This week we took G-Man and friend to the Harry Potter studio tour as his birthday treat (instead of a party – hurrah!). We had a great time geeking out on all the amazing Potter film artefacts and sets (especially, I must confess, us grown-ups in the group). It’s a fantastic experience that, despite the horrendous cost, I definitely recommend.
It is also one of those places where a bit of research and prep beforehand really pays off – especially if, like us, you are taking young kids. So here are my top tips for avoiding misery, saving money and making the most of a family trip to the Making of Harry Potter studio tour!
Top Tips for visiting the Harry Potter studio tour with kids!
Tip Number One… Kids under six?? Think carefully before taking them!
I’ve no doubt that there are many under six who will love this place. I’m equally sure that it would the seventh circle of hell for/with others.
Before you decide to take kids of any age, think on this:
- There is A LOT of walking around. We were there for just over SIX HOURS, and most of that was walking.
- There is a fair amount of queuing as well (see tip two!). It was relatively quiet when we went (I was told by staff – it felt pretty busy to me!) but there was still nearly an hour of queuing just to get into the building and to start the tour.
- The Harry Potter studio tour is an exhibition of props, costumes and sets, NOT a theme park. There are a few interactive bits, but they wouldn’t have been enough to keep my three-year-old happy (and some of them involved LOTS more queuing and TONS more money). If your kids don’t like looking at things in museums and galleries for any length of time, or cope well with big crowds, they may not be impressed with this.
- They really need to have seen the first two or three films at least to get anything out of this, and a lot of the stuff is obviously from the later films.
- If it’s an issue, then be aware that toilet facilities are limited (I’d say just about adequate) inside the tour. There’s a toilet block in the car park (by the bus stop), and a bigger set of loos in the lobby, but in the first section of the tour (up to and including the cafe and backlot), I saw only one small set of toilets at the Harry Potter studio tour – and as there were just four cubicles in that particular Ladies, there was, unsurprisingly, always a queue during our visit.
Now, officially (as stated on the Studio Tour’s website), the attraction is suitable for ‘all ages’. And there are some facilities for babies and toddlers:
- The baby facilities I saw were a fold-down changing table in the disabled loo and a baby feeding area (with changing tables) at the Backlot Cafe, which is approximately half way around. You can take a pram in (or leave it free of charge in the cloakroom), but it would not be fun with those crowds.
- The cafe will provide hot water for warming bottles
- There are lots of benches at various points during the tour for resting on, and there are no stairs (there are ramps) so everywhere has been made wheelchair/buggy accessible. The only exception I can think of is the Hogwarts Express, which has one carriage you can go into via a short flight of steps, and means walking down a very narrow passage inside.
- kids four and under get in free – we got a ticket for (three-year-old) T-Bird when we booked, just in case we ended up wanting to take her with us. We didn’t use it, but it didn’t cost us anything either.
Tip Number Two… book ahead… way, way ahead…
You can’t buy tickets at the door, and dates book up very early on. It can be a bit of a schlep to get to the Harry Potter studio tour, and the last thing you want is to have to turn around and go home again.
On a side note, I paid the postage to get our tickets sent to us and was very glad I did. You can pick up your tickets from ticket machines and a box office outside, but there were queues for these… and then you have to queue again to go into the building as they do a full bag search/metal detector security check before you’re allowed inside. And everything – cafe, shop, tour – is inside. Thank goodness there is a small building out by the bus stop with toilets for the desperate..
You then have to queue if you want/need coffee for the grown ups in the group, and queue in the lobby area to enter the actual tour. And let’s not forget the queue for the shuttle bus from Watford Junction.
One less queue in the freezing cold of an English January morning, only a day after it snowed (a bit) with two antsy seven-year-olds in tow was definitely worth that £3.95 postage (£6.95 for international post). Just remember you’d need to book at least a couple of weeks in advance to get the tickets posted to you in time for your visit.
Tip Number Three: Go early, and assume you’ll be ages…
It can take a while to get around everything at the Harry Potter studio tour, and it is quieter the earlier you go. We had a 9.30 entry ticket, and got there at 9am (you are instructed to arrive at least twenty minutes before your ticketed time) and this worked perfectly for us.
