Warner Bros. has swung open the doors to the world's largest indoor Harry Potter attraction on the site of a former theme park in Tokyo which cost an estimated $280 million to redevelop.
The 30,000 square meter Warner Bros. Studio Tour Tokyo opened last week and is believed to be the media giant's biggest single physical investment in the wildly-popular Potter franchise.
It is the first tour behind the scenes of the Potter films outside the United Kingdom and features some of the most memorable sets from the movies as well as interactive displays which lift the lid on the techniques used to bring the boy wizard to the silver screen.
The tour appears to follow a similar format to its UK counterpart at Leavesden Studios where all eight Potter movies were made along with the three Fantastic Beasts spinoffs. A map on the Tokyo tour's website shows that it sets off inside a soaring stone replica of the Great Hall in Hogwarts Castle where Harry and his chums tuck into feasts in the films.
The sets after that include the Hogwarts' dormitories, the Dickensian Diagon Alley and the Forbidden Forest with its huge spooky spiders that descend from the tree tops. The latter is one of four areas which have been added to the UK tour since it opened in 2012.
The others include a greenhouse filled with robotic squirming shrubs, the original Hogwarts Express train from the Potter movies and a full-size version of Gringotts banking hall. As we have reported, it comes complete with colossal marble-colored columns, giant glittery chandeliers and pointy-eared goblins sitting at the bank tellers' desks.
All of these four areas, except for Gringotts, can be found in the Tokyo tour along with a number of unique exhibits. Chief of which is the headquarters of the Ministry of Magic which regulates and enforces magical laws in the movies.
Covering more than 900 square meters, the Ministry of Magic was one of the biggest and most intricate sets created for the Potter film franchise and it has been rebuilt in Tokyo. All of the exhibits are either original or built from the original blueprints to give guests the same breathtaking experience that the actors had on the sets.
The Ministry of Magic area looks like one of London's historic underground metro stations as the walls are covered with thousands of green and red tiles made from lacquered wood. It has a Victorian air as oil lamps sit on desks in circular offices set inside tiled turrets on the upper floors. At ground level, the walls are lined with huge elaborate fireplaces flanked by golden fleurs-de-lis. They aren't just for show.
As anyone who has seen the Potter movies will know, employees commute to Ministry of Magic using the Floo network and arrive in the fireplaces engulfed in harmless green flames. In Tokyo, visitors can pose for photos as smoke and strobe lighting mimic this magical effect.
Another exhibit exclusive to its tour depicts the Great Wizarding Express train carriage from 2022's Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore. The train car has an Art Deco air with golden wall panels, angular artwork and deep red leather seats. Mannequins onboard are dressed in the outfits worn by Eddie Redmayne's character Newt Scamander along with his squad of wizards, witches and a brave baker, played by American actor Dan Fogler.
Perhaps the most imposing area unique to Tokyo recreates Hogwarts' marble staircase which magically moves as students climb its steps so that it takes them to the right doorway.
The version on the tour in Tokyo is static, so it looks more like a scene from an M.C. Escher drawing. Although it doesn't move, the area is home to an equally magical feature which Potter fans have been crying out for since it first appeared on the silver screen in 2001's Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. In an iconic scene, characters in oil paintings beside the stairway begin talking to each other and a photo opp on the Tokyo tour allows guests to appear in one of them. It isn't the only interactive exhibit.
Others digitally insert guests onto the back of a broomstick and make it seem like they are in the crowd at a Quidditch match. It doesn't stop there.
The tour in Tokyo is also home to the world's largest Harry Potter store which sells merchandise made bespoke for the attraction and is split into 14 themed areas furnished with more than 7,000 custom-made and specially procured props. There are also four dining areas serving classic British dishes such as fish and chips, roast beef, afternoon tea and, of course, Harry's favorite tipple Butterbeer, a non-alcoholic drink which tastes like cream soda and butterscotch.
Japan may sound like an unlikely location for the first Potter tour outside the UK but anyone who has visited the site near London knows it is actually entirely logical.
Train journeys in the UK aren't famous for being magical. If you're lucky, the most you can expect is a comfortable clean seat with free WiFi. However, if you take the early morning train from Euston to Watford Junction on the outskirts of the capital, something enchanting often happens on the way.
Throngs of Chinese and Japanese tourists pull out long black robes from their bags and wrap up in them even if the sun is beating down outside. The cloaked passengers usually look they are in their early twenties at most and appear to be on a pilgrimage. There is good reason for this.
The Potter tour is at the end of the line and although most visitors only spend a few hours there, the Asian aficionados are by far the most fanatical. Some turn up in full wizard regalia before the tour is even open so that they can claim a place at the front of the queue and they stay inside right up until closing time. They don't have to travel so far any more.
