Lessons learned: bus tours are not just for tourists, and always bring a change of clothes

Yesterday 365 tickets gave me the great opportunity to take an open-top double-decker bus tour of London with The Original Tour. I have lived near London and worked there for over 10 years now, so I’m hardly the usual target customer for a bus tour. Us seasoned London-goers imagine that everyone on those tours is fresh off the plane from foreign lands, desperate to gaze at the beauty of our city. But even when I was fresh off the plane, I never took one of these tours. However, I know now that I was missing out.

The main reason I was keen to go on the tour is because my 4-year-old son LOVES double-decker buses. And on previous trips to London I had seen him gaze in awe at the “open” ones. “Mummy, can we go on an open bus, pleease?” And I’d always said no because I figured it wasn’t much different from the normal public transport double-decker buses, except that you would be outside and possibly cold! But I was wrong about that too.

So here is the story of our day, which didn’t quite work out the way we planned, but was still an adventure nevertheless.

The best-laid plans…

On a foggy Saturday morning my son and I excitedly jumped on the train to London. Here we are trying out my new selfie stick. It worked brilliantly for this photo! I had many, many bus selfies planned.

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The full plan for the day was to ride the bus from Trafalgar Square, where we picked up our tickets, to Winter Wonderland, where we would stop for lunch and a carnival ride or two. Then we planned to board the bus again to finish the rest of the Yellow Tour. All of the tours are hop-on, hop-off, to enable you to use the buses to get around to see whatever London attractions you’re interested in. You can switch which routes you use over the course of the day depending on where you want to get to. So in theory, you shouldn’t need any other travel ticket the day you take your bus tour.

There are two main sightseeing routes that go past all the major attractions. The Yellow Route is the original tour that covers some key sights. It crosses the river twice and passes the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, St Paul’s Cathedral, London Eye, The Shard, Tower Bridge and Leicester Square, among other things. This one is a bit shorter and has a real human tour guide telling you interesting stories along the way, and helping you know where the right place to “hop off” is if you’re planning a specific stop.

The other major route is the Red Route, also known as The City Sightseeing Tour. This makes a much longer circuit of London and goes past Regent Street and The Strand – a great way to see all of the Christmas lights this time of year. It has an audio guide, which includes a special children’s commentary to keep your kids entertained.

Both routes go past Winter Wonderland and other Christmas markets.

Your ticket also covers a bunch of other bus routes, along with walking tours and a river cruise. They give you discounts on admission to other attractions, and you also get this excellent little book for your child, full of activities and history.

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We decided that the Yellow Route was best for us because it was a bit shorter, and I liked the idea of having a live guide.

An entertaining bus ride

After we picked up our tickets, we waited for a short time near Trafalgar Square to catch our bus. There was a lovely attendant there to help us be sure to get on the right bus.

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We hopped on and went straight to the open-top part of the bus. Even though it was a chilly December day, it wasn’t raining, so we decided we could brave the cold for a bit. However, it wasn’t actually cold at all! The way the bus is designed blocked a lot of the wind from blowing in our faces, so we felt relatively sheltered and comfortable. It was great having a view of the sights unfettered by window glass.

The bus did a nice little circuit of Trafalgar Square where I took this picture of the Christmas tree. The tour guide explained how Norway sends us a tree for Trafalgar Square every year to thank us for helping them out during the Second World War.

Christmas tree in Trafalgar Square

We then went past the Admiralty Arch and a statue of Charles I on a horse.

Admiralty Arch.jpgI rather enjoyed the joke the tour guide made when he explained that Charles I was one of our shortest ever monarchs … and he was a lot shorter when we were finished with him! He was beheaded during the English Civil War – when Cromwell took over. The Guide asked us to consider how the current Queen goes past this statue during all her major parades, and how sobering it must be for her to pass this statue of her ancestor who died in such a grisly way!

The bus proceeded down Pall Mall past St James’s Palace, then down Piccadilly past the Ritz Hotel and Green Park. Another interesting little story from the tour guide that I hadn’t heard before was a legend about why they call it Green Park. Supposedly, Charles II’s wife Catherine caught him picking flowers for his mistress there, and in a fit of jealousy ordered all the flowers to be removed. Therefore, to this day, the park is only grass with no flower beds. I’m not sure how historically accurate that one is, but it was entertaining nevertheless.

And then it all went a bit pear-shaped…

At this stage in the journey I decided it was time for one of my highly anticipated bus selfies. I stuck my phone into my selfie stick and took aim, and then the screen of my phone went black. As I looked closer, it had a picture of an Android and lots of computer code gobbledegook streaming across the screen! Cue quiet panic while I wonder if my phone has some sort of virus and OMG how am I going to get through the rest of the day without a phone for pictures, maps, communication … all the things I constantly need it for?! I mashed the off button repeatedly to get it to restart. Finally, it did. Sigh of relief.

