Category Archives: Visiting & Travelling

Jewish Museum London: Tiger, Mog and Pink Rabbit – A Judith Kerr Retrospective

#teawithtiger

#teawithtiger

I’m ashamed to say I’ve never visited the Jewish Museum in Camden before. I mean, I’m not actually Jewish, but that’s a terrible reason (arguably a greater impetus to visit in fact), and my husband is and therefore our child has Jewish heritage. Two of my friends have worked there (one still does). But this post isn’t about how I’m a terrible person; it’s about how I’m a ludicrously emotional person.

What finally shoved me through the doors was this small but beautifully curated exhibition of the work of Judith Kerr. I don’t know of a child who didn’t grow up on The Tiger Who Came to Tea; it was one of Ramona’s first memorised books, that she’d ‘read’ to me before she knew which word was which. It has charm, more than a touch of the bizarre, lovely touches of mundane realism that ground it and, most of all, gorgeous illustrations – the deft work of a talented woman who is still announcing new work at the age of 92.

Kerr was very nearly silenced before she started. Fleeing Nazi persecution in childhood, her family ended up in the UK via Switzerland (see what ‘migrants’ can offer? Not that it should matter whether they turn out to be artistic genius or not; human beings are always human). Here she has been ever since, and both the famous Tiger and her series of Mog books based on the adventures of her gorgeous tabby have won and broken the hearts of three generations of children (and their parents). I finally read Goodbye Mog for the first time, at Ramona’s insistence, sitting in the museum, in a giant cat bed. I cried and the beginning, and I cried at the end, and Ramona gave me a gentle cuddle and then sprang off to see more.

The four sections of the exhibition take in Kerr’s childhood, with a smattering of her youthful works of art – and a funny aside about how she failed the book illustration module of her first formal art training because she was so focussed on painting – leading into the more serious side of her work through novels such as When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. More teary eyes.

Suddenly, you turn right into Sophie’s kitchen, where a Tiger sits, devouring the all the sandwiches on the plate and all the tea in the teapot. Yep, as I sat in Sophie’s Daddy’s armchair, and tried on Sophie’s Mummy’s orange coat – Ramona in Sophie’s red one – I cried some more. I’m ridiculous.

Finally, kids can crawl through a cat door (adults don’t have to) into Mog’s world, and dress up as her as they curl up in her bed and have a catnap. Perfect.

Although we missed it, there is daily storytime at 10:30 while the exhibition is on, and there are arts and crafts workshops and activities available at other times. I’m absolutely gutted that I missed the opportunity to book a slot at Kerr’s talk – in person! – about her work.

The exhibition continues until mid-October. Entry to the recently beautifully rebuilt museum is £7.50 for adults and £3.50 for children (5-16) with concessions and family tickets available. That of course includes access to the rest of the museum too, which is rich with all aspects of Jewish history; the Holocaust, yes, of course, because how could it not be, but also the reality of Jewish life today, and Jewish practice in real homes of varying observance. It’s a gorgeous, airy, space and I intend to go back and explore properly, possibly without an overexcited 5yo, on another occasion. A note: the museum is open on Saturdays, which is when we went, but due to the kosher licence the cafe does not operate during Shabbat.

No disclosure needed – although I do have a friend that works there she had no idea I was going!

Travel: Stockholm with School-Age Kids – Overview

Gorgeous, even on a grey day

Gorgeous, even on a grey day

We recently got back from a fabulous end of school break to Sweden’s sometimes-sunny capital, Stockholm. Despite its reputation as an expensive city, we found that with a little bit of budget planning it was a great value family destination – and despite the unreliable and variable weather, still a really beautiful city packed with architectural gems for the grown-ups to sigh over.

I’ll be breaking down a few individual recommendations for places in separate posts and sharing more photos, but if this is a destination you’re thinking of going to with kids, here are some reasons to make the leap and book away. If you’re not somebody I know IRL, then it might be helpful to know that ours is a family of three with a 5yo who starts Year 1 in September.

1. Family-friendliness and fun

Snaking her way through Skansen

Snaking her way through Skansen

Kids are welcome everywhere in Stockholm, and there’s loads for them to do.  For the most part (unless – like Junibacken or Skansen – it’s particularly aimed at children), they get in free to museums and the youngest travel free on both public and some private transport. Attractions have children’s menus, and ordinary cafes and restaurants we went to were very relaxed about making minor modifications to freshly prepared food – eg leaving off dressings – to accommodate children’s requests.

As previously mentioned, there are attractions that are specifically aimed at children; I’ll write about the amazing Astrid Lindgren story centre, Junibacken, separately as well, but it’s an absolute must do. With a permanent play village based on classic Swedish children’s literature and a play house designed after Pippi Longstocking’s Ville Villekulle, it’s an absolute joy.

To make matters even more perfect, this year it’s host to an amazing 70th anniversary Moomin Valley play village, complete with Moominmama’s house, the tiny carousel from Who Will Comfort Toffle?, darting fish in the river by Snufkin’s boat, fruit falling from the trees and a glowing campfire for the grownups to sit around while the kids go mad.