We left around 3.30pm, having stopped for lunch at the Backlot Cafe. So six and a half hours there (plus travel time).
While we didn’t rush it, we also didn’t queue for the green screen Broomstick or Hogwarts Express experiences, which would have added at least another hour – and this was on a fairly quiet day, on a weekend in mid-January.
Entry is in timed slots, and (avoiding spoilers!) when you go in, you’re shown a short film introduction to the tour and taken into set one (well, actually it’s the second set… there’s a rather iconic little set to look at as you queue for the cinematic start of the tour).
After that, you’re let loose in the rest of the tour, and while you can’t go back into set one, you are otherwise free to wander through the rest of the attraction at your own pace.
There are five distinct areas at the Harry Potter studio tour:
- The lobby, Studio Cafe and main shop (where you end the tour);
- The cinema and first big set (where you start the tour itself);
- Studio J – the main part of the tour, with the majority of sets, props and costumes, including Kings Cross Station and the station shop;
- The Backlot Cafe and the outside area, which consists of the Backlot itself (hello Privet Drive!) and a small picnic area.
- Studio K – the Creature Effects room, Diagon Alley (no, you can’t go inside the shops – with one exception), concept art and set models, and Hogwarts (the scale model).
You can’t go back into the Backlot area and Studio J once you enter Studio K (the animatronics and special effects room), so just make sure you’re done and dusted with those areas before moving on.
The final section (Studio K), felt a lot smaller and probably took us a third of the time to do (though it was definitely G-Man’s favourite bit!), so if you’re on a tight schedule I’d suggest dividing your time accordingly.
With that said, the average time spent on the Harry Potter studio tour is about 3 1/2 hours. We doubled that without even trying, so don’t underestimate how long this might take!
And charge your camera before you go…
Tip Number Four: Dress for the part! Even just a little bit…
Lots of people dress up for the tour, and it’s great fun for most kids. G-Man however is one of those children who, to my eternal chagrin, doesn’t much like dressing up.
Probably just as well though, as I would happily have blown the budget and remortgaged the house to see the kiddos dressed in Hogwarts quidditch robes like these.
In the face of filial revolt and because I insisted there was at least some dressing up, I got the kids really cheap scarves in Gryffindor colours instead (affiliate links).
The scarves arrived by Owl Post on the morning of our trip, along with a couple of brown paper ‘party bags’. The boys opened the scarf parcels before we left (we saved the party bags for afterwards) and proudly wore their scarves most of the day, even when sweltering inside.
The boys LOVED their cheapo scarves and clearly felt part of the action without feeling self-conscious; a reminder to me that a token nod (when it comes to dressing up) can be just as exciting for young kids, but crucially less pressurised.
If your kids are like mine but you can’t let go of that fancy-dress wishfulness, then I’ll let you know that we saw plenty of adults (and a whole heap of teenagers) in full wizarding regalia, so you wouldn’t be alone if you wanted to bring out that witches hat and cloak at the back of your wardrobe.
I’ll admit I only just resisted getting a Ravenclaw scarf to wear myself (and of course I’d have made K-Dog wear a Slytherin one), but only just…
Tip Number Five: Decide beforehand what you’re willing to spend on, and what you’re not!
This is an expensive day out. Before we had even arrived at the Harry Potter studio tour, we’d spent £150+ on tickets and travel alone (£130 on the family ticket for 2 adults/2 kids – including the postage, £10 on the tickets for the shuttle bus from Watford Junction (cash only, but they do give change), and £17-something on train fares).
So given that we had spent a heap before even walking through the door, keeping further costs down to a minimum was high on my priority list!
Food is normally a major part of the budget on our trips with the kids. They do like to eat, and I do hate carrying heavy picnics, so we aren’t as frugal here as we could be.
On this trip, we allowed money for buying the adults’ coffees ‘cos it was very cold and very early and I NEEDED it. There’s a Starbucks coffee counter (not a proper Starbucks) in the lobby cafe, perfectly positioned for your arrival.
