Europe with kids: Trip Highlights
Europe with kids trip plan is born
A friend’s sister had once said that her childhood trip to Duinrell in Holland was the best holiday she’d ever been on. There was an onsite funfair and water park and it was near the beach. Did a bit of research and found that these things were all true, and it was only a 30 minute drive from the Hook of Holland ferry port. On this basis we decided on a holiday in Europe with kids in the last week of August when all the prices drop by about a third (to about £700 for the week). Lots of companies offer accommodation here: Canvas, Eurocamp et al but it works out cheapest to go directly through the park’s website.
In the meantime, a child’s birthday took place and a trip to Disneyland Paris was added on to the start of the holiday road trip itinerary (at the risk of double funfair sensory overload) as the main present. And whilst in Paris, it seemed crazy not to have a look around.
So the somewhat larger Europe with kids plan was made: ferry Dover to Calais, 1 day Disneyland, 1 day Paris then drive over to Holland for a week in Duinrell with overnight ferry back home, docking at breakfast time for the final drive across country to Bristol. At this point there was no mention of Belgium.
We just had to google all the headlight/fluorescent jacket in-car requirements for all the countries we would be passing through, top up the AA cover and we were good to go.
Europe with kids itinerary
Eurpoe with kids day 1 - Dover to Disneyland Paris
Stage one of the family road trip was to take the ferry to France as 1. it is cheap (about £60) and 2. we needed the car to get around when we arrived. But not flying to Paris takes a looong time and effectively you lose 2 days of your 10 day holiday getting there. We drove from Bristol, and, for fear of missing the ferry, booked a night in Dover where the white cliffs were camouflaged by the white fog. Went for a Best Western for a sea view (got the car park). Turns out Dover sea front is very much an industrial port, so should have ditched the whole view thing and gone for the Travelodge on the dual carriageway round the corner for about half the price.
Nearly missed the ferry anyway as, it being August, the queues were huge. They do put you on the next boat if you pass a certain point in the check in procedure (which we made by a whisker), but it was the summer holidays and what if the next one was full? In the event, we made the ferry and navigated French roads without a major incident (stocking up on the way with baguettes for an in-room money saving tea).
With an eye on the budget, we had decided to stay within shuttle distance of Disneyland Paris but not on the park itself. We’d also bought Disneyland tickets in advance, googling deals, and finding adult tickets for kids’ prices, so only about £55 each for the day (prefer to look at it that way than as the actual total for 4). Having surveyed the options, again on Trivago, our go to hotel price comparator website, we were staying in the Vienna House Dreams Castle Hotel, which came with plastic heraldry and red curtained bunk beds. And, as always with the cheapest room on the internet, there was a car park view.
After our bread-based tea, we slowly sipped one glass of wine on the swanky balcony bar overlooking the maze whilst the kids hid from the wasps inside. We had officially arrived in Europe with kids and the holiday could begin!
Europe with kids day 2 - Disneyland Paris
If you are going to Europe with kids, there is a distinct chance that Disney is on the menu. It was our first time and we were all pretty pumped.
The park opens at 10am, and to get full value for our £200 plus day out, we intended to be there when the gates opened. Caught the 8:30 shuttle and had plenty of time for photos of the exterior of the Magic Kingdom, where someone actually paints the plants silver and blue, creating an apt Alice in Wonderland vibe.
Top tip: If you can afford the luxury of on-site accommodation, you get let in an hour before the rest of us hoi palloi and have the run of the park, much like a real Princess.
An hour before opening time, the non-royal crowd waiting at the entrance was already growing rapidly, but with half an hour still to go, the gates magically opened. Don’t know if they do this every day but we ran in and stood like wide-eyed rabbits, spoilt for choice between empty walkways to fantasy realms. Was surprisingly exciting.
Under pressure from the crowds flowing past us to make a quick decision, we shot straight down Main Street and took our places in a queue for Thunder Mountain, some kind of cowboy themed ride. Somehow the queue was already fairly lengthy and we spotted a sign saying we had a 40 minute wait. Left 2 queue place holders while the other 2 went to urgently investigate the mysterious “fast pass” system.
