London, United Kingdom. A Disney fan will link this place to many an enchanted tale; Mary Poppins; Peter Pan amongst others. But perhaps the most current and famous enchanted tale to have come from London is not a Disney property at all. Like the aforementioned works, it all stems from the pages of a book; this book, however, is only 16 years old. Its name is Harry Potter. The magical symbol of transport within these books is the Hogwarts Express leaving Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station – although the films used the exterior of another London station to make it seem more ‘grand’ – however, this article finds itself starting a ten minute walk from King’s Cross station. Euston Square, London. A grotty, old-fashioned maze of a building becomes the entry point to the most enchanting, immersive experiences in the United Kingdom. In twenty minutes, my train pulls up at Watford Junction train station. It is difficult to describe the scenes that greet passengers here, it is at once a typical sight of London suburbia and a hive of foreign tourists; all of which head to Bus Bay 4. They will all be making the same ten minute bus journey with me to the Warner Brothers Studios in Leavesden. In writing this article, I am mindful that I am writing for a Disneyland Paris audience; and yes, they are two different experiences. In this article I seek to review what it is Disneyland Paris guests will find interesting about the studio tour experience; but also I aim to compare the two. Comparison is impossible you may say, I respectfully disagree; tourist attractions can always be compared, but this experience is as close to a Disney experience that one is likely to find within the UK.
We are still stood at Bus Bay 4; the excitement of foreign tourists begins to build as a purple looking bus arrives. This bus simply features various Harry Potter decals, although one would be more delighted if a double decker version of the Knight Bus arrived beginning the immersion from the opening moment. The bus is £2 return, and booking references will be requested from the driver. It would seem that, unlike Disney, Warner Brothers are very keen on restricting access to their film lot to only those that already possess tickets. On board, a film will play during the journey narrated by Warrick Davis. Although, I would have preferred a Lenny Henry shrunken head declaring that it would be a ‘bumpy ride’. The video though was welcomed, as the decals created a horrid bus experience meaning that one could not look outside the windows. Fine for the short trip from the hotels to the parks at Disneyland Paris; less fine for a few minute bus journey through London suburbia on a steaming hot day.
Upon arrival at the studio tour, one is created with a rather hideous entry lobby. It is so hideous that it almost seems designed for those that turn up early to browse the store (more on that later), or sit in the Café. Whilst here I hint that the Harry Potter studio tour experience is a commercial, money making entity, I must add that in reality, it is not. Shops and Cafés are sparse once having entered the tour itself. The tour experience allows guests to fully immerse themselves in the experience, which is nice. Although, if you arrive close to your booked time slot, just go straight in; the café situated at the tour half-way point is by far better.
But what of the tour itself? How would a Disney guest find it interesting whether or not they were a fan of the Harry Potter franchise? I shall explain. The opening few minutes of the tour is a guided experience. The first room one enters is much like the interior pre-show of Armageddon, except much, much better. The host will still do the usual ‘Do we have anyone from France?’ type spiel, but this room actually has a little bit of substance to it as well. One criticism of this room, from a guest perspective is that I felt overloaded with information. Our host was giving us ideas of where each set of toilets were located within the experience, the café’s etc. etc. This type of information is just too much at the beginning of an experience such as this. The film that plays is a basic introduction to why Harry Potter made it onto the screen. Cue lots of ‘We discovered a book, and I couldn’t put it down, now the whole world loves it too’ type speech. Then one is ushered into yet another cinema; here the stars of the Harry Potter universe introduce the fact that this is where the films were actually made. Not strictly true, Soundstages J and K were built for the purposes of the tour. The tour guides are still present at this point and are friendly, bursting with energy and have some genuine passion for the Harry Potter universe. A real refreshing sight; there are some cast members in Disneyland Paris that simply work as a place that pays them, I did not get that illusion here, I felt energy coming from each and every member of staff. The final scene in this guided section of the tour was the first, and largest film set. The Great Hall. Every Disneyland Paris fan must go see this set right now. It was 360 degrees of immersion; a delight for the eyes. Every nook and cranny had something unique and different about it. Each little detail adding a layer of authenticity to the set. When watching a film, one sees these lavish film sets, but one cannot fully appreciate them until it is seen with one’s own eyes. Disney Parks tend to do very well in immersing their guests into these wonderful scenes; whether that be a jungle; the American frontier or 1920s America. Film-making allowed these realities we dream about at Disney Parks to become reality. The exact same processes are used to create them.
