Tried & Tested: THE KIDS CAME TOO

A day out with the family can be a great treat or an expensive nightmare. Our panel visits some of the capital's top attractions

It's summer and the long school holidays will test the resourcefulness of most parents whose children look to them to provide at least occasional entertainment. Treats can be expensive, so we decided to try out a selection of attractions in and around London to assess their star-rating for family day trips.

THE TEST

Time spent at each venue was a fair indication of enjoyment in all cases. At the London Dungeon, one of our test families only lasted 10 minutes, appalled at the "graphically unpleasant" things they had seen, and since the other two families refused to go there at all, we decided not to include it in the survey. We evaluated the appeal of each attraction to both adults and children of different ages, their educational content, catering facilities, gift shops, geographic accessibility and - importantly for the youngsters - time spent queuing.

THE PANEL

We recruited three family groups to visit our chosen venues: Simon and Dawn Trevor-Roberts, with their children Thomas (7) and Katy (5); Simon and Catherine Gallimore, with Amy (6) and Arthur (4); and Andrew Purvis and Naomi Depeza, with the Purvis children, Laurence (9) and Rosie (7).

**MADAME TUSSAUD'S/ PLANETARIUM

Combined ticket for both venues, adults pounds 11.20, children pounds 7.10

"If you had to plot your worst parenting nightmare, Madame Tussaud's would be it," Andrew Purvis reported, speaking for the whole panel in their disdain for this venue, which only achieved a two-star rating because of its attachment to the much more interesting Planetarium. All the children hated waiting in the queue (average 45 minutes, even with advance tickets) and Laurence Purvis noted in his journal: "the hole (sic) wait was a complete pain," while Arthur Gallimore said simply, "It makes me bored."

Andrew Purvis conceded that, "For adults, it's fun because you can be competitive about how many celebrities you know." The ghoulish Chamber of Horrors, the panel agreed, seemed out of keeping with today's sensibilities.

Like Arthur Gallimore, Rosie Purvis liked the Spirit of London ride best. "It was good; on the projector, ghosts danced, rats came into our taxis." The Gallimore parents, whose experience consisted mainly of being herded like sheep from one room to the next, described the ride as "nightmarish", worse than being "forced to have our photo taken with a model of Arnold Schwarz-enegger whether we wanted to or not." The models themselves "varied in quality" according to the Trevor-Robertses, "but were generally pretty tacky."

They found the Planetarium show, "quite impressive, though not suitable for young children." "It's certainly educational," said Andrew Purvis, "a real attempt is made to explain our universe and others in terms that are accessible to children, but it manages to avoid being too patronising for adults." The space ride was described as brilliant. Amy Gallimore said: "It was interesting. It looks like space, like you are in a real spaceship and it's really exciting."

*****LEGOLAND WINDSOR

Adults pounds 15, children pounds 12

Unanimously voted the winner in our survey, Legoland aims to be a different sort of family theme park, "where children from two to 12 are in control". This open-air site offers a hugely diverse range of activities, from building tall towers and a test on earthquake tables in the Imagination Centre, to piloting a Whirly Bird helicopter ride, or firing water cannons at Duplo creatures. Said to be "really fabulous" by the Gallimores, their children were typical in agreeing to go home after seven hours "only because they were dropping with exhaustion". The Trevor- Robertses thought the admission prices "extortionate at first, but as everything inside is free, it turns out to be well worth it."

Despite the caveat that a day here depends greatly on the weather, our testers appreciated the fact that they could change pace - playing with Lego, going on rides, watching a show, panning for "gold", climbing around the huge adventure playground, squirting water, or looking at the wonderful "Miniland" models. Miniland astonished even the adults with its diminutive recreations of everything from Swed- ish boats going up fjords to the miniature Changing of the Guards at Buckingham Palace. You have to queue for some of the more popular rides but, as Andrew Purvis said, "at least they are outside and you can watch other people on the rides as you wait." Instead of insisting on selling food, picnicking is actively encouraged. Dawn Trevor-Roberts's only reservation about Legoland was that, even with courteous and helpful staff, absolute cleanliness and clever landscaping, "as adults, we were aware of being processed; the park only works if everyone conforms to the rules."