Fast passes are included with all tickets. You can go to any fast pass machine (which are in front of all rides they can be used on – the biggies) and book the earliest available fast pass time slot (one per person), which can be several hours after you try to book it. At the relevant time you join the fast queue for that ride and pretty much get straight on it. Only after you’ve used your pass can you book the next one. You can probably fit about 5 in a day in August.
Pelted back to the others having booked a fast pass for Thunder Mountain for four people at the earliest slot available, in about 2 hours’ time, and were then free to run to the furthest edges of the most distant kingdoms, to parts where others would not yet have reached.
The journey was surprisingly green, through bamboo thicket, over rope bridges and behind waterfalls, past Skull Mountain and a pirate ship. We arrived at the very edge of this virtual world and got straight to the front of very fast Indiana Jones and the Temple of Peril roller coaster, which only one of us refused to go on.
As is inevitable in a family situation, there is varying tolerance for speed. We tried to stay together, but after waiting for an hour collectively for a tame Dumbo ride that only one of us wanted to go on, the cracks were starting to show. Husband and speed freak child headed for Hyper Space Mountain, timid child refused. I started to queue with the speedsters but couldn’t help recalling a bad parenting moment at LEGOLAND where child 1 had waited for an hour alone at the bottom of a roller coaster he had refused to go on, abandoned by the other 3 callous fast riders. It was time to for me to step up, leave the queue for Space and head over to wait by his side under the beating sun for another hour for Orbitron (essentially Dumbo in a rocket guise). Apparently Hyper Space was the best. Grr.
The time for Thunder Mountain had arrived. We all took our railroads seats and it was the best ride of the day – fast, but not terrifyingly so. The cart hurtled around a realistic looking orange island, through a flooded section of track and dark tunnels, without feeling the need to flip anyone upside down. Brilliant. After we disembarked, the ride broke down and was out of action for the rest of the day, so go in for an early fast pass on this one as it is not to be missed.
Meeting Disney royalty
We stopped for a while to wait for an Alice in Wonderland meet and greet, but she finished her allotted 30 minutes just before it was our turn. The characters are highly skilled at keeping to schedule and not stopping for chats/photos once their time is up, so a crowd of sad faced children, including my own, looked on as they skipped off at speed, surrounded by a pack of minders on the lookout for rogue approaching fans.
Walking around the site from time to time you spot sinister hooded figures marching with a determination and speed completely at odds with their surroundings – these are the meet and greet characters who, if spotted between official greeting sessions, would be mobbed in the manner of true A list celebrities.
Child 1 was not going to leave Disneyland without meeting and greeting a Disney character. The other refused to entertain the idea of queuing for any further kind of celebrity photoshoot. For the good of the family unit, another split was required. Again, taking one for the team, I sat in the glacially moving queue (a 90 minutes I will never see again), to finally meet Sleeping Beauty for 2 minutes, during which child 1 was star struck dumb.
In the intervening period, Husband and child 2 had joined a line for some sort of Star Wars attraction which, 30 minutes of queuing later, and to their great disappointment, turned out to be a photoshoot with Darth Vader. They didn’t take a picture.
My turn in space
My parenting points now through the roof, I insisted on a turn in Space, throughout which my head thudded like a drum beater against a hard plastic headrest as my body rotated upside down in the darkness and whiplashed around corners quite possibly at the actual speed of light. I had overreached my personal speed limit.
The rides - all the fun of the fair
A couple of all-family affairs later (laser shooting neon aliens in the dark from a waltzer in Buzz Light Year Laser Blast and a train ride around the park perimeter), we spotted an entrance way to The Pirates of the Caribbean.
We joined the queue and, as we snaked slowly underground, began to suspect that we had been tricked again and that this was not actually a ride but an “experience”. There had been no evidence of a ride, as such, from the exterior and we had come a long way (and 40 minutes) in, with still no evidence of track. The castle-effect walls were too realistic, they could be the whole point, but there was no turning back now. Eventually we came to water, where we boarded a boat and bobbed around an underground cave, dropping down small waterfalls on a piratey journey past nautical scenes from the films. Great ride in the end and all the better for the great relief that it actually was one.