Built on the site of the Toshimaen amusement park, which shut in 2020 after 94 years, Warner Bros. Studio Tour Tokyo is more than 50% bigger than its UK counterpart. It takes around four hours to get round the tour and although it lacks the UK's gleaming Gringotts area, the others that are exclusive to Tokyo appear to make up for it. This gives an insight into how much Warner spent on the attraction as it should be around the same as the amount it has invested in the UK tour.
As we have reported, the UK tour and Leavesden Studios are run by one of Warner's UK subsidiaries which files publicly-available annual financial statements.
They show that Warner's investment in the tour came to $121.5 million (£95.4 million) a few months before it opened in 2012. The Hogwarts Express expansion followed three years later at a value of $27.8 million (£21.8 million) with the $25.6 million (£20.1 million) Forbidden Forest joining it in March 2017. The 2019 Gringotts expansion was valued at $58.6 million (£45.9 million) with a further $42.8 million (£33.6 million) spent on the greenhouse that opened last year.
It brings the total to $276.3 million (£216.8 million) though Tokyo's price tag could be even higher as the facility is larger. It will take more than the wave of a wand for Warner to recoup its investment in it. Math, not magic, can provide an estimate of how long this might take.
Theme park operating profit margins only tend to be around 20% largely due to huge staff and energy costs. Studio tours save considerably in these areas as the lack of rides reduces their maintenance, safety and energy bills as well as the number of workers required.
For this reason, studio tour margins usually hover around 33%. Assuming that the Tokyo tour starts with the $169.4 million (£133 million) revenue that its UK counterpart peaked at in 2019, that would give it an annual operating profit of around $60 million. At that rate the tour would break even within five years though this could of course come sooner or later.
The key variable is the annual revenue level and the early signs appear to be promising.
Torben Jensen, vice president and general manager of Warner Bros. Studio Tour Tokyo, recently said that its location near the Japanese capital is ideal, especially as global tourism picks up after the pandemic.
"Being the first tour in Asia and the increasing inbound visitors to Japan will also put us in the center of the regional market," he explained. Crucially, he added that adult tickets, which cost $45 each, are sold out into August.
It remains to be seen whether the tour lives up to its billing and can cast as powerful a spell in Japan as it has done in the UK. It might not be a walk in the park.
The Tokyo tour faces homegrown competition which its UK counterpart doesn't have to deal with. Its rival is just 250 miles away in the city of Osaka which is the location of Universal Studios Japan. The park has its own Potter-themed land which doesn't just have a full-size Hogwarts Express but is also home to a movie-accurate replica of its destination — the village of Hogsmeade.
The village looks like a scene from a traditional Christmas card. Its main street is lined with shops and restaurants in cottages which have sharply sloping roofs, carved wooden doors and ornate iron signs swinging above them. Artificial snow is piled up in their gutters; smoke seems to billow from the chimneys on the roofs and the windows of the cottages are filled with moving models of colorful creatures from the films.
The biggest highlight is hard to miss as a soaring model of Hogwarts Castle towers over the land. Inside is one of the world's most high-tech theme park rides. It is formed from a set of seats attached to a robot arm which moves along a roller coaster track to give guests the impression they are flying on a broomstick with Harry.
An almost carbon copy of the Potter land can be found in three of Universal's other parks and a replica of Diagon Alley (containing an even more groundbreaking ride) has been built at its resort in Orlando. Another is expected to be part of Universal's upcoming Epic Universe park in Orlando whilst Warner Bros. World Abu Dhabi is also working on its own Potter land. In addition to that, there are shops which sell merchandise based on the boy wizard as well as a theater show in six locations worldwide, a travelling exhibition and even a Potter-themed walking trail set in an actual forest in the UK.
Not all Potter attractions have had a magic touch. In 2019, we revealed in the Daily Express newspaper that Warner had bought the London Film Museum in the capital's historic Covent Garden shopping district. At the time, it was home to an exhibition of cars from the James Bond movies but in 2021 Warner re-opened it as The Harry Potter Photographic Exhibition. With the tour less than an hour away it faced stiff competition and the Potter exhibition is no more. Its website now diverts to the tour and the Covent Garden website makes no mention of it.
The success of the tour in Tokyo is likely to come down to the calibre of the attraction and how much appetite there is for Potter in Japan. If there is enough to support a theme park and a tour in the country then Warner seems set for a happy ending. Although it is early days, an indication of the level of demand comes from the attendance at USJ in 2015 which was the first full operating year for its Potter land.
According to the Global Attraction Attendance Report, USJ attracted 13.9 million guests in 2015 and, for the first time, surpassed the mighty Tokyo DisneySea, which is widely considered to be the world's finest theme park. Since USJ swung open the doors to its Potter land it has attracted more visitors than DisneySea for the majority of the time. That really is spellbinding.