On the busy London Underground, passengers stood up to offer their seats to my two sons, who have additional needs, including autism. At the theatre, a kind attendant guided us to a quiet, vacant toilet during the interval after spotting my six-year-old in ear defenders.
These little acts of kindness were unexpected in a city we were expecting to battle through, leading my nine-year-old to exclaim at one point: “Everyone in London is so nice”.
But that’s the thing about London - there’s always something unexpected.
It’s two years since we were last there as a family. It was 26 degrees in May 2019. All our eldest wanted to do was ride on the trains while our youngest was overwhelmed and just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible.
But as we made our way to our first tourist attraction of the weekend, this time we were all excited.
The Harry Potter Photographic Exhibition in Covent Garden takes visitors through magical film-making memories, telling the stories behind key moments in the film series through photos, videos, costumes and props.
If you’re a Harry Potter fan who loves to delve behind the scenes, then this is a pretty awesome place to be. The staff are very knowledgeable and keen to share little-known Harry Potter filming facts with visitors.
If you don’t want to invest in the full Warner Brothers studio tour then the recommended hour-long visit at the photographic exhibition is a pretty good starting point to test kids’ interest.
My boys haven’t watched the whole film franchise yet so, after excitedly reminiscing about the first few films, they raced through to where you can be photographed flying on a broomstick against the green screen. We finished off with a visit to London’s only bottled Butterbeer bar at the end of the exhibition.
After emerging from the basement attraction and making a mental note to visit next door’s London Transport Museum on another visit at the insistence of my nine-year-old, we made our way to the hotel.
The London Marriott Hotel County Hall sits majestically next to the London Eye on the River Thames, overlooking Westminster Bridge, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
The entrance, however, is discreetly tucked away in a quiet courtyard which takes you away from the hustle and bustle of the street outside.
The complementary glasses of fizz on arrival for my husband and I were very welcome, while the boys enjoyed their glasses of orange juice (and I kept my fingers tightly crossed that they wouldn’t drop them on the beautiful parquet floor...)
But it was our large family room that provided the real wow factor. They boys didn’t know where to look first: the spectacular riverside view, the mini children’s towel robes hanging in the wardrobe or the gorgeous County Hall teddy bears sitting on the bed.
In the end, our six-year-old embraced the teddy with the same enthusiasm as when he discovered he could order a free bacon butty in the first class carriage of the LNER train earlier in the day. Our nine-year-old grabbed his swim shorts and robe and headed up to the sixth floor pool with my husband.
Our meal that evening was at Sticks’n’Sushi in Covent Garden - a curious blend of Japanese and Danish cuisine. It’s a smart choice for families as the adults feel like they’re out for a fancy meal and the kids get a bento box with lots of fun food to try.
We only had an hour to order and eat before we had to leave for the theatre but the swift service meant my husband and I could share the Carpe Diem set menu of tempura shrimp, tuna tartar, scallops and bacon, edamame beans and salmon, while the boys tucked into chicken meatballs, rice and edamame beans.
From there it was just a few minutes’ walk to the Theatre Royal Drury Lane to watch Disney’s Frozen. We’ve missed going to the theatre during the pandemic but this was a fabulous reintroduction. I’ll admit it was a bit unnerving walking into a packed theatre after 18 months of restrictions but the atmosphere was electric. The actors and the audience were on their A-game and the standing ovation at the end said it all.
The next day, after the best night’s sleep we’ve all had in a very long time - the boys are usually fans of waking up at 5am so the 7.45am lie-in was much appreciated - and a delicious cooked breakfast at the hotel, we headed out to the Science Museum.
If you’ve been to the Science and Media Museum in Bradford, you may already be aware of Wonderlab, where kids are encouraged to experiment with science.
However, Wonderlab at the Science Museum in London is on a much bigger scale.
There’s so much to keep kids entertained whether they love the academic side of science or they just want to dip their hands in clouds of dry ice, whizz down the giant slides and spin like an ice skater.
There are lots of fun workshops and demonstrations too, although we had to make a swift exit from the rocket demonstration after a couple of incredibly loud bangs.
The Science Museum itself is free but you have to pre-book tickets for Wonderlab (£9.90 for adults and £8.10 for children and concessions)
From there we headed across town on the tube to our final destination: London Zoo. Our trip was perfectly timed for us to visit the Zoo’s Sense-sational Festival, which puts on extra activities and discounted entry for families with additional needs.
We accessed the zoo through a separate, quiet, festival entrance where we were welcomed by friendly volunteers. Free festival activities included Singing Hands - a Makaton singing session, sensory storytelling, pop up touch tables, wildlife explorer activities and a downloadable trail.
By this point on Sunday afternoon the boys were flagging a bit. However, the separate entrance made our visit more relaxing.
Penguins were top of their list of animals to see, we also visited Butterfly Paradise and then went on a lion hunt followed by a trip to the new coral reefs exhibition. It’s worth knowing that since we visited, the zoo has also opened a new Giants of the Galapagos exhibit.
We knew we weren’t going to be able to see all the zoo’s animals in a couple of hours. Instead, we ended our afternoon on a high by taking part in the Singing Hands Makaton session.
It’s years since the boys did Makaton, a form of signing, and I wondered whether they were perhaps too old for something like this now but Suzanne and Tracy from Singing Hands were so enthusiastic and engaging that my six-year-old in particular got stuck into some energetic dancing and singing.
Afterwards, it was time to head back to Leeds. Our first class LNER train ticket meant that we didn’t have to think about planning a meal for the journey home. Our orders were taken quickly and snacks hurled at the boys so they didn’t get too hungry while we waited. They may have been more tired on the way back than the journey down but their enthusiasm for the bacon sandwiches was not diminished, leading my six-year-old to (rather optimistically) declare: “I’m only going to travel first class now.”
Useful information and links
LNER trains run every 20 minutes from Leeds or York to London. https://www.lner.co.uk/
We stayed in a River Thames view family room at the London Marriott Hotel County Hall
To book tickets for The Harry Potter Photographic Exhibition, visit https://harrypotteronlocation.co.uk/
Disney’s Frozen is currently playing in London’s West End at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane https://frozenthemusical.co.uk/
The Wonderlab exhibition is located in The Science Museum in South Kensington. To book tickets, visit https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/wonderlab-equinor-gallery
ZSL London Zoo is located in Regents Park. To book tickets, visit https://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo . The zoo also offers early opening opportunities on certain dates for children and adults with autism and other neurodiversities: https://www.zsl.org/zsl-london-zoo/whats-on/early-openings-for-relaxed-visits
For more information on what London has to offer, visit https://www.visitlondon.com/
The Mayor of London, London & Partners, Transport for London have joined forces with industry to launch a £7m domestic tourism campaign to attract Londoners and UK visitors back into Central London – called Let’s Do London.
A number of the capital’s leading artists, cultural attractions, theatres, museums, hotel groups and tourism industry bodies are getting behind the campaign including: Royal Albert Hall, London Zoo, The Science Museum, Tate, Southbank Centre, The Royal Opera House and the National Theatre, UKHospitality, ALVA and Merlin Entertainments.
Let’s Do London will run throughout the year – with a curated programme of activity themed around London’s cultural highlights, such as its global food scene, culture and arts, family activities and thriving night-time economy.