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!
Tip Number One... Kids under seven?? Think carefully before taking them!
I've no doubt that there are many under-sevens 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:
Now, officially (as stated on the Studio Tour's website), the attraction is suitable for 'all ages'. And there are definitely some attempts to provide facilities for babies and toddlers:
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 there 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, though 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, 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 the first set you'll see (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 Studio Tour
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 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 kids 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. So in the face of filial revolt, I got the kids really cheap scarves in Gryffindor colours instead.
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, without a doubt, a very expensive day out. Before we had even arrived, 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! 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. Incidentally, in the mornings the lobby cafe (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.
Cafe prices at both the 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 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 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. There were also 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. 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.
Butterbeer is apparently non-negotiable, and was a rather pricey £6.95 for a small cup (including the souvenir stein - it's £2 cheaper without that). Butterbeer turns out to be cream soda with squirty UHT cream on top... who knew?! 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.
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 tour's 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 the cost for one, albeit rather large, chocolate frog or a not-very big box of not especially nice jelly beans.
As I'd done my research, 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). 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 Weasley's Wizarding 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 on things you're tempted by 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.
Tip Number Six: Take advantage of the free stuff!
Yes, there are some free things! Most notably the free Harry Potter 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. They're a great little souvenir with spaces for six embossed stamps that the kids will find on their way around the tour. There are also clues for finding the golden snitches that are hidden throughout, and a couple of pages with puzzles and questions.
There is also a free wand duelling class that the kids can do next to the Ministry of Magic display (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 has a fun 'guess who's luggage?' game at the top end, where you go in. The boys found this hilarious for some reason!
And take advantage of the guides. 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. And, they're free. One of the things we learnt, for example, was that Newt Scamander's wand (there was a very small Fantastic Beasts display in the lobby) is the only one that doesn't have an animal-artefact core, because he's effectively a vegan!
Tip Number Seven: Keep an eye out for animatronics and interactive displays...
It's not always obvious, but some of the displays (especially in the creature effects room) can be set in motion with either buttons or interactive boards.
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 the Mauraders' Map. Our kids loved this and spent ages exploring the different links.
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.
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, Buckbeak comes to life during a fun video by the creature effect team (and Warwick Davis), and both Diagon Ally and the Hogwarts model are on a Night-to-Day lighting cycle that's worth sticking around for.
And 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!
Tip Eight: Watch the films before - or after - you go...
This exhibition 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, this experience truly is wonderful, so I have to recommend it whole-heartedly. But it doesn't look like this exhibition will be going anywhere soon, so I really would wait until your kids have seen at least half the films and are old enough to get the most out of this style of attraction - it's too expensive an experience to waste.
On the other hand, it's 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. 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!
If you've enjoyed reading this, why not check out these other entries?
Or take a look at our Harry Potter Pinterest Boards for even more inspiration.