Based at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, about 30km northwest of London, the Harry Potter studio tour commemorates the transition of JK Rowling's books from page to the most successful film series ever made, and celebrates the imagination and craftsmanship of the people who worked on it.
This is a 'walking tour' chock-full of authentic sets, props and costumes, and for some children it may feel like visiting a historic royal palace or museum – they might be frustrated that they can't get hands-on with the glass-cased artefacts or nip behind the barriers to poke around in Hagrid's hut.
"Costumed and seat-belted to a broomstick, adults and children can watch themselves – hair and robes blown back by a wind machine – make the aerial journey to Hogwarts, dodging London buses at street level, skimming the Thames, and soaring over Scottish lochs, railway lines and the towers of Hogwarts."
Many of the sets are surprisingly small, too, but all are crammed with exquisitely crafted props, many barely seen on screen but much appreciated close-up. Some information is provided on displays and touchscreens, and you can hire an audio-guide (in several languages), although it's much more fun to engage in nerd-chat with the young, enthusiastic staff along the tour, who bring everything to life.
After a brief filmed intro, the self-guided tour begins in style in Hogwarts' iconic Great Hall, with its breathtaking detail, including graffiti carved into the solid oak tables by Hogwarts pupils. The stunning features don’t let up as you wend your way through the Boys' Dorm, the Gryffindor Common Room, Potions Classroom, the Ministry of Magic and the Headmaster’s Office, and you do get chance to perform magic along the way – waving a wand to operate magical household items such as Mrs Weasley's self-washing frying pan, in the Burrow. It's a thrill to walk along the 'hot set', dressed and ready for filming, of Diagon Alley, past Gringott's Bank, Ollivanders Wand Shop and the Weasley's three-storey magic emporium.
The highlight for Finn was the green-screen flying-broomstick experience, whereby, costumed and seat-belted to a broomstick, adults and children can watch themselves – hair and robes blown back by a wind machine – make the aerial journey to Hogwarts, dodging London buses at street level, skimming the Thames, and soaring over Scottish lochs, railway lines and the towers of Hogwarts. Photo-cards of the magical experience may be purchased immediately afterwards – they’re not cheap, but it's pretty much impossible to refuse your fresh-off-the-broomstick excited offspring.
Meanwhile, one of my favourite areas was the Creature Shop, filled with hundreds of life-size models, intricate prosthetics (arachnaphobes beware the 5.5m-long Aragog suspended from the ceiling) and animatronic creatures. They're all here: Hedwig, Buckbeak, Dobby, Fawkes, Gawp, Lupin's werewolf counterpart, alongside mandrakes, mermaids, goblins, dragons, flying Dementors and the Basilisk. A few (glass-cased) animatronic models may be operated via switches – the Monster Book of Monsters running towards you is a great fun, whereas the breathing, foetal Voldemort 'soul' is really rather creepy.
The backlot is home to some of the exterior sets, including the beautiful Hogwarts Bridge, Knight Bus, flying Ford Anglia and Harry's Muggle home at 4 Privet Drive. There’s also a refreshments booth (the Butterbeer is actually rather sickly) and benches from the Great Hall for a rest break. Then it's time to ogle the magnificent 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts Castle, with the jaw-dropping fantasy island rising up in a simple unadorned gallery backdropped only with music from the films. Take your time walking around its grounds, towers, bridges, courtyards and grounds – the lighting change from day to night is magical.
The tour ends in a 'tribute room', mocked up as the interior of Ollivanders and filled floor to ceiling with shelves of hand-labelled wand-boxes – 3948 of them, each bearing the name of every cast and crew member who appeared in the credits of the eight films made over 10 years. Now you've reached the end, did you spot all 15 snitches, hidden throughout the galleries? We only managed nine. (Hint: the first is above the door out of the Great Hall into the galleries.)
Exit, naturally, is through the gift shop, and unless you've deep pockets or exceptionally unmaterialistic children, this part will hurt. It's crammed with themed merchandise – the various editions of JK Rowling's books are almost lost alongside endless cuddly owls, house badges and scarves, broomsticks and wands. For about £500 you could even take home a replica Dumbledore robe.
Tickets must be pre-booked and are time-allocated into 30-minute slots throughout the day. At about £100 per family, it makes for a pricey day out, especially as the average time spent on site is just three hours (we could have happily stayed for longer). Aside from the flying broomstick experience and a few animatronic models, there are no rides and only a little hands-on interaction with the sets and props, and there's a lot of walking for little ones, who may get bored while their elder siblings hare around shouting “Expeliarmus!” at each other.
That said, even if you've never read the books and can't tell a Firebolt from a Nimbus 2000, this behind-the-scenes peek into the world of filmmaking can be taken at your own pace and the incredible attention to detail in everything you see does genuinely impress.
The tour is wheelchair and buggy-accessible throughout, with an on-site café. There's parking, or you can take a timetabled special shuttle from Watford Junction station (sadly not the triple-decker Knight Bus, but the fare's a bargain) to Leavesden Studios, 15 minutes away.
See our recommendations for things to do in London with kids.