Another one for the to do list is the huge outdoor cultural centre / museum / zoo, Skansen, at which it’s all too easy to lose a whole day – or at the very least half of one – meandering about.

MOOMIN HOUSE!

MOOMIN HOUSE!

Both of these – plus the famous Vasa museum and quite a few others – are on the royal park island of Djurgården which is very easy to get to from central Stockholm – another consideration with kids. If you’re staying near the main waterfront it’s a short ferry ride or a few miles’ walk.

Most of all, if you’re not linguistically blessed – my husband and I are both bilingual but in different languages, neither of them remotely Nordic – the stress of trying to navigate overseas is drastically reduced by the fact that everyone speaks English very well and even announcements on the commuter trains are made in Swedish and English as a matter of course.

More great suggestions – including ones for libraries that I really wish we’d had a chance to try – are in this budget-conscious Guardian article.

2. Food

Meatballs. Because of course.

Meatballs. Because of course.

Stockholm is a busy capital city, and as such every kind of food – and price point – is represented. As a family with a young child we often couldn’t plan lunchtime restaurant meals so ate in the museums, and found the quality to be high. The costs are roughly equivalent to London (eg a meal for three with cooked dishes in a museum cafe was around 400SEK or £30, but there were plenty of cheaper city-based cafes, fast food restaurants and tea houses). However, the quality was very decent and the quantity substantial, even for kids.

Afternoon tea at Chaikhana in the Galma Stan (old town)

Afternoon tea at Chaikhana in the Galma Stan (old town)

Our hotel also had a fulsome breakfast buffet, and you might find you end up eating a bit more often, particularly if you go in for the Swedish fika (afternoon coffee and cake break), but with local traditional foods such as open shrimp sandwiches, meatballs, pancakes and sweet, bready cinnamon rolls, you certainly won’t be short of things to tempt even the fussiest eater.

As for me, I was knee deep in bread and crackers – my carb-heavy happy place – and am pretty sure that after five days I was around 67% knackebrod (crispbread).

3. Transport

Ferrying to and fro

Ferrying to and fro

Cars are definitely not needed as Stockholm is a very walkable – and what isn’t is catered for by boats, trains, taxis and buses. It’s a city of mainland and islands, linked by bridges and boats, Djurgården being, as I said, the one you’ll want to spend the most time on, as it includes the Vasa museum, Junibacken, Skansen, the Tivoli amusement park (we didn’t go in but it did not look suitable for the faint-hearted!) and many more museums and galleries.

I already mentioned that Djurgården is very walkable from the mainland, and we did it in 40 minutes from our hotel which was opposite the bridge into the old town (a distance of a little over 2 miles, but with short legs accompanying us!). If anyone in the party is not up to walking or you just want the fun of the ferry, a one-way crossing is about 50SEK per person – free for under 5s, and reduced for older kids – or an all day “Hop On, Hop Off” boat pass starts at 175SEK per adult; or there are combined bus and boat options if you plan to cover a lot of ground. I would note here that I didn’t see any easy accessibility options on the boat – certainly if we’d had my mum, who uses a wheelchair, with us we’d have had to go for a commuter boat instead – but you can fold and pop a buggy on the deck.

Vasa. No pictures - and certainly none from an amateur's iPhone - can do this vast beauty justice.

Vasa. No pictures – and certainly none from an amateur’s iPhone – can do this vast beauty justice.

You can also get combined deals with the My Stockholm Pass, which includes a lot of attractions and dining discounts. We felt it was better value to pay individually – the concierge at our hotel pointed out you needed to be able to go to at least 2-3 attractions a day to make it worth it – but it depends on how much you’re intending to do.

A transport tip: Stockholm’s Årlanda airport is quite a way out from Stockholm itself; you’ll be encouraged to pick up the Årlanda Express, a 20-minute fast train straight into Stockholm Central Station, from the Sky City train station between Terminals 4 and 5. However, hop on the SL commuter train at the same station and it’s about 100SEK cheaper per person, per trip to the very same destination – and it only takes 18 minutes longer.  The trains were clean, spacious and easy to navigate, since everything is in English and Swedish. (Note: On the way out, you need the Uppsala train.)

4. Perfect for short breaks

SAS has a sense of humour

SAS has a sense of humour (meals part of an upgraded ticket, plus lounge access & fastpass security)

While sometimes the whole joy of a family holiday is in being able to go away together for a good long time – whether to Dorset or Disney World – both budgets and the constraints of annual leave and school holidays can render shorter breaks more desirable. The flight is around 2 hours out and a little more back, and that allows you to really maximise time – we arrived at lunchtime on Monday and left on Friday evening so we had pretty much the whole five days to play with.

On budget – our 5 day break in the last week of July including upgraded flights, 4* hotel and spending money came in at around 80% of the cost of our mid-September 3-key hotel break at Disneyland Paris (and that was in 2013 with the 2 days and nights free option thrown in). Now while that’s not exactly cheap, we were lucky to be able to take the opportunity to blow out a bit, and did. Using options like Air BNB, booking cheaper flights, minimising our trinket shopping and planning our meals a bit more carefully, we could have made it a substantially cheaper break. Also, had it just been me and him going we could have hit the highlights in fewer days – as it was, we dropped the pace to a 5yo’s, and stuck to one attraction and a walk around the Gamla Stan (gorgeous but touristy medieval old town) every day.