Then the tour guide prompted us to get off the bus for Winter Wonderland. So much for my bus selfie. Oh well, I thought to myself, I’ll get one when we get back on later.

We walked round to the entrance of Winter Wonderland and my son started complaining he was tired and his tummy hurt. I thought he was just hungry, so we made a beeline for the bratwurst stand. My son is normally a great lover of sausages so I thought this would go down a treat. We shared one and I cut it into small pieces for him. After the first bite, he said it was a little bit spicy. But he kept eating … 2nd bite, 3rd bite and then … it all came back up.

That’s right, dear readers, my son puked up his lunch in the middle of the Bavarian Village at Winter Wonderland. I looked around with embarrassment, but it was so crowded that nobody seemed to notice. I furtively cleaned up what I could and made a quick exit from the scene of the crime.

My son’s coat and clothes were covered in sick and I hadn’t brought any spares! Argh! I was supposed to finish reviewing the bus tour! What to do? My mind sailed through possible solutions to the problem. Should I pop back on the bus – or maybe into a cab for swiftness – to the nearest retail outlet to purchase some clean apparel? But what if this puke was only the first of many? Images of my son being sick down the side of an open-top bus – or worse, on some other people – danced in my head.

In despair I dragged my son out of the park and to the nearest Tube station. I decided to just go straight home and not risk exposing other bus riders to the contents of my son’s stomach. Unfortunately, we had to ride the Tube and then the train for quite some way to get back to our house in Surrey. I had to stop at WH Smith to buy a plastic bag to house his smelly coat because I hadn’t even remembered to pack one! Rookie parenting mistake.

Luckily, the train was not crowded so I was mostly able to avoid offending others with our stench. I think I saw a few people twitch their noses though.

The verdict

I have to send my apologies to the lovely PR person and 365 Tickets, who arranged this review opportunity for me! My investigation of The Original Tour was not as thorough as I had planned it to be. But surely it’s understandable that a poorly 4-year-old was in no state to enjoy a prolonged bus ride?

Despite the shortness of my experience with the tour, I can without reservation highly recommend it. As I mentioned earlier, I never thought those tours had anything to offer a “seasoned traveller” like myself, but I actually found it incredibly relaxing to sit on the bus and hear entertaining stories about London’s history and landmarks. It seems like a great way to get around if you are planning a day out enjoying London’s attractions, and even better at Christmas when there are lights and other festive sights to see.

I think the tour is a great way to get your children interested in history, too. My son loved being on the bus and listening to the stories the tour guide was telling. I would also recommend it to any friends visiting London – even if not for the first time – as it’s sure to teach you things you didn’t already know.

I hope to take my son back someday soon to enjoy the full tour. I’ll just avoid stopping for bratwurst halfway through, and remember to bring a change of clothes and a plastic bag.

Disclosure: It’s not a secret! I received a ticket for the bus tour in exchange for the review.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
Petite Pudding

Kidzania London: Great educational fun for kids

This half-term I took my 4-year-old to Kidzania London. This unique attraction at Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush is a whole city entirely run by kids. It has shops, food outlets, emergency services, and more. The aim is that kids get to try out real-life jobs in a fun, hands-on way.

How it works

Kidzania has around 60 different role-playing experiences, set out in the format of a sort of miniature city. Upon entry, kids are given 50 “KidZos”, which is fake money. Some of the roleplaying experiences cost KidZos to play, and other experiences earn KidZos.

Each of the experiences is completely kids-only. Parents cannot even go inside the rooms where the children do the different activities – they have to watch through the window! Or, if your children are 7+ years old, you can leave them to do it on their own, and either relax in Kidzania’s parents’ lounge, or go shopping in Westfield. Kids wear RFID bracelets and the whole place is secured so older children are safe enjoying it on their own.

Each admission to Kidzania is for 4 hours, and their website expects you to do around 4-6 roleplaying activities in that time. We actually managed to wedge in 7 activities despite a bit of queueing, so I was very happy with that.

The best way to explain exactly what it’s like is to write a little bit about each activity my son did. This of course will only offer a taste of what’s on offer.

Aviation Academy

We made a beeline for this because my son was rather keen on the notion of being an airline pilot. He went into the room himself with a group of other kids and they dressed him up in a cute little pilot uniform.

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Inside the room I could see (through the parent viewing window), that they had a fully simulated plane cockpit. My son thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Paper recycling

My son has a thing about recycling – not entirely sure why – but I thought he would enjoy learning about paper recycling. He went into the room on his own and the teacher there showed him how they mash up old paper, soak it and then form it into new sheets of paper. He got a piece of handmade paper to take home.Making paper.jpg

Ice cream factory

This was sponsored by Wall’s and the kids got to make a mini milk. They had miniature versions of the machines in the factory and my boy seemed to enjoy it. He got given a badge to take home.

