Despite being a very straight, and very boring, man, I do have an unreasonable man crush on the late, great, Alan Rickman, so I was intrigued to find out more at Harry Potter World!
Ever since Alan played the brilliantly sinister Hans Gruber in the 1988 classic film “Die Hard”, I’ve always been a massive fan of his work; be that in the blockbusters like “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” or even just a mundane cameo in the music video for Texas’ catchy 2000 hit “In Demand”, I’ve found myself clapping and honking like a happy seal every time he’s appeared on my tellybox.
I’m not sure why – was it his brilliantly languid appearance? His wonderfully deep vocals? The fact he was so clearly enthusiastic about portraying really evil characters?
Who knows? All I know is that I’m a fan, which is something I never thought I’d say about someone called *checks notes* Alan.
So, when my daughter announced she’s quite like a family day trip to the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studios just down the road from Watford, she was pushing on an open door to be honest.
Now, as a rule, I’m less of a Potter fan than I am a Rickman fan. I’m not sure why – by all logic I should be a massive fan as it has all the things I like – magic, Robbie Coltrane, general ridiculousness, magic trains and gallons of Alan Rickman, but I think my fundamental objection was my quaint belief that the only real school drama worth watching was Grange Hill.
Lessons in magic on the curriculum? Mrs McClusky would have a fit, surely? School shouldn’t be about magic and wonder. The BBC taught me that it should be about Zammo battling with heroin, and trying to bunk the bus fare and I turned out alright. I think.
Nonetheless, I was willing to give it a bash. After all, a $25 billion dollar franchise must be doing something right. $25 billion dollars is a lot of dough, yo. It’s enough for a superyacht, or at least a year’s gas bill from Southern Electric, for sure.
Mrs B was an original Harry Potter fan and used to have the first print of “Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone” from the original print run. My dearest daughter has the entire book series and cajoled me to spend £45 on the entire series of films on Amazon and I liked Alan Rickman, so all in all, the stage was set for an exciting family day out…
With the exception of The Boy, who only really likes staying in, not wearing trousers, and watching YouTube meme
How to Get to the Harry Potter Studios
The Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studios is an absolute breeze to get to.
If you’re coming by car, it’s clearly signposted from the M25 onwards so even the most navigationally challenged of us can find our way there, taking you directly into a massive car park outside the Harry Potter studio entrance.
If you’re more environmentally minded than I am (which is everyone), you can get the train from London Euston to Watford junction, where regular, electric, shuttle buses operate to the Studio Tour with a journey time of about 15 minutes.
Buses run at least every 30 minutes, so you’ll not have to worry about waiting too long, looking after overenthusiastic children at the bus stop.
Speaking of electric, there are charging points available at the car park for smug people who own electric cars too – don’t take offence, I fully intend to join you, just as soon as I figure out which one is best.
Harry Potter World Tickets
So one bright January morning, we duly loaded up the car with an excitable 8-year-old girl and a nonplussed 6-year-old boy and set the trusty SatNav for Watford.
We’d pre-brought Harry Potter World tickets online at just over £50 per head from the official Warner Brothers Studio Tour website – there’s no other way to get them – so that, at least, saved us faffing around at the entrance.
You may, during your surfing of the Internet, find other outlets pretending to sell tickets but they’re just resellers. Keep your money safe and only part with it on the official website.
If you’re feeling flush, they also offer a combined Harry Potter World entrance ticket and hotel stay from £65 – and more about hotels in a second. If you’re doing well at life, you might want to splash on a Deluxe VIP Tour ticket from – and hold onto your wallets here – two hundred and fifty pounds per person. I mean, I love my kids, but £250 each? I clicked the standard ticket option with only a small pang of guilt.
Hotels Near Harry Potter Studio
So yes, there is the option of booking a combined hotel stay and entrance ticket through the official website, if you need to travel from afar. On the face of it, seems quite sensible but ultimately it directs you to the Holiday Extras website, which, in turn, resells hotel rooms from lots of other people.
Now, I don’t know about you, but the more people there are in a chain, the more chance there is of something going wrong (See also: buying houses, buying cars, any subcontracted work, trying to get your money out of any vending machine ever).
So my advice is probably to cut out the middle man because if there are any problems, you can go direct to the hotels near Harry Potter Studio, instead of being lead on a merry dance between you, the Warner Brothers website, the Holiday Extras company, a hotel near Watford and ultimately, an Eastern European Hotel Night Manager via two call centres in Mumbai.