In sunny moments, there are few more gorgeous places.

In sunny moments, there are few more gorgeous places.

In all, Stockholm was definitely one of our favourite family breaks to date. Our daughter declared that, while nothing could beat Florida, this was her second favourite holiday ever – high praise indeed considering the distinct differences between a city break and a theme park extravaganza. She particularly enjoyed knocking around the old town and developed such a fondness for the Chaikhana tea house (she’s her mother’s daughter) that we ended up making three visits. Even though we ended up caught in a couple of deluges, she really enjoyed pottering around the city and exploring, and it made it a very relaxing break for us adults too.

Are you tempted? I, for one, can’t wait for an excuse to go back.

London in summer: Fashion on the Ration at the Imperial War Museum

IMG_6755Those of you who have been here before know I like to dip my (peep)toe into vintage waters with increasing regularity; I don’t have a set era as such and quite enjoy mixing things up, but mid-century is as good a description as any – by which I mean roughly 1940-1965.

Enter the Imperial War Museum, whose Fashion on the Ration exhibition arrived – presumably by design – in the midst of a mixure of vintage hipster trendiness, the resurgence of traditional skills during a period of austerity, and the popularity of various fashion exhibitions in London (spearheaded by the V&A, whose Savage Beauty – a spectacular Alexander McQueen retrospective – is also still on, though only until 2nd August, and very much worth seeing).

IMG_6758The IWM’s exploration of 1940s street style is a short but rich, beautifully curated show, taking in the beginnings of clothing rationing in the UK – which lasted into the 1950s – and with a thorough look at the Utility clothes era. This, for those unfamiliar with this period of history, was the point at which the British government got directly involved in clothing design through the creation of affordable, long-lasting clothing that aimed to achieve greater efficiency and equality in the use of precious clothing coupons. It ended up being the basis for modern clothing and fabric quality standards – and the bright prints, use of durable fabrics like rayon and elegant but simple styling so as to use resources sparingly all contributed strongly to what we probably have in our minds when we think of “1940s fashion”.

Drafting in well-known designers of the day helped to make Utility clothes desirable – they were originally greeted with suspicion, unsurprisingly – and a particular look emerged that balanced shabby chic (when it didn’t look good to be too well turned out with a war on) with morale-boosting looks said to support the war effort (can’t have the enemy see us looking dispirited!).

What makes this collection particularly lovely is the individual element; it’s peppered with stories about the original owners and makers of the fashions on display. One of my favourites was a gorgeously cut onesie for wearing over a nightie if an air raid happened overnight. It was accompanied by a note from the original owner expressing her surprise at owning such an item, and it had something noticeably lacking from the recent resurgence in popularity of jumpsuits – a rear flap for attending to a call of nature without having to disrobe!

The exhibition also makes the point that we’ve gone somewhat full circle with fashion – after a post-war boom period of disposable, quickly cycling trends, we’ve headed back into a make do and mend-inspired, thrifty era of slow fashion. And since 1940s and 1950s fashions were often built to last, some of the original fashions of the day continue to survive and be wearable – though of course every finite resource will suffer increasing scarcity.

Photography inside is prohibited, so below is a gallery of a few details from the gift shop in case that kind of thing tickles your fancy. Standard adult entry is £10 (concessions are available), under 5s go free and the rest of the museum is free to enter and packed to the gills with things to see, so you can make a bit of a day of it. Though Fashion on the Ration is only on until the end of August, it was easy to find available tickets, so while I’d recommend advance booking,  if you haven’t and you’re in the area I’d even chance it on the day.

No disclosure needed as this was a private trip.

Fun with the kids this summer: The Power of Poison (!)

Kids… Poison… Well, as irritating as they get sometimes, I don’t think those are things people usually put together. I joke, of course, but despite its unsettling topic, this intriguing and beautifully curated exhibition – adapted from one created by the American Museum of Natural History in New York – is a fun family-friendly activity perfect for the upcoming summer holidays.

For one reason or another, work has been quite crazy lately, so I’ve been really trying to make the most of downtime and focussing on doing fun things with my daughter. The PR team behind The Power of Poison kindly invited me to a VIP family day at the exhibition, and it was simply perfect timing; a chance to do something out of the ordinary together that was child-focussed and might even teach us all a thing or two. We do take her to museums relatively regularly – she’s developing a healthy fondness for my favourite place in all of London, the V&A, and it’s been heartening to see how many places go out of their way to offer activities for younger visitors. Two weeks later, though, she’s still telling us that the Power of Poison was her favourite ever, and promises it isn’t just because there was a Mad Hatter’s tea party and facepainting afterwards (the much appreciated VIP bit!).

