"If you're lucky enough to have a costume with you, feel free to put it on. Don't be shy - you won't be the first and you certainly won't be the last," says Henry Horne, sales manager for Hobbiton Movie Set and Farm Tours and our personal guide for the day. Unfortunately, there are no Frodos, Gandalfs or Arwens in the group today.
The impossibly green volcanic hills of Matamata are covered by a light mist as the cold rain sets in, but far from disrupting our not-so-unexpected journey to Hobbiton, the drizzly setting add to the illusion of magic in the air.
Hobbiton is located just under an hour's drive from Hamilton in the agriculturally rich Waikato region on New Zealand's north island. Along the meandering gravel road, white sheep are dotted across the rolling hills as far as the eye can see until dozens of colourful circular doors, cobbled buildings, mills, bridges and the iconic Party Tree finally come into view.
The cameras start snapping as soon as we disembark our coach, before we have even entered Bag End. Among the 25 of us here to experience a piece of Peter Jackson's adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's epics, a surprising number don't have much background on the subject. "Around 35 per cent of people who do the tour have never seen the movie, but around 98 per cent have read the book," Henry informs.
We begin by walking through Gandalf's Cutting, which Henry says was designed for the "first grand reveal". It serves its purpose well as 44 unique Hobbit Holes appear to a chorus of delighted coos. Everyone wants a token picture of themselves in front of the quaint dwellings that are embedded in the hillside, surrounded by petite flower gardens, flourishing vegetable patches and clothes gently flapping on the line that make you feel like you've might have just missed a hairy-footed being on their way out.
Hobbiton is one of 158 individual film locations that were used in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies, and the only one that remains for the public to experience. It's one of a kind - the only purpose-built film set in the world open for all to enjoy - but what sets it apart is the atmosphere it creates for visitors.
"Hobbiton is a living set that is different every day, season by season," Henry explains. "We have four permanent staff who maintain the grounds to continue the illusion that Hobbits are still living and working around Bag End.
"It's an emotional experience for visitors, including some people who have seen the movies in excess of 170 times. We get some serious fans."
Serious might be an understatement. Henry tells us the largest costumed group to visit Hobbiton was an assembly of 121 and there have been six weddings hosted on the property in the past four and a half months (only one of which was LOTR themed).
The site of Hobbiton was scouted in the late 1990s after a flyover of the Alexander family's sheep farm. The towering pine tree perched by the lake was exactly what director Peter Jackson had in mind and, after a few signatures on the dotted lines, work began on creating the iconic Hobbit holes.
The original set was constructed only to be demolished after filming - no different to any other LOTR location in the country. However, bad weather prevented the demolition team from dismantling the ply and polystyrene set, which was affectionately referred to as Polywood. During the week-long postponement, the Alexander family was inundated with fans eager to catch a glimpse of Bag End for themselves.
After contract negotiation and years of reconstruction replacing the shaky foundations with sturdy materials, Hobbiton was born. Today, you can make the pilgrimage to Bilbo and Frodo Baggins' home, settle in for a cider by the fire and hearty Hobbit fare at The Green Dragon inn and pick up a souvenir or a Weta collectable at the Shire's Rest before saying your final farewell to Middle-earth.
On 1,250 acres of prime Waikato sheep country, a tiny 10 acres stands as a testament to Tolkien's fantasy novels and Jackson's films, which have been collectively gaining lifelong fans for nearly 60 years and will undoubtedly continue to do so well into the future.