Warner Bros. Studios review
This is what I know about Harry Potter: he's a swotty school-kid with glasses and a wand. That's about it. I've never seen the movies, never read any of the kid's books. So jumping on two trains and a bus and stumping up thirty quid for a ticket to the Harry Potter film studios doesn't exactly fill me with glee. To be honest I'd rather have just stayed in bed. But here I am, sitting in Euston station waiting for my train to come.
The Harry Potter experience (Warner Bros Studios) is quite a trek from London. Apparently Harry had it easy -- all he had to do was catch the Hogwarts Express from Platform 9¾ at King's Cross station, but in the real world you have to get a 20-minute chug from Euston. And instead of ending up at a gothic castle in the countryside you end up in... Watford. And the fun still isn't over, because then you have to sit on a tour bus from Watford Junction as well, which takes up another 15 minutes of your life. (They lay on a £2 shuttle bus from the station, or you can catch a local bus every 15-20 minutes.) So that's one train and a bus, plus whatever bus or train you had to get to arrive at Euston -- so this had better be good! If Harry was half the magician that he's supposed to be then he would have just magicked me there in a lickety-split.
I quite like Euston station (that is where I am right now). It's got a bit of an airport-style feeling to it. And it's a posh train to Watford too, not a dirty old tube. People are boarding it with big suitcases and luggage labels, off to Manchester airport probably. It almost feels like I'm going abroad. I can sit here and pretend that I'm off to Oz for the week.
The train ride isn't the prettiest in the world. It's all brown-brick suburbia, red-brick offices, concrete car parks and out-of-town shopping centres. The track is fenced in by power lines and motorways, and ribbons of dreary terraced houses snaking their way up and down the contours. And then you get to Hogwarts... sorry, I mean Watford. Don't bother having a look around Watford for chrissakes because that will be a total waste of your time -- just jump straight on the tour bus that's parked up outside the front of the station as fast as you can, and get the hell out of there. You can't miss the bus, it's plastered with pictures of Harry Potter.
The tour bus was absolutely crammed with people and was a total nightmare -- it was heaving with tourists and about fifty of them didn't even get on. We just left them standing at the bus stop and waiting for the next one (true!). After the big bundle through the door it was standing room only, shoulder to shoulder with peoples' armpits in your face. Think of a busy bus, and then double it. And then double it again. Then imagine a long drive back out of town and past the motorway, into the middle of nowhere. If you've got any delusions about being able to walk it from the station then forget it -- you've got no chance. It's the busy bus or nothing.
On the hot and sweaty ride over there I tried to decide who would win in a fight: Harry Potter or Paul Daniels. It's got to be Paul Daniels, hasn't it. Although he's probably pushing 70 by now, so maybe Harry can take him. But what about Harry Potter and David Copperfield? That would be Harry definitely -- Copperfield would be too worried about messing up his hair.
The Warner Bros Studios look like a big film lot. The buildings themselves are absolutely huge -- like two big airplane hangers. It reminds me a little bit of the entrance to the film studios at EuroDisney, if you've ever been there (but without the rides and rollercoasters). Apparently the studios used to be an old Rolls Royce engine factory during the war, and the hangers are what's left over from the airstrip. They are surrounded by open fields as far as the eye can see, and it looks like they are building a few new hotels nearby too, so maybe they are turning the whole place onto a theme park. Right inside the front door is a massive gift shop that sells every Potter-themed piece of tat known to man. You can get everything from a stuffed owl and carved wooden wand, to Harry's old school jumper, scarf and tie, and even some balls for a game of Quidditch (although you'll have to make the flying broomstick yourself). Obviously it's all horrendously expensive, but that is to be expected in a place like this.
I'm sitting in the big cafe at the moment waiting to go in. All the tickets are timed, so you have to wait for showtime. The queues are stretching halfway round the block already, filled with visibly excited kids, excited adults, and a few old people too (not quite so excited). But the most excited people of all are the staff. I reckon they must plug them in and charge them up at the mains for half-an-hour before letting them loose on the public, because it looks like they have had ten thousand coffees. Their smiles are stretching right round the back of their heads. There's a sweeping film score blasting out of the speakers as well, and I am actually quite looking forward to it now (but don't tell anyone I said that). Let's hope the inside lives up to the build-up.
Once you have snaked your way round the queue and got through the big double-doors, you are herded into a little room with two hundred other people. Then you have to stand there and watch a little introduction playing out the TVs on the wall. Then you get led into a little cinema where you sit down and watch a big budget intro, compered by Dan Radcliffe himself, plus the other two (I forget their names -- that posh girl and ginger-headed fella). If you're like me, and have never seen the movies before, then it's actually quite handy to watch this film because you get to see what all of the big sets looked like on celluloid. But here's the interesting thing: even though it's only a very small cinema, all the time you are watching it you are very conscious of the fact that you are sitting inside a film studios; and given that the room is very boxlike and bland you have just one thought in your head... (which I guarantee that you will have too)... which is this: what exactly is hiding behind that wall?
As you are walking around the Hall looking at all the props, the very excitable guide continues to jabber on at a million miles per hour, telling you all about the tour. But you will have to have very quick ears to hear her, because she talks quicker than the speed of sound. Luckily that doesn't continue beyond the next door, because the rest if the tour is totally self-guided, and you can walk around at your own leisure.