At a little under 5, my daughter is probably at the younger end to fully appreciate the details of the exhibition, but it’s a curious little treasure for all ages. Making the most of the dark, labyrinthine space of the Old Truman Brewery, the collection is wonderfully immersive, plunging you immediately into a jungle scene with a mixture of real and fake reptiles and bugs, deftly teaching the difference between poisonous and venomous. Kids are given a fun activity sheet which encourages them to actually read the display information and answer questions, and then it’s on to the next few rooms, with  a mixture of models, projections and video to keep visitors of any age interested.

My favourite was a beautifully projected shadow-theatre rendition of the stories of Hercules and Medea onto Greek urns; there was also a stunning book of poisons as a lead-in to a section on poison in literature that I gawped at for a while, and a truly eerie Snow White in her glass coffin. Anything Alice is bound to attract my attention, and the section on mercury poisoning and the Mad Hatter was very elegantly arranged. On top of all of this, there is then the detective section; at all times there are iPads set up in front of displays that allow children to work through three poisoning scenarios – a dog that might have eaten something in the yard, a ship’s crew that suffer terrible illness and a decidedly dead owl – and solve the mystery by collecting clues and examining symptoms. Throughout the day in this room there are also live and pre-recorded presentations that take the audience through a real-life case of poisoning and the history of the use of forensic evidence in British courts, all in a child-accessible yet engaging way.

I had previously been to the Art of the Brick exhibition in the same space and had found it a little bit oppressive – but also, sadly, I just didn’t feel particularly moved by that particular collection (technically brilliant, but it just felt a bit lacking in story, or depth). The Power of Poison uses the space so much more effectively, and really delights in casting a creepy yet captivating light over what is a dim cocoon of a place. Although we were fortunate to be given some tickets for the purposes of this post, it’s definitely an experience I would have paid for, at £9 for adults and £5 for children (with concessionary prices, family, group and school tickets available).

The Power of Poison runs daily at the Old Truman Brewery in London until the Sunday 6th September, and you can book in advance online.

Disclaimer: For the purposes of this review we were invited to a family day including exhibition entry, tea and facepainting. All opinions are our own.

A day out in Bexhill-on-Sea: the De la Warr Pavilion, the Little British Tea Shop and Eras of Style

This post is actually long overdue. It was (gasp) MARCH when I footled off to Bexhill to spend a day with a good friend and explore the loveliness of a classic British seaside town. But it hasn’t left me, because – especially for a born Londoner who has only managed to take herself further away from water by moving to the Home Counties – there is something so very lovely about the British coast, the jumbled mix of hipster-chic and genuinely crumbling, the proliferation of junk shops and charity outlets and the immediate sense of letting out a big breath you didn’t know you were holding the moment you leave the city. Bexhill isn’t one of the classic treasures (usually in Wales or Cornwall) that you see dotted around tourist websites, all vying for a Portmeirion-esque chocolate boxness that is very, very pretty but somehow unconvincing as a living town. Bexhill is not a town of summer homes. Even in the cold, damp English springtime it was alive and well, keeping calm and carrying on.

Memories of Ladybird - a truly excellent story!

Memories of Ladybird – a truly excellent story!

Our ostensible reason for meeting there – K’s parents live in Bexhill but she’s actually based in St Leonard’s – was to visit the Ladybird by Design exhibition at the De la Warr Pavilion, which was absolutely wonderful, and – though it has completed its run in Bexhill –  is due to arrive in London in July. I’d recommend a visit to the DLWP any day, whatever the exhibits – it’s a lovely space, beautifully situated. Go in, have a coffee, browse the little shop crammed tastefully with quirky prints, arty bags and cute knick-knacks. There are lots of planned family activities too; for the Ladybird exhibition there was an entire wall covered with memories and experiences of Ladybird books from visitors aged 5-95. My favourite (pictured) was a wonderful note from a woman who had, as a child, become the basis for some of the classic illustrations!

Having spent a couple of hours digging around the wonderfully curated galleries and picking up a few treats at the gift shop (an amazing late 50s living room print now hangs over my retro dressing table), we considered what we could do with the rest of our day. That led us to the Little British Tea Shop, which was practically guaranteed to appeal to me on every single score. Vintage decor and mismatched crockery? Check. Bountiful savoury options (including a savoury only tea)? Check. A proper, lengthy, loose leaf tea menu with everything from builder’s to oolong? CHECK. We sat in the kitschest and cutest of window seats and shared a crumpet smeared with salty butter and a delicious cuppa and it was glorious. I was wearing a 1960s fuchsia Lane Bryant suit skirt from my vintage collection, but bitterly regretted not having a 40s number and pin curls  in (I haven’t mastered Victory rolls yet). The service is friendly and warm and practically out of a film. And the prices are distinctly un-London at around £14.50 for afternoon tea for two.

Much of the rest of the day was spent wandering around the shops; I picked up a lovely fabric shoulder bag for our holiday to Florida, and a birthday treat for myself of a shrink plastic watercolour octopus brooch. There is what I can only refer to as an embarrassment of charity shops – then again, the intersecting local high streets in Bucks where I live have nine of them within a mile radius – and independent shops crammed with a mixture of local arts and crafts and general souvenir tat. A bit like walking into Not on the High Street (on the high street)…

Jaf-argh!

