My sister and her family recently visited London. They are big Harry Potter fans. These are the devotees who stood in line for midnight book release parties. The kind of fans who saw the midnight showing of each new movie, because they couldn’t wait twelve hours to see it at a normal time. Here is the conversation we had about her trip to London:
Me: “Did you buy your tickets yet for the Harry Potter Studio Tour?”
My Sister: “No. We aren’t going on the studio tour. We don’t have much time, and we’ve never been to London.”
Me: “What are you talking about? You people are Harry Potter fanatics. Why aren’t you taking the studio tour?”
My Sister: “We already went to Universal Studios and saw the Wizarding World in Orlando. So, we’ve seen it, but we haven’t seen London.”
Me: Stupefied into silence.
The rest of the conversation was one of those tragic scenes wherein someone won’t listen to reason. Let me be clear: You cannot substitute a theme park visit in Los Angeles/Orlando for the studio tour in London, and vice-versa. Both experiences are fabulous, but they serve different purposes. Universal Studios has created theme parks to make you feel as if you were in the movie. In contrast, Warner Bros. takes you on a serious, behind-the-scenes tour to show you how the films were created.
This post describes each Harry Potter experience and provides a few hints to make your visits more enjoyable.
Universal Studios: Orlando and Los Angeles
In 2010, Universal Studios opened The Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Florida. They followed up in 2016 by opening another Wizarding World in Los Angeles County, California. These are theme parks that recreate the world of Harry Potter as an immersive experience for guests of all ages.
I went to the park in Orlando shortly after it opened, and I took my 16-year-old niece to Universal Studios in Los Angeles in December 2017. Seeing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter through my niece’s eyes was pure magic. She was so excited to go, that she actually jumped up and down at various points throughout the day. This is an experience for kids and grown-ups of all ages.
Give yourself plenty of time to arrive before the gates open. If you haven’t been to popular theme parks, the early morning hours are the best time to visit. All the lazy people are sleeping while you have the place to yourself. Since we were there in December, the entire area was bedecked in holiday cheer. We grabbed a warm drink at the Starbucks located near the extrance gates and admired the fantastic Christmas decorations while we waited for the park to open.
When the big moment arrives, and the guests are ushered in, you may be tempted to make a run for the rides. I would advocate a different approach. Before your visit, splurge on the front-of-the-line Express Passes for the day. If your budget allows, these tickets will ensure that you skip the lines on the rides. When you buy the passes from the Universal website, you also will be granted admission one hour early.
With your Express Pass safely in hand, slow down as you enter The Wizarding World, and simply enjoy the sights. Those brilliant people at Universal have made the books and movies come alive. Since you don’t need to rush to the rides, stop and absorb the fact that you are in Hogsmeade, the village created in the books by author J.K. Rowling. The quaint facades of the homes and shops transport you into this fictitious English setting. Try Bertie Bott’s Every Flavored Beans in Honeydukes, the candy store from the novels. Purchase extendable ears from Zonko’s Joke Shop. Buy a butter beer at the The Three Broomsticks pub.
The Hogsmeade shops will become jammed with people later in the day, so linger while you have the chance. I am not a shopper by habit, but these stores are part of the Harry Potter experience. Afterwards, walk over to the rides/attractions, such as the Flight of the Hippogriff and Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which takes place in a stunning replica of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. My niece was thrilled with the wand selection process at Ollivander’s wand shop, and I enjoyed watching students from Beauxbatons Academy of Magic dance on a side stage.
After a few hours, you may want to wander into the rest of the park. For anyone unclear on the concept, the Wizarding World is just one part of the Universal Studios experience. After you have your fill of butter beers, then you can explore the non-Harry Potter rides and attractions.
We returned to the Wizarding World after dark for a spectacular light show on Hogwarts Castle. This required a tolerance for large crowds; staking out a spot in front of the castle; and patience while waiting for the show to begin. No one in my group would have skipped the experience, though! The light show only takes place on specific dates, so check the website while planning your trip.
Note: The Orlando park has both Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley. Los Angeles offers only Hogsmeade at this time. It would be fun to go to both parks, but they are similar in nature.
Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter
As the name suggests, Warner Bros. has turned the Harry Potter film sets into a museum dedicated to the films. The tickets for the studio tour sell out, so I purchased my tickets four months in advance to secure my preferred day and time. Using the same logic as I do for theme parks, I booked the first available tour slot of the day. As expected, the building was far emptier first thing in the morning than it would become later in the day. Although the tour tickets are timed, every guest is allowed to stay and meander as long as they desire until closing time.
Practical Tip: I did not have a car in London. Instead, I used the instructions on the Warner Bros. website and took the shuttle from the Watford Junction train station to the studio. The shuttle system works quite smoothly if you leave yourself enough time. I left my hotel in Kensington Gardens at 7:15 AM on a Tuesday morning, and I arrived at the studio right on time for my 9:00 AM tour.
The tour starts with a jaw-dropping welcome in the magnificent Hogwarts dining hall, and only becomes more impressive from there. Do not skimp on the digital guide. Pay the extra money for this self-guided, audio-visual tour, which takes visitors through room after room of awe-inspiring exhibits. If you even slightly enjoy the Harry Potter series, you will quickly lose all sense of decorum and begin acting like an over-excited 5-year-old on Christmas morning.
The sets are impressive: The Gryffindor common room, the Potions classroom, the Weasley House, the Ministry of Magic, Privet Drive, and on and on. Some of the sets are behind ropes, but you can walk through others, such as the Forbidden Forest and Diagon Alley. Just when you think you can’t ooh and ahh any more, take a quick butter beer break and surface for more astonishing sets.
More than simply displaying the real sets, props, and costumes used in the movie, the tour offers insights into the tremendous amount of work, passion, and attention to detail that served as the foundation for the films. For instance, those pictures of wizards on the walls of Hogwarts? Warner Bros. hired real artists to paint them.
The sculpture of the muggles being crushed in the Ministry of Magic? Again, real artists had to create this monument.
In addition to being a fan’s dream, the tour opened my eyes to the artistry, engineering, and craftsmanship underlying the entire movie franchise. My husband and I spent five hours at the tour, and we only left because our tiny brains couldn’t absorb any more facts or fantastic sets.
The final room was the most impressive. It contained a gigantic model of Hogwarts Castle that was used in filming.
Obviously, I failed my sister by not writing this post earlier. Hopefully, I have spared you from making the same mistake in your Harry Potter tourism. The Universal Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour both need to be on your travel bucket list. Do not substitute one for the other.
I have received no compensation for this post, but many thanks to Universal Studios and Warner Bros. for granting me permission to use my photos.