Thursday, 4 May 2017

"Dutch Disneyland" : Take the kids to Efteling theme park

Photo: Efteling
I'll be honest. The very words theme park make me lose the will to live. I picture myself trapped in a long, long queue, moving forwards inch-by-painful-inch, while being attacked by wasps, whingey kids and whiffs of hot-candy-dog-floss breath.

But a niggly little voice in my head kept taunting me: What kind of parent are you? Your daughter's almost 11 and you're not going to take her to do that whole Disney make-magical-childhood-memories thing even once?

So when I heard about Efteling theme park in the Netherlands – sometimes nicknamed the 'Dutch Disneyland' – my ears pricked up. It sounded sort of different. Sort of classy. Enticing even. I decided to take the risk ... and I didn't regret it one bit.

Here are 10 reasons to choose Efteling as an alternative to Disneyland.

#1  It's got the charm factor
Efteling was originally designed in the 50s by Dutch artist Anton Pieck – and you can feel the love! He insisted on using no concrete or plastic and paid incredible attention to detail. Even the bins are made of wicker baskets.
It's a bit like taking a stroll through a beautifully mature park, brimming with lakes, trees, flowers and quirky buildings – that just happens to have incredible rides and attractions in every nook and cranny. 
I mean, you don't expect to see a little gang of ducklings waddling towards the Haunted House, do you?
#2  It's humungus
Make no mistake. This is a Full Size theme park, as big and exciting as you could wish for. Twice the size of Disneyland California in fact. It's divided into four realms (Adventure, Fairy, Travel and Other) and to save your legs, a good-old fashioned stoomtrein runs around the whole park. 
But when I saw how gorgeous these little wooden carts for children were, I was desperate to pull my daughter every step of the way. 
"Er...Hellooo?" she protested. "I'm like, eleven." 

#3  It's fairytale (literally!)
Yes, Mickey Mouse, Dumbo and Disney Princesses are iconic, but any screen character is always going to feel a little superficial and commerical – especially when they're a human in a giant fluffy suit. Efteling, by contrast, is themed around fairytale, folklore and legend which taps into something deeper and more magical. The Fairytale Forest was truly enchanting. We followed meandering paths through the trees stumbling upon life-size creations of fairy stories that made us gasp just a little bit. 
I got an extra surge of excitement when I glimpsed Rapunzel in her tower through the trees. It was like my favourite childhood Ladybird book in real life.
#4  But you can still have a near-death experience (if that's your thing!)
You might think a theme park based on fairytale only has gentle, cutesy rides aimed at younger children. Wrong. There's a mind-blowing tangle of roller coasters. 
Like the one in darkness (Efteling's equivalent of Disney's Space Mountain), the one that flies off the track at the end and smashes you into water, the bobsleigh ride, and perhaps scariest of all, the one that plunges you vertically into a pit of steam – to the sound of angels singing! – and then immediately hauls you out upside down. Er, we gave that one a miss.
#5  You can avoid the crowds
The Dutch school holidays only overlap with the British ones so it is possible to visit at a time when the park is quiet. Really quiet. We went in the Easter holidays and waited in queues of 0 to10 minutes for each attraction. In two days we managed to do absolutely everything we wanted to do, everything we didn't think we wanted to do until we did it – and then do our favourites all over again.
#6  It's about half the price
Isn't it odd how you take your kids to places for their enjoyment but have to pay more for your own entrance ticket than you do for theirs? Efteling doesn't do that. Adult and child tickets are the same price – about £32 for the day. For a family of four, that works out at almost half the price of Disneyland Paris.
#7  There's a lack of tackiness
Nothing is in-your-face at Efteling, not even the souvenir shops and food outlets. Yes, you can buy a can of coke and a portion of chips (though you can eat them with mayonnaise the Dutch way). But you can can also buy more interesting things like Turkish pizza or these crunchy potato spirals on sticks, all at non-rip off prices. 
There are all kinds of restaurants too, whether you're after fish, vegetarian or a stack of Dutch pancakes, and they don't mind at all if you bring in your own picnic. We had to actually hunt out a souvenir shop before we left and I was surprised at how nice the stuff was. My daughter chose two jewels. "They're magic stones," she said. "This one gives you the power of invisibility and this one gives you the power of flying." That's the spirit. 