Jaf-argh!

That was when K suggested we pop to the antiques warehouse up past the police station; it was a short walk out of town, but entirely worth every minute. I want to go back with a truck and someone else’s credit card. Eras of Style is a mammoth two-story treasure trove packed to the gills with vintage furniture, records, toys… you name it. It’s a little light on clothing, but crammed with practically everything else. I fell in love with at least three separate tables (so. much. G-Plan.) and I adored the more random bits and bobs like the 60s fairground attraction car and some crazy bits of Disney memorabilia like Jafar here, hanging out in the coffee shop. The cafe is itself worth a visit, with nice tea, multiple cake options – I spotted gluten-free ones, too – and apparently now a specialism in bagels (I am SO going back).

Sea air, wonderful places to have tea, art and vintage style. And the wonderful thing is that this kind of footprint is repeated readily across Britain, and should be loved and treasured for what it is. I do worry that one too many hipsters like me and the places risk being gentrified; then again, a lot of these towns have suffered rising unemployment and could do with an investment of cash and love (preferably from people with an interest in staying in, rather than exploiting and running from, the area). I often wish I could travel further, wider and more often (how ungrateful that sounds after a trip to Florida!) but I also forget that there are little jewels on my doorstep – a drive or cheap train trip away. I’m aware that, especially from a distance, I’ve romanticised things a bit, but I do want to make it a habit to explore more of what’s right in front of me, and make the most of the beauty of home.

What’s your favourite hidden (or not so hidden) British treasure? Where should I visit next?

Ten Tips for Surviving Walt Disney World with Young Children

CarouselI’ve slightly irritated myself before I’ve even started this post by putting ‘surviving’ in the headline. To be honest, I’ve done it to pander to the kinds of ways I see people talking about this (ergo, perhaps, searching for it). Let me reassure you, there is no survival involved, although you might occasionally get a bit shirty with one another. It is, genuinely, meant to be fun. Sure, there’ll be at least one moment where you’ll threaten to sell your kids to Mickey for a Dole Whip and five minutes’ peace, but come on. You’re in Walt Disney World. You are not suffering. That happens when you get home.

So, that said, there are certainly ways to make the process smoother and ensure that more of the family gets to tick off the things on the wish list without too many rows. I warn you now: most of these are going to involve planning. You don’t need to be 100% military about this – there is room for a certain amount of flow-going – but there is a phenomenal amount to do and see and the best way to avoid missing lots of it is to lay it all out, at least roughly, before you set foot on the plane.

I’ve assumed here that you’re a first timer or you haven’t been in at least 5 years, since some of these systems came into use, but also that you have looked into it a bit and have an idea what you want to see and do.

1. Book your attraction tickets

A lot of packages will include this, but if not – get it sorted. Not only will it allow you to get to grips with Fastpass+ and dining bookings, you get UK special prices that generally involve, say, 14 days for the price of 7.

If you’re staying on site, you’ll get issued a Magic Band which is your ticket, potentially credit card and room key in one, all strapped to your wrist; if not, you can buy one when you get there. It offers the convenience of having your ticket (and therefore FastPasses) to hand at all times, and you can add charging privileges – for the adults only. Plus it’s a customisable accessory and souvenir, I suppose. But there aren’t any massive advantages to it if you’re off-site – and it does make it easier to spend!

Topiary

2. Work out a daily park plan

Use a crowd calendar to identify the typically least busy day for each park, and map out a plan for which days you’ll be where. This will help you start doing all your pre-booking.

3. Download the My Disney Experience app

Add your tickets and / or Magic Bands, and you’re ready to go with all your advance bookings from the day your booking slots open (more on this in a moment). Add your entire party under one account – and for goodness’ sake give each person a nickname so you can easily plan who goes where – and then you can do group and sub-group bookings super easily. You can also bookmark plans and consult the app for wait times  and directions when you’re in the park. The wait times tend to be quite accurate, updating about 5 minutes after they update at the attraction itself (considerably more promptly than Universal’s app, and the whole thing is much more easily navigable too).

4. Make ADRs – Advance Dining Reservations

If you’re staying on-site, these can be made 190 days out; for the rest of the world it’s 180 days. You want to be on this ON THE DAY if you’re going at a popular time of year (any school holiday) and want to get into Be Our Guest. Particularly if you have a big party. Be a little flexible if you can; obviously 12-2 is peak lunch time so if you’re prepared to battle through on $5 Mickey pretzels and supermarket snacks in your backpack in order to get to a popular place at 3pm, do it. Also, you have until 24 hours before to cancel, so book fast and think about it afterwards – just remember to cancel before that time or you’ll get charged $10 per person for no-shows.

