If your children love visiting the “Kidcot Fun Spots” in World Showcase, love classic children’s stories, and are open to exploring new places and learning new things, could they be ready for a trip to Europe? Are the benefits of European travel worth the potential hassles of traveling abroad with your family?
Experts and educators respond with a resounding “yes”.
International travel expands children’s world views, broadens horizons, and encourages cultural sensitivity and acceptance. Some educators even suggest that students who travel are more interested in history courses that relate to places they’ve visited. They are more likely to be open to art, music, and literature from cultures and time periods other than their own.
According to Pat Ricard of ACIS Educational Travel Company, “Travel changes lives. For generations, travelers have been inspired to greater understanding of themselves, of the world around them, and of other peoples and cultures through travel.”
So how can you make the most of your child’s first introduction to the charms of the “old world”? Choose your destination carefully, design activities that actively engage your child, and involve the child in the planning stages of the trip.
London is a logical choice for a first European experience. London’s size and excellent public transportation system make it an attractive destination for families. The common language of English is a major plus as well. Interacting with locals is half the fun, and children will feel a sense of connection with their British counterparts just by talking with them.
A child’s travel experiences are strengthened when he or she is able to relate the unfamiliar with the familiar. Children’s literature is filled with stories set in and around London. Use these as a springboard for planning your London itinerary.
Kensington Park is lovely, especially in the spring and summer. The Peter Pan statue is a favorite stop as is the new Neverland themed playground. For a glimpse into the life of a real princess, the Kensington Palace tour is a must for admirers of the late Princess Diana.
Regent’s Park is another logical stop for children. In the formal English gardens, you expect to see Mary Poppins and her charges among the nannies and children there. Be sure to stop by the picturesque tea rooms for sweets and a spot of tea, much like Mary and Bert enjoyed on their “jolly holiday.”
The London Zoo—familiar, to children who’ve read or seen the Harry Potter stories—is another popular destination located within Regent’s Park.
Climb to the top of Primrose Hill for a beautiful view of London, the same one enjoyed by Pongo and Perdita in 101 Dalmatians when they initiated the famous “twilight bark” in search of their kidnapped puppies.
Fans of Sherlock Holmes will enjoy the museum dedicated to this famous sleuth located at 221b Baker Street, very near Regent Park.
Hampstead Heath is a pastoral respite from the city life of London. It offers many diversions—room to play football or cricket, lovely places for picnic lunches, winding trails for hiking, and even a small art museum. These woods inspired C.S. Lewis to create the great forests of Narnia in his beloved stories.
There are plenty of diversions for children within the city of London as well. Be sure to check out the theater scene in the West End. There are sure to be several shows that children will love, like the current productions of The Lion King, Singin’ in the Rain, and The Wizard of Oz. Productions of Shakespeare’s plays in the Globe theater are affordable experiences that most older children will enjoy, especially if the play is a comedy or one of the tragedies they’ve read in school.
Children love the pageantry of the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace as well. St. Paul’s Cathedral is another popular destination. Time your visit to attend a Sunday service or, for a shorter experience, an Evensong service. Children are fascinated by the Whispering Gallery inside St. Paul’s famous dome. If you have the time—and the nerve—a climb to the top of the Golden Gallery is one that you will always remember. You’ll enjoy the view that Bert claims is usually reserved for birds and chimney sweeps.
Portobello Road’s famous Saturday market is a lively experience. Children will enjoy rummaging through the “tokens and treasures” sold there by many vendors, much like the ones found in the Disney film Bedknobs and Broomsticks based on stories by Mary Norton.
The Tower of London fascinates children, especially if they’ve read The Ravenmaster’s Secret by Elvira Woodruff. The Beafeater tours are well worth the extra admission, and kids thrill to their stories of mystery, intrigue, and torture. Tower Bridge, familiar to anyone who knows the story of Peter Pan, offers interesting tours of this Victorian marvel as well as spectacular city views. The London Eye, an elaborate ferris wheel of sorts, offers spectacular city views.
Beatles fans will enjoy a visit to the Abbey Road Studios and a stop at the funky gift shop. Picadilly Circus is also popular with teens—think Times Square only smaller and more manageable. Huge stores offering cds, Dock Martins, sporting goods, and everything else that makes a teen’s heart race, are available here.
A stop at King’s Cross Station (where Platform 9 3/4 is clearly visible, even to Muggles) is a prefect starting point for a day trip to Cambridge University. Visit one of the older colleges—Queen’s College and St. John’s are particularly picturesque—that call to mind the atmosphere of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Shop in the city center for scares, ties, sweaters, and pennants with the colors of your favorite Cambridge schools.
Oxford University is another option with many fine old school buildings open to public tours. The Bodlien Library is located here and will be familiar to fans of Rowlings’ novels as it is used for the library scenes in the films. Fans of Middle Earth and Narnia might want to stop at the Eagle and Child pub, for it is here that J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis met to discuss their famous fantasy novels.
Back in London proper, the British Museum offers treasures from around the globe. Reading stories or watching documentaries about ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian cultures will help children appreciate the wonders they’ll see hand at this world class museum.
The suggestions here represent a fraction of the wonders that London has to offer for families and children. The key to a successful vacation—planning, involving your children, and preparing them by exposing them to Britain’s rich literary heritage—will make your trip memorable not only for your children, but for you as well. As an added bonus, the next time you visit Peter Pan’s Flight, your children will be able to point to landmark’s like Big Ben and Tower Bridge and say, “We’ve been there!”
(Send an email to Tom Richards)
Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.