**LONDON AQUARIUM

Adults pounds 6.50, children pounds 4.50, family ticket pounds 20

Set in what was once the GLC's canteen at County Hall in Westminster, the brand new London Aquarium covers 170,000 square feet, with water tanks on three levels stocked with living specimens from the different oceans, rivers and seas of the world. It divided our panel down the middle. "My favourite little fish were the coloured ones, but they were mostly grey and brown stuff," said Amy Gallimore. She would also have liked some jellyfish and octopus and performing seals. Arthur Gallimore preferred the zoo because they have lots of different animals. All the testers complained about the tanks being too high for the younger children to see; adults should expect to get tired holding up the little ones. Also, labelling at the end of each room makes it hard to identify different species. On the other hand the touch pools, which allow visitors to "tickle the noses of the rays", were popular with all the children. The Gallimores found it "infuriating" that the Aquarium's layout obliges visitors to exit through the crowded gift shop, although they admitted it does stock attractive merchandise.

To the despair of their parents, the Purvis children were utterly unimpressed. "They clearly expected something to happen, and didn't realise that you just go to look at things in a quiet, contemplative and Cousteau-like way," said Andrew Purvis, ruefully. As a keen diver, Purvis senior found the deeper tanks "totally thrilling", a view endorsed by the Trevor-Robertses, who recommended the London Aquarium to several other families because they found "something very calming and therapeutic about just watching them".

****LONDON ZOO

Adults pounds 8, children pounds 6, family ticket pounds 24

All the testers agreed that "you can never get round all the animals in one visit" and, despite misgivings about living conditions for some of the larger captives, most found it "an excellent day out". Catherine Gallimore elucidated: "There's plenty of educational content and a lot of other amusements apart from just looking at the animals - the bouncy castle, playground, feeding times and displays, camel and pony rides." Amy said: "You got to see lots of animals you don't see running about on the streets because you don't often get penguins, do you?", while her brother Arthur liked the rhinos "because they're nice and chargey." The panel concurred on one point: the penguins are the zoo's highlight. "But it provides good impetus for some environmental discussions, too," wrote Dawn Trevor-Roberts. The Purvis family vetoed the zoo, following an earlier trauma when baby Laurence was sneezed at by a pony in the petting zoo and cried for two hours. Then a giant stick insect, being handled under supervision by a boy of about six, ran up his neck and had its leg torn off in terror. "The zoo is so expensive you feel you have to walk miles inside to get your money's worth - so everyone always goes home in tears," wrote Andrew Purvis.

***LONDON TRANSPORT MUSEUM

Adults pounds 4.50, children pounds 2.50, family ticket pounds 11

Views differed greatly on the London Transport Museum, which fulfilled the Gallimores' suspicion that vehicle displays, posters and maps provide good entertainment for "transport-obsessed little boys, but not much variety for the rest of the family." It was not a long outing for them, though they did praise the gift shop. The Trevor-Robertses had a similar experience, though they admired the "fun bus". "You can clamber over the exhibits, but there's only one modern bus you can pretend to drive," they noted, "which is a pity because this is what most visitors want to do."

The Purvises got more out of their visit. "Surprisingly," said their father, "Laurence and Rosie adored this place." What they liked most were the computer simulations of driving a tube train down a dark tunnel, applying the brakes to obey signals and closing the hydraulic doors. "But kids have to be fairly determined to queue for this experience, and fairly assertive once on it," Andrew Purvis said. It gave him time to study other displays, including "fascinating stuff to do with traffic flow; it helps you understand why public transport is less than perfect in spite of everyone's best efforts."

FURTHER INFORMATION

Madame Tussaud's 0171 935 6861; The Planetarium 0171 486 1121; Legoland Windsor 0990 040404; The London Aquarium 0171 967 8000; London Zoo 0171 711 3333; The London Transport Museum 0171 836 8557. !

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