Character meals can be super expensive, but tend to be worthwhile as a one-off. As we weren’t sure of getting into any princessy meet n greets, we did the Akershus breakfast in Epcot. For four adults and two kids it was a whopping $260 all in, but the girls got to meet four princesses (Belle, Aurora, Snow White and Ariel), pose for photos and get autographs, and go on a ‘princess procession’ round the room with them. The food was pretty good too; a plate of bacon, sausage, eggs and breakfast potato casserole was brought to the table and there were pastries, breads, cold cuts, the odd Norwegian nod (eg smoked salmon and herring) and fruits, cereals and yogurts at the buffet. [More on food in Florida]

People Mover5. Get to know FP+

The new Fastpass+ system sounds complicated but is easy enough to get used to. It works like this:

– 30 days out, you can book up to 3 FP+ attractions per day (only one park at a time, so you can’t do, say, 1 at Magic Kingdom and 2 at Epcot for the same day). You can do this on the app or the My Disney Experience website.
– The bookings give you an hour-long slot to turn up at an attraction and go into the non-standby queue; this can be as short as a walk-on or maybe up to 15 minutes. When standby queues at busy times run up to anywhere between 1 and 3 hours, it’s a godsend. Be warned, though – meet n greets such as Fairytale Hall to see Anna & Elsa are often booked up solidly weeks ahead and are hard to get into.
– On the day, if you burn through you FP+ bookings, you can add one further one at a time on a rolling basis. You’ll need to do this in person at a FP+ kiosk in the park.

So, for example: you’ve got Soarin’ booked for 09:20-10:20, Spaceship Earth at 11:00-12:00 and Test Track at 14:15-15:15. Once you’ve done Test Track, make your way over to a FP+ kiosk and see what’s still available for you to squeeze onto for the rest of the day (at busy times of year, I can guarantee it won’t be Soarin’…)

6. Plan for the weather

Florida has tropical weather. You will need sun protection, particularly for kids, and you should plan for rainstorms, particularly in the summer (cheap plastic ponchos also come in handy on water rides). Although usually April temperatures are around 25 degrees (Centigrade), when we went this year it was solidly 30-33 degrees.

Kids – especially youngsters like my 4yo daughter and niece – can struggle in the heat, compounded by a LOT of walking (it’s huge, really it is). You won’t want massively heavy bags if you can avoid it, but do buy small bottles of water that you can refill at the water fountains, which are practically everywhere (and always near a loo). Stay hydrated and don’t be overly ambitious with plans (got a FP+ for Soarin’ at 11:50 and reckon you can be at Via Napoli for lunch at 12:05? Nope. Italy is at the furthest point over in the World Showcase and that walk takes longer than you think…). Consider taking or hiring a stroller for the very youngest. Our girls were fine walking, but 3yos and younger will need help and you won’t want a baby in a sling all day in that weather.

7. Don’t forget the shows

Not every attraction is a ride. Shows tend to have large capacity and are a welcome air conditioning break when the sun is high and your patience with tantrums is low.

8. Set a souvenir budget and let the kids control it

Each of the kids we had with us had a purse with their souvenir budget in it. They were reminded we were going to Universal as well (home of minions! And Marvel Super Hero Island! And Seuss Landing!), and encouraged not just to buy the first thing they liked. But they were also given a certain amount of autonomy over their spending money and allowed to choose their own treats to take home. This obviously is a bit much to ask for the youngest, but it worked really well with both the four-year-olds and the eight-year-old. And it prevents any demands for anything ridiculously expensive or arguments over who gets what.

9. Set aside time for non-park activities

Obviously this depends to a certain extent on how long you’re there, but remember that Florida has lots more to offer than just Walt Disney World – not to mention some fairly decent outlet shopping. At the very least opt for a day or two in a water park which will help recharge your batteries for another day of trekking around the parks.

10. Remember Child Swap

Kids vary in sensitivity and interest levels, and some rides are simply going to be too intense or out of bounds due to height restrictions. When you join the queue, speak to a Cast Member and they’ll take you through how to do a ‘Child Swap’. Generally speaking, you line up as normal but then at some point one rider (or couple, if, like us, there are four adults*) gets funnelled off to ride while the other one(s) sit in a waiting room; afterwards, you swap. The kid spends the whole time in the waiting room. (Actually, the waiting rooms at the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter attractions over at Universal are awesome; you get to watch bits of the films and see the incredible ride queues.) Anyway, the point is there’s no need for the adults to miss out on seeking thrills just because there are young ‘uns in tow.

*To be honest, this is tip number 11: safety in numbers. If you have any option at all to go as a bigger group with aunts and uncles, grandparents or good friends, take it. You can find cheaper shared accommodation options, it’s much easier to be able to split into groups – for example, my nephew hates Frozen and the girls have no idea who Indiana Jones is, so guess how we divided up for shows at Hollywood Studios? – AND you can take a date or solo night off to do stuff without someone needing to show you something / go to the toilet / annoy their sibling every 45 minutes. I appreciate this is not an option for everyone, but it’s one to grab with both hands if you have it. 

Are you a WDW veteran? Got any better tips for families? Share ’em in the comments.