Incidentally, in the mornings the lobby cafe next door (the ‘Studio Cafe’ as it’s called) offers a breakfast menu that included bacon sarnies (£4.50) and porridge (£7! How much?! Why???), among other things. We’d already eaten, or I doubt I could have resisted that bacon.
Cafe prices at both the Harry Potter studio tour Studio and Backlot Cafes were about average for a tourist attraction and there were enough kid-friendly options to feed both our guys.
We thought about taking a picnic lunch this time but in the end, the hideousness of the idea of lugging around lunch along with our winter gear (we didn’t want to put it in the free cloakroom, as it was freezing and the backlot area is outside), outweighed the cost for us.
But picnics/food from home are allowed, so if that’s your thing, you don’t have to worry about sneaking out your sandwiches – there’s a perfectly decent picnic area to enjoy them in.
For reference, as of Jan 2017, kids lunch boxes (in very cool Knight Bus cardboard boxes!) were under a fiver and contained a sandwich (cheese or ham) Capri-Sun drink, a piece of fruit and a flapjack. We still have that box several years later – it’s great for storing little Harry Potter bits in!
The cafe also had more adult sandwich, wrap and salad options, including a couple of vegetarian choices and some pots of crudites and humous. Pretty standard tourist-cafe fare, but enough variety to keep most people happy.
Hot food started at £3.50 for soup, and there were options like mac ‘n’ cheese at £6, hot dogs or very tasty gourmet-style fish-finger hotdogs (smothered in tartar sauce – so tell ’em to hold that if the kids aren’t into toppings!) at £5.50, and burgers at £7. They don’t, for some bizarre reason, do chips.
2020 Update: The menus for the cafes/restaurants (which have been refurbished since our visit) are now available online here, so you can get a good idea ahead of time as to options and prices. The lobby seems to have been renamed the Hub, and Starbucks drinks are now served from there.
Butterbeer is apparently non-negotiable when visiting the Harry Potter studio tour, and was a rather pricey £6.95 for a small cup (including the souvenir stein – it’s £2 cheaper without that).
Butterbeer, unless my muggle tastebuds are deceiving me, turns out to be cream soda with squirty UHT cream on top. You have been warned.
If you want something stronger, the cafe did offer a couple of grown-up choices – bottles of London Pride, Carlsberg, Bulmers and wine.
As I am a soft touch, we ended up splurging on the Butterbeer ice-cream too (same price as the non-ice-cream Butterbeer!) – which is a Mister Whippy style ice-cream that was distinctly butterscotchy in taste.
Portions were huge, and you can have a waffle cone at £4.95 or pay a couple of extra quid to get the souvenir ice-cream dish – just be sure to pack a bag to take it home in.
The cafe food was generally very tasty, so we were happy to pay for the lunch. Less happy to pay all that dosh for the Butterbeer stuff, but I chalked that up to party-bag fillers and emotional blackmail, and tried not to cry to much into my food.
Updating this several years later, these have actually lasted very well, so perhaps not such a bad buy after all!
Guides and souvenirs
Other than on food and drink, your money will be magicked away from you paying for the digital guide (£4.95 per set – we didn’t bother and didn’t miss it), £9.95 for the souvenir guidebook (no thank you!), and at the green screen photo/video ops (£14 for one photo – £7 for each one after that… DVDs and USBs were… considerably more! Yikes – No, my child, I do not love you that much).
And let us not forget the shops. There are two – the lobby shop, and a smaller railway outlet that has different, Hogwarts Express-themed goods.
Ah, those emporiums of wonder; where everything is spun out of gold and unicorn tears and handcrafted by woodland elves… or so you’d think, judging by the prices. You can get a rough idea of what you’re in for by checking out the (more limited) stock available through the Harry Potter studio tour online shop.
All our kids wanted were wands, Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans and Chocolate Frogs. The wands were an eye-watering £28.95 (or a pound more for the Fantastic Beasts ones because, erm, just because), and the sweets were a gut-wrenching £8.95 each… That’s for one, albeit rather large, chocolate frog or a not-very big box of jelly beans.
