Tried & tested: Family attractions in England

Our writers review some of the top family attractions in England.

By National Geographic Traveller (UK)
Published 6 Aug 2016, 14:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 14:20 BST
Harry Potter Studio Tour

Harry Potter Studio Tour.

Photograph by Harry Potter Studio

After queuing for 30 minutes and taking our cinema seats for an introductory spiel, the screen rolls up to reveal a huge wooden door. That door is suddenly thrown open and we're invited into the Great Hall. The ACTUAL Great Hall — the thumping heart of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

We're on the Warner Bros Studio Tour. After devouring the Harry Potter books and movies, the moment for a family pilgrimage has come — and it's as magical as any Muggle could expect.

We peer into Dumbledore's office and walk down Diagon Alley. We board the Knight Bus. We spot snitches. We shoot selfies in front of a scale model of Hogwarts, bathed in changing light. My five-year-old son rides a broomstick in front of a green screen. We sip butterbeer (it tastes like Lucozade topped with ice cream), visit a gift shop stocked with everything from Fizzing Whizzbees to Marauder's Maps, and vow to return after finishing all the books (we're currently on No 5).

Yes, it's pricey — sadly, "Reducio!", the shrinking charm, doesn't work on the bill. But, similar to Disneyland, the sets are so polished, the staff so invested and the kids so enraptured that you surrender willingly to the shakedown. We leave tired and happy. I steal a peak at my nine-year-old daughter. She's glowing like Hermione at the Yule Ball.

More info: Adults, £35; children (ages 5-15) £27; children (under-5s), free; family ticket (2 adults, 2 children), £107. Advance booking essential.
Pól Ó Conghaile

Land of the Lions, London

The thing about lions is they're inherently big cats, and big cats, are well, still cats. If you're the keeper of a house cat you'll know what I mean. They don't really behave on cue and generally like to lounge about unless it suits them not to. So hat's off to ZSL London Zoo for its latest exhibit, which promises (metaphorically) to transport visitors from the heart of London to India's vibrant Sasan Gir and closer to the mighty Asiatic lions.

There are three walkways covering the 2,500sqm exhibit with immersive Indian-themed areas to explore, including a train station, crumbling temple clearing, high street and guard hut. Children are given interactive worksheets to tick off as they walk round, there's a bike challenge to see if they can reach the sprint speed of a lion, and demos from the zoo team showing how to nurse sick animals. But does it all work? Sort of.

The lions still like to do their own thing. They're enticed out to see my family by the glass-panelled train station with slabs of meat left by the platform. And when they do appear, they're wildly impressive.

As for the rest, it's clear you need the other animals and exhibits, too. My children and their friends loved the penguins — who doesn't? — and, randomly, the butterflies.

More info: Adults, £24.25; children, £17.60; under-3s, free.
Maria Pieri

Sealife Centre, Brighton

The 2012 revamp of the Brighton Aquarium restored its tatty Victorian arches and subterranean tanks to their original glory. While it remains a somewhat dank and unpretentious experience, the vaulted ceilings and winding tunnels of the world's oldest aquarium now house a rainforest area, a fantastic rockpool where you can touch crabs and starfish, plus a glass-bottom boat over a shark pool — pre-bookable at a steep additional cost.

The half-term Dinosaur Detective trail, chasing fossil clues around the building was a bit lost on our group, and the new Secrets of the Reef exhibit was still under wraps, but it looks promising, introducing more than 400 new fish and a seahorse nursery. Add to this, two tons of rock, 15,000 litres of water and a 'crawl-through' coral reef, and the old aquarium will be bang up to date.

More info: From £10.50 per person; under-3s, free.
Sarah Barrell

The Next Step — Wild Rhythm Tour

The cast from CBBC's hit programme is making the rounds of UK theatres, whipping up a frenzy among the tween demographic who've flipped out over this

Fame -style show dragged up to date with its 'scripted reality TV' structure.

An import from Canada, the TV show portrays the trials and traumas of dancers from the Next Step studio as they compete with other talented troops and — with lots of agonising soul-searching — each other.

The stage show, shamefully devoid of some key stars and much in the way of a set, relies heavily on its fans' wide-eyed goodwill. To this naysaying adult, there appears to be more filler video than killer dancing, with much plugging of merchandise and related TV shows.

But there's no question this is high-octane/close proximity gold for fans, who scream and singalong throughout.

More info: The Next Step — Wild Rhythm Tour (Step 2) tours the UK from 21-30 October 2016. Tickets from £40.
Sarah Barrell

Published in the Summer 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)

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