An education for all muggles...
An education for all muggles...
“For the first time ever, we don't have to brief the children in advance about what they'll be able to see and do at an attraction. They brief us.”
Two new UK attractions are providing a magical experience for families, while offering more than just a fun day out. Legoland Resort Hotel Windsor and Warner Bros. The Making of Harry Potter transport you into imaginary worlds that prove anything is possible if you're prepared to put the effort in. And as Kirstie Pelling and her family found out, creativity can be infectious...
Few children are out of their comfort zone when it comes to Lego and Harry Potter, so Stuart and I are expecting our learning curve to be greater than the children's. But our twin theme park adventure both educates and inspires us all in many different ways. The new Legoland Hotel and the Warner Bros. The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour are both brand new £100 million attractions that celebrate the creative spirit. They're all about the big stuff that people are capable of achieving; with the help of building bricks, movie cameras and a magic wand - or 4000!
The zebra shark isn't made out of Lego. It's 100% real and it's staring straight at me. Thankfully there's an 11 tonne yellow Lego submarine between the two of us. The kids don't care; they're invincible S.Q.U.I.D. Investigators; on a mission to discover Atlantis. This underwater world is stocked with surprises; it's clear that Legoland Windsor engineers have been busy copying nature as real fish mingle with the plastic variety. Interactive digital screens give us snippets of information about this underwater habitat, while stingrays display an alarming habit of bumping into the window.
The Star Wars Legoland Miniland is the newest attraction at the park. On the day we visit it hasn't even been officially opened. Despite that, there's no escaping the force of this atmospherically lit example of what a human (or droid ) is capable of putting together with a little bit of patience and a lot of tiny Lego bits. In a walking tour of seven scale models of classic scenes from the Star Wars and Clone Wars movies, we stick our head up into Tatooine, launch the Millennium Falcon and hunt for ewoks. Matthew, our 11 year old, has an encyclopaedic knowledge of a galaxy far far away, and he fills us in on some of the backstory before departing for the gift shop. That's where I come face to face with Darth Vader. The Dark Lord himself watches over this commercial shrine to creativity; perhaps the best deterrent to thieves that was ever invented.
While we can't afford any of the expensive Lego sets for sale in the park, at the new Legoland Windsor theme hotel, Lego is free, and available by the bucketful. It's clear from the outset that the foundations of this hotel are imagination and fun. A huge dragon presides over the entrance while a carousel of flying Lego creations constantly stirs the air over check-in. My children are absorbed into the Lego furniture; delving into a giant vat of bricks, while I collect our keys from a reception desk watched over by five thousand mini figures.
As the day grows dark, the hotel is lit with a Lego glow. And as guests filter into dinner, experimentation is replaced by competition. Everyone really, really wants to win the prize of a Lego set for the best sculpture. The parents are especially competitive. As their children look on, they put the finishing touches to weapons shed and pizza parlour. Our tip for winning this competition? You get up very early. We arrive at five and don't stand a chance. Our solution is to build the tree of destiny, a random non-geometrical design that looks great but falls apart with the briefest of breezes. You'd think we'd have cracked this problem as earlier on in the day we spent an hour testing Lego towers against an earthquake on a simulator. It provided a good chance to introduce our kids into some basic geology and physics and everyone loved pressing the buttons. Wiping out skyscrapers reminded me of going to see tower blocks being demolished as a child, and my husband had to be bribed with sweets to move on, he was enjoying himself so much. He scored it joint favourite with the mini JCB's that let us scoop balls into buckets further down the park.
Eighteen months ago, not far from Legoland, full sized JCB's rolled onto to the site of a film studio in Leavesden. Over a decade the studio had housed the magical world of Harry Potter, and distributors Warner Bros. had a plan to give the sets, props and costumes a permanent home at the site near London and introduce the public to the secrets of the screen. The huge studio's J and K offer fans a walking tour of Hogwarts and Diagon Alley, as well as an education into how the film industry works. We soon learn that while the cast may have been busy waving magic wands, the crew worked around the clock to painstakingly invent the highly detailed world.
As a family we've been to many theme parks and museums worldwide. On the whole they rarely deliver value to each and every family member. But this attraction has something for everyone. For Hannah it's a challenging quest to find a golden snitch and watch Hogwarts go from day to night in a 1:24 scale model that manages to out-Disney even Disney. For Matthew and Cameron it's a golden opportunity to see their treasured world in real life, to stand at the gates of Hogwarts and walk in the footsteps of their fictional heroes. Nine year old Cameron loves the motorised mechanics of the Chamber of Secrets Door and Gringott's bank vault. 11 year old Matthew enjoys the animatronics section, noting how a hippogriff and a house elf are brought to life with a combination of electronics and digital effects. He also learns how they trained the owls, and some of the simple tricks for turning the normal sized Robbie Coltrane into the giant Hagrid (e.g. by sitting him in a bigger chair closer to the camera than the other characters.).
