Family travel: A window on the world

Want to capture your kids' imagination on holiday? Add some movie magic to your itinerary and you could find they look at the world with new perspective

By Rhonda Carrier
Published 15 Aug 2013, 15:05 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 14:29 BST

As parents, we may not want to admit it, but all those Disney/Pixar franchises our children hoover up, coupled with the related advertising, build up a steady head of pressure, verbalised or not, to take that inevitable trip to Disney World.

With children's experiences of the world increasingly mediated by cinema and TV, there can be pros and cons when it comes to choosing a holiday. Firstly, there's a very real danger that kids will be disappointed, because — to take a few examples — the island of Madagascar is very different to the movie of the same name; Jamaica is not at all what kids might imagine from watching Pirates of the Caribbean; and Istanbul is not as wildly exciting as the opening scenes of Skyfall might suggest. When I showed my kids a picture of our French motorhome, they were disappointed it didn't look like Grandpa Max's campervan fromBen 10. Are parents setting themselves up for a fall by trying to cater to their children's film-induced fantasy worlds? Is watching movies and TV even ruining our children's chances of being amazed by the world?

If you're smart, it doesn't have to mean you're building unrealistic expectations. Screen versions of destinations can be a tool for getting kids interested in places and cultures and educating them about the world, in just the way books can. It's not all about themed attractions such as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter or the forthcoming Marvel Superheroes Theme Park in Dubai. Unless you're obsessive about a particular movie or show, or give in to kids' 'pester power', it's unlikely you'll cross the world at great expense just for one of these. But movie connections can help interest a child in a destination, even if ultimately they only form a very small part of the trip itself. And they can also provide a focal point for a wider holiday — go to Universal Studios Florida, but follow it up with a week in Fort Myers, sea kayaking to spot manatees and other protected wildlife.

As a single mum, Judy Reynolds sold an adventure holiday in Tunisia to Joe — her slightly reluctant seven-year-old son — on the basis it included some Star Wars movie locations. In fact, the main Star Wars site pictured on the operator's website didn't actually feature on the  itinerary, and the sights they did visit were much more low-key. Judy says, "Chott el Djerid [the salt flats that stood in for the Lars homestead on Tatooine in the film] was not especially memorable at the time, but it was good making the connections when Joe watched Star Wars after returning home. We also explored an outcrop of rocks — it was difficult to try to big that up, but I did my best to convince Joe how exciting it must have been at the time of filming. I think he was so wrapped up in the general enjoyment of the  trip that he forgot about the main selling point. It's probably not something I could have done had Joe been a bit older and a die-hard Star Wars fan. But overall the holiday totally lived up to Joe's expectations. It was all so exciting and totally different to anything we'd done before."

Meanwhile, Georgina Allen travelled independently to Jordan with eight-year-old Arthur, doing day trips to the historical sites from a hotel base and hiring guides. She used the Indiana Jones connection as a way of building up excitement for the trip and, though she had to carry that theme on herself for the duration, they managed to see gladiatorial and horse skills shows that guides were good at tying into other movies (Gladiator and Ben Hur in particular), and there was also a Star Wars film set for those who were interested.

"Petra was full of Bedouin — 'the men from the movies', as my son called them," Georgina recalls. "There was Captain Jack Sparrow on a camel; there were the nomadic warriors from The Mummy lounging on their horses. And there, of course, was Indy. In Jerash, after posing  for photos with gladiators, their swords still running with fake blood, Arthur got whizzed around a stadium in a chariot — a huge thrill. The  movie connections certainly made the historical sites come to life for him."

For nine-year-old Ripley Williams, a visit to Athens was heightened by rewatching Clash of the Titans before his trip. Ripley says, "My mum did warn me the film wasn't really anything to do with the Greece I'd see. But as soon as we got there we had a late dinner on the rooftop of our hotel [Hotel Grande Bretagne], right opposite the Parthenon, all lit up on the Acropolis. That got me massively excited about visiting the next day, when we saw the statues of Zeus and the head of Medusa in the New Acropolis Museum. Both the movie and the trip to Athens made the stuff we'd learnt at school seem more real and interesting."

Using film and TV to become fired up about places is a fun way of engaging your kids and even involving them in planning, but most importantly, it's a sneaky way of upping the educational ante of a trip, perhaps in combination with books and apps.

As parents, however, it's our job to ensure our children's screen time won't make them see its wonders through jaded eyes — and to find ways to help young travellers appreciate something as it is in reality.

Show the kids Despicable Me before heading to Egypt, but think how to make your actual visit to the pyramids at Giza genuinely appealing to kids by incorporating a donkey or camel ride. Take your Bond-mad boys to Istanbul, but warn them that it's not all about Daniel Craig racing around on a motorbike — but make it swashbuckling anyway by including a visit to the Topkapi Palace's world-class weaponry collection. Think laterally and references to movies and TV can really have a positive impact on your family travels.

Top 10: Film & TV locations

1. Balamory: Tobermory, Isle of Mull
The Inner Hebridean island became the original 'toddler tourism' hotspot soon after Balamory started in 2002. The following year, there were around 150,000 extra visitors and enquiries to the local tourist information centre had rocketed by 94%.

