My daughter and I were halfway through the new “Making of Harry Potter” studio tour when we met Dan, whose job was to attend to our Harry Potter needs.
“Ask me anything about Harry Potter,” Dan said. “I love Harry Potter. I love telling people about Harry Potter. Should I tell you one of my favorite interesting facts?”
“When they made the hourglasses that keep track of the house points,” he continued, referring to Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Slytherin and Ravenclaw, the four Hogwarts houses, “they used so many beads that they created a national bead shortage in England!” He beamed.
How could you not fall under the spell of attendants as happily brainwashed as Dan, a 20-year-old part-time actor who secured a job as a “tour interactor” after working as a Potter movie extra (because of his “sneaky” physical appearance, he said, he played a Slytherin). And how could you not be impressed at how lovingly, lavishly and thoughtfully the organizers have distilled 11 years of filmmaking into a single enormous spectacle bound to appease even the most incurable Harry Potter addict?
If the movies were heroin, this is the methadone.
The tour, which is mostly self-guided, takes place in two vast Warner Bros. sound studios on the Leavesden Studios lot, about 20 miles northwest of London, where the Harry Potter movies were filmed. There are complete sets, like the Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, with its velvet-trimmed four-poster beds. There are the tiniest of props, like the flurry of hand-engraved envelopes announcing Harry’s acceptance to Hogwarts. Here is everything you wanted to know, and also everything you didn’t know you wanted to know.
My daughter Isobel, 12, and I had been worried about expectation inflation when we set out by car from West London, about a 40-minute trip. But our hearts lifted when in the distance we spotted something that looked suspiciously like the wizarding world’s version of public transportation, the magical three-decker Knight Bus (it was).
The tour was not scheduled to open officially for several weeks, and Isobel was not really supposed to be there on a Thursday afternoon. “Did you have to make up an excuse, too?” I asked a girl who had also come with her mother. “She’s at the dentist,” the mother said.
We went inside. The tour, we learned, is as much about how the movies were made as it is about what was in the movies. A video shows the producers describing how they read the first Harry Potter manuscript and thought that it would make an amazing film. In a short movie, Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, the three Harry Potter stars, talk about how they spent most of their childhoods filming at this very location.
And then there was a surprise (it involved the dramatic lifting of something, but that is all I will say) that unexpectedly made me cry a little.
We were never one of those families that wore Harry Potter outfits, memorized spells and waited on the sidewalk to buy the books at midnight. But my daughters grew up with Harry, and I did, too, in a way, between the reading aloud and the moviegoing, and sometimes I was embarrassed by how much I loved it. It was thrilling to be somewhere at once so exotic and so familiar, so redolent of the family history I’m already nostalgic for, now that my girls are older. The effect could not have been more powerful if a bunch of madeleines had suddenly rained down from the ceiling.
We were ushered into the Hogwarts Great Hall (yes, the real thing) with two long tables set for a feast and everything in place: the gargoyles representing the four houses; the floor made from genuine Yorkshire flagstone; the robes that a very young Daniel Radcliffe wore in the very first movie. A genius of the Harry Potter sets is that they include even details the camera never caught, like the Hogwarts crest carved into the great fireplace, so the actors performed in fully realized little universes.
Isobel suddenly began spouting Potter trivia. “This is where, in the fifth book, all the teams walk through!” she exclaimed. She seemed close to passing out. “Here is where Harry is chosen for the Triwizard tournament!”
From there it was one OMG moment after another: the Gryffindor common room, Dumbledore’s office, with the Pensieve and the cabinet of memories, Harry’s invisibility cloak, a riot of Hogwarts’s portraits of past witches and wizards, painted, we learned, by a bona fide artist using members of the film crew in period costume as models.
We saw the Goblet of Fire; the Ministry of Magic’s Stalinesque, anti-Muggle “Magic Is Might” statue; Rita Skeeter’s Quick-Quotes Quill; an actual O.W.L. exam (sample question: “What spell can the Shield Charm not deflect, and why?”); a foul-tempered mandrake; far too much to describe in any comprehensive way. Videos and extended captions explained filmmaking tricks: how Hagrid was made to seem so big; how the candles appeared to float above the dinner tables; how the makeup artists succeeded in making the Gringotts goblins look like goblins.
A guide named Leanne suddenly materialized in front of the Potions classroom, eager to talk magical bug manufacturing and other potions-related topics. “There are over 1,000 glass bottles, each containing something different, sourced from more than 200 locations,” she announced.
And no, we did not know that the ginormous chess pieces that battle to the death in the first book were not computer generated, but the real thing: 12 feet tall, 225 pounds, operated by remote control.
Nor did we know that the animatronic Fawkes the Phoenix could shuffle along his perch, move his eyes, his beak and his crest, and shed real phoenix tears. The effect was so realistic that, according to another hyper-helpful guide named Virginia, the actor Richard Harris, who played Dumbledore, initially thought Fawkes was “a real bird wearing a phoenix costume.”
The other people on the tour were having as much fun as we were. A tiny boy enveloped in a Harry Potter cape stood transfixed by Buckbeak the Hippogriff, that is displayed in the “creature shop,” a room showing off some of the best imaginary animals. “Buckbeak,” he kept saying.
We walked down Diagon Alley. We saw an extraordinarily detailed model of Hogwarts, exactly one-forty-second the real size, which was used for exterior shots. We walked through Ollivanders Wand Shop, which now has thousands of wand boxes in it — each one engraved with the names of a Potter movie cast or crew member, from the biggest star to the humblest driver or cook. In the gift shop, a worker named Matthew, who seemed to be dressed like one of the Weasley twins and who said he had seen each film five or six times, tried to interest us in a Voldemort wand. He himself was saving up for one, he added, and planned to “use it a lot.” Money flowed magically from my pocket. Using my parental Shield Charm to deflect Isobel’s sudden desire, two months shy of her 13th birthday, to possess her own movie tie-in magic wand, I let her buy a black T-shirt identifying her as a member of the Harry Potter film crew. I bought a key chain affixed with Hermione’s time-turner, which enables its owner to return to the past. I bought a refrigerator magnet with a moving photo of Harry on it for my older daughter, Alice, 15, who was not pleased about not being there. I bought some enchanted candy. I spent more than 50 pounds.
“If mediocre Harry Potter fans like us bought so much, just think what the real fans will do,” Isobel said.
Yes, it all added up to too much. But I predict that parents will have to pry their children, and possibly themselves, physically away from the tour. It is a rare thing, seeing children this enthralled by something they can’t plug in.
I also bought Isobel a cup of butterbeer, made from a secret recipe meant to suggest shortbread and butterscotch.
O.K., it was not “literally magic in a cup,” as the woman behind the counter claimed. But because of some clever alchemy, the amount of foam on the top increases as you drink it, so that in the end you are left with a thick pile of butterbeer foam that was not there when you started.
Isobel was bewitched, and flummoxed. “I don’t understand,” she kept saying. And she beamed like the small child she used to be.
Tickets for the Warner Bros. Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter are £28 for adults and £21 ($43.50 and $32.60, at $1.55 to the pound) for children and must be bought in advance. For more information, visit wbstudiotour.co.uk.