During what was a tough year for muggles, a bit of good news for Harry Potter fans came in August 2020 as Warner Bros, Studio Tours and Warner Bros Japan signed a deal to bring the Warner Bros Studio Tour Tokyo – the Making of Harry Potter to the Japanese capital.
The nearly 300,000sq ft attraction, which will be based on part of the grounds of the former Toshimaen Amusement Park in Nerima-Ku, Tokyo, will feature authentic recreations of films sets from the Harry Potter films, including the Great Hall inside Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest and Diagon Alley.
The Studio Tour Tokyo – due to open in 2023 – will showcase original costumes and props, and invite visitors to experience scenes from the films firsthand. It will also feature landscaped open space just outside the Tour’s entrance with bespoke sculptures of characters from the films, which will be accessible to local residents and visitors.
The Tokyo Studio Tour follows on from the huge success of the Warner Bros Studio Tour London – the Making of Harry Potter, which has had more than 14 million visitors since its opening in 2012 and the first Harry Potter attraction in Japan, in Osaka. With that level of success, it was perhaps inevitable that the company would open a Harry Potter tour in the Japanese capital, and after extensive research, the Toshimaen site just outside Tokyo was chosen. “The intense Harry Potter fandom of Japan and the location of Tokyo with such a high population of people who love to engage with IP and have days out made it a really strong place for us to go,” says Sarah Roots, executive vice president, Warner Bros Studio Tours & Retail, speaking via video link.
“We’ll take the essence of the Studio Tour London and build on it using lessons we’ve learned to create something even more amazing in Japan,” she says.
Roots joined Warner Bros in 2010 in the early stages of planning the Warner Bros Studio Tour London and led the project from design and build through to opening, operation and growth. “It’s been a life-changing, all-consuming and very special decade,” she tells me, with highlights including the Royal Inauguration by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, a visit from JK Rowling, “amazing relationships and feedback” from Harry Potter fans around the world and a major expansion of the studio in 2019, with the launch of the Gringotts Wizarding Bank film set and a new 17,000sq ft lobby and cafe.
A new experience
While the Tokyo Studio Tour will keep the essence of the London Tour, there will be several differences, Roots tells me.
The London Tour is based at Leavesden Studios in Hertfordshire, where all eight of the Harry Potter films were made, and features original sets, props and costumes from the movies. In Japan, the sets will be authentic replics of the originals and this will allows a bit more freedom when designing the attraction.
“All of the favourites will be there – The Great Hall, Dumbledore’s Office, the Forbidden Forest – but we have the option of making changes to them,” says Roots. “We have the benefit of a brand new building in Japan and it’s bigger, so we’ll be able to make an enhanced Forbidden Forest, for example.”
The fact that the sets are being made from scratch also means they can be designed in a slightly different way, she adds.
“We’ll be replicating the sets with the original filmmakers – we’ll use the same authentic processes for Japan, but the materials might be slightly different. The fact that the sets at the London Studio Tour are original is fantastic, but they’re very delicate because they were made for filming not for a visitor attraction. There’s an opportunity to make them more durable, which would allow visitors to have better access to them.”
There will be other small changes to the Tokyo tour. “The Japanese love photo ops, interactives and getting involved, and we’ll be adding a lot of interactivity and engagement into that tour,” says Roots. The Japanese tour will also benefit from the lessons learned at Leavesden, with some tweaks made in terms of the order and spacing of the attractions and the F&B offer.
“When I joined Warner Bros., the plan for the F&B at the London Studio Tour was for a small cart on wheels in the back lot. I knew that wouldn’t be enough so we put in a kiosk, then later a permanent building was added, then expanded, then covered. What we know now is that half way round the experience, people are hungry and tired and want to sit down and have something to eat and drink.”
The attraction is part of plans by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government to develop a new public park on land that includes the Toshimaen Amusement Park, which closed in August 2020.
“We’re really excited about this site – it’s a fantastic location and it’s lovely,” says Roots. “It’s a site that is already established as a destination for residents, as it was previously home to an amusement park. It’s slightly different from the Leavesden site – it will still have a studio look and feel but it’s very green, with communal parkland around it. It will have a nice softness and calmness to it.”
At the start of 2020, things were looking incredibly positive for Roots and her team.
“We were doing so well as a business,” she says. “We had a brilliant year in 2019; we opened our new expansion, we broke our own records, with well over two million visitors and then, bang. Everything changed.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner Bros closed the Warner Bros Studio Tour Hollywood on Thursday 12 March, followed by the London Studio Tour on Monday 16 March.
The weeks and months that followed saw the team managing staff and working with furlough schemes, refunding several months’ worth of advance tickets and preparing to reopen safely. The shutdown also gave the company a chance to get ahead with future projects including the Tokyo development, says Roots. “The shutdown didn’t slow down that project – if anything, it just heightened the focus on it.”
When UK attractions were allowed to reopen following Lockdown 1, they had to adapt quickly to selling timed tickets in advance, something that the Studio Tour London had been doing since day one.
“When we launched we were probably the only attraction in the UK that sold all our slots via timed ticketing; it was one of the special things about the way we operated,” says Roots. “We’ve got this great working model of visitors coming and going all day, all pre-booked. It’s one of the benefits that makes our customer service so consistent.”
While the restrictions and lockdowns have been a blow, there have been unexpected positives says Roots. When the London Studio Tour reopened in August, it operated at around a third of its usual capacity, providing a unique experience for visitors.
“It was a VIP experience – you were getting amazing access to the sets and opportunities for photographs,” she says. “It feels like an exclusive tour. We always pride ourselves on our customer service and staff, but there’s something about this kind of approach that I think we and other attractions could take forward.”
What might that look like, I ask. “We pride ourselves on our highly rated experience and value for money,” she says. “There are increased opportunities to embed more special features and behind the scenes access into the day-to-day visit, through additional, bespoke uplift options and tours. I’m looking to find ways to grasp some of the special, relaxed atmosphere from that period into the tour of the future.”
Harry Potter store NYC
Looking ahead, 2021 will see the opening of the world’s first official Harry Potter flagship store in New York City.
Located next to the Flatiron building at 935 Broadway, the 20,000sq ft store will house the largest collection of Harry Potter and Fantastic Beasts products in the world.
“We’ve taken everything we do well in the visitor attractions world and applied it to retail,” says Roots. “The store will be highly experiential with lots of engagement and interactivity, differentiated product and high levels of customer care. It should be a destination experience in its own right.”
Warner Bros is working with London-based design agency Household on the design of the store. “The level of theming of the store and the design is going to be a real eye opener for people,” says Roots.
When I ask Roots to sum up the decade since she joined Warner Bros, she shares several highlights, but it’s clear that her focus is firmly on the future.
“It’s been all-consuming, and it still is; there’s always something new and exciting happening,” she says. “That’s kept me motivated, focused and buzzing.”