Smoothie making

Same concept as the ice cream, but with smoothies, sponsored by Innocent. This one had a good layout and I could see everything that my son got involved in. He really enjoyed trying some of the fruit and then making a machine work, which spat out a smoothie drink box that he got to keep and drink.

Fire & Rescue unit

This was the absolute highlight. We had to queue for a while – and if I went again I would go to this first thing to beat the crowd – but it was so worth it. First, the kids watch a video about fire safety and what firefighters do. They get to wear cute little firefighter uniforms.

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Then, they ride a miniature fire engine across the city to where there is a model hotel “on fire”. They have toy fire hoses that squirt real water and they all get to help put out the fire. The whole scene was really cool because the city also has Ambulance and Police experiences. So all of the emergency services turn up to play different roles and help with the fire at the hotel.

mini-fire-engine

City tour bus

Not really as hands-on as the rest of things. You basically just ride a miniature tour bus (much like the fire engine) around the whole city. You know, on a tour! But my son obviously loved it because BUSES.

Textile recycling

I already mentioned about his love of recycling. The textile version of it looked really fun because the kids got to use tablets to sort the clothes for recycling as if they were working in the factory. They also sorted some real clothes by hand and learned all sorts of things about the process. He was given one of those rubber wristbands to take home – which is one of his favourite ever things – he has a growing collection of them from wherever we go!

What I liked about it

I think Kidzania is a very fun place for kids. I saw children of all ages there, really getting involved and loving the feeling that they were in charge and doing “grownup” tasks. It had a great Disneyworld sort of atmosphere that made you feel as if you were immersed in an alternative world. However, the kids were all learning about real-world professions and getting an insight into how the world works generally. I think this was immensely beneficial for my 4yo, as he is just on the cusp of having a deeper understanding of the world and things like this steer him in the right direction.

The notion of spending and earning money is useful – although my son was a little too young to care about that bit. I looked after the money for him and if I hadn’t, it would have been lost for sure! However, I think the roleplaying itself and putting kids in control was even more useful than the training of tiny capitalists. Learning and trying out new skills filled my son with confidence. It was also helpful for me as a parent to step back and let him get on with it. I was prevented from hovering and helping him when he didn’t really need help (as I’m sometimes wont to do).

Without exception, all of the staff there that ran the different sessions were amazing. The staff are all DBS checked, but beyond that, I don’t know what their training was. But these people managed groups of 6 to 8 children of varying ages almost effortlessly, and with great fun and humour. My son is known to challenge authority figures but he behaved beautifully for these people.

It was also lovely that some of the experiences gave a small token, like the wristband or the badge. Very nice to get souvenirs that don’t cost extra!

Some points for consideration

The child admission is £32 during school holidays, and £29.50 off-peak. I think that this is fairly good value, especially if you have an older child who you can leave to go around on their own. That amounts to fairly cheap babysitting! Also, that sort of price is in the usual range for any theme park or attraction in the London area, and Kidzania is definitely as much fun for kids as any of them.

However, I’m less keen on the £16.50 adult admission price. Kidzania has a parents’ lounge where you can go and drink coffee and use the wifi. If I could have done this, I wouldn’t have minded the admission price. But as I had a child under 7, I had to follow him around everywhere. It was pretty hard work standing outside all of the venues while my son enjoyed himself. I think there should be a cheaper price for the parents of under-7s.

On the upside, this place would be perfect for catching up with a mum friend. You could bring your kids and chatter away without interruption while the kids do their activities!

Another thing to consider is the food situation. The website says that you can’t bring your own food, but this wasn’t policed. There were many people blatantly picnicking, and in the end I envied them. The only food outlets were a coffee shop, a crepe trolley, a “diner” and a GBK fast food counter.

We didn’t go to the diner because the seating inside looked odd. Children were sitting down at little bars and there seemed to be no place for the adults to sit. I wanted to sit down and enjoy lunch with my son, so we chose GBK, which had more tables (but not enough, I should note).

Unfortunately, the GBK burger was one of the worst I’ve ever had! It featured 2 dry overcooked patties, presented wrapped in paper with no plate or basket – only a tray – to put it on. And it was very expensive. I paid £21 for two burgers (one child-sized), one fries and two drinks.

I would urge Kidzania to assess their food outlet options and also to “legalise” picnicking. If you are planning to visit, perhaps you’d like to avoid visiting at a time when you would need lunch – I certainly can’t tell you to break the anti-picnic rules.

The verdict

I think Kidzania is definitely worth a visit if you are looking for a unique, immersive and educational attraction for your kids. It’s great for ages 4 and up – and even better for ages 7+ because the kids can go round and let their parents relax.