#8  It has beautiful places to stay
It was this picture of Efteling holiday village that first hooked me in. It looks like somewhere I might choose to stay with or without a theme park on the doorstep. Efteling has two 'villages' snuggled in woodlands  one with undergound houses. But we stayed at the Efteling Hotel with its moat and turrets just a few minutes walk away from the park. "Just follow the yellow footsteps!" smiled the receptionist and my daughter bounced out the door like she was off to see the wizard. 
She loved discovering all the little details in our room like the bedside table in mid-air, the TV hidden behind an ornate sliding mirror and the mouse peeping out from the skirting board.
"It's fit for queen!" I overheard her say to her dad on the phone as the waiter in the restaurant poured her chicken soup from a teapot. Making her own fairy bread and bumping into Sleeping Beauty at breakfast were unexpected bonuses too, even if she did refuse to have her picture taken with her. ("I know, I know, you're like eleven, right?")
#9  All the staff are friendly and fluent in English
Everyone seemed genuinely happy to work there. My daughter even commented on it. As a man helped her out of our boat onto a rotating platform after a ride through Dreamworld, she said, "He has to walk backwards in the dark all day and he's still in a good mood!" They all spoke really good English too. Some of the attractions in the park were based on Dutch stories unfamiliar to us, but that didn't detract from our pleasure. What's not to like about a pair of red shoes that dance through the streets on their own, or a monorail that travels through a village of gnomey people living in thatched hobbit houses?
On one ride, the insanely disorientating Mad House ("Mum, are you going to just stare at your thighs the whole time?" Yep.) we had to listen to a wise old wizard tell a story in Dutch for about eight minutes first, but that didn't put my daughter off wanting to go on it again. 

# 10  It's easy to get to
You can travel to Efteling easily from Amsterdam, Rotterdam or the nearest city, Eindhoven. We flew to Eindhoven with Ryanair for pocket money prices and then took a (double decker!) train and a bus to the park. "You going to Efteling?" asked the bus driver. "Oh, I'm jealous. I went there so many times as a child, and I still love it."

As we watched the spectacular light and fire show on the lake at the end of our last day, my daughter had one of those rare bursts of pure gratitude. "Thank you for bringing me here. It's awesome!" "That's okay," I said, mentally ticking the magical-childhood-memory box. 

"Shall we have a hot dog and a candyfloss for dinner?" 

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Make like a model: Recreate the holiday brochure!

We wake up on the first day of our February half-term static caravan holiday in Wales with wind and rain pummelling the windows. And one of us has a revolting virus.
As we droop our heads into our bowls of Weetabix and wonder what the best rainy-day plan is, we flick through the Hoseasons brochure on the table with images of the happy, smiley, tango-tanned holiday we're meant to be having.
"The pictures are so cheesy," says my daughter.
"Yeah, we're obviously not doing our holiday right," says my sister.
"Hey!" I say. "Let's BE THEM. Come on..."

And suddenly there's a burst of happy activity and giggling. We've come up with a new 'thing'. We decide to call it Re-Bro: Re-creating the brochure. The kids are studying the exact poses and expressions of the children ("You need to bend your wrist more.") and the adults are hunting for the toast rack and discussing who should play mummy and daddy ("Well, who's the most orange?"). This is fun and funny. Enough to make us want to go out immediately so we can recreate some of the other pictures. 

Here are the results.

Exhibit #1: Fully enjoying the caravan comforts (turns out there isn't a bloody toast rack. Or a jug. Shame on you, Hoseasons).
Exhibit #2: Having a relaxing drink at the clubhouse (only we weren't prepared to go as far as actually spending money on drinks!).
Exhibit #3: We like it so much here, we decide to actually buy our own caravan. This is the happy moment where we're handed the keys. 
Oh yes, we're living the dream.

Footnote: A friend of mine saw these photos and said that she knows the original models in the brochure  - in fact, they live down the road from me! Coincidence or what?! 