There was still so much to do and so many kingdoms to visit. We wandered through the North African themed Aladdin area, stopped for the slowest and most expensive fast food experience ever in Coco’s Mexico, and headed for a parade of fire breathing dragons and more Disney royalty.
Top Tip: If you don’t want to lose an hour waiting for the parade to start to get a ring side view, get to high ground for a chance of seeing anything over the crowds, the steps of the Disney castle worked for us.
Time to squeeze in a Mississippi style boat ride around the orange canyon before spending birthday money on overpriced massive Micky Mouse hands on Main Street.
The Disney firework finale
Thought it would be worth the cost of the very expensive beer to grab a café seat for the evening show. In a not very user friendly or commercial business choice, all cafés close just before the show starts and the seats are whisked away, like an un-fun game of musical chairs. We could see the silhouettes of those with on-site bedrooms, looking on from above. Children would be bouncing on their beds like in the adverts. Adults would be sitting in non- confiscated chairs still drinking beer. The on-site royalty riders have a distinct finale viewing advantage here.
Not surprisingly, a crowd had amassed in anticipation of the biggest spectacle of the day and we were now at the back, but not the back next to the exit gates. (Next time).
The show is amazing. The castle is illuminated in themes from all the Disney films (balloons from Up, snowflakes from Frozen etc.), before a huge multi-coloured bonanza of fountains and fireworks fills the musical sky around it and possibly reflecting in the water in front of it (if you happen to be near that bit).
The division between (on-site) royalty and (off-site) paupers was most stark at the end of the night, as we joined the throng of thousands leaving the park and heading for the last bus home. Hundreds of people were already standing at our stop when we arrived. We nervously waited through several bus arrivals and departures partially depleting the crowd, but also edging nearer to final bus time, before elbowing our way on to one. I just hoped the rounder-elbowed managed to make it back too. Would Disney leave anyone behind without a fairy-tale ending? Surely not.
Europe with kids day 3 - Paris in a day
I knew we’d be wiped out from day one, but you can hardly go to Europe with kids and not see Paris. I was also aware a second day of marching around might just finish them off. Risked it for a biscuit.
I knew the train to Paris left from Marne-la-vallee RER station and had been heartened to spot on Day 1 that this was the station right next to the hotel’s shuttle stop at Disneyland. The Metro ride to the centre of Paris is not cheap and takes over an hour. After giving up on complicated ticket machines and following a lengthy discussion at the information counter, we bought a Mobilis 5 zone 1 day pass for about E17 per adult (half price for under 12s).
We were now mission ready for Paris. In a day. On foot. Like all first time tourists in Paris, we headed to the Tower.
Europe with kids essential - The Eiffel Tower
Approaching the Eiffel Tower, the area was fenced off in a temporary marathon style in a sort of scrub land area as if it was under construction or closed. Following the fencing round , we came across a few tourists milling around and some security guards. Hard to know how to get in or how much it cost. Turned out this was the security check and you can get in for free. You can even climb up it if you want to part with some money. We decided to look at it from underneath, which provided an interesting perspective, and spend money on paninis from the stand at the bottom instead.
Strolling along the Seine
Eiffel Tower done, we didn’t really have a plan and with a general lack of scheduling impetus, utter exhaustion set in. We collapsed on some benches for a good hour before mustering the energy to carry on along the Seine in the general direction of The Louvre. We came upon the glorious Pont Alexandre III, and, crossing it, some spectacular golden fountains at La Place de La Concorde which sprayed mist over us, until a drunk climbed in and started shouting at everyone.
Crossing a million lanes of traffic, we found ourselves in Le Jardin des Tuileries where we were drawn as one to a large a pond, and where the wind was blowing jets of water off course and on to anyone who could find a small deckchair on the perimeter. This was pretty much all we needed for the next 2 hours.
