I'm standing in the Great Hall of Hogwarts when something catches my eye: a young woman, in her 20s, discreetly wiping away a tear. It's a reminder of just how important a phenomenon Harry Potter has been, and how, 15 years after the first book and 11 after the first of eight films, the appetite for Harry Potter remains insatiable.
From the time it opened in 2011 , the Warner Bros Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter has been a hit. However, I headed to Leavesden Studios with mixed feelings. Tickets aren't cheap, with adults paying £29 ($52) and kids £21.50. The trip is a fair way out of London and, unlike Harry Potter's Wizarding World in Florida, there are no rides, just sets and props. If you're feeling uncharitable, you could dismiss the experience as a very well lit storage cupboard open to the public.
But if you're a fan, the studio tour is as close as an owl to Hogwarts as you'll ever get. Walking into the Great Hall, with its long tables and snarling gargoyles, is a spine-tingling moment. Were it not for the missing bewitched ceiling replaced by studio lights, you could almost feel like you'd been transported into the magical world of Hogwarts.
Around the corner is a display about the bewitched ceiling. Originally, the floating candles used in the film were candle-shaped tubes suspended with wire and filled with burning oil. But they kept falling and rather than scar their young stars for life, the movie-makers opted to add the floating candles during post-production. Details such as these illuminate the film-making process and show the movie magic employed to bring J.K. Rowling's books to life.
Once you pass through the Great Hall, you enter into the belly of the J studio, where sets and props compete for your attention. There's Dumbledore's office and the Gryffindor boys' dormitory, and in the potions classroom ladles stir in cauldrons by themselves.
Warner Bros hasn't cut corners in putting the experience together, splurging on technology, and the displays are well staffed with guides who chat to visitors informally about the film-making process.
However, they've also clearly thought where to structure certain highlights of the tour. It is no accident that the booth where you can pay £12 to have your picture taken riding a broomstick (with a 45-minute queue) is before visitors enter the backlot, where you can jump on Hagrid's motorbike and jump inside Ron's dad's Ford Anglia and take pictures with your own camera for free. However, the backlot is home to the one thing that made my visit worthwhile: butterbeer. Served in plastic cups for £2.95, butterbeer was something that captured me when I first read the books, and here it tastes better than J.K. Rowling ever made it sound: a mix of sweet creaming soda topped with an inch of thick cream, which slowly dribbles down into the bubbly ale as you drink.
The next section focuses on the film animatronics, design and modelling. A collection of incredibly detailed schematic drawings of props is on display and in the creature shop the Monster Book of Monsters runs at you to bite from inside a glass case.
But it is the long set that makes the cobblestone Diagon Alley the most fun, allowing visitors to walk past Eeylops Owl Emporium, Ollivander's wand store and Gringotts Wizarding Bank, among others.
The visual effect of this street is overshadowed only by the spectacular 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts castle that was created for the sweeping aerial shots in the film. According to Warner Bros, if you added up the man-hours spent by the art department hand-sculpting and remodelling the tower over the course of the eight films, it would equate to 74 years.
While most people at the studio during my midweek visit were twentysomethings whom I assumed had grown up with the series, a London-based friend assured me it's a different demographic on weekends (his eight-year-old daughter had been horrified to discover the "old woman" behind them in line for the tour was celebrating her 30th birthday).
Naturally, the tour ends with an exit through the gift shop. And parents beware: if it is vaguely related to the Harry Potter world, you can buy it here, from embroidered capes and Marauder's Maps to wooden wands and Fizzing Whizzbees.
I promised myself I wouldn't buy anything, but a pack of Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans, a Gryffindor scarf and a Hogwarts badge means I've spent more in the gift shop on Harry Potter merchandise than the cost of my original entry ticket - and judging by the bulging shopping bags in the car park, I'm not the only one.
With a cynic's eye, you could argue Warner Bros is trying to squeeze the last drops of blood from one of the decade's most profitable film series, making mugs of us muggles in the process. But I leave feeling elated. For diehard fans, the studio tour offers a final chance to briefly touch the world of Harry Potter, experiencing its magic one last time.
Getting there: Leavesden Studios are located north of London. Get the underground to Euston Station, then the overground to Watford Junction, then a shuttle to the studios.
Touring there: The Studio Tour is open year round (except Christmas and Boxing Day) from 10am. Tickets must be purchased in advance online for an allocated entry time. No tickets are sold on site.
More information: wbstudiotour.co.uk.
The writer travelled with the assistance of Visit Britain.
- FFX Aus