Friday, 27 January 2017

Guest interview: "My hobby is doing special effects make-up!"

This time I talk to Nicole, 14, as she gets to work on us... 

How did you first get into special effects make-up?

I started doing it last summer after I met a girl at my mum's friend's wedding who did it. We became friends on Facebook and I saw her special effects photos and thought, "Ooh, I could try that".

Some people would say it's a very gruesome hobby! What would you say to them?
It's fun! It's artistic! It's creative! I want to be a paramedic and it's made me much less squeamish. Before, whenever I saw something bloody and horrible, I would have gone, "Oh woh woh", but now I'm like, "Oh...okay". It's good being able to watch a film or programmes like Casualty and think, "Ooh, that's fake". You can spot things straight away. I'd love to do make-up for TV. 

So how did you start?
I just got 99p fake blood and researched what I could make myself, like fake flesh out of flour and water with a bit of vaseline. But the blood was BRIGHT red and it was difficult to blend the edges of the flesh, so it looked a bit like having a dollop of cookie dough on your skin! 
But I did a cut and a bullet hole in my brother's cheek with that. Then I experimented with eye shadow, like browns and blues for wounds and bruises, and then I got this box for my birthday with face paints and latex and lots of sponges and brushes and that changed things quite a bit. *Look away now if you're squeamish!*
How hard is it to learn?
It takes time to work out what works and what doesn't and what colour combinations look realistic. I struggled with the very first ones. Even now, it often goes wrong. There's a lot of of wiping bits away, doing it again, wiping it away, doing it again. It definitely develops skills like perseverance and patience!
Where do you get your ideas?
I google YouTube all the time for inspiration. Sometimes you see something and you want to do it but you haven't got the right products, but you've got to be able to improvise, find something that will get the same effect. And you have to be confident – it won't work if you think it won't work!

How long does it take?
Bruises only take about two minutes. The longest I've ever spent doing something was three hours but that was a full half a face. On myself!
How often do you do it?
It's the thing I look forward to doing the most once I've got studying and stuff out the way. It's quite often what I do in the evenings. I just sit there experimenting on myself! I did my friend for Halloween – I did two bloody holes in her neck – and I did my brother's girlfriend the other day.

So, you've finished doing us now. Can we see the results...?
First, my daughter, who would only allow the merest hint of a bruise to be done on her...
Then me, with a right shiner...
And finally, my daughter's friend...
If you like this (or hate it and want a much lighter and fluffier make-up project!), you might like Unbratting the Bratz: Give a doll a makeunder.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

If you go down to the woods today: Go fairy-hunting

Fairy doors popping up in Oxfordshire said the BBC local news headline. Oh boy! Where were my wellies? I'm a sucker for imaginary worlds in the woods. The Magic Faraway Tree was my favouritest book in the whole world when I was a kid.

But where EXACTLY did we need to go to find these doors? It wasn't easy to find out, but eventually Google threw up some (enticing) directions: Cross the railway and go over the canal bridge. When you see the fairy wishing well on a tree by the gate, you'll know you're on the right path...

"Can I ask my friend William if he wants to come with us?" asks my daughter. "Yes, absolutely...[I stop, think] ... but maybe use the word 'elf' or 'gnome' rather than 'fairy' when you invite him..." [I'm being realistic, not sex stereotyping!]. He's up for it. And his mum says she's not missing out. We have our gang of fairy/elf/gnome hunters.
After a while, we start to wonder if we're on the right path. We've found nothing. And then there it is, a tiny wishing well with a super-cute rope ladder. 
And we're off, darting here and darting there, eyes scanning tree trunks, scrutinizing branches, till we make each delicious discovery. 
We linger over the details of the doors...
"A Chinese fairy must live at this one," says my daughter ...
"Can we make our own door and put it here?" says William. 
We know, they know, that there aren't actually any fairies, but it doesn't matter. It's exciting and happy-making all the same because it's out-of-the-ordinary, unexpected, mysterious. Someone (who?!) had the lovely idea to create these delightful doors and secretly crept around (at night?!) putting them in place. It merges the real world with the magical world of hidden, non-human creatures upon which so many children's books are based: The Borrowers, The Hobbit, The Indian in the Cupboard...

