Time flies faster than a Nimbus 2000. In the blink of an eye of newt, two decades have whizzed by since J.K. Rowling introduced American readers to a bewitching, bespectacled orphan in her novel, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.”
“Harry Potter’s” 20th “birthday” is a prime time to make the pilgrimage across the pond to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter, where you can immerse yourself in the enchanted universe brilliantly captured by the franchise’s eight films. Unlike the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Florida, the United Kingdom tour doesn’t feature theme park rides. Rather, it encompasses two massive soundstages (J and K … get it?) filled with genuine sets, costumes and props from the movies, which were largely shot next door.
If you think a tour like this is just for kids with lightning bolts scribbled on their foreheads, think again. Granted, as my husband and I wait in line on the opening day of the newest exhibition, which focuses on the fourth film, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” we do spot a few wee wizards who look as though they might have swallowed Potter polyjuice potion. But a fair number of our fellow visitors could easily buy a six pack of butterbeer (hold the butter) without being carded, evidence that a whole generation raised on Hogwarts has now graduated to adulthood.
I don’t need to whip out my extendable ear to overhear a conversation between a man and woman who, like us, are here without children. “You know they have Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross now,” the man says, referring to a cheeky plaque at one of London’s busiest train stations marking the invisible access point for the Hogwarts Express. “Yeah,” his other half sighs, “but it’s not the real one, and you can’t go behind it and find the train.”
I don’t know what euphoria elixir this lady has been mainlining or if she actually expects to be transported to Hogwarts on the train today. But this is my third visit to the studio since it opened six years ago, and I can attest that it is as close as you can get.
After standing in a queue long enough to quaff a coffee the size of the giant Goblet of Fire occupying the entrance hall, we watch a brief “Harry Potter” highlights reel, featuring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint reminiscing about their days on set. Then the screen goes up, the curtains part, and we find ourselves face-to-face with the doors of Hogwarts’ Great Hall.
Our expressions must reflect the same awe as that of the young actors, who actually saw this spectacular set for the first time when their arrival at Hogwarts was filmed. We stamp the sturdy Yorkshire stone underfoot and let our eyes wander, and wonder, over the expansive tables and elaborate costumes that flank the room. The only thing missing is the starlit sky, which special effects wizards (ahem) added in post-production.
After watching the Goblet of Fire at the other end of the hall spit out Harry’s name (a demonstration I strongly suspect was rigged), we exit stage left into a cavernous soundstage that proves to be a treasure trove of all things Potter.
Just ahead sits the “ice castle” from the “Goblet of Fire” Yule Ball, overseen by a towering mannequin attired in a long … very, very long … gown fashioned for Madame Olympe Maxime, the half-giant headmistress of Beauxbatons Academy of Magic. Walking beneath a scale model of the timber-framed ceiling of the Great Hall, we approach a display of the Prefects’ Bathroom taps, which seem to have sprung a rainbow-colored leak from 53 real bronze spouts.
When we arrive at Harry and Ron’s dorm room, with its absurdly small wooden beds, it’s hard to resist the tug of nostalgia. “Aw, remember when they were just little?” I sigh, sounding for a moment like their own wistful mother. In fact, as the boys grew, the film crew had to get creative, framing shots so you couldn’t see their legs dangling over the end of the bed.
Other popular sets include the Gryffindor common room, meant to evoke the warmth of the home poor Harry really never had; the potions classroom, filled with 500 individually labelled bottles of stuff banned by 21st-century pharmacies (“Bouncing Spider Juice,” anyone?); and the Weasley kitchen, where signage instructs aspiring wizards to simply “wave your hand” to iron a dress, knit a scarf or chop a bunch of carrots. (It’s easier than “abracadabra” here, but sadly, the magic touch will have worn off by the time I return home.)
There are plenty of other interactive opportunities, including wand choreography lessons, where young Harry and Hermione wannabes practice waving their enchanted twigs; bucking broomsticks, which, thanks to the aid of a green screen, make you feel as though you’re soaring heavenward over Hogwarts; and Platform 9 3/4, complete with the “real” shiny red Hogwarts Express. You can have your photo taken with a luggage cart that’s half submerged in a brick wall; walk through the train, which is filled with student paraphernalia; or “ride” in mock train cars as chocolate frogs and dementors whizz by the windows.
There are darker exhibits, like a Death Eater’s dinner party, where I would think long and hard about asking anyone to pass the salt, and the entrance to the Forbidden Forest. Against Dumbledore’s explicit orders, we venture into the twilit wood, where spiderwebs weave a silvery tapestry between chunky trees. Here, we encounter the majestic Buckbeak the hippogriff, as well as the skittering figure of Aragog, every arachnophobe’s nightmare.
After a break in the food court, where we find frothy pints of butterbeer, as well as a young mother threatening to sell her whining daughter to a Death Eater, we head outdoors to see a handful of exterior sets. We step briefly aboard the Knight Bus, stroll across the rickety Hogwarts Bridge and pop into 4 Privet Drive, where the lounge is filled with Harry’s Hogwarts letters, forever frozen in their whirling flight.
Entering the next soundstage, we come to the “creature shop,” which is chockablock with ghastly goblin heads, a fanged basilisk and cases crammed with other curiosities, like a wraithlike Voldemort who “awakens” at the touch of a button. Emerging into the cobblestoned Diagon Alley, we do a bit of window shopping, checking out wand displays at Ollivanders, signs advertising pygmy puffs and fang brushes at Madam Malkin’s, and an unfortunate figure afflicted by puking pastilles in the doorway of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes.
The grand finale is a huge, 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts castle and grounds built for the first movie. Footage of this intricately sculpted set was combined with computer-generated effects to bring Harry’s world to life.
Descending a sloping ramp that wraps around the fortress, we pause to peer at it from every angle, while the lighting alternates between the promise of a rosy dawn and the mystery of a moonlit night. It’s a never-ending cycle that continually and tirelessly renews, much like the fan base of the boy wizard himself.
“People like to think there’s another type of world, because everyday life is boring,” explains 12-year-old Jenna Fox, who is visiting from California with her mother, Vicky, and 14-year-old brother, Josh.
For folks young and, well, less young, “Harry Potter” and Hogwarts will always provide that escape.
IF YOU GO
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter tickets must be pre-booked. From $55 adult, $44 child, wbstudiotour.co.uk. To get there, take a train from London Euston station to Watford Junction. See nationalrail.co.uk for train tickets. From Watford Junction, you can buy a round-trip ticket on the “Harry Potter” shuttle bus to the studio for £2.50 per person, cash only. The Goblet of Fire exhibition runs through Sept. 23.