There was a small fair next to the park where we tried and failed to win some knock-off watches, and spun around in small pink chairs at unfeasible heights.
The Louvre, Notre Dame and home for tea
Found the Louvre at the end of the park and popped in to check out the molten gold sculpture in the foyer. No one’s legs were up to walking the galleries.
Husband bit the bullet and was the family queue representative for the Notre Dame entry, while the rest of us lolled over benches, after which we sat amongst more crowds of angry Autumn wasps in a cafe on the edge of the Seine. We each had our own gang of about 4 crawling into our Coke cans and over our sandwiches. Although we could see there were cobbled streets and an evening of cafe street life could have been ours, we were too jelly-legged and so we stocked up on snacks and Metro’d back to the hotel for some pool action.
Paris was beautiful but I’m not sure we got the most out of what the city has to offer. One (especially a post-Disney) day is not enough. Quelle surprise. Will just have to come back and do it properly.
Europe with kids day 4 - Breakfast in France, lunch in Belgium and tea in Holland
Today felt like we were literally trying to cover all of Europe with kids in one day. Something of a killer on the driving front. Heading straight from Paris to the campsite in Holland was going to take about 4 hours, and our pals were already going to beat us there from England on the ferry. But a devilish look had entered Husband’s eye. What about Belgium? I wanted to go to the Dutch destination water park. But I was logic-ed out of it. The pool would be there all week, when do you get to see 3 countries in one day? The clincher was the pull of seeing 3 national icons as featured on our favourite Butter Keks Aldi biscuits (comedy gold naming for the Northerners) in one holiday. We ended up seeing a pretty decent 4.
Having diverted into the centre of Brussels, some argument inducing one-way systems and limited parking opportunities later, we arrived in the Grand Place, a UNESCO heritage site surrounded by opulent guildhalls (one of which seemed to have been turned into a Starbucks).
In possibly the shortest of whistle stop tours ever taken, we rounded the corner (passing a mural of Tin Tin) to find the Manneken Pis before tucking into an enormous Belgian waffle and hitting the road again, bound for the third country of the day, Holland.
Europe with kids road trip to Duinrell...
We were excited to be heading to our next Europe with kids destination, Dutch Duinrell. As it was not in England, it stood a chance of half decent weather, but we were still talking Northern Europe, so no need to go for air-con upgrade in our “duingalow” (love it) chalet. We had, however, added on a bit of decking, for the anticipated sunshine, and dishwasher, for a touch of luxury.
Our pals had gone for the air-con, and, for not much more, had been rewarded with a lodge style palace. Totally booking this one next time. (Ours was pokey with a collection of spiders in the bedroom). But all the Duingalows were a step up from the more caravan looking affairs provided by the other companies.
As we’d paid for decking, obviously the sky was split by lightning as we arrived in the dark for our first night’s BBQ, which was great anyway because we now had holiday pals, real French champagne and some frogs’ legs.
Europe with kids days 5-10 - Holland
The fair - Duinrell
Waking up in our Duingalow, it was time to explore what the Duinrell park had to offer. Could it possibly live up to its billing, which was pretty much a child’s paradise?
Set in the woods were roller coasters (catering for the whole timid to brave spectrum), a huge fountain bench seat ride , a windmill-themed spinning witches’ hat, metal trays that hurtle along a woodland track, but best of all, the world’s wettest log flume. Not just for riders but for spectators. Who needed their own tsunami warning sign.
Don’t miss the flying boat ride, where, for a euro, you slide down a ramp in a boat before being ski-jumped off the end into the air and then into the pool, before being dragged back to base on a rope. Or the self-propelled raft bridge, which can easily become treacherously sinkingly overloaded by last minute excess children leaping from the bank. And the ever-hilarious boating lake, which shoots up fountain torpedoes at random in an apparent and sometimes successful attempt to capsize you.
Whoever built this park has a wicked sense of humour and really wanted you to get wet, intentionally or otherwise. Bloody brilliant. A Europe with kids hands down winner.