What Disneyland Paris offers is an additional level of immersion in the way of being able to go inside a store; whereas the nature of a film set is that a street, say Diagon Alley, is created, and the façade will be flat, and the store will be built elsewhere. The tour, from here on in, becomes self-guided. And it is no weaker for being this way. I will attempt now to draw a comparison with Studio Tram Tour, but tolerate me. The Making of Harry Potter in the Warner Brothers Studio Tour reminds me of everything the tram tour should have been. It is on this tour that one can get up close to wigs created for the actors, and various props. What placing all of these items in a soundstage, instead of passing by on a tram, offers is time. The Reign of Fire set may well be beautifully detailed, but guests will never be able to appreciate it as they are whisked by without being able to look at the sets and props. This problem does not exist at the Warner Brothers Studio tour. For such a popular attraction, one never feels crowed. Walkways are large, sets are plentiful. Guests find themselves spreading out. In the Dumbledore’s office set, arguably one of the best on the tour, there were only five or six of us in there at one time. No crowd control, just a nice open layout. Staff were on hand to point out minor details that could easily pass unnoticed as well as quizzing your Harry Potter knowledge. This small quiz was actually aimed at again, expanding your awareness of the set and the details within it. I don’t want to describe each set, I want you to visit and be as surprised as I was at each moment. I think my experience was enriched by not knowing much about the tour. Needless to say however, that if you find Disneyland Paris a place of escape; the Harry Potter studio tour will also provide you with this, on a much lesser scale however. Comparing Disneyland Paris and this tour is a hard task, the film sets on display here are real, they can never have the level of immersion that a theme park has. Notably the vertical level of immersion, walking down the Great Hall, there is no real ceiling, except lighting rigs. That’s not a discredit to the tour; it’s just me stating fact. The Warner Brothers Studio Tour provides an excellent range of things to see and do, props to go into, sets to see. This truly is an experience that explodes open the book of movie magic and renders it accessible to all.
When one looks to criticise Disneyland Paris, the go-to arguments are always: Food; Cast Members; Merchandising; Upkeep. Allow me now to address each of these, but with the Warner Brothers tour experience. Someday perhaps I will address my opinions on Disneyland Paris and these items, as my opinion can wildly differ from the typical views. We shall save that for another time, today I am not writing about Disneyland Paris, by writing about Disneyland Paris.
Food: The Warner Brothers Studio tour is exceptional in this regard. I, unfortunately, did not sample any of the food, but it looked rather good. Prices were very reasonable too at £6 for Macaroni Cheese, £6 for a hot dog. The Burger was the item I saw people eating, but didn’t catch on the menu, but it looked exceptional. Fresh, well garnished and nicely presented. If I go back, I’ll be making sure to try the food. Obviously the prices are high, we are sat in one of the UK’s leading tourist attractions, and it is to be expected. But, just seeing it go past me, I was salivating. An experience I don’t think I’ve ever had in a Disneyland Paris quick-service restaurant. I actually wanted to try the food despite not being hungry at all.
The butterbeer obviously needs a mention too. As the only place in the UK in which the beverage can be purchased, one would expect a high price mark. Well, £2.95 is not too bad at all (considering £2.10 was the price of a Cola). The drink arrived in a good portion and was lovely and sweet. For a hot day such as the day I visited, it was a welcome moment to cool off and relax. The Café comes at around the half-way point of the tour, and is located around the outdoor sets. Where else can you sit and have a burger and drink whilst looking at the Hogwarts Bridge, Privet Drive and the Knight Bus?
Cast Members: Happy, Smiley, Friendly and knowledgeable. The smoking ban was very politely upheld by security staff. When every single person you meet seems to enjoy their job, it makes a world of difference to your day. There were no members of staff that made you feel as if they didn’t want to be there, or that they were only there for the money. Refreshing. Disneyland Paris isn’t bad for this either, but is also a larger employer and so a more varied spectrum is almost to be expected.
Merchandising: The Harry Potter merchandise was insanely expensive. However, the quality was also much higher than that of Disneyland Paris. I was very impressed in the range; every possible Harry Potter fan was catered for, right down to fans of the Ireland Quidditch team. Slightly pricey, but good quality. They sold lots of things I actually wanted to buy. The shop itself was nicely designed, very spacious. Everything was well ordered. Top Tip: Visit the shop before you go on the tour and see if you wish to buy anything. There is a shop in the Hogwarts Express section of the tour, but once you have left that section, you cannot go back. This store sells things only available there.
Upkeep: This is where I worry for the future of the Warner Brothers Studio tour. This is not me saying the upkeep is bad; on the contrary, it is exceptionally good. It is a very clean tour, everything looks exceptional. Staff seem very attentive to the slightest mess and will clear it instantly. I am discussing more the lifetime of the artefacts. Film sets are not created to be permanent installations. Items are fading, and will soon require constant care. Right now, the tour is an authentic experience. I worry that twenty years down the line, it will be different. It will be mostly reconstructions. That wouldn’t take anything away from the impressive nature of the sets. It would remove the element of marvel in the way that you are literally walking the actors footsteps (albeit in a different soundstage).
To conclude, the Warner Brothers Studio Tour occupies a unique place in the British tourist package, allowing guests to be lost in a world of total immersion; permit mind-blowing moments and surprises whilst also delivering the quality and attention to detail that, we Disney fans, come to expect from our attractions. Everything about the experience is exceptional, and so for those in London, do not delay; Harry Potter fan or not, book a ticket. You will not regret it.
A massive thank you goes to CafeFantasia, whom I was very pleased to accompany on the tour, for this wonderful and delightful experience; for which I will be forever grateful.
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