2. The Hobbit: New Zealand
The movie set is the focus of Middle Earth tourism in New Zealand, a country that saw a $300m (£194m) increase in overseas-visitor-generated revenue in 2012 when the film was released. The set is on a farm, near Matamata, where juniors can pet and bottlefeed lambs. A tour of the hobbit-holes works best as part of a family jaunt around New Zealand's volcanic landscapes and beaches, including Mount Ruapehu, which doubles as Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. 

3. The Hunger Games: North Carolina
With the second The Hunger Games movie out in late 2013, the US state of North Carolina is ideal for tweens or early teens on a self-drive itinerary of filming locations, stars' hangouts and other sites relating to the movies based on the best-selling Suzanne Collins novels. These include an abandoned village and DuPont State Recreational Forest. But the real highlights are a zip-line canopy tour in the forest and learning wilderness survival skills. 

4. Superhero movies: New York
With Christopher Nolan's Man of Steel out this summer, and Iron Man 3 a recent box office smash, the superheroes trend continues full force. New York is full of locations that inspired and/or feature in the various superhero movies and comic books, including the Flatiron Building and Statue of Liberty. Do a DIY discovery of inspirations for Metropolis or Gotham City or take a chauffeur-driven tour, then ogle the Marvel Super Heroes 4D Experience and superhero waxworks at Madame Tussauds.

5. Various movies: Aït Benhaddou, Morocco
The UNESCO-listed fortified town used as the dramatic backdrop for several Hollywood films, including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator, offers true hands-on history — children can clamber about the crumbling buildings, then climb to the peak for glorious views of the desert and mountains. Meanwhile, at nearby Ouarzazate, you can tour the film studios used for Lawrence,The Mummy and The Mummy Returns. Camel trekking, camping in the Sahara, and exploring Marrakech can all be combined with Aït Benhaddou and the film studios as part of Imaginative Traveller's Saharan Sands Family Holiday.

6. Harry Potter: UK
It's not all about the Warner Bros Studio Tour — in 2010, visitor numbers to Pembrokeshire rose by almost 30,000, partly due to people coming to Freshwater West beach to see where Dobby's Shell Cottage once stood (and where scenes from Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe, were filmed). In 2012, British Tours Ltd. revealed almost 50% more people had booked its Harry Potter location tour than its next most popular trip, Stonehenge. A full Potter pilgrimage will take you to London's St Pancras station and Leadenhall and Borough markets; to Oxford and the Christ Church College's Great Hall; Gloucester Cathedral; Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire; Alnwick Castle in Northumberland; and Edinburgh. Meanwhile, across the pond, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Orlando plans to add a new area, 'London', in 2014.

7. Pirates of the Caribbean: St Lucia
From The Landings resort on St Lucia's Rodney Bay, you can sit and watch galleons that might have appeared in Pirates of the Caribbean float past. But it's not all about gawping at sights featured in this locally-filmed movie. Kids staying at the resort can hop aboard a speedboat to Pigeon Island, a 40-acre national park to hunt for treasure like true Caribbean pirates, learn the history of the island's original inhabitants — the Arawak people, encountered by Christopher Columbus in 1492 — and explore an 18th-century British Navy fort with cannons and historical ruins. 

8. The Beach: Thailand
As well as boosting the popularity of Thailand among backpackers, Danny Boyles' 2000 movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, also caused controversy over concerns about the effects of filming on the tiny island of Koh Phi Phi Leh's landscape and ecosystem. But it and the surrounding Thai Phi Phi archipelago remain a great destination for teens, especially those keen on diving. The region was badly hit by the 2004 tsunami but the disaster did result in the cleaning up of the beach, which removed the controversial landscaping added by the film's production team. Prior to 2004, the island eschewed development but it's now a part of Phi Phi National Park and has begun to see the introduction of low-impact facilities — toilets, a snack bar and camping sites, plus there are plans to build bungalows. 

9. Rio: Brazil
Whether it's the Oscar-nominated animation Rio, with its scenes from the raucous Carnival or the infamous Moonraker scene where James Bond and Jaws battle it out atop two cable-cars over Guanabara Bay, the Brazilian party city is a hit with all ages. In part, this is because of the famous beaches but it's also thanks to the build-up to the 2014 World Cup and the adherent improving amenities. The Adventure Company's Nuts About Brazil, for ages seven and over, begins and ends in Rio and includes a visit to Samba City, where preparation for Carnival takes place year-round. On side trips to Ilha Grande and the Iguazu Falls, you'll see macaws just like Blu from the movie, together with other wildlife, including maned sloths and broad-snouted caymans. 

10. Star Wars: Tunisia
A cult and family classic, Star Wars features many scenes shot in Tunisia. One of the most popular is the cave-like desert dwellings of Matmata, with Hotel Sidi Driss doubling as the home of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine in the 1977 Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Corinthian Travel features Spotlight: Star Wars Tours in Tunisia visiting a number of movie-related sites. 

Published in the September 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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