"THE BUNNY HAS EYES!"
by Vicki Johnson
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts.”
The morning began innocently enough. Before descending on the Château de Versailles (the “country estate” of Marie Antoinette and other French royalty in the century that preceded her reign), our tour group made a brief stop at the Versailles farmers’ market. This open-air market is where our youngest daughter got an “eye-full.”
American kids are used to seeing beef, chicken, and fish already plucked, skinned, filleted, and cellophaned into neat little packages. One glance told my youngest daughter, Piper, we weren’t in “Kansas” any more.
“Mom, what’s lapin?” she asked. “It’s rabbit. Why?” “Because this bunny’s looking right at me.”
The heads-on chickens (le poulet) and fish (les poisson) were a bit disturbing, but nothing compared to le lapin (rabbit). This poor skinned animal stopped Piper dead in her tracks as she tried to process exactly what she was seeing and why it was peering back at her.
Strangely enough, that’s when I knew my husband and I had achieved our goal of showcasing another culture to our daughters Piper and Amber. They learned that our way of doing things in the United States isn’t always shared by the rest of the world, and they also mustered the courage to sample new and different things.
For the past 20 years, I’ve had the benefit of working in the travel industry, and have experienced the truth of Mark Twain’s principle everywhere I’ve gone around the globe. Eager to introduce our children to the beauty of other cultures and positively influence their views of the world, my husband and I decided that at the ages of 7 and 11 respectively, the girls were old enough to appreciate the experience of traveling internationally and young enough to reap the long-lasting benefits.
We decided on Europe. Our challenge? Structuring an itinerary that would allow us to immerse the entire family in the experience and keep us all engaged.
We landed on Adventures by Disney, a relatively new business for The Walt Disney Company, because of its niche of designing itineraries for the entire family. It was our first escorted tour, and our concern that it might be overly orchestrated and scripted soon proved groundless. In fact, our itinerary offered ample free time to explore on our own (the guides offer great ideas) or simply rest.
The Royal Treatment
Our arrival at London Heathrow Airport was met with an escort and a placard welcoming “The Johnson Family.” After a bit of down time at the 375-room Renaissance Chancery Court Hotel — our home for the first three nights — the 25 travelers in our group attended a welcoming reception hosted by our two Adventures Guides, Alex and Christie.
Our exploration of London began in classic style aboard one of only two original double-decker buses that still operate in the city. At Westminster Abbey, Stephen, our bona fide UK Blue Badge Tourist Guide, regaled us with tales of royal family coronations, weddings and funerals. Our oldest daughter, Amber, was especially impressed. “To see the grave of Isaac Newton, kings and queens, famous poets, I was like, wow! Our guide was also amazing. All the information he knew you wouldn’t have gotten walking around there by yourself,” she said.
Next stop was Buckingham Palace, where we observed the changing of the guard — and my girls’ futile attempts to change the expression on those stoic redcoats’ faces. Then we set off for Harrods, the massive and legendary department store on London’s East End, for an English Tea luncheon and some shopping.
The production of Mary Poppins on London’s West End in the Prince Edward Theatre that night was spectacular. We delighted in an exclusive, post-performance backstage tour with one of the production’s stage managers.
The “royal treatment” awaited us as we met up again with Stephen the next day and enjoyed a 90-minute walking tour around the Thames that took us from St. Paul’s Cathedral (where Lady Di and Prince Charles married) across the river to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. We ended at the London Eye — also called the Millennial Wheel —where we got a true bird’s-eye view of this phenomenal city, from 443 feet in the air, before boarding a boat to cruise down the Thames to the Tower of London. At the Tower we were mesmerized by the crown jewels and the site’s considerable history, dating from 1078 when William the Conqueror constructed the fortress.
Lights and Festivities
We bade farewell to jolly old England on New Year’s Eve and made our way to Paris via the famed “Chunnel.” When we emerged from Gard du Nord (the train station in Paris), the girls got their first true exposure to the magnificence of the City of Lights.
We ventured out independently to sample a section of town nearby —the Latin Quarter. Among its lovely shops is one we still joke about today — la fromagerie, which is French for cheese shop. It smelled so horrific to our inexperienced nostrils it was comical.
Our Parisian home for the next few days was the Hilton Arc de Triomphe. After a New Year’s Eve dinner there, we ventured down to the Champs Elysees, sparkling with holiday radiance, and joined the multitudes who counted down to the New Year. This made a lasting impression on Amber. “It was cool to experience New Year’s Eve in another country. The street was crowded, alive with lots of people excited to bring in the new year.”
The following day, we set off for Disneyland Paris for a special VIP experience of Europe’s most popular destination. We checked out some of its unique highlights (a very realistic-looking dragon lives in a dungeon lair beneath the castle for one!) before being provided express access on the most popular attractions, including Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear.
Upon arrival at Versailles and a “bunny’s eye view” of the farmers’ market, we made our way to the opulent 1,300-room palace 11 miles southwest of Paris that provided a resplendent lifestyle to several kings named Louis. From its famous Hall of Mirrors to its massive gardens to its dark history as recounted by Sophie, one of our Disney guides, this place was entrancing to everyone.
By mid-afternoon we returned to the city for dinner inside the Eiffel Tower at the resplendent Altitude 95. With the City of Lights sparkling all around us we basked in Paris’s reflective magnificence. Piper couldn’t seem to get enough of the place. She noted that she “was the tallest there because I was on my dad’s shoulders,” and that “after airplanes, that’s the highest up I’ve ever been.”
Our final day began with the incomparable Louvre — more than eight miles of art. While Sophie gave the adults an art historian’s tour of the world’s greatest masterpieces, the kids set off on their own interactive scavenger hunt through the museum.
Following the tour, we took free time to explore one of the less-visited sites of Paris — the Catacombs. This underground graveyard of tunnels — rating a “9” on the girls’ “creepy meter” — features unending stacks of bones from as far back as the late 1700s.
Our Adventures by Disney vacation concluded with a very touching farewell dinner. After each member of the group shared their favorite memory of the tour, Alex and Christie recapped with a moving DVD presentation of photos they’d captured during the week.
From a “leering lapin” to the allure of the Louvre, it was hard to believe we’d seen so much in so little time. My daughter Amber seemed to sum it up best when I asked what was her favorite part of the trip. “Getting to share the experience with other people. In just a couple of days, we made good friends. It was fun not being the only ones, but to share the experience with others.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION: To learn more about the magic of Disney, log on to www.AdventuresByDisney.com or call 877-728-7282.
TRIP TIPS FOR PRE-TEENS
Travelers should be advised of these ways to help their pre-teens (and their parents) to maximize the enjoyment and rewards of their trips:
• The Pre-sell. Explain up-front your proposed itinerary and agenda. The idea is not to remove all the surprises, but knowing ahead of time what is coming and why will help kids deal better with new experiences that they may find either intimidating or boring.
• Planning Together. Involve kids in the planning of your trip! Give them the opportunity to control certain limited parts of the itinerary. Feeling that they took part in the planning of the trip will give them a vested interest in making it successful.
• In-Transit Treats. Kids are full of energy and have a hard time being confined to a seat or small space for long periods of time. Bring along special activities that they are only permitted to enjoy on the plane, train or in the car. Whether it’s a good book, video games, sketch pad or favorite DVD movie, it will help them actually look forward to what otherwise might be a difficult portion of the trip.
• Snap Happy. Are all your vacation photos just of your children? Turnabout is fair play and can be lots of fun for kids, so give them a camera and tell them to start shooting. An economical option is to buy a disposable camera the child can truly call his or her own.