And just in case you were wondering, there’s no disclaimer because this was just a family holiday and no payment or freebies exchanged hands to make this post possible. Just a long-held obsession with the place…

Florida 2015: ALL THE FOOD (featuring Le Cellier, Be Our Guest, Via Napoli & The Leaky Cauldron, among others)

And, as if by strange and sad magic, we’re back. Two glorious weeks in unseasonably baking weather – which wilted but did not wither this fragile British blossom – and it’s back down to (spaceship) Earth with a bump.

I dare say there will be a few things I will be keen to blog about over the next few weeks, but being of Mediterranean origin I’m going the traditional Greek route of telling you about everything I ate since we last met. Food was always going to be a major part of the trip, from classic US diner breakfasts (yes, Brits are obsessed with the likes of Cracker Barrel, Perkins and Denny’s because they might be ubiquitous cheapie chains to you, my American brethren, but to us they’re  ZOMG biscuits and proper pancakes) to a date night in Epcot, because why would a date night involving me be anywhere else?

So, here is a brief(ish) rundown of the highlights, with just a few of my favourite things.

Denny's syrup plate. There were seven of us, to be fair.

Denny’s syrup plate. There were seven of us, to be fair.

Meal: Breakfast

At: All those places I mentioned above

The Highlights: I am most particular about my pancakes. I appreciate crepes, I do, but when it comes to breakfast only thick, fluffy American pancakes will do. Since I gave up maple syrup (I use rice malt at home), I appreciated a good dollop of whipped butter and a sprinkling of fresh fruit as well. Though I love Cracker Barrel for its hokey setting, Denny’s took the prize for me for the best, thickest, fluffiest pancakes; I did appreciate that Perkins did a multigrain and nut version, though, which was nicely savoury and interesting (hell, you could even pretend it was healthy). All were served with a dash of whipped butter. If you like blueberry pancakes, Denny’s sprinkle them throughout lightly, which I prefer, and Cracker Barrel pack them to the gills. All in all, it was a good fortnight for pancakes. As we were staying at a villa, the rest of the time I scharfed on pumpernickel rye bread from Publix with 100% peanut butter and sliced strawberries or whipped cream cheese (insert joke about my fondness for whipped things here) and slices of cucumber. Why don’t we have as much pumpernickel bread here? THIS COUNTRY NEEDS MORE PUMPKERNICKEL.

The Downsides: Sugar-free toppings tend to be sorbitol-laden sugar-free syrups (I’d rather just have maple and suffer the consequences) so take your own rice malt if you’re a committed sugar-quitter who really can’t do without. There will be some sugar in the batter, remember. Also, we didn’t manage to get in a visit to Einstein Bros for pumpernickel bagels and this is very very sad because see sentence in caps above.

The Leaky Cauldron Ploughman's Lunch. Not exactly authentic, but delicious.

The Leaky Cauldron Ploughman’s Lunch. Not exactly authentic, but delicious.

Meal: Lunch

At: Sci Fi Dine-In Theater (Disney’s Hollywood Studios), The Leaky Cauldron (Diagon Alley – The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios), Captain America Diner (Marvel Super Hero Island, Universal Islands of Adventure), Be Our Guest Restaurant (Magic Kingdom)

The Highlights: I’m not sure I can even remember much about the food in the Sci Fi Dine-In Theater and I’m almost certainly sure it doesn’t matter – the theming is all in that place, where you sit in rows in drive-in cars and watch 1950s cartoons under a ‘starry’ sky.

Stranded at the drive-in...

Stranded at the drive-in…

I do recall it had some more unusually healthy / less fried options (eg vegetarian shepherd’s pie, although it was made partly with veggie burger patty I think) and had Mickey Check options for the kids, which are a Disney Parks initiative marking out salt, sugar and fat-controlled meals that provide at least one serving of fruit or vegetable. But really, you would eat fried batter with batter on the side just to sit in there – it’s wonderful. Booking is almost certainly essential at busier times of year.

It's a cauldron with a crack in it. So this must be the Three Broomsticks, right?

It’s a cauldron with a crack in it. So this must be the Three Broomsticks, right?

The Leaky Cauldron is also brilliantly themed – like stepping onto the film set – and the British-inspired fare is actually decent; the Ploughman’s for two I shared with my husband had a lovely fresh beetroot chutney and decent cheese, and the kid’s fish and chips had crunchy batter. The chips were nothing like soggy chip shop chips and frankly all the better for it (no, you can’t revoke my citizenship for that; I was born here). Plus there was malt vinegar on each table as standard.

Tale as old as time, but the food is distinctly more fresh.

Tale as old as time, but the food is distinctly more fresh.

Since it opened, Be Our Guest Restaurant has been so insanely popular that you can now only get a table through Advance Dining Reservations and it was an effort and a half to secure a late lunch reservation for nine of us. It was entirely worth it though; we had a choice of eating in one of the three dining rooms; distracted and hungry, we made a beeline for the obvious, huge ballroom (it felt amazingly like stepping into That Scene even in my sweaty t-shirt and denim shorts). We could have dipped into the ‘Castle Gallery’ room, surrounded on all sides by paintings and tapestries from the film, and we should have gone straight to the West Wing, which includes an amazing stormy window in front of which is placed the enchanted rose – from which a petal drops every so often. The hangings are ripped and the portrait of the prince suddenly gets slashed. Gorgeous. Of course, you’re free to wander in there after you’ve eaten. At lunch, the ordering system means you order before you sit and take a plastic ‘rose’ puck with you wherever you go so your food can find you.