As I’d done my research and am a cheapskate, I preempted two of those requests (wands and beans) by trawling Pinterest and producing some cheap, easy and pretty convincing home-made substitutes for their party bags (you can read about them here). So I talked them out of these particular purchases and sent them off on a hunt for other goodies in the shop.
Both kids had brought £20 from their savings, and after a rather dispirited trudge around with me saying “nope, you can’t afford it” to every other thing, they ended up with some Honeydukes milk bottle sweets, a chocolate frog (it was their money!) and a couple of key-rings. This didn’t leave much change from their £40.
Don’t get me wrong, the shop had some lovely items, and some great packaging – especially the Weasleys’ Wizard Wheeze toys and the clothes. If you are prepared to spend a whole wad of dosh, you can do some fun shopping here. But I strongly suggest you take a little time to check out costs beforehand or online as you shop (there’s free wifi at least!).
Just as an example, we had to talk G-Man out of a book he really wanted that we could see was over £5 cheaper on Amazon. That’s at least a chocolate frog’s legs in savings!
On the other hand, and so as not to be a total killjoy, I’ll admit that there were lots of great things in the shop that I haven’t seen anywhere else, so if you really, really want it, get it while you can. Carpe diem, etc.
Tip Number Six: Take advantage of the free stuff!
Yes, there are some free things! Most notably the free Harry Potter studio tour Passports that you can pick up for the kids in the lobby – guides were giving them out or you can ask for them from the information desk.
These passports are a great little souvenir, with spaces on each page for embossed stamps that the kids will find on their way around the tour.
There are also clues to help locate golden snitches that are hidden throughout the tour, and a couple of extra pages with puzzles and questions to entertain the kids.
Next to the Ministry of Magic display, there is a free wand duelling class that the kids can do (don’t forget to look up around there, by the way, as a lot of the massive Ministry sculptures – and Tom Riddle Snr’s grave – have been placed high up, above the crowds). Lots of fun, and you’re welcome to take photos/videos yourself for this one.
Next to the Quidditch display is an animatronic broom. Kids (or, if you must, grown-ups…) can queue up to stand next to the broom and have it rise from the floor to their hand, just like in Harry’s first lesson with Madam Hooch. Fun, but over in seconds so probably not worth it if there’s a long queue.
You can also find the goblet of fire around here. If you stick around, it may even do it’s party trick for you…
The Platform 9 3/4 display at the Harry Potter studio tour has a fun ‘Guess Who’s Luggage?‘ game at the top end, where you go in. The boys found this hilarious for some reason. Basically, you try to guess who each pile of luggage belongs to, using clues from their possessions. And yes, it was much more fun than it sounds!
But the best free thing on the tour is definitely the (human) tour guides hanging around throughout the exhibit. Rather than spending on hiring the digital guides, just get these guys talking and they will bend your ear back with some fascinating titbits and wonderful enthusiasm for the subject. We found all of them to be really helpful and welcoming, and definitely more engaging for our youngsters than headsets or a book.
One of the things we learned from them, for example, was that Newt Scamander’s wand is the only one that doesn’t have an animal-artefact core. This is because he’s a vegan of course, but it was a real ‘doh, of course!’ nugget of information for us grown-ups, at least.
Tip Number Seven: Keep an eye out for animatronic or interactive displays…
It’s not always obvious, but some of the displays (especially in the creature effects room) at the Harry Potter studio tour can be set in motion with either buttons or interactive boards. The kids loved hunting down these interactive areas, so keep your eyes peeled for them as you walk round.
Probably the first (we may have missed some!) was right near the start of the tour. Underneath the giant pendulum from The Prisoner of Azkaban are a row of touchscreen interfaces containing a digital Mauraders’ Map. Our kids loved this and spent ages exploring the different links.
Further on, The Burrows set display has a number of little screens in front of it – each of these sets a different one of Mrs Weasley’s household Magiks into action. G-Man spent quite a while here, doing the ironing. I hope he likes it as much when he’s older.
And in Studio K, many of displays in the Creatures Room have little buttons to start up the animatronics – we were particularly taken with the Mandrake plant and the Beastly Book of Beasts!
