Harry Potter studio tour near London
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Not all of the tourists in England this summer will be drawn by the competition for gold medals. Some are going to see the Golden Snitch caught by Harry Potter in the decidedly non-Olympic sport known as Quidditch. While there's nothing like a walk around Piccadilly Circus, these visitors would rather stroll down Diagon Alley, peeking inside Olivander's Wand Shop, Gringotts Bank and Weasley's Wizard Wheezes joke shop.
What sort of magic lets them step inside the London of wizards, witches, elves, giants and goblins dreamed up by novelist J.K. Rowling?
It's the wizardry of the prop, costume and set designers who brought the world of Harry Potter to life in a film studio on the outskirts of London. Warner Bros. still makes movies on the former site of the Leavesden Aerodrome, but the real star here is "The Making of Harry Potter" studio tour that opened in March.
Where else can mere Muggles board the triple-decker purple Knight Bus or get behind the wheel of the flying Ford Anglia that Harry and buddy Ron Weasley crashed into the Whomping Willow tree? You'll find them both parked here in the 250,000 square feet devoted to the tour. There are a few interactive exhibits, such as the kitchen of the Weasley home known as The Burrow, where visitors can help with the chores, magically washing a pan and cutting vegetables. For the most part, though, the excitement comes from peering into the remarkably detailed sets where the movies were actually shot.
From the moment you step into the Great Hall of Hogwarts to the last stop (the gift shop, of course), the tour is self-guided. You can go at your own pace, taking as many photos as you like. If you spring for the digital tour guide -- a handheld device offering running commentary by actor Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy) and a series of short videos -- you'll enrich the experience. Although the studio could have done a better job labeling props and costumes, most visitors will do fine without the digital companion. There are staffers about who will answer questions.
The tour builds in a natural break when you find yourself outdoors in the "back lot." The Knight Bus, flying car, Dursley home, Hogwarts bridge and more surround a picnic area and food concession where you can buy a sandwich and, of course, butter beer. You'll also find a cafe at the end of the tour, where Americans who've had their fill of English tea can find a taste of home -- Starbucks.
Leave three or four hours to wander -- the more slowly you go, the more you'll appreciate the care and detail put into sets and props that appeared on screen, sometimes for just a moment. The tour's real prize is a breathtaking 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts. It's 50 feet in diameter, and more than 2,500 fiber-optic lights simulate lanterns and torches within.
That's because at the heart of the tour is a kind of magic that doesn't require wands or spells -- the magic of moviemakers whose artistry and craftsmanship can be more impressive than anything special effects wizards can produce. It's a world few of us get a chance to see up close, which makes the studio tour, as Harry would say, brilliant.
IF YOU GO
HOW MUCH Adults, about $44, children about $33, and a family rate that gets four people in for about $129. The digital guide will cost you about $8.
WHERE|WHEN Leavesden is 20 miles northwest of London. Take a 20-minute train trip from London Euston to the shuttle at the Watford Junction station or pick up a tour bus from central London (goldentours.com). Daily self-guided tours begin at timed intervals, the first at 10 a.m., the last at 6:30 until 10 p.m. most nights, seven days a week, year-round, except Christmas and Boxing Day.
INFO Plan your visit and buy your tickets well in advance at wbstudiotour.co.uk -- they don't sell them on site. They're sold out this month, but plenty of tickets remain for visits in August.