WATFORD, Hertfordshire, England -- An unexpected trip to London magically appeared and with little time to plan, one addition to the itinerary was a must: "The Making of Harry Potter," the Warner Bros. Studio Tour at Leavesden Studios. It's 18 miles from the heart of the city as the broomstick flies and a roundabout but easy journey by train and bus.
Unlike Universal Orlando's "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter," a theme park with razzle-dazzle and dizzying rides, the studio tour allows you to keep your feet firmly on the ground as you stroll the site where the seven movies based on J.K. Rowling's megahit books were created.
What I discovered is a Potterhead's dream come true, if that dream happens to be a journey through Photo Op Land.
Still in Pittsburgh, my first destination was www.wbstudiotour.co.uk, where it was recommended to leave at least three hours for the timed-start tour. I booked a 10:30 a.m. start and the package that includes digital guide and souvenir book.
There wasn't an owl in sight, but I felt as if my invitation to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry had just arrived.
On the day of the visit, I marched from my Bloomsbury hotel base to the Tottenham Court Road tube stop and chose the longest and least expensive route: two stops to Euston Station on the Northern Line and a switch to the Overground train to Watford Junction, the last stop on a route that passes Wembley Stadium.
At Watford Junction, visitors hopped aboard double-decker buses for a quick ride, made quicker by a small-screen video about the history of Leavesden Studios, host to mega-film franchises including James Bond and "Star Wars." The bus at last pulled up at "J Stage," which could be any airplane-hangar-sized studio building except for the gigantic "The Making of Harry Potter" sign. I pulled up the e-mail confirmation on my iPhone, and a cheerful guide checked me in at a kiosk.
There was time for a Starbucks latte and to check the cafeteria menu before joining a snaking line for the 10:30 a.m. group (120 visitors may enter at each half-hour interval; up to 5,000 in a day). I grabbed my digital guide without a wait and was advised to put off picking up my souvenir book, so I wouldn't have to lug it around.
That guide -- with maps, video clips and explainers -- was used mostly while waiting in line, where the lone distraction was the display of "the cupboard under the stairs," Harry's room for most of his sad childhood at No. 4 Privet Drive.
At 11 a.m., a single door opened into an enclosed space, all black except for digital panels showing international posters from the movies. The posters transformed into film clips that charted the path from the books to the most successful film franchise of all time, and then a docent laid out the ground rules, encouraging photography and saying that only green-screen displays and videos were off limits. She also advised us not to use up our memory cards too soon, because we'd want plenty of space for the feature at the end of the tour.
That done, we were led into a theater with a large screen that showed the now grown-up stars of the Harry Potter movies -- Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint -- paying tribute to the masses who created what we were about to see. The screen then rose to reveal the door to Hogwarts's Great Hall. A birthday boy of about 8 was chosen to pull open the door that was about five times his height.
Suddenly, we were in the hall, which aside from missing the enchanted ceiling and floating candles was the real deal -- or at least, real as far as movie reality goes. Two of the long picnic-style tables and benches occupied either side, with the middle opened for our gaping group.
The oddest thing about the hall and every other place where costumes were on display was that outfits were fitted to either headless or faceless mannequins, which was a little creepy, even if it did put them in size and venue context.
Before leaving us to continue the tour on our own, the docent pointed toward doors to the left of the teachers' dais -- the entryway to a treasure trove of Harry Potter lore.
The Ice Sculpture, Chocolate Feast, Golden Egg, Triwizard Cup and title prop from the book "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" -- all there. The Mirror of Erised, which projects the viewer's fondest wishes, was perched beside the Fat Lady portrait that served as entry to Gryffindor's Common Room. That room was there, too, along with the Weasleys' Burrow, Snape's Potions Class and the Gryffindor boys' dormitory, along with Hagrid's Hut and Professor Umbridge's all-things-pink office. Of the rooms on display, most impressive was Dumbledore's tower, with details such as 800 labeled vials of memories, kept in a gold, filigreed cabinet. The Sorting Hat, which tells Hogwarts students which of four houses will be their home base, sat high atop a packed bookcase.
Most props were of the "look but better not touch" variety, although there were a few interactive elements, including wand lessons, two people at a time, on the positions for casting spells and engaging one's enemies.
I met up with a fellow traveler and we took some images of each other, but if you are alone, smiling, well-versed docents will take your picture, answer your question or chat as you make your way through the space.
Creatures and wizards
If you can tear yourself away as you walk past the sky-high Ministry of Magic tiers, you exit into an outdoor courtyard, or back lot. Here you can walk through the grounded Hogwarts Bridge, where Professor Lupin tells Harry about his parents; knock on the door of Harry's childhood home at No. 4 Privet Drive; and sit on Hagrid's motorcycle with sidecar. There also are places to purchase Butterbeer or have a smoke before heading indoors again to the Creature Shop.
Heads, hands and full-body mannequins greet you among the displays of the movies' makeup and prosthetics. One shelf held the head of Nearly Headless Nick (looking just like actor John Cleese), and there were several sculpted versions of actor Robbie Coltrane's head as Hagrid (6-foot-10 English rugby player Martin Bayfield was the 6-foot-1 Mr. Coltrane's body double in many scenes).
Continuing the easy-to-navigate tour, you pass a giant spider and an animatronic Buckbeak the Hippogriff as you make your way to the cobblestone path of Diagon Alley.
The wizarding world's shopping district was fully loaded, with Ollivanders Wand Shop, Flourish & Blotts, caged owls for sale -- this was a place to soak in the atmosphere. Diagon Alley was inspired by streets described by Charles Dickens, according to the souvenir guide, and there is indeed something old-school and otherworldly about the scene.
Portkey to Hogwarts
Still to come were rooms with architectural drawings, artists' renderings and scale models, including the wooden ship that carried the Durmstrang team to Hogwarts' Triwizard Tournament. They were the opening act for the big finish -- a 50-foot-high, fully rendered and landscaped model of Hogwarts. The words of the docent from 31/2 hours earlier came rushing back: "Make sure you are ready to take lots of pictures at the end ..."
Ramps allow visitors to view the buildings and grounds from many angles, so you can take in intricate details such as the thousands of tiny tiles hand-glued to the turrets. Outdoor scenes over the course of seven films were shot using green screen, with images of the model becoming the Hogwarts backdrop.
Ever-changing lights faded from day into the bluish glow of night and back again, while interactive videos revealed some green-screen tricks and a time-lapse clip of the 32 days it took to put the pieces of the Hogwarts puzzle together.
It's easy to become mesmerized, but there's one last bit of this magical Harry Potter Land to walk through, a room stacked with brightly colored boxes of wands. If you think the "Exit" sign means you have time to catch your breath, guess again -- the doorway deposits you into an expansive gift shop.
A suggestion before your money falls victim to the vanishing spell Evanesco!: Take time for a reality check of what you want to spend and what the dollar is to the pound. Unlike Harry, most of us don't have a Gringotts vault filled with gold, but who could resist a Chocolate Frog or a chance to own Professor McGonagall's wand?
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.