For the adults of the family it's an education in how creative you can be. Down to the very last vial and dial, the attention to detail is breath-taking. We learn how words on a page are brought to life on screen, through film clips with the directors and interviews with the animators and art directors. Stuart is fascinated by the cupboards full of handmade gadgets in Dumbledore’s office that didn't even get seen on screen. And me? I am blown away by the atmosphere of sets like the Great Hall and Diagon Alley. It makes me want to be a more imaginative muggle. And have a magic wand. Tidying up would be so much quicker if I had one of those.
** Get there early and stay all day; the crowds tend to wander in as the morning progresses and filter out by tea time.
** Decide before you go what you want to focus on and organise your day in advance; park websites usually highlight the best attractions for each age group.
** Even a basic theme park can provide an education. Look out for informal learning opportunities. If you're in a hot air balloon ride, talk O2. If the rise is set in Egypt, chat about Pharaoh and pyramid. If there are Pirates on the water rides then there's an opportunity to brief them about the historic high seas, or even the plot of Peter Pan.
** Take a packed lunch; theme parks are expensive places. And pack loads of water.
** Try to go off peak to avoid queues, but if you can’t then you may want to invest in an express pass to help you jump them.
** Pack a plastic poncho if you plan to go on a lot of water rides, it saves you being soggy all day.
** Look out for 'reward club' vouchers to get your day out cheaper.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION WARNER BROS. STUDIO TOUR - wbstudiotour.co.uk
Tickets: All tickets for the studio tours must be pre-booked at wbstudiotour.co.uk or through an approved supplier. No tickets will be available to buy at the attraction.
Practicalities: There are 30 minute timeslots throughout the day to ensure a regulated flow and the tour takes around three hours. Audio guides are available. There's a small refreshment stand on site and a studio cafe and coffee cart.
Times: First tour is at 10am. Last at 4pm, except weekends and school holidays when last tour is 6pm. Allow at least three hours to do it all.
Prices: Tickets cost £28 for adults and £21 for children. Family tickets cost £83. Check website
Getting there: Watford Junction station is 20 minutes by train from London Euston. A special bus will take you to Leavesden from there. You can even catch a film on board. The service runs every 30 minutes. The studio is located 20 miles North West of London, and three miles from the M1.
Accommodation: There are many hotels to suit all budgets in the locality including in Watford. We stayed at the Park Inn Hotel, Watford, just around the corner from Watford Junction Station and convenient for the studio tour bus.
PRACTICAL INFORMATION - LEGOLAND - legoland.co.uk
Check out the Legoland Windsor Resort website for the latest detailed information on the attraction, hotel, opening time and prices.
Practicalities: Legoland Windsor is a family attraction suited to children between 3 - 12 years old. It has over 55 rides, attractions and shows spread across 150 acres of parkland near Windsor, Berkshire, England. The Legoland Hotel is on site with direct priority access to the park.
Times: The theme park opens at 10am and closes between 5pm and 7pm, depending on the time of year. It is closed in winter. Residents at the Legoland Hotel can take advantage of an early entry pass to enjoy the park before other visitors arrive.
Getting there: Legoland Windsor is two miles from Windsor town centre and easily accessible by bus, rail and road. There are bus and rail services from London with shuttle buses direct to the park and hotel. Combined bus, rail and park tickets are available.
Tickets: Park tickets can be booked online in advance or purchased at the Park gates. There’s a wide range of 1 day, 2 day, season and other offers available. There can be additional charges on special event days and if you arrive by car you will also need to pay for parking (£2).
Park Prices: There are lots of different ticketing options for both park and hotel so check online to get the best deal and take advantage of online booking discounts. Park only tickets prices are Adult £41.40, child £31.30 and family (2+2) £129.60. Hotel + Park entry deals are great value and often work out only slightly more than the price of park only tickets.
Hotel Deals: The Legoland Resort Hotel is already proving popular and is fully booked for certain dates in 2012. Pricing varies according to season and room type. According to Legoland prices start from just £248 for a family of 4 for a themed bedroom, including breakfast, 2 days into the Park and loads of added extras. There are many other hotels to suit all budgets nearby in Windsor and Slough and Legoland holidays offers package options that include these.
Kirstie Pelling is co-founder of The Family Adventure
Project, a blog and website
that aims to inspire families to get out and about, to adventure and
have fun together. You can get in touch via Twitter @familyonabike and
If you enjoyed this, you might also like to read these stories from Kirstie on her site:
10 lessons from 10 years adventuring with kids
Kids need adventure, parents need to teach them how
Hard talk – who thinks doing hard things is good for you?
Photo Credit: The Family Adventure Project: familyadventureproject.org