Tiki Bad - The on-site waterpark
The Tiki Bad (another great name) water park had slides cut off in the middle about 20 feet off the ground and 3 tubing chutes. Be warned these tubes must be carried up about 3 flights of narrow stairs and are bonkers HEAVY, pretty much requiring 2 adults to carry each one, which doesn’t work so well when child riders are involved. Which, of course, they are. The aquatic human marble run is a spectator sport in its own right. There is also a tube that you stand in, then on the green light a trap door is released beneath you for your vertical descent into hell/the pool.
You are welcome to take photos, drink beer and be the judge of your own height and when it is safe to take your turn – very much a culture shock for us rule-bound health and safety conscious Brits. (They will sometimes tell you off at the bottom of the slide if you come out and are patently too small – although at this point the child horse had already bolted).
The Beach - Wassenaarse Slag (nicer than it sounds)
Holland is a Europe with kids itinerary dream come true. Bikes, beaches and bars for the adults. You can hire the bikes on site and follow the flat, easy cycle paths for about 2 miles to the sandy beach, lined with very cool beach bars with free trampolines to entertain the kids while you slowly become drunk in charge.
The Town - Wassenaarse
A 3 minute walk from the site entrance is a Dutch town with tiny cobbles, pancake houses and ice-cream café (supermarket and offy too). And a windmill for full Dutchness.
About 5 miles down the coast (past millionaire’s row) is the Hague, which is not only the home to international criminal trials, but also a huge pier with cafes, shops and zip wire back to town.
It was tricky, but we manged to tear the kids away from the park for a day to check out our third capital of the Europe with kids trip, Amsterdam.
First stop, the science museum, NEMO. It looks like the hull of a huge green ship. Surprised we missed it to be honest, when rather than just going the wrong way we managed board a totally unnecessary ferry going to an entirely different island in the process.
Having eventually found the NEMO, we got ready to pay the advertised E17 for adults and E7 for each child (quite a tally) but we had lucked out as once a year it is free for everyone. Hooray. Downside – totally packed.
Saw a ”dominoes” effect show where about 300 everyday objects (including items of furniture) were set up to topple one after the other, which they only needed a bit of help with.
Best bit was a room that messed with perspective depending on where you stood, making me knee-height to my 10 year old.
The Flower Market
Wandered around the canals, leaping out of the way of high-speed cyclists, checking out cheese and clog shops and the flower market. Clearly the famous tulips from Amsterdam were not in season, but lots of dummy wooden ones were on show for the dry period. The drug paraphernalia was pretty low key, although the kids did almost inadvertently purchase some leaf insignia socks.
Thought about a horse and carriage or a boat ride but found it tricky to organise this on the hoof with a party of 8 and really not cheap, so hopped on a tuk tuk (3 wheeled hooded moped) for about £5 a head for a bit of fun.
Five Flies Restaurant
When making a plan to travel Europe with kids, we hadn’t really budgeted for eating out. BBQ’s and caravan teas tend to keep the bankruptcy petitions at bay. However some special occasions needed to be marked.
For a joint birthday/anniversary celebration tea, we may or may not have booked a restaurant. We had left phone messages and emailed the Five Flies restaurant and received a lengthy Dutch reply which google translate suggested meant we had to wait for a confirmation. This had not arrived by tea time.
Five Flies was an amazing sounding restaurant which Husband, with his weirdly acute memory, remembered we had tried to get into one Christmas 20 years ago but which had been full. (I had no such recollection.)
We stopped by some public loos and tarted ourselves up a bit as this restaurant had 17th century gold leather wallpaper and real Rembrandt etchings on the walls. Even if we had a reservation, we were not sure how they would react to half the party being comprised of children.
We were relieved to find that our booking was real and they let us (all) in. On being shown to our huge round table, we were very excited to find that on the back of every chair was engraved the name of at least 3 celebrities who had sat in that very seat before us. Between us we had an eclectic crew of John Wayne, Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Dame Vera Lynn. (They problies hadn’t sat at the table at the same time as this would have made for a bit of an odd dinner party.)
