Getting Our Hogwarts Letters Warner Brothers Studio in Leavesden…
If you’ve ever lamented not getting that Hogwarts letter of your dreams, the Harry Potter studio tour at Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden, in London’s outer suburbs, will make you feel slightly better. Here you can cast yourself into the Potter films, touch, sit, and take pictures in the same places as your favorite Potter actors. Even I admit, it felt way cooler than faking it in Orlando. After all, THIS was the REAL Great Hall.
So what was the experience like?
The problem with taking the kids on the Warner Brothers Studio tour is just how many hours it eats out of a London vacation. If you have a limited number of days, the tour will take a solid day. With small children, it should be the only thing on the agenda all day (I know, right?) Like venturing out to Oxford, Cambridge, Windsor, or Hampton Court palace, getting there takes some doing, and once there, you’ll want to spend two solid hours. The whole thing is a pretty tiring afternoon. Stay until it closes and you’ll be back in central London after dark in late summer.
Potter fans will eat it up, but small kids, and even parents, will find themselves tired out by this crowded and jam-packed journey. Oh, there’s fish and chips and a Subway (you’re welcome) right at the bus exit near Baker Street. So at least you’ll slunk back to the hotel happy with your bread and cheese and chips.
You can maneuver yourself from London out to Leavesden. It’s only 20 miles, but feels like 1,000.
It also involves a couple of steps. Can you get to the Watford train station? No? Take a train from London Euston. It’s basically next to King’s Cross and St. Pancras (which plays King’s Cross in the Potter movies) so you can pretend you’ve already started the tour. Stop off in King’s Cross anyway and push your trolley at the wall. Because you know you need to. Euston is right on the tube so you can get there from wherever you’re staying in London using their super-helpful Oyster cards. It’s on the Northern (black) and Victoria (blue) lines. Nearby Euston Square is on the Circle and Hammersmith (pink and yellow), which we tend to end up close to no matter where we stay.
Here’s a map, but a hint is to keep Google maps open on your phone from your last wifi connection point, and watch the lines in real time. I prefer it to this stylized map with no real streets shown.
If you take the train, you’ll have a fairly short ride to Watford (does anyone else say “Radio Free Watford!” from Love Actually in their heads whenever Watford is mentioned? No? I do, and I assume this suburb is the bane of urban sprawl in London because of that line. Maybe it’s just me…). It’s only about 20 minutes.
Once you get there, you won’t be able to board a Warner Brothers Studio shuttle bus (yes, this is starting to seem a little Disneyland-ish) unless you already have a tour ticket in hand. A booking confirmation works here — so make sure you have your concierge print tickets (if you’re staying in a hotel), or that you can access the number in digital form before venturing out to Leavesden. It’s another 15 minutes on the shuttle bus and a couple pounds a rider. So now you need tickets and cash. Twice.
If this seems way too hard (it did for us), you can book and pay for the Knight bus (kidding) to pick you up right from a couple stops in London. This may also require you get to the bus stop, but at least you won’t need the tube, the train, the bus, and then repeat the whole shebang again in reverse to get home.
You can book the obnoxious bus, which looks embarrassing but adds to the experience, from the website where you buy tickets. BOOK AHEAD. There’s every chance you won’t get in showing up at the studio. Besides, from the online booking portal, you can get bus tickets, too. They play Harry Potter (the first film) the whole way there so that you get in the mood. The upper level of the bus provides added British-ness to the whole experience.
Mom warning: the end of this bus trek made me pretty motion sick. There are lots of roundabouts in Britain.
Hire a car. Just hire a car. The Warner Brothers site has the info. If you are British, just drive your own car.
Entering the Potterverse
And we’re in!
Guests are then taken into a holding area where they’re given lectures on food and filming. I filmed this tour guide telling me to stop filming so that my daughter (who stayed at home) could have her desired souvenir — “a video of British people talking!”
From there, an auditorium opens up and our group gets some backstory on the making of the movies with a short film. The screen lifts and we’re outside the doors of the Great Hall, waiting to go inside.
I admit, it’s PRETTY FREAKING COOL.
The All-the-Movie-Stuff-that-Ever-Was Part of the Tour
The tour lets everyone pour out of the Great Hall at their own pace and walk through the sets. This is the main part of the tour. You can spend as much time as you like from here on out. It’s a little like a science fair, wandering the aisles, pausing longer at all the exhibits that interest you. There is truly an insane amount of stuff here! If I were an actor, I would have wanted to take some of it (like my wand!) home after filming.
The Backlot and Beyond
If you made it this far, you no doubt needed a butterbean and a cafe break. The backlot is a nice resting point, where there are some bigger outdoor set pieces, and hen it’s inside again for the makeup and monster magic. You get to stroll through Diagon Alley, and eventually reach the end of the tour at a large Hogwarts model used for scenes that flew over the castle.
Like most tourist experiences, you eventually pop out in the gift shop where there are more chocolate frogs (in case you missed them by the train).
If you paced yourself, you have time to shop and find the restroom before the last bus heads out again.
If you go, the Harry Potter tour is long and tiring. If small kiddos aren’t Potter nerds, they may tire quickly. There are, after all, so many times you can watch the Monster Book of Monsters lash out at you and still be amused. Snacks and breaks are recommended. You should be able to take any number of busses back to London if you schedule early in the day, which gives you more leeway in taking breaks on the tour, which can be lengthy.
There is a restaurant at the half-way point and coffee in the lobby, which you can access before and after the tour.
The whole thing was a very expensive outing, akin to hitting a theme park and it’s almost as tiring. It’s one of the big splurges that we set aside for London, and at the end of the day, I’m glad we did. That said: if you don’t have Potter nuts, the time and budget impact was well beyond what what came away with, and I’d have loved to schedule two or three sights within London for he time we spent trudging out to the studio and standing in packs.