Round the corner from this, a full-sized animatronic Buckbeak comes to life during a great video by the creature effect team (and Warwick Davis). We really enjoyed this video, and the kids got a real thrill out of seeing Buckbeak moving.
You may also notice that both Diagon Ally and the Hogwarts scale model are on a Night-to-Day lighting cycle that’s worth sticking around for. Yes, you will take a lot of photos in these areas!
Outside in the Backlot, the kids can clamber all over Mr Weasley’s Ford Anglia and Hagrid’s motorbike, as well as the back of the Knight Bus – lots of free photo ops here too. Alas, you can’t go very far into the Knight Bus – no testing out the beds if that’s what you fancied, but the kids enjoyed hanging off the platform at the back.
Tip Eight: Watch the films before – or after – you go…
The Harry Potter studio tour is all about the wizardry that went into making the films, and so to truly appreciate everything, watch them again! But don’t stress if you can’t find the nineteen hours and forty-six minutes that you’ll need to watch all eight movies before you go…
We completely failed in this but had a great time watching some of them straight afterwards instead – completely blowing G-Man’s mind when he realised he’d been standing in Dumbledore’s actual in-the-film office that very day!
Parenting job – done.
So was it all worth it?
YES! As a demonstration of the artistry involved behind the scenes, the Harry Potter studio tour experience truly is wonderful, so I have to recommend it whole-heartedly.
But if your kids are still very young and haven’t seen any/many of the movies yet, then I would seriously think about waiting a little while longer (ahem, or going without them). It doesn’t look like this exhibition will be going anywhere soon, and so if you go once your kids have seen at least two or three of the films I really believe they will get a lot more out of it.
Also, as it covers all the films, there will be spoilers. Obviously.
On the other hand, the Harry Potter studio tour also an experience that just keeps getting pricer. As I had looked at getting tickets closer to G-Man’s actual birthday in December (2016), I happened to notice the price rise introduced as of January 2017 – for example, the family ticket went up by £20 from £106 in 2016 to £126 now (EDIT FOR 2020 – make that £150!).
A quick look around the internet shows that generally all prices at the attraction have gone up a lot over the last few years (a family ticket was £83 in 2012. Butterbeer started out at around £2.95 a glass; now, you’re paying a few pence shy of seven pounds. The issue on prices does leave a nasty taste in my mouth, but they’re hardly the only attraction to be milking their customers for every pound. Just go with your eyes open and your hand firmly on your purse!
Yes, prices are now quite a bit more than when I wrote this post. However, a new display – the Forbidden Forest! – has been added, and Gringotts opens its doors in April 2020.
You can find the 2020 prices here (valid up until 31st December 2020). But basically, a Family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) is now £150. Yikes. Still, at least it’s a round number…
Children under 4 still go free, and you can also contact them to get a free ticket for carers.
Shop prices have also snuck up again – wands, for example are now £32, and cafe prices have increased slightly too, but you can now check out full menus and prices online, making it much easier to plan ahead.
The cost for the shuttle bus from Watford Junction station to the Harry Potter studio tour in nearby Leavesdon (just outside London) has also gone up, and is now £3 for a return ticket. But you can now pay by contactless card as well as cash, just to make it even easier to part with your hard-earned dosh.
For non-Londoners/Brits, going to Watford Junction via tube or train (it’s part of the Oyster Card zone ) and then jumping on this bus is a LOT cheaper than the dedicated bus transfers that run from the major stations.
Those cost around £40, whereas tube/trains from central London (zone 1) to Watford Junction (zone 9) is under £20 if you use a contactless card (see how here). It is really easy, to do, so don’t be put off by the thought of finding your way around an unfamiliar city transport network, as you could buy yourself a wand with the saving! Well, a chocolate one, anyway.
For drivers, parking in the car park is free, or you can pay £10 for a Priority Parking space, near the entrance (buy this beforehand, when you get your tickets). There are some blue disability badge parking bays close to the main entrance too, but those aren’t guaranteed to be available.
Got a thirst for all things Potter? Check out these other Harry Potter-related posts!