards and badges.
If you want to spend a little more, then the sky’s the limit – my favourite items were the wands at £25 each, the official Hogwarts robes (£70) and of course the original Harry Potter books, in case you don’t already have them. There are more expensive limited edition souvenirs, such as prints from the films, jewellery and models costing hundreds of pounds, so I strongly recommend setting a budget before you get here!
- Arrive as early in the day as you can, and the venue won’t be quite so busy!
- Don’t forget to get the kids their free Potter passports – a great (free) souvenir
- Do warn more sensitive kids that they’re about to see sets – Hogwarts isn’t really real…
- Don’t try and ride a broomstick in a skirt – everyone waiting in line can see up it
- Do allow lots of time to explore the tour, probably 3-4 hours
- If you have questions, the staff are incredibly geeky and know everything about the props and films
- Make sure you explore the interior sets fully before moving on – it’s a one-way tour and you can’t double-back
- Butterbeer is an acquired taste – take a plastic bag for your sticky souvenir cup, and water in case the kids aren’t keen!
If you’d like to see what the studio tour looks like at this time of year, check out Flea’s video blog review: