At the start of the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, a guide tells you trivia about the films. I learned a few things, but my sister did not. She could have given the practiced speech better than the employee — and thrown in a few more fun facts.

Mariah, my sister, had been waiting forever to take this tour. As soon as I knew I was moving to England, she made me promise we’d visit the studios. We finally made it a few weeks ago, when she visited for my birthday.

We booked tickets for 4 p.m., wanting plenty of time before closing; we didn’t leave until after 9 p.m. I’ll tell you all about those five hours, but be warned: spoilers ahead.

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The tour starts just outside the doors of the Great Hall. As they swung open, I realized the room was un-great — in size, that is. I pictured that scene near the end of the second film when an un-petrified Hermione runs down the long tables to hug Harry and shake Ron’s hand and thought. ‘She must have run the entire length of the set for that shot.’

The set decorating in the hall was spectacular. Moaning Myrtle’s tattered Ravenclaw robes were on the left, Cedric Diggory’s pristine yellow-accented ones on the right. In the front corner, colored beads showed the House Cup winner; I expected Gryffindor to be in the lead, but it seemed rigged that my Ravenclaws were in last.
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The most impressive feature of the Great Hall, by far, was the head table. Sure, seeing wires made the floating candles less enchanting, but I overlooked that for all the professors in their dress robes. Dumbledore at his golden podium is a sight I won’t soon forget. And finally, finally I had a real sense of Hagrid’s height and presence; that shifting perspective is one of my biggest pet peeves in the films.

The Great Hall is the only room in the tour where you’re ushered out, as the next group has to get in there. Everywhere else, you can take as much time as you want. Mariah and I did.

There was plenty I expected to see on the tour — the Forbidden Forest, Dumbledore’s office, the Weasley clock in The Burrow, the Hogwarts Express — and there they were in all their glory. What I enjoyed most about the tour, though, were the little details I hadn’t thought about before arriving.

Tom Riddle’s massive tomb from Goblet of Fire, for instance, was one of my favorites. And the door to the Chamber of Secrets. And the letters flying around the living room of Privet Drive, where there was a certificate hanging to honor Dudley for “always eating up his lunch.” And Nagini uncoiled, stretched across a wooden table, reaching for her human meal. And Ron’s quilt spread over his bunk in Gryffindor Tower.
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There were all sorts of moments suspended in time, things I didn’t know I wanted to see until I was looking at them. They were the greatest because I hadn’t been able to anticipate them.

There was one section that really caught me off guard, though, which I loved all the more for it. I had assumed most of the creatures of Harry Potter were CGI; they partly were. Tons of them were also physical beings, though, made of silicone or plastic, and there are oodles of them towards the end of the tour.

A scaly basilisk head protruded from one wall, right above its stripped skeleton from a later film. Fawkes the phoenix didn’t cry, but gazed majestically from a golden perch. There’s a mermaid head, sans-body, screeching with her black tongue on full display, but she isn’t as scary as the shriveled, veiny Voldemort. How he had overgrown fingernails and huge feet just moments after being made flesh again is a mystery I do not want to solve.

After that disturbing room, the tour leads to happier spaces: Diagon Alley. I’ve got to commend Warner Bros for their commitment to authenticity because the Diagon Alley in Florida’s “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” looks identical to this set.

The tour finishes with a bang: the scale model of Hogwarts used for wide shots.

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I knew Hogwarts was huge, but damn. There’s so much detail on the structure and it’s amazing how real it looked. I watched clips of Hogwarts wide shots to see if any of the beauty was lost, now that I’d seen behind the magic curtain. Nope.

I still couldn’t find Hagrid’s house, though. I think the third movie really messed that up, so they just left it off the model.

The only bad part of the entire tour was the Butterbeer. Madam Rosmerta would never have served that. Luckily, Mariah and I ordered one regular Butterbeer and one ice cream Butterbeer, which was as magical as I expected.

Harry Potter Tour Tips:

  • Don’t stress about your ticket time. Mariah and I were about 20 minutes late to our entrance slot. No one cared.
  • If you’re coming from London, get the train from Euston to Watford Junction. You can get a shuttle to the studio from there. It’s much cheaper than the private coaches from the city.
  • If you aren’t going to buy photos of yourself riding a broomstick, skip that section and just look at the Quidditch display.Butterbeer.jpg
  • Take photos of yourself, too. Mariah was having such a great time Snapchatting everything that I had to remind her to be in a few pictures.
  • Slow down. There are little things scattered around the tour that you could easily miss. There’s a massive display of props all piled together in one room, but if you look around, you’ll see some cool things. I’m glad Mariah and I devoted all evening to the tour.
  • Eat beforehand. The cafe is pricey and small, so just go for the Butterbeer ice cream.
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