I half expected, half hoped Moonface would pop his head out of a tree to say hello. 

But anyway, let's get real. Want to go find these fairy doors for yourself? Send me a fiver and I'll tell you where they are. 

If you like this, you might like A fairy lives in our house. You can find out more about the Oxfordshire fairy doors hereYou can also go fairy-hunting at Gelt Wood, Brampton, Cumbria. Fairy doors have mysteriously appeared there every summer since 2010.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

A real eye-opener: Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre

My daughter has a new friend who is visually impaired. She is easy and comfortable with him. Puts herself in his shoes. At least, knows to read him out the descriptions of the different flavours of Quality Street, not just pass him the box. She’s also started asking me to lead her while she walks all the way home from school with her eyes closed.

So when I recently found out you could visit (for free) the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre near Leamington Spa – which includes a ‘sensory tunnel’ where you briefly experience life without sight – it couldn’t have been better timing.

Our tour guides are Mary, from Cumbria, full of warmth, humour, snippets and stories...
...and Holly, a gentle brood bitch labrador-retriever, pregnant with her third litter of future guide dogs. My daughter and her friend can’t keep their hands off her! And she doesn’t seem to mind one bit.
They are going to take us around the centre and show us the whole Guide Dog ‘production line’ (output: up to 1,500 dogs a year!) – from pre-whelping (ante-natal in human terms) to the seven-week-old puppies who are ready to leave the centre and begin their socialization programme.

We do, however, politely bypass the “honeymoon suite” where the stud dogs and brood bitches do their thing – though Mary gives us an Adult Only aside: “They can choose whether to do it indoors or al fresco, and there’s a special rubber grippy floor and a grass mound – you know, for optimum positoning!” she winks.

Now I am itching to take you on a step-by-step blog post tour of the centre and blurt out every single fascinating fact we learnt – but as that would spoil your visit should you go, I will just give you a little taster and limit myself to: 


1. A pregnant bitch spends the week before giving birth in a luxury suite with hydrotherapy and a 24-hour personal nurse in a bedsit next to her. (Note to self: In my next life, have my babies here!)

2. Each newborn puppy is marked with a splodge of pink nail varnish on a different part of its body so the carers can tell them apart.

3. Guide Dogs are trained to be spacially aware UPWARDS as well as forwards and sideways – so they will warn their owner, for example, if they are going to hit their head on the ceiling!

4.Guide Dogs are trained to obey their owner but DISOBEY if they think they know better than their owner. e.g. they can see a car is coming!

5.It costs 50p to get a Guide Dog (a token amount for paperworky reasons) but the cost of a Guide Dog from birth to retirement is £50,000!

And one unfun fact: 
By 2050 there will be twice as many visually impaired people because of the rise of macular degeneration.

When we get to have a go in the sensory tunnel, we are given special blindfolds to put on. “They allow you to open your eyes behind them,” explains Mary, “to make your brain think you should be able to see.” 
Then we go, alone, one by one, through the tunnel in total darkness. There are traffic noises and different surfaces underfoot. 
“That was fun!” says my daughter as she emerges from the other end. “But scary. It makes you realize how utterly difficult life is if you can’t see.”

An educational day out, for sure, but I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that a huge part of the appeal for the girls was the Cuteness Factor.
“Even if you didn’t like dogs,” I overhear my daughter’s friend saying, “There’s no way you could look at those puppies and not think they were adorable.” She’s not wrong. I’m no dog lover and my heart’s turned to mushy peas.

And there’s a final bonus: Complimentary tea or squash and home-made cake – donations welcome, but no pressure to do so (the cynic in me had expected we might be pushed into signing up for a monthly direct debit!).
We leave full of red velvet cake, knowledge, empathy, appreciation of our sight – and awe for these very special creatures.

“I used to think when I saw a Guide Dog, you just put a harness on them and off they go,” said my daughter on the way home.”I didn’t know how much intense time and effort and money went into them.”

