The future king of England simply can't compete with the king of dinosaurs.
A chance encounter with Prince Charles on a London sidewalk failed to garner much more than a shrug from my four-year-old earlier this year. Not since Kai was still wide-eyed (and a little pale) from "surviving" a robotic run-in with a Tyrannosaurus rex, a creature so lifelike and ferocious you'd swear you could smell its Jurassic breath.
Such are the unexpected joys of exploring Britain's fabled capital with a young family.
London offers a treasure-trove of child-friendly attractions. Most are refreshingly affordable -- or even free -- and present something more historically authentic and delightfully different than generic theme parks.
This wasn't our first trip to the city on the Thames, but our first with two small boys. And that meant we'd pass on some of our earlier tourist haunts, such as the Tower of London, Imperial War Museum and Madame Tussauds wax museum. (They're all great. I just didn't want to answer the in-evitable question: "Daddy, why are they chopping off that lady's head?")
Still, you can cover an awful lot of London with a Tube map and a battered umbrella stroller.
- Taking the London Eye for an hour-long panoramic view of the city. The millennium ferris wheel soars 135 metres above the centre of the city -- not quite Calgary Tower-like heights, but enough to put Big Ben and other landmarks into perspective.
- Covent Gardens is the original home of Punch and Judy puppet theatre, and about 340 years later the wacky pair are still going strong. Along with street performers, the lively marketplace also boasts a carousel and the interactive London Transport Museum, due to reopen next summer after a C$37-million renovation.
- Mammoths, long-extinct tigers, lifesize whales and other creatures inhabit the Natural History Museum which, like many of London's museums, offers free admission. But its dinosaurs are the favourites of preschoolers. The star is the robotic T. rex which "senses" when people (aka prey) are nearby, roaring menacingly and following movement with its head.
- For slightly older children, London's famed theatre district is a great way to introduce them to live theatre. And tickets to shows like Mary Poppins are easy to get, even at the last minute, through the myriad box offices around Leicester Square or online.
- After a busy day of sightseeing, a good place to kick back and let the kids run is the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Playground in Kensington Gardens. The playground, located next to the late princess' former home, is highlighted by a massive wooden pirate ship.
- You can take an hour-long train ride to Windsor to view the Queen's magnificent castle (one of her three official residences), but chances are the kids would rather spend time in nearby Legoland. This building-block paradise is as hands-on as it is fun, mixing amusement park rides with challenging attractions such as helping fight a fire or operating a real-life backhoe. And getting there via shuttle from the castle is a snap (sorry, couldn't resist that one).
- Speaking of royalty, there's always a chance of glimpsing the Queen at her main digs, Buckingham Palace. The daily changing of the guard (11:30 a.m.) also provides pomp and pag-eantry, though small children might get a bit fidgety.
I mean, they're army guys in fuzzy hats.
They're no T. rex.