Interestingly, the grey stuff is the only thing Belle eats during the entire song.

Interestingly, the grey stuff is the only thing Belle eats during the entire song.

Options were limited but decent; I had a roast beef baguette with horseradish which was so big I gave half of it away. The kids all went for a healthier pasta option. I had to have a bite of the ‘grey stuff’, so ordered the Master’s Cupcake (chocolate with buttercream); it was… well, quite nice. I don’t really do icing anymore, so the rest of it was devoured by my husband and child, but I’m glad I did it! I understand dinner is much more of an event, with a wider menu, proper table service and Beast meet n greets, so try your damndest for a booking if, like me, you’re a big Beauty and the Beast fan. Plus it’s the only place in Magic Kingdom that serves alcohol.

An honourable mention should also go to Katsura Grill at the Japan pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase – which offers cheaper Japanese meals such as quick and tasty udon soup with beef, curry or tempura shrimp plus chicken teriyaki, rice and veg for the kids. People also didn’t seem to notice it was there, so there tended to be available seats even though it’s a pretty small location.

It could get worse than having lunch with Captain America and Loki.

It could get worse than having lunch with Captain America and Loki, I guess…

The Downsides: Across the board, even the most mundane theme park food in Orlando is about ten times better than the quick service Disneyland Paris fare, I’m afraid. However, the weakest meal we had was in Captain America’s diner which had glacially slow service and perfectly edible but distinctly mediocre burgers. But great photos on the wall, and the good Cap’n did a meet and greet right across the road.

My poor photography does this no justice whatsover.

My poor photography does this no justice whatsoever, and looks like a Mr Men character who has suffered an Edward Gorey demise…

Meal: Dinner

At: Le Cellier (Canada – World Showcase, Epcot), Via Napoli (Italy – World Showcase, Epcot)

The Highlights: Disney has steadily and purposefully worked on developing World Showcase’s long-held reputation for the best food on property, and old favourite Le Cellier continues to maintain this. The perfectly cooked to order filet mignon with truffle butter sauce and mushroom risotto was incredible – and so filling (especially after starters and a warm bread basket including a delicious prezel bread stick) my husband didn’t have room to sample the maple creme brûlée for which the restaurant is well-known. It is not a cheap option, but setting is lovely and the service warm and friendly. If you finish dinner early enough you can also dart straight out for a great view of IllumiNations.

Pepperoni!

Pepperoni!

Carciofi!

Carciofi!

Via Napoli was heaving and very noisy, and when we were seated we were told there might be delays due to a new chef in the kitchen. However, we were actually served very promptly and the ‘large’ pizzas – served on big stands and designed to serve 2-3, but easily serving up to 4 if you’re not madly hungry – were incredibly good. The next size up is (literally) half a metre and there’s an individual option too; while the pizzas aren’t cheap, you can extract very good value through sharing.

The classic Neapolitan thin base was a great balance of chewy and crisp, and there were only a few options to choose from (though you can design your own if you’re so inclined) so they were all done really well. I was delighted to see some pizza bianca options – that is, no tomato sauce – and the Carciofi with its gorgeous artichoke topping was utterly delicious. A big house salad packed with Mediterranean leaves and veg was a great side order and I found room for one of the two sugary treats I had for the holiday, pistachio gelato which was rich and yummy with the crunch of nut pieces (ice cream is about the only weakness I have that’s worth the sugar headache). My sister tucked into fried ricotta balls dipped in chocolate sauce which she thoroughly loved.

The Downsides: People lose their minds over Le Cellier’s cheddar cheese soup; I found it pleasant enough but a bit salty and bland. Ash’s scallop starter was absolutely gorgeous, though.

Meal: Snacks

At: Food carts throughout Walt Disney World, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour (Diagon Alley – Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Universal Studios)

Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. So much promise...

Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. So much promise…

The Highlights: For me, the wonderful Mickey Pretzel (like any other soft pretzel but with ears, damnit). For Miss R, the Mickey ice cream bar she was treated to by a very kind friend. Both around the $5 mark; both worth it for the happy looks on happy faces.

The Downsides: The other sugary treat I decided to go for was Florean Fortescue‘s Sticky Toffee Pudding ice cream. And look, it was still nice ice cream. And yes, I am really, really hard to please with sugary stuff these days (it has to be SO WORTH IT). But… it was really just very sweet vanilla with cakey chunks in it. I never regretted the pistachio gelato for a second, but this? Well… meh. There are loads of other options though, and the fun of experiencing a Fortescue sundae is undeniable.

I hope that’s whet some appetites for what’s on offer in Florida’s theme parks and slightly beyond (and also convinced a few people who might have thought that all you can get is shoddy fried stuff with plastic cheese, though it’s out there if that floats your boat). Got a favourite I didn’t visit? Fill me with regret in the comments.