Now, budget hotel chains are not daft, so the area around Watford is always well-catered for. If you’re a masochist, there’s the cheap option of the Travelodge Watford Central with rooms from £47, depending on the time of year. If you’ve never stayed in one, here is a complete list of things that are good about staying in a Travelodge in Watford.
1. It will be cheap.
Ok, now we’ve got that one out of the way, what are your other options?
Moving slightly upmarket, there’s not one, but two Holiday Inns in Watford which are again, basic but slightly nicer in terms of ambience and facilities with rooms creeping up in price and starting from £90. And once you’ve stayed at Travelodge Watford, you’ll understand why.
Having slept everywhere from the colonial splendour of Raffles Hotel in Singapore (lucky me, right?) through to a hole in the ground in Afghanistan, I think I can safely say that when it comes to budget hotels, your best option by far is the Premier Inn chain, who absolutely deserve to use the word “Premier”, although I’m not convinced of their “Inn” status.
“Inns” to me, conjure up images of low wooden vaulted ceilings, dark bars with candlelit interiors and a wizened old landlady taking groats in payment for a night’s rest before you continue on a mystical quest.
Premier Inns have none of these things, except, if you’re lucky, the wizened old landlady. Well, it is Watford. And there are three of them to pick from nearby. Book early, and get down early for a decent breakfast. Rooms are from £93, not including breakfast.
Harry Potter Studio
Feeling excited about driving to Watford is a brand-new emotion for many of us, I’m sure. For us Southerners, anything past Watford is traditionally known as “The North” and here be dragons, so as we approached the turn-off for the Warner Brothers Harry Potter Studios, I keep one eye out in case my children were suddenly kidnapped to work down a coal mine.
If you check out TripAdvisor, the two best things to do in Watford as a tourist are; one, visit the Harry Potter studios, and two; take a walk in a park. The list sort of trails off after that – I assume “not being murdered” is three.
Fortunately, we arrived at the massive car park without incident, and, as we were one of the earlier tours of the day, we managed to grab a parking space relatively near the entrance.
I would imagine that if you’ve booked a tour later in the day, the queues would build pretty quickly, so it’s a good idea to arrive a good twenty minutes before your tour time, just in case you have to circle the car park like a metallic, slightly impatient, shark, looking for a parking space.
As soon as you arrive, you’re confronted with a massive statue of some Harry Potter chess pieces outside the main entrance and your first Instagram photo opportunity, so you have to do that rather British thing of hovering around near the thing you want to have a photo of, without looking like you’re waiting to take your photo of the thing you want to have a photo of.
This is an elaborate game of edging closer to the thing, absolutely not looking at your watch or yawning, and suddenly pretending to be very interested in the pavement nearby, before your children can finally pose in front of the first of many, many, many, many Harry Potter World related items found within. You will have to repeat this dance many times.
Slightly spoiling the atmosphere, is the airport-style security screening before you enter the main building though. I get it – with all the props inside being originals, it’s not beyond imagining some seriously obsessed fans might try an Oceans 11-style heist, to run off into the night with some original wands and cloaks before escaping in a flying car.
But come on, Warner Brothers, it doesn’t have to be intimidating airport-style security, especially when small children are looking forward to some fun. It would be just as cheap to dress the security team in some Hogwarts-style uniforms, then wave some metal detectors shaped like wands around, before inviting people to place their bags inside Professor Garrick Ollivanders magical x-ray and explosive detection array.
And, instead of beeping when bad things are found, perhaps the guilty party could be immediately incinerated by a dragon.
I’d pay extra money for that.
Once you get inside, for parents, the good news is there is a lot of coffee available while you’re waiting for your tour – Starbucks coffee is served almost on tap, and there is a veritable cornucopia of Harry Potter-themed food and drink available.
There are also loads of toilets because children love inconvenient wees just before your tour starts, almost as much as they love Harry Potter.
Once your tour starts, you’re taken into a cinema for a short introductory film with an incredibly cheerful guide that will give you an overview of what the Harry Potter films are about, just in case you have woken from a 20-year-long coma. Then, a little bit of magic happens – and I’ll not say what – and suddenly, there you are, at the gates of Hogwarts itself, about to enter the Great Hall.
