With all the current hoopla about Harry Potter, this is the perfect time to embrace the windfall and head to the land where it all started. Take your kids to London. Now.
To pique their interest, give your kids a get-in-the-mood holiday gift of a book in the best-selling series, and perhaps also a DVD copy of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Include a gift certificate for a souvenir volume of their choice to be selected in an atmospheric British book store when you are abroad. Now that the kids are dreaming, you'll need some concrete ideas for making the trip a howling success.
Harry Potter sites are scattered all around the town. One from the first movie is King's Cross Station, where track number 9 3/4 in the movie is actually the real track number 4. Another is the historical London Zoo (www.londonzoo.co.uk), where Harry learns of his ability to talk to snakes in the reptile house. (It was also at this zoo long ago that A.A. Milne's son, Christopher Robin, saw a black bear named Winnie. He then named his own teddy bear Winnie, inspiring his father in turn to name the beloved bear in his books Winnie.)
A good family walk begins at leafy Green Park, for which in 1938 the mother of "Winnie the Pooh" author A.A. Milne bequeathed funds to plant daffodils that still bloom each spring. Continue along Piccadilly to Fortnum & Mason (#181), a palace of jams and teas that also has a popular upscale coffee shop/ice cream parlour that is nice for lunch or afternoon tea; and on to clubby Hatchards bookstore (#187), the perfect place to pick up that Harry Potter souvenir book. At famous Picadilly Circus, which is actually a big, busy traffic circle, turn left for a walk down ancient, curving Regent Street. On this upscale shopping crescent kids will want to make a stop at The English Teddy Bear Company (#153; www.teddy.co.uk) and at the gigantic five-floor Hamley's toy store (#188-196; www.hamleys.co.uk) to peruse its vast and unusual selection.
Though you can get budget-friendly discounted theater tickets at the Half-Price Ticket Booth in Leicester Square (where the latest Harry Potter movie is playing at the Odean West End cinema), if you want to see the popular "Lion King" (www.disney.co.uk) you'll probably have to pay full price. "Starlight Express" is also popular with children. For tickets, simply go to the box office when you arrive. Or book a Lion King package with Virgin Atlantic Vacations.
Within walking distance of Leicester Square, Covent Garden (www.coventgardenmarket.co.uk) offers several hours of family fun. Follow the narrow stairway leading up to the tiny Benjamin Pollock's Toy Shop (44 The Market; www.pollocks-coventgarden.co.uk) to see a nostalgic selection of toy theatres, puppets, and jacks-in-the-box.
Should you find yourself in Paddington Station, seek out the Paddington Bear Stand, where all manner of items featuring the pudgy little bear dressed for rain are for sale. Yet more kid-friendly sightseeing options in this vibrant town include the popular blood-and-guts displays at the London Dungeon (www.thedungeons.com), the wax celebrities at Madame Tussaud's (www.madame-tussauds.com), the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace (www.royal.gov.uk), the giant metal spider at the new Tate Modern art museum (www.tate.org.uk), the pigeons at Trafalgar Square, and the clock room at the British Museum (www.british-museum.ac.uk).
So many wonderful things to see, so little time to see them together before they grow up.
Time to Dine
No trip to London is complete without a proper tea. Book yours in advance at The Dorchester ((800) 727-9820), where one of the town's top teas is served and children are welcome. Dress up the kids in their finest for the delightful afternoon service in the elegant, traditional lobby. (Though men don't need to wear jackets, jeans are not appropriate.) Seated in a golden room among tall palms, Grecian columns, and circular banquettes, you might find your family sipping tea with a gaggle of delightful giggling women, local business people taking a power tea, or perhaps a gentleman smoking a cigar while chatting on his cell phone. Service is cheery and attentive, and the whole family will enjoy the beautiful ritual featuring elegant eggshell-thin bone china, a piano tinkling out tunes in the background, and, but of course, an endless supply of sandwiches, teacakes, and scones. On your way out, don't miss the dear handmade bear wearing a Dorchester bathrobe in the gift shop.
Among the restaurants around town that work well with kids are the Hard Rock Caf (150 Old Park Lane), with its Lil' Rocker Menu featuring Jimi Tenderstix fried chicken and Ain't Nothing but a Hot Dog, and branches of TGI Friday's (25-29 Coventry St.) and the Rainforest Caf (20 Shaftesbury Ave.). Pret a Manger (www.pret.com) is a chain of inexpensive fast-food restaurants offering healthy foods, and most restaurants in Chinatown are a good bet.
Many pubs have gardens or special family rooms where you can dine with kids until 9 p.m. Though children are generally welcome in pubs if they are eating a meal, always pop in first and check with the barkeep. Kids usually like the generally bland menus, especially baked "jacket" potatoes with toppings or the ploughman's plate composed of bread, cheese, and pickles.
After they live the magic in London, your kids are sure to be enthusiastic about exploring the rest of Britain. If you don't include an excursion to the countryside in search of more Harry Potter sites this trip, there's always next year.