An around-the-world travel adventure
Eight-year-old Valerie Ma, who hails from Hong Kong, made her first foray to Disney World at the tender age of 15 months. Today, the Grade 3 pupil at the International School of Beijing is a full-blown Disney fan who has visited every single Disney theme park the world has to offer – some of them several times over! “She should be given free membership now,” laughs her mom Tracy Chan, a cake designer and three-year Beijing resident who owns a shop in Shunyi.
Believing you can never get enough Disney (or travel), Valerie, Tracy and dad Alfonso Ma embarked on a two-month globetrotting summer adventure that brought them to Europe, Asia and America – and to every Disney theme park along the way, of course. Here’s a rundown of their adventure, with a look at all the cities first, for all you travel hounds, followed by a rundown of the Disney parks for other Disney fans.
Live it up at a fancy-pants hotel. Tracy, Alfonso and Valerie stayed with relatives, but in-the-know Tracy suggests parking your family at the Four Seasons, Mandarin Oriental, Grand Hyatt, or the Marriott. If you’re looking for something a little more affordable, Causeway Bay is home to mid-priced hotels like the Park Lane Hotel and the Excelsior Hotel.
Ocean Park in Aberdeen is a great place to kick around with the kids – visit the pandas, take a ride on the cable car, buckle yourselves into a rollercoaster, watch a dolphin show or feed the sea lions a snack. When it’s time to feed yourselves, head for a seafood supper in Kowloon’s Lei Yue Mun, famous for its seafood markets and restaurants. You can pick your own live entrée and bring it to one of the nearby restaurants to get cooked. For a full-on feast, Cafe Too in the Island Shangri La Hotel is where it’s at – three different flavors of chocolate fondue!
Stay at The Jumeirah Beach Hotel, but spend an afternoon playing dress-up at the Burj Al Arab. Dubbed the “yacht hotel” due to its cool shape, this place boasts a 7-star ranking (!) and heart-stoppingly expensive room rates to match. You can still say you were there if you just stop in for lunch. The Ma-Chans dined at the Al Mahara on the hotel’s basement level, seated near a huge fish tank in which real sharks circled. (Valerie stayed away from seafood and stuck to cream of chicken soup from the children’s menu instead). Just make sure you switch out of your shorts because the hotel has a strict entry code: “You have to dress up really nicely to get inside,” warns Valerie.
Burn off your lunch on a thrilling jeep ride over the desert sand dunes. The Ma-Chan’s “sand dune bashing” package trip brought them to the desert near the southeast corner of the city center. Included in the tour was a visit to a desert base where Valerie was decorated with a henna tattoo. If you’re looking to stay out of the sun, trawl for goodies at the Mall of the Emirates. Ski Dubai on the mall’s ground floor is an indoor winter wonderland complete with artificial snow; if you’re feeling peckish after hitting the slopes, the mall’s food court offers a variety of cuisines. The Ma-Chan family also enjoyed cooling off over at the Wild Wadi Water Park – the park’s entrance fee was actually included in their hotel price.
Paris and Nice
France is your chance for gastronomical indulgences. The Ma-Chan adults loved their romantic and relaxing car tour of the small, picturesque towns between Paris and Nice, and making stops at several Michelin-starred restaurants. Chateau De La Chevre D’Or won their hearts with its hilltop location and spectacular view. Tracy also loved La Bastide Saint-Antoine, and La Pyramide.
Valerie got her Paris kicks at the Eiffel Tower and the city’s museums, soaking up culture at the Louvre Museum, where kids are allowed to go to the front of the crowds to see paintings; she loved getting up close and personal with the real Mona Lisa and other legendary masterpieces. In Nice, youngsters can burn off steam running around in the huge Chateau Park – cool off afterwards with a meal at the cafe and a visit to the waterfall.
Get your bearings with a bus ride. Tracy and Valerie saw the city on a Big Bus Company tour, which offered multilingual explanations of the city’s sites and allowed them to jump off the bus at any tourist spot and hop onboard again later. Plus, the price of the tour included a boat trip along the River Thames, which offered a prime opportunity for shooting snaps of London Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. If the drizzle is too much for you, retreat indoors to a museum – entry to many London museums is free! The Science Museum, British Museum and Natural History Museum are all fun learning spots for kids.
When it’s time to chow down, consider the local supermarkets – eating out with a family can get very pricey. For a fun London twist on grocery shopping, hit the food court at Harrods. The Ma-Chans treated themselves to two Japanese meals at high-profile restaurants Nobu and Zuma.
Balance grownup choices (the Vatican, the Spanish Steps) with kid-friendly options like the Children’s Museum of Rome or the spooky Cappuccin Crypt at the Church of Santa Maria della Immacolata (no direct website, but this site is handy: Visting Rome with Kids), and stop in at the gift shop for thrilling postcards of bones. When it’s time to eat, seafood lovers like the Ma-Chans will want to make a reservation at Quinzi & Gabrieli, which came with a recommendation from the reception at the Aleph Boscolo Hotel. This hip hotel where the Ma-Chans stayed was a sight for the eyes, but the rooms were small. “It is good for lovers or a couple, but not for a family,” Tracy suggests. A better choice for families might be the Comfort Inn Bolivar, which is rated four stars, and offers babysitting services. Additionally, the Holiday Inn is located close to amenities and attractions, and boasts large rooms and a multilingual staff.
There’s no Disney park in Rome, but for theme park fans, the city offers Luna Park – entry is free and there are fairground rides, a roller coaster, a haunted house and plenty of games. And 15km from the city center is Il Fantastico Mondo del Fantastico, with rides and sections devoted to Red Riding Hood, Aladdin, Batman, Spiderman, Alice in Wonderland and more.