Once you are past the Hall you enter a vast-hangar like space, which is filled with thousands more props and life-size sets. But first of all you have to negotiate a boring bit of corridor which introduces all of the movie producers, designers, writers and artists. And also the make-up ladies... hair stylists... camera operators... model makers... it's like a walk-through version of the film credits, where they get to write little quotes about how fantastic they think their movie is, alongside airbrushed photos of their faces. It's basically a big love-in where everyone gets to pat themselves on the back for five minutes. But at least you get to see a few props too -- like the flying candles and ice palace. There's also a ten-tonne cauldron and big iron gate, guarded by griffins twenty-feet tall.
I have come to realise through all of my visits to London attractions, that when you've got a load of human beings in a crowd, then they are basically like lemmings. Do you remember that scene in Dead Poets Society, when Robin Williams gets them all walking around the courtyard in unison? That is very much like real life -- If one person stops to take a photo of the floor, then everyone else has to stop and take photo of it as well. If one person gets their buddy to snap them standing in front of Harry's favourite jumper, then ten more people will barge their way up to grab exactly the same shot, in case the jumper suddenly disappears. One day I am going to try and do a Pied Piper, and walk everyone out the exit.
As you walk around the hangar-like space you will come across plenty more film-sets -- all life-size reproductions of the character's homes. They are all chocablock with props and costumes too. They've got the Boy's Dormitory and Gryffindor Common Room, complete with its plush red armchairs, tapestries, fireplace and stone stairs winding up to the second floor. Then you come to Professor Dumbledore's Office, with racks of dusty tomes and old oil paintings of long-dead wizards hanging off the walls. Next up is the Potions Classroom in three dark and dingy arches, packed with rattling bottles and pinches of powder. You can see some little cauldrons on the tables with red and green smoke billowing out of them as well, stirring the soup by themselves, like magic. Then you pass by Hagrid's Hut, brimming with pots and wooden buckets like an old woodsman's cottage in the forest. Umbridge's Ministry of Magic is pretty special too, decked out in purples and pinks like a Sultan's palace.
Along the way you will be learning all about the special effects in the movie, and how the movies were made, by watching explanations on the TV screens and reading info boards dotted amongst the props. These bits are not really aimed at kids, I don't think (they are quite technical). But there are a few interactive exhibits as well, where they can test out Harry's wand moves in the magic mirror.
Then you head outside for a quick look at some exterior sets. They've got Harry's house in Privet Drive and the Potter's Cottage (both full-size) and the rickety old wooden bridge that took them up to Hogwarts. You can also have a look inside the three-story knight bus.
After that you delve back inside for the creature shop. This room is full of silicon masks and animatronics, with more TV screens explaining how they created all the monster's faces. There are lots of birds and spiders and big dragon heads hanging up on the wall as well. I thought this was a bit boring to be honest, and not really aimed at kids at all. It's basically a big serious lesson about movie making -- but if that is what you're into, then you will probably love it.
Next up is another highlight -- Diagon Alley. This is a life-size version of the Victorian-esque street, like Leadenhall Market, all twisting and turning with shop fronts and doors. You can have a peer inside the Apothecary window at all the bowls of snuff and seeds. They've got Gringott's Bank and Ollivander's Wand Shop, and the Wizardry equipment shop too -- with shelves stuffed with golden globes and sticks and wizardy-wands. There's an old bookshop too, and Quidditch Supplies and Weasley's Wizard Wheezes. You can't go inside any of the shops though -- all you can do is press your nose up against the glass and steal a peek at the goodies within. It's not the longest street in the world, but it does look quite atmospheric.
Then it's back to movie-making school again, with a section about concept art and architectural drawings. They've got lots of cardboard models of the different sets on show. As I'm writing this I'm watching another little TV movie detailing the different roles of a designer and illustrator, and I'm thinking: there is no way in the world that a little kid is going to be interested in this. Even adults are strolling past without giving it a second look. It's all quality stuff and very well done, but it's like an art school lecture. This whole place has surprised me actually, with how much adult stuff there is inside. I reckon its probably split about 50-50 between the stuff that will interest kids (big props and monumental sets) and educational skits that are better aimed at the parents.
The final room is another highlight, and even a little bit magical. It's a colossal model of Hogwarts castle, and must be fifty-feet across and thirty-feet high. They've carved out the whole mountain in intricate detail, and when the room periodically darkens you can see all the little lamplights glinting in the windows. I wish that I could shrink myself down and have a walk around it -- that's how good it is. If this castle existed in real life then I would be straight down Watford station right now, and on the first train towards it.
And thats it! Then you get herded through the shop so you can spend a bit more money.
So what did I think of it? Well, it's definitely worth doing... as long as you don't mind the trek across town to Watford. But I was bit surprised at how much stuff is aimed at adults. There are no rides or anything like that (even Madame Tussauds has got a ride in it, so I'm sure they could have fitted one in). It's just a load of sets, costumes and props, and a few documentary-like movies about the film-making process. A lot of the sets are satisfyingly large (especially the Great Hall at the beginning), but they don't actually do anything. All you do is stand there and look at them. So whether your kid will enjoy that or not, I will leave that up to you to decide.
I enjoyed it though, if that helps.
Guest – i never knew it will packed with people... thanks for your information ... probably need to get there earlier ...
Guest – How do I use my oyster card to pay for the train to watford. Is there an amount that needs to be on there first
Admin – You just use it like you would on any other journey, just tap it down on the gate. (how to use Oyster cards) The price will depend on where you start from, and whether youre travelling during peak time or off peak. This page has all the prices: http://content.tfl.gov.uk/adult-fares.pdf You need to look at rows which say "+Watford Junction"
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