Hogwarts! It was at this point, I felt a little bit more excited by it all, and not just because there was an increasing chance I might get to see something once touched by Alan Rickman himself.
Hogwarts (owned by Americans) has inevitably become a bit of a British institution, much like Harrods (owned by an Egyptian), Range Rover (owned by an Indian), a good blue British passport (made in Poland), or Paddington Bear (recently deported back to Peru by the Home Secretary) – but put ownership aside and it’s as British as fish and chips.
For a start, it’s located somewhere obviously cold, you have to get a positively ancient train from a confusing railway station to get there, and there’s a small ginger kid who’s a bit of an outcast. Hey, maybe Grange Hill isn’t the ultimate arbiter of what school life in Britain should be like after all.
Passing the gates of Hogwarts, the Harry Potter Studio exhibition then opens out into a huge area of sets and props that literally boggle the mind, from enormous sets of various movie scenes all the way through to the tiniest things like the Golden Snitches.
Of course, there are also lots of things to touch and clamber over for the children, and being able to make a broom jump up into your hands is a golden moment for your TikTok account.
I wandered off at various points to make “oooh” and “ahhh” noises over Severus Snape’s props and costumes, as worn by the great Rickman himself but equally impressive were the costumes worn by the equally great, and sadly, equally as late, Robbie Coltrane in his role as Rubeus Hagrid.
At this point, it had been at least thirty seconds since my children last saw food and the plaintive cry of “I’m hungry” started to emanate from the youngest child. Checking the many numerous maps dotted around the hall, I could see we were only a short hop, skip and jump away from the Backlot Café.
This was just past the incredibly impressive Hogwarts Express, where I noted not only could you get the normal theme park type snacks (burgers, sandwiches, hot dogs) but also – very importantly – it is the only place in Europe where you can get Butterbeer, which having slurped some down, I can confirm tastes a bit like a creamy butterscotch.
Yes, it will set you back nearly seven pounds a pop, but it does come in a natty souvenir tankard you can take home with you and show off your non-muggle credentials to visitors.
Suitably refreshed, we took on Diagon Alley, which JK Rowling is believed to have modelled on the Shambles in York.
Having been to York (see a separate blog that Mrs B will no doubt make me write at some stage) I was indeed struck by the similarity between the two and the kids ambled happily around, peering in the widows of magic shops and wand manufacturers before we came to the incredible Gringotts Wizarding Bank set.
Gringotts Wizarding Bank, unlike a real bank, is actually quite nice inside, and while there may be a dragon lurking inside, is actually much less scary than a real bank, given that at no point on the tour was a small green goblin likely to remind me that I was living in my overdraft for the fifteenth consecutive month so far.
The whole Harry Potter Studio tour itself takes about three or four hours to complete, depending on how fast you walk and how quickly any children you have tire. However chaotic the various sets and displays might be, the toughest test of the day is, of course, the time-honoured money trap that is exiting via the gift shop.
The Harry Potter World gift shop.
My God. If you were a bit sceptical about magic before you entered the studio tour, you will begin to completely believe that some sort of spell gets cast over children once they enter the store. My daughter fell into some sort of glassy-eyed trance as she tried to comprehend the sheer variety of Harry Potter themed items that were on sale in the gift shop.
I mean, you name it, it was there. Do you want a wand? They’ve got literally thousands. Do you want a discrete Hogwarts school tie to wear? Take your pick, every house tie is there.
The whole area is a blur of keyrings, magic spell books, Harry Potter themed Lego, dragons, Harry Potter themed sweets, stationary, robes and much more and you end up with a binary choice – you can either leave with your sanity or overdraft intact, but sadly, not both.
And then suddenly, you’re back outside in the brisk UK weather and the madness and magic subside from your soul as quickly as they had arrived. The children had seen enough to make memories for if not a lifetime, at least until the next school day when they could get maximum bragging rights.
It’s an enchanting day out and I’d decided I’d come firmly down in favour of all things Harry Potter. It was good clean fun with none of the grit of Grange Hill, and, most importantly, it had made school seem cool to kids, which as far as I am concerned, is the most worthy magic trick of all.
In fact, I was so much in favour of the Harry Potter Studios, and that tired after a very stimulating day out, that I actually felt slightly disappointed to note I would have to drive home in my boring everyday car, and not a magical flying Ford Anglia 105E.
I wonder if I could get an electric version?