If you want to keep cool by sticking close to the water, the best place to get wet outside of Disney World is Universal Florida, for its Islands of Adventure theme park. Shopping-addicted youngsters will also enjoy emptying their purses at Universal Florida. Right by the theme park are the CityWalk theme restaurants: Nascar Cafe, with a fun game area; the Hard Rock Cafe, with enormous desserts and non-stop music videos; and for sports fanatics, NBA City.
While the Ma-Chans shacked up at a Disney hotel, Tracy recommends choosing a venue outside of Disney World to make it easier to visit other spots in the city. One child-friendly option is the Nickelodeon Family Suites, which offers two- and three-bedroom suites with bunk or twin beds, video games, an arcade, outdoor aquatic playgrounds with water slides, and free eating for kids under 12. The Holiday Inn Sunspree Resort is another kid’s paradise, with free meals and movie screenings for children and a free shuttle bus to Disney World.
Wind your kids up in the Windy City with a visit to the Children’s Museum Navy Pier, where Valerie went wild exploring three whole floors of experimental toys and games, for the bargain price of USD 8. Arty kids will love the Crayola arts and crafts corner at the same venue, and animal lovers will not want to miss the free Lincoln Park Zoo.
More fresh air can be had with a stroll along Michigan Avenue’s “Magnificent Mile,” or a visit to Millennium Park, an award-winning center for art, music, architecture and landscape design. If the weather’s not cooperating, retreat to Woodfield, the city’s largest indoor shopping mall. To fill your bellies, head to nearby Naperville Town for a Mongolian feast, teppanyaki, bagels or a bit of sushi, or follow the Ma-Chan family’s footsteps to Morton’s Steakhouse of Chicago – famous for its steaks but also serving a surprisingly delicious lobster.
Park yourselves near LA’s Universal Studios and the CityWalk – try the Sheraton Universal Hotel, where families benefit from package deals to Universal Studios, babysitting services and a game room, while kids under 12 eat free. Water lovers might prefer the Inn at Venice Beach – head beachside to bike, skate, try your hand at surfing, and browse through the fun shops.
Carve out some time to visit the popular Farmers Market for craft activities and family fun. Bulging with over 100 shops, restaurants and grocers, this super kid-friendly spot offers a calendar of events just for little ones. Budding starlets will leap at the chance to pose under the Hollywood sign (and to shop on Melrose for a hot new outfit to wear in the photo).
Get a good dose of all things cute! Hello Kitty fans – especially toddlers and kindergarteners – will love Puroland, where Hello Kitty characters will greet them upon arrival. Real-life cute animals can be cooed at during a visit to the Ueno Zoo. Kids will also love the mountains of colorful toys and doodads at Kiddy Land in Harajuku.
When it’s time to eat, head up high for spectacular city views: The Ma-Chans had a memorable meal at teppanyaki restaurant Mon Cher Ton Ton on the 52nd floor of the Shinjuku Sumitomo building, where they drank in panoramic views of Toyko while digesting. Every family member will find something to please them at the Takashimaya department store in Shinjuku where several floors of restaurants offer sushi, tempura, katsudon and other Japanese dishes in abundance.
The Disney Parks
• The smooth, easy ride to the park on the designated Disney MTR train
• Flying through a dark pavilion lit up with glowing stars and reverberating with science fiction tunes on the Space Mountain ride
• Shooting bad guys with infrared laser guns on the Buzz Lightyear ride and checking out your score after exiting
• Interacting with cartoon character Stitch in the Stitch Encounter
• Sitting down for a pic with Mickey, Pluto and company free of charge at the buffet
• Not enough rides
•Avoid visiting during holidays
•Weekdays will be much less crowded
•Buy a fast pass to minimize wait times
• The European-style architecture and grounds and the park’s efforts to reflect French culture.
• Rides to get the pulse racing in
• Non-stop fun in Fantasyland
• Long lines and slow service
• Frustrating height restrictions (i.e. 130cm requirement for the new Space Mountain ride instead of the standard 120cm).
• Don’t jump out of bed and rush there for the 9am entry – things don’t get rolling until 10am
• A truly mind-boggling variety of theme parks and activities for visitors
• Sailing around the lake that connects the hotels with the Disney MGM Studio and Epcot Center, and watching the fireworks
• The awesome acrobats of Cirque du Soleil
• Live-action fun at MGM Studios
• Dining at Cinderella Castle and smiling for a photo next to Cinderella
• Stodgy, greasy, American fare
• Restaurants that book up far in advance
• Book restaurants at least a month ahead – but be warned that you’ll be charged for your booking if you don’t show up
• Tracy advises a 10-15 day visit in order to get over jet lag and maximize everything the park and the city have to offer
• Choose wisely if you plan to purchase a Disney tourist package. The Ma-Chans felt that five days was too short to enjoy the unlimited food and entertainment options that came with their Platinum Dining package; the Premium and Deluxe packages are cheaper, and still provide plenty of choice.
• Interacting with Finding Nemo star Crush in Turtle Talk
• Skipping past the crowds with the help of a fast pass or
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• Peeling paint and messy restrooms
• Tracy recommends a maximum of three days here: one for the Magic Kingdom, one for California Adventure, and one to revisit favorite rides
• DisneySea for big kids, Disneyland Park for littler ones
• The park’s unique twist on standard Disney offerings
• Tasty, kid-friendly buffet offerings including fried rice, spaghetti bolognese and chicken drumsticks
• Easy access to the park on the
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• Big crowds
• Long lines for purchasing snacks and drinks
• DisneySea rides such as the Tower of Terror, Raging Spirits and Indiana Jones Adventure might scare pre-tweenies, so choose Disneyland Park for younger kids