I'm whizzing over the Thames, the wind in my face, so close that I can dip my hands in the water. Then suddenly, not of my own volition, I'm soaring heavenwards, only to rocket back down to earth moments later, dodging cars and buses on London's busy streets. Oh, and did I mention, I'm riding a Nimbus 2000?
Boarding a bouncing broomstick in front of a special effects green screen is just one of the hands-on (or in this case, bottoms-on) attractions at the new Warner Bros. Studio Tour London: The Making of Harry Potter experience, which opened March 31 in Leavesden, a 20-minute train ride northwest of London.
But, unlike the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, the U.K. tour doesn't feature theme park rides. No Forbidden Journey thrills here. Rather, it's 150,000 square feet of studio space filled with the actual sets, costumes and props used in the films, which were shot on a soundstage next door.
The tour begins with a brief flick featuring behind-the-scenes footage from the film franchise, narrated by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. As the trio gathers on film to step through the massive doors of Hogwarts, beckoning audience members to follow, the silver screen suddenly lifts to expose those very doors, which open to reveal the glorious Great Hall. Cue gasps and squeals — and not only from the children.
Entering the soaring hall and striding across the York stone floor dusted by Dumbledore's robes is a "wow"-worthy moment — for visitors, as well as members of the cast who returned recently to tour the new attraction. "It just kind of blew me away," said Grint, Ron Weasley in the movies. "Sometimes I have to remind myself that we're not doing a scene, because it's so authentic."
Stepping out of the Great Hall and into a vast hangar filled with a dozen or so more sets, I wind my way past the towering Hogwarts Gates to the "bedroom" where Harry and his friends slept. The wooden beds, enshrouded with red velvet curtains, seem absurdly small, and indeed, the actors did outgrow them over the years.
"So the boys either curled up their legs, or they would shoot so you couldn't see their legs sticking out from the end of the bed," explained Leanne MacPhail, one of the guides, known as "tour interactors," who are stationed around various exhibits. "Since working here, I've become even more of a fan," she said. "Some people thought it might ruin the magic, when you see how it's done, but seeing the passion that went into it, all the small details, makes me even more passionate about it."
Those details range from the threadbare rugs and sofas meant to look as though they had existed for centuries in the Gryffindor Common Room to the dimly lit potions classroom, where 500 dusty bottles lining the shelves are each filled with a unique assortment of baked bones, leaves, herbs and plastic animals purchased at a zoo gift shop and altered beyond recognition. My favorite? "Bouncing Spider Juice." (Bet you won't find that at your local pharmacy).
The tour is meant to take three hours, but fans may find themselves lingering much longer over sets like Dumbledore's office (where you can spot the gleaming gold "memory cabinet" and silver Pensieve), Hagrid's humble hut, Professor Umbridge's sickly pink office and the Weasleys' homely kitchen with its hands-free "magic" iron, chef's knife and knitting needles, all of which visitors can operate remotely by pointing a laserlike wand. (Too bad these labor-saving devices aren't sold in the gift shop; they would make perfect Mother's Day gifts.)
Several touch-screen versions of the Marauder's Map also allow visitors to take control, navigating the map by tapping areas of interest around Hogwarts, from the Whomping Willow to the Quidditch pitch. Nearby, glass cases display items like the Horcruxes that held pieces of Voldemort's soul, the Golden Egg, and the Triwizard Cup. Various modes of transportation, including Hagrid's motorcycle and a couple of brooms attached to motorized rigs are showcased further on, past the imposing Chamber of Secrets Door, with its octopuslike motif.
Exiting the hangar, I find myself outside amid larger set pieces, including a re-creation of Privet Drive, the triple-decker Knight Bus and the wooden Hogwarts Bridge, which stand alongside a little stand selling butterbeer and long picnic tables where you can take a break before continuing the tour.
In the Creature Shop, I marvel at the frighteningly lifelike goblins' heads on the shelves, the animatronic model of a Hippogriff that nods obligingly as I pass and the terrifying spider Aragog, with its 18-foot leg span, which was hand-fitted with hemp, sisal and yak fur. One display features buttons you can press to bring a wriggling mandrake out of its pot or make a fetal Voldemort stretch and breathe, while a teeth-gnashing book darts at the glass.
For me, the most magical experience is walking down Diagon Alley, a crooked, cobble-stoned passageway flanked by whimsical shops like Weasley's Wizard Wheezes, Ollivanders (Makers of Fine Wands Since 383 B.C.) and Madam Malkin's, advertising fang brushes, talon clippers and baby pygmy puffs. Each storefront is so detailed, I feel as though I'm strolling along an actual London street, albeit after a few too many pints of spiked butterbeer.
The grand finale, however, is an enormous, two-story model of Hogwarts, set in its own cavernous room. Serenaded by the strains of a dramatic musical score, I descend a sloping ramp that wraps around the castle as the lighting cycles from day to night. When twilight descends, hundreds of twinkling lamps fill the spires.
Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy, displayed an unexpected sentimental side after taking the tour. "I'm so excited that so many pieces of work that were crafted so beautifully — if you didn't get a chance to appreciate them on film — now people can come along and really see the extent of the hard work that's gone into them," he said. "It's a thrill that it's got a full-time home now."
Amy Laughinghouse is a freelance writer based in London.