AS big-ticket family attractions go, Warner Bros' Harry Potter tour, which opened in Hertfordshire, England, in March, offers very little by way of enticement to lure in the passing visitor. It looks, as my 11-year-old daughter says, "incredibly dismal, like a CIA interrogation centre". And it's next to the sort of housing estate where Harry Potter was once forced to live in Privet Drive with the nasty Dursley family.
As our Harry Potter-themed double-decker shuttle bus from Watford station pulls up outside, I see the wisdom of Warner Bros' entrance policy for its new attraction. You can't just turn up on the day - all bookings have to be made in advance. By the time they've parked the car (or got off the shuttle), these are already committed Potter-punters. An unprepossessing warehouse is not going to put them off.
Once inside the building, which is part of a £100m redevelopment of Leavesden Studios, it all perks up immensely. Whereas the first Harry Potter attraction, which opened in Florida in 2010, was a purpose-built theme park, this offers the chance to see the real sets where the eight blockbuster Harry Potter films were made, albeit adapted for visitors and sprinkled with a little magic dust.
Families on timed tickets are herded into holding pens (a room, then a cinema) to watch films about the Potter phenomenon and then, magically, the screen rolls back to reveal the doors of the Great Hall at Hogwarts. We tap the magnificent stone surrounds. They are made of magnificent real stone. It's an "oh!" moment. Then the doors open to let the public into the famous hall, a set built for the first film, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (2001).
There will be audio-guides but, though they weren't available for our preview, we didn't feel deprived. The attraction here is in the visual detail, and you have to look closely to get the most from it. Many of the props and sets from the films are on display (Dumbledore's office, the Gryffindor common room, the kitchen at the Weasleys' home, the Burrow) and there's so much here there's a danger of visual overload. Serious Potter fans could easily spend the day here (Warner Bros estimates three hours for the average visit).
The children enjoy looking round the sets but, thankfully, decide against joining the lengthy queue to have their photographs taken "flying" a broomstick or driving the Ford Anglia that features in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Our daughter, who knows a Deathly Hallow from a Horcrux, suggests the experience is a bit like "a very old-fashioned museum". I know what she means. There's a lot to see and to read but not much to do. It strikes me that adults seem to be having the best time. Seeing the sword of Gryffindor, on a high shelf in Dumbledore's actual office, brings out the inner geek in many of us.
In the outdoors "Backlot", we blink in the sunlight and buy a cup of Butterbeer (£2.95), which our eight-year-old drinks and pronounces "delicious" as he sits in Hagrid's sidecar. Then he gives me the dregs to consider - it tastes of vanilla - and runs off to inspect the Potters' cottage at Godric's Hollow (where Harry was born and his parents died).
Our son has raced round the exhibits, focusing on nothing, and seemingly looking for something more exciting round every corner. I have the feeling he is hoping to find a roller-coaster if he looks hard enough, and it's not surprising. The place has the feel of a theme park with no rides.
The second big hangar gives away some of the secrets of the model makers and set builders - there are nice touches (a baby Voldemort twitches when you press a button). And there's Diagon Alley to walk through, complete with its familiar shop fronts.
The best is saved for last. The filmmakers' giant model of Hogwarts is on a 1:24 scale, which makes it the size of a small house. Visitors walk slowly around the edge, while the castle makes its journey from day to night (with twinkly lights) and back again in endless four-minute cycles. We all stop to stare. And stare again.
Soon enough, we are disgorged into the gift shop, where we decide against replicas of Dumbledore's robes (£495.95). We also reject "the most expensive school jumper in history", as my husband puts it - a grey woolly Gryffindor pullover at £60. Poignantly, there's a display of the actual, magical, Harry Potter books in the gift shop.
How would you rate that? I ask the children when we are back on the bus, clutching more modest goodies in small bags. It's good but not that good, we conclude, unless you are a massive Potter fan, in England doing all the sites from the books or are coming without children, perhaps.
Both children decide that Legoland, Windsor (about 40km away and easily reached round the M25 London orbital motorway), makes a better family day out for a similar outlay. Visitors wanting to please their offspring could make a weekend of it, combining the two attractions and staying overnight at the new Legoland Hotel, which also opened in March.
The rooms here are all Lego-themed. We stayed in a Pirates room, which was cleverly designed to make the most of tight space, sleeping up to three children in a bunk bed alcove with its own TV and suitably piratical bed linen. Other child-pleasing touches include Lego models on the walls and a treasure map printed on the carpet, which provides the clues to unlock a "chest" with chocolate and Lego inside. The food's not bad - buffet style, and lots of it - and there's also a pool with a tame slide.
The hotel's real attraction is its convenience and queue-busting qualities. A side gate takes guests directly into the Legoland theme park, near some of its most popular rides, and opens at 9am for hotel guests, an hour before the public gets in. Here, at least, our son did find his roller coaster round the corner. And we duly went on it three times before the crowds arrived.
© 2012 The Financial Times Limited