The waiter was very friendly and agreed to give the children a smaller 3 course menu, as we dined on our own 7 courses. We had not really thought this through as they simply sat and watched us while we ate the other 4 courses of delicious perfumed seaweed. To entertain them however, the same waiter produced, from the restaurant safe, a book in which Walt Disney himself had penned, at this very restaurant, some original sketchings of Alice in Wonderland (who we had nearly met only last week). He (the waiter – not Walt) then took centre stage in a photo shoot with us all and the book. The guy could work a room.
At the end of the evening, we were about £400 poorer and yet felt somehow richer for the whole experience.
Europe with kids day 11 -36 hour trip home via boats and Kew Gardens
To finish the Europe with kids tour, we had booked a sleeper on the boat from the Hook of Holland to Harwich, so the drivers could have a night cap and wake up in Blighty, refreshed and ready for the long journey home. We all watched the sun go down on the holiday from the deck of the boat.
The boat gets in early (about 6am) and they do like to wake you a good while before-hand to save you from causing a very angry traffic jam situation around your driver-less car as you snooze away above.
Upshot was, got too excited by boat, went to bed a midnight and were woken at 4am.
In an act of mad optimism, we decided that as the sun was shining, never mind that no one had slept, it would be a fine day to take advantage of our (as yet unused) free Blue Peter Badge child access to Kew Gardens. If we could park.
Drove round Kew in scary London traffic a few times (the double red lines always look particularly angry) but could only find a spot for an hour. Stopped for much needed caffeine anyway and to reassess the plan. New proviso: we’d visit if we could stay at a nearby hotel for cheap money and use their car park. An internet search revealed that we couldn’t. So we set off for home, passing a car parking space immediately in front of Kew Gardens (hen’s teeth), and, to much sighing from the boys (bad sign – ignored it) revised the day’s plan for a third time, parked and joined the queue.
I left the others slumped in a corner as I stood in the blazing sun for 30 minutes buying the adult tickets. We were in! What do we do here mum? Erm, walk about and look at the nice plants? Did my best to summon their interest in cacti, 6 foot lily pads and huge palm leaves, a tree-top walkway, a recently re-opened Victorian Glass House and a Japanese Dragon Tower. It was not enough and yet it was all too much. Flaking down on grass took place for most of the afternoon. Then a cup of tea and home, where we should probably have gone in the first place. (I have still not been forgiven for this one.)
Europe with kids - Lessons learned
- Stay on site at Disneyland if you can afford it to avoid the last bus home, grab an extra hour of empty park fun, and seated views of the fireworks. (If not, you have to choose between missing the last bit of the show or fighting to get on the last bus. Tricksy. If going for the bus, watch the finale from a position near the exit.)
- Use the fast pass for your fave ride first thing to get an early time slot so you have the chance of doing it twice (and in case it breaks down). Maybe even just use fast passes for a few top rides and spend the rest of the time exploring the park rather than queuing for other rides in the slow lane.
- Watch out for Hyper Space.
- Give yourself more than 1 day to see Paris.
- Duinrell with its on-site get-you-wet fair and water park is as good as as it sounds and a must – see foy anyone travelling to Europe with kids. We’re going back for more as soon as we can!
- Again, if you can afford it, upgrade to a 3 bed air-con Duingalow at Duinrell – you get a lot more bang for your buck.
- Know your limits. (For instance, don’t cram any more site seeing in after a boat night.)
Europe with kids - summary
A family road trip to 3 countries does make you feel like you’ve been on 3 holdiays.
Disneyland – it may be a bit plastic but is is a kind of magic kingdom anyway.
Paris – for architecture, gleaming golden street accessories and August wasps.
For clogs, cheese, windmills, dining under gold leather wallpaper and Rembrandts, and for a tsunami log flume drenching finale – Holland is the way to go.
Where next? Any hidden funfair secrets you know about – let me know!
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For swimming in milky blue lagoons wearing Voodoo face masks, walking inside a glacier and being dive bombed by kamikaze puffins at a volcanic beach called Vik check out Iceland – braving the ice with the kids
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