Weta Workshop Unleashed, Auckland tours: Behind the scenes with the special effects wizards

"Hold still," says the girl checking me in. "I'm putting an invisible pixie on your shoulder. He'll keep you safe when you go inside."

She says it with such conviction that I actually glance down to check. Then I'm given a squirt of "unicorn snot", an "anti-bacterial and gluten-free" hand sanitiser that will protect me against "microscopic gremlins and Australians".

It's an appropriately playful welcome to Weta Workshop Unleashed, a new immersive tourism experience in Auckland from the special effects company behind blockbuster movies The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Unlike its commercial operation in Wellington, this Auckland outpost is purely for tourists, part of a suite of attractions in the SkyCity complex which also includes the new All Blacks Experience.

Our enthusiastic guide, Harry, leads us into a storeroom where a yeti peers out from a cardboard crate and shelves are lined with boxes of "Dragon claws" and "Left-handed hammers". She recruits a father and son to help her move two large packing cases, revealing a hidden entrance that leads to the Vault of Creativity and Imagination.

Here we're shown footage from three movies – one horror, one sci-fi and one fantasy – that the company is working on and which we'll explore during the rest of the tour. Spoiler alert: the movies aren't real, but the premise is so well-executed that I wasn't 100 per cent sure until I double-checked at the end.

For the next 90 minutes we visit several "working" departments, including Animatronics and Prosthetics, an Artist's Studio and the World Building area. As you'd expect from a company that's won five Academy Awards for creating believable fantasy worlds, each mock-up is exhaustively detailed and incredibly convincing.

In Animatronics and Prosthetics, the walls are covered with sketches, scene notes and shelves of masks, limbs and partly assembled models. There are plenty of interactive exhibits for kids, such as a suite of digitally enhanced make-up stations (who doesn't look better with pointy ears?), plus enough videos and immersive storytelling to keep grown-ups entertained too.

Some of the exhibits are genuinely unsettling, such as the blood making station and a dark, creepy slaughterhouse which involves pushing past racks of hanging carcasses (there's an alternative route for small children and "those faint of heart"). But there's lots of tongue-in-cheek humour too, like a recycling bin full of miscast stunt arms.


Like all good movies, the tour culminates with an impressive finale – a mesmerising interaction between a giant robot and a spaceship – before an amusing credits video in which Weta Workshop co-founder Richard Taylor urges us to "Go and unleash your creative juices".

Before that, parents have the more challenging task of shepherding their kids through the gift shop without going bankrupt. There's a wallet-whopping array of movie-themed merchandise, including a wall of limited-edition collectible models ranging from $NZ49 to $NZ4700. The most expensive item is a tempered steel sword made by NZ master swordsman Peter Lyon. Used by the Witch-king of Angmar in The Lord of the Rings, it costs (sit down for this) $NZ29,500.

"We haven't sold one yet," an assistant tells me. "But I'm sure we will."



Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney and Melbourne to Auckland. Phone 13 24 76, see airnewzealand.com.au


Level 5, 88 Federal Street, Auckland. The 90-minute tours run at regular intervals between 10:20am and 3:20pm, seven days a week. Adults $NZ45, children $NZ25. The facility also offers interactive horror makeup and leather making workshops. See tours.wetaworkshop.com



Rob McFarland was a guest of Weta Workshop Unleashed.