The Kidzo money that they earn is also good anytime. So if you don’t earn enough on your first visit to buy anything at the Kidzo store, you can save it up and use it next time.

Disclosure: I received 2 admission tickets in return for this review, but I retain editorial honesty.

Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
Tammymum

A Shrek Adventure with my big boy

Earlier this week I took my son on a day out in London on his last day before starting school. It was such a treat to go to London with just one child who doesn’t need a pushchair, bibs, bottles, purees or any other heavy equipment in order to enjoy the day.

The main attraction of the day was our trip to Shrek’s Adventure, and I thought I’d write a little review in case you’ve been wondering whether it was worth a trip.

The background

As you may know, the Shrek franchise is part of the DreamWorks film company. They are your leading alternative to Disney movies, and they do it well. I have loved Shrek since the first movie came out in 2001 – well before my kids were even a glimmer in my eye. I love the moral that you don’t need to be beautiful or popular to be a hero. And the snappy one-liners.

That must be Lord Farquaad’s castle … Do you think he’s maybe compensating for something?

Other DreamWorks films include Madagascar, Kung Fu Panda and (more recent but less well known) Home. All of them have great modern soundtracks and clever dialogue that the parents can enjoy too. One of my favourite ever film lines is from Kung Fu Panda:

There is no charge for awesomeness. Or attractiveness.

So this was one of those days out that was (selfishly?) just as much about me as it was about my son. I was giggling like a little girl the whole time.

The practical stuff

It is a bit expensive, but you can save money if you book in advance online. The online price is £18.90 per adult and £15.30 per child. shrek portraitThis is about on a par with other London attractions though, and well worth it considering the quality of the show.

I highly recommend booking well in advance if you’re going during half-term or other busy times. I had tried to go last half-term and there were no tickets available when I went online to book the day before. However, today, as some kids were already back to school, it was virtually empty – which was awesome.

It’s in a great location on the South Bank, close to Waterloo Station and next to other attractions such as Sea Life, the London Dungeons and the London Eye. If you want to see more than one thing, you can save money buying combi tickets.

The best bits

I obviously won’t give away all the details, as that would ruin the fun, but here are a few of our favourite bits.

The show starts out with a 4D bus ride. In case you’re unfamiliar with 4D, that’s where, on top of the film being in 3D, they do other stuff to make the environment seem realistic, like squirt water at you if you’re being splashed in the film. It wasn’t just any bus ride – it flies through the air from London to the Kingdom of Far Far Away. My son thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Rather than landing in Far Far Away, you crash there – for reasons I’ll keep a surprise – and then you are sent on a quest to find a way back home to London. Obviously, well-known characters from the Shrek franchise will be there to help or hinder you.

You wander through a series of realistic fairytale sets, and actors play the Shrek characters. There is also a bit of direct audience participation, and it’s all very silly with lots of gross-out humour. It really is entertainment for the whole family.  It’s a little piece of theme park magic.

At the enPhoto with Shrekd of your quest, you get to meet a real live Shrek and take pictures with him using your own camera. This is so nice because it would be very easy for a place like this to insist the only photos you get are the ones they try to sell you.

The staff were so lovely as well. When we got to the Shrek photo opportunity bit, my phone (which I’d turned off because I <always> follow the rules) was taking AGES to boot up. I went to the end of the photo queue and it was still booting when I got to the front. The woman working there let me stand off to the side for as long as it took (it must have been at least 15 minutes), and then come back when I was ready, so we wouldn’t miss out. This was beyond the call of duty and I really appreciated it.

While we were waiting, a giant King Julien (from Madagascar) had a dance party with my son.

I like to move it, move it!

After we finally got our Shrek photo, we came out into an area that had loads of bits from the other Dreamworks movies, with cool things you could pose with for photos, and a Kung Fu Panda computer game. We stayed in this area for ages and, again, no one rushed us along, which was great.

kung-fu-pandaFinally, we came out into the bit where they try to sell you pictures they took of you during the show. These had been taken in front of a green screen and they were actually really good quality. I have to admit to being suckered in.

We got a ‘Far Far Away travel journal’ with all of our pictures in, and stories and activities related to the movies. It also came with a keyring and magnet with our pictures in, and you are able to download the photos for use online. It was £25, but it was a really special day and I’m happy with spending this for the memories. My son has wanted to read his travel journal before bed every night.

The verdict

I think this is the most exotic adventure you can have with a young child in London. The website says children under 6 might be too afraid at this attraction, but my son is 4 and is very sensitive, and he was totally fine. It’s definitely worth a visit if you like theme parks, Dreamworks movies and/or adventure!

For the avoidance of doubt, this is not a sponsored review. I paid my own way!

The Pramshed