If you're feeling jaded, a visit to the Harry Potter studio tour just outside of London will bring some childlike magic to your heart — even if you know nothing about the films. In the carpark outside, the orange road cones are in the shape of sorting hats, and inside the Harry Potter theme song plays on repeat as fizzing children and stressed parents join the ever-growing queue; and everyone is smiling in anticipation.
It's officially known as The Warner Bros' Studio Tour London - The Making of Harry Potter, although I took to calling it Harry Potter world — although it's not to be confused with Universal Studios' The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. There are no rides here. Instead, the tour, a 20-minute train ride north of London in Leavesden, is about the secrets of making the films - actual sets, actual costumes and a few other surprises along the way.
A member of staff tells to our group that about 6000 people a day take the tour and, oh yes, "Eddie Redmayne was in the other day". (The actor filmed Harry Potter spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at the studio ... and the movie's DVD just so happened to be being released the following week).
Housed in a former aircraft factory, the studios are where the cast and crew spent much of their time throughout the 10 years of filming. There's still a working Warner Bros. studio complex next door, with other productions shot here including the new Wonder Woman, Kingsman, King Arthur and more.
Tomorrow marks a special anniversary in the Harry Potter universe: 20 years since J.K. Rowling published the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.
Back in 1997, I was far too obsessed with another British icon — the Spice Girls — to be concerned with a book about a boy wizard. Even now I have very little, if anything, invested in the Harry Potter phenomena. Sure, I love Emma Watson and know that her smart and sassy Hermione Granger has become a feminist icon for smart and sassy little girls. I've seen Daniel Radcliffe on Graham Norton. But I've never picked up a book, and only briefly caught parts of the first film when it screens on TV. So a trip to Harry Potter world was not exactly top of — or even on — the to-visit list. But it was the Butterbeer that won me over.
After a short video welcome featuring Radcliffe, Watson and Rupert Grint, the screen flies up to reveal huge wooden doors. The crowd gathers, and our host asks two small children to step forward. It's their birthday, and they've come in full Harry Potter regalia, dressed as Harry and Hermione. Cute! They have the honour of pushing open the big wooden doors, and the Great Hall opens up and dwarfs us all. I'm as wide-eyed as the children in character, and I hardly know what's going on.
From there, you make your way through the self-guided tour at your own pace (most people spend around three or four hours), taking in the actual sets and costumes, and discovering the work of the special effects and animatronics used to make the film. The books were still being released as they were filming the series here, so the production crew saved many of the sets in case they would be needed again. There are the original sound stages, including the dramatic Great Hall and the slightly wonky sets of Diagon Alley — you can't miss the hypnotic, and much photographed Puking Pastilles display outside Weasley's Wizard Wheezes shop.
For Harry Potter fans, the attention to detail is thrilling; for a Harry Potter dunce like me, it's the scale of everything that surprises. Turning a corner, I was amazed by a huge sound stage with a replica of the iconic Hogwarts Express locomotive and Platform 9¾.
Most of the train scenes were filmed at London's King's Cross Station — itself a place of pilgrimage for fans — but the studio tour's replica was used in one of the films and allows you to enter the train and get the perfect Instagram photo.
The next photo opportunity is just around the corner, at the bustling cafe, complete with Butterbeer stand. We went straight for a glass of the frothy caramel, butterscotch-flavoured drink from the film — smooth and delicious on first sip, absolutely sickly sweet after that. You can buy and sip yours from a special Harry Potter tankard or stein too.
Outside in the backlot, children and grown-ups alike run amok between numerous other photo opps: a replica of the Knight Bus, Harry's home at Number Four Privet Drive, its living room strewn with flying envelopes (the ultimate Instagram pic), and part of the Hogwarts Bridge created for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The tour's latest expansion, which opened in March, is the Forbidden Forest — that wasn't open when we visited, but staff were buzzing with anticipation — with smaller special features running throughout the year: currently "wizarding wardrobes" showcases the film's costumes (on until September 4), with a focus on the dark arts to follow.
There are also several interactive experiences, designed to entertain children but enthusiastic adults can also have a go, including a green screen allowing you to record a video while "riding" a broomstick, and a motion capture experience where you can control elf Dobby's moves (a cool young dude was making Dobby dab when we walked past). At the wand choreography experience, an adorable young girl walked away holding her father's hand, joyfully exclaiming, "what a wonderful day!"
At the exit is the gift shop and it is insane: swarms of people and absolutely everything Harry Potter. Walls of wands, Hogwarts house uniforms, a sweet shop offering fizzing whizzbees, fudge flies and more. You can buy a replica of Hermione's Yule Ball gown, or a Harry Potter stretch 'n' grow. Posters, key rings and DVDs. Oh yes, and the books that started it all. Twenty years later, I give in to the magic — and the marketing — and buy the first book.
Other ways to celebrate 20 years of Harry Potter
Brit Movie Tours offers several tours of various Harry Potter locations, in London, Oxford and Gloucester - with Potter-obsessed guides likely to have wands in their backpacks.
VISIT: From October 20, the British Library in London will host an exhibition about the magical world of Harry Potter, with various archival material, books, manuscripts and items on display.
WATCH: The West End play and eighth story in the iconic series, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, at London's Palace Theatre.
READ: The book's publisher, Bloomsbury, will release special 20th Anniversary Editions, with four "Hogwarts House Editions" featuring new content.
SNAP: Visit London's Kings Cross station for Platform 9¾, where students in the world of Harry Potter would get on to the platform by walking through a brick wall between platforms 9 and 10. Look for the trolley embedded into the wall for the perfect photo opp.
IF YOU GO
Visiting Harry: Warner Bros. Studio Tour London - The Making of Harry Potter, Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden WD25 7LR, UK. Tickets must be booked in advance.
Getting there: Qatar Airways flies daily from Auckland to London via Doha.