Then she reverts to a more basic side of herself. “Mummy, PLEEEEEASE can I have a puppy?”

Visit the National Guide Dog Breeding Centre's website here. You can also do a tour of the National Guide Dog Training School in Leamington Spa. 

Friday, 30 September 2016

Guest interview: "We ran away from crocodiles!"

This time, brothers Quinn (6), Aiden (9) and Luca (7) tell me all about their trip to Crocodiles of the World in Oxfordshire, run by Shaun Fogget of the Channel 5 series The Croc Man.

What did you think when your mum told you she was taking you to Crocodiles of the World?
Aiden: It was MY idea, actually. I went to my friend’s birthday party there a couple of years ago, so I said to mum let’s all go there and she said yes!
Luca: [can’t hold back any longer!]: Me and Aiden were running so fast because there was a crocodile coming near us! There were two of them!
Aiden: [annoyed with brother for jumping ahead] Can I tell you the unexpected bit?

Yes, go ahead.
Aiden: Well, when I was in the crocodile house we went to see the Siamese crocodiles, and we looked at them and when we turned our back they jumped at us – both of them – and we ran away because we were so scared!

But they couldn’t actually get at you, could they?!
Quinn: No, the glass was there.

But it was still scarey?
Aiden: Yes, and after that, we went over to the saltwater crocodiles and we noticed their teeth and we were like NOPE! So we ran away again.
Luca: One of them was really really hooooge. It was so hooooge.
Aiden: The biggest one was about 15 foot.

So these crocodiles can actually kill people in real life, right?
Aiden: Yes. They do something called a crocodile death roll. They grab onto their prey or person and spin it around and drag whatever they’ve got under water to drown it.
Luca [just to clarify]: And kill it.
Quinn: And then it’s gonna die and die and die until it’s put to sleep.
Did you get to hold a crocodile?
Aiden: No, just touch them. You CAN hold them but we weren’t there at the right time.
Quinn: I stroked a baby crocodile. It felt so weird. Kind of like really soft, and like a fish, but it was a crocodile.
Luca: Yes, it was so slimy. And when I was touching its tail, it tickled.
The man told us that if you put your hand near a baby crocodile or you swim near a baby crocodile, the mum or the dad keep chasing you and if it’s a Nile one it’s gonna be really speedy.

Did you see them being fed?
Aiden: Yeah. Dead birds. Chicken.

Did you learn the difference between a crocodile and an alligator?
Aiden: Yes, one of them has a small snout, and the other one I think is a different colour. They had both there. They had like a 100 crocodiles and alligators and caimans.
Luca: There were load and loads and loads. 

Did they have any other types of animals there?
Luca: Yes, parrots and...and...and...what else Aiden?
Quinn: Meerkats, and there was a hole you can go through and there was glass...
Aiden: a glass dome...
Luca: ...and you put your head up in it and everyone can see you and the meerkat come and they’re running around your head.

What was your favourite animal there?
Luca: Meerkat.
Aiden: Black caiman.
Quinn: Black caiman.
Aiden: Cause it’s camouflaged.
Quinn: Cause it looks so awesome.
Aiden: Cause if I was a crocodile I would probably BE a black caiman.

Well maybe you’ll be a black caiman in your next life!
Aiden [stops, looks at me]: Do we actually HAVE a next life?

I don’t know, but some people believe we do.
Aiden: [making his mind up]: I think we do.
Would you like to have a pet crocodile?
Aiden: No!
Luca and Quinn: Yes!
Luca: Can you even GET a pet crocodile?
Quinn: [getting excited]: We can put it into a cage and we need some meat for it.
Luca: And it needs water. That would be MY BEST PET. And I’m gonna have that crocodile. It gonna be MINE.

What name would you give it?
Quinn: Nuke
Luca: No, Bobby.
Quinn: No, Duke.
Luca: Duke of Marlborough! [laughs]

Finally, what do you give Crocodiles of the World out of 10?
Aiden: 10
Quinn: 100.
Luca: 159 out of 10.

Visit Crocodiles of the World's website here. They are holding their first CrocFest UK on Saturday 15th October 2016.