I absolutely love castles;they make my heart swoon. And I was thrilled when a trip to London provided a wonderful opportunity to theme our vacation around London palaces and castles.
Fairy tales, English folklore, and even Disney cartoons inspire us to admire these magnificent structures. While we dream of turrets and romantic ballrooms, castles were typically built as fortified structures. Yet, palaces were often grand but not fortified. No matter how you define them, these buildings are fascinating to visit and should be included in your London-based travel plans, especially if any of these sites are on your travel bucket list.
Let’s look at my favorite London Palaces and Castles so you can add them to your Palaces and Castles themed outing.
Of course the royal residences of the United Kingdom’s sovereigns are well known. Located within London and with 775 rooms, Buckingham Palace is not only a home to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip but also the center of national celebrations.
Buckingham Palace Gates
Don’t forget to see if the Royal Standard is flying above Buckingham Palace. If it is, the Queen is home!
When the Royal Standard flag is flying, the Queen is home!
We wished we were the lucky occupants of this car getting to travel inside the gates!
Security checking a car outside Buckingham Palace.
To see the inside of this palatial building, plan a visit well in advance for the summer months and for select tours during December, January, and Easter. Unfortunately, we visited in late May when the Palace was still closed to visitors. I figure, it’s a good excuse for a return trip, right?!
Since our hotel was within walking distance of Buckingham Palace, we were able to take a stroll there on our first night in London. It was a perfect beginning to an incredible London vacation!
Tip: Before setting off to tour London, get a London Pass.
Designed by Christopher Wren, Kensington Palace sits on the western edge of London and is the current home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
South View of Kensington Palace
Many people will recognize Kensington Palace as it was home to the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
Kensington Palace Stairway
Our London Pass included entry to Kensington Palace so we toured during an afternoon including a stroll through some of Kensington Gardens.
Palace of Westminster
Big Ben is the focal point of Elizabeth Tower and part of the stunning Gothic architecture of the Palace of Westminster. Housing Parliament, the palace is situated on the north bank of the River Thames.
Palace of Westminster with Big Ben
I was in awe every time we got a glimpse of Big Ben while touring London. Of course, getting to hear the bells chime was also memorable.
The Tower of London
Steeped in history, this historic castle houses the Crown Jewels. However, the Tower of London is equally notable for the famous prisoners like Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Thomas More that were kept (and some beheaded) here.
Tower of London
Included in the London Pass, the Tower of London is a must visit for any history buffs. As such, it gets quite crowded so arrive early in the day before the tour buses roll in.
Tower of London
Hampton Court Palace
As a principal residence of Henry VIII, Hampton Court Palace is filled with Royal history. We arrived before opening and were able to explore the palace with no wait.
A rainy day at Hampton Court Palace
From Henry VIII’s kitchens to the Great Hall, touring Hampton Court Palace was a highlight of our trip.
Hampton Court Palace
Since we visited on a rainy day, we chose not to explore the garden maze but if you are there on a pleasant day you may want to extend your tour. We hear it’s extremely fun!
As a royal residence, Windsor Castle hosts throngs of visitors. So plan ahead, take the hour-long train ride from London to Windsor, and arrive early in the morning.
As this is a favorite residence of the Queen, I also recommend checking the website to make sure the castle will be open on your preferred touring day.
If you are looking for a fun outing and are lucky enough to live within driving distance of a castle, plan a day trip or weekend exploration. If you are planning to travel to an area that is known for castles, be sure to include at least one in your touring plans.
Want help with your own castle-inspired destination? Email me at [email protected] for a no-obligation, free quote.
What is your favorite London Palace or Castle? Share your thoughts in the comments below or drop us an email.
Ten Ways to Increase Your Magic Kingdom Experience
Let’s face it. Any day at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World is… well, a really good day. With thrill-seeking rides and family-friendly entertainment, the park never fails to amaze first-time visitors and multi-visit veterans.
Your Magic Kingdom experience can be enhanced with these ten suggestions. Read on!
Take a Tour
Behind the scenes tours (from a Family Magic outing to a complete VIP extravaganza) cost extra but can really add to your Magic Kingdom touring experience. Call 407-WDW-TOUR to find the perfect add-on tour for your family!
VIP Tour Guide at Walt Disney World
Reserve a Fireworks Dessert Party
Tomorrowland Terrace features dessert parties on select evenings of the year. Choose from patio seating on the terrace or Plaza Garden viewing where guests stand in a priority location. This add-on experience includes delicious desserts. Theme park admission is also required so you’ll want to add this party to a day and/or evening that you know you’ll be touring the Magic Kingdom.
Desserts at Wishes Fireworks Dessert Party.
Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom
Free with your Magic Kingdom admission, Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is an interactive game that takes guests of all ages on a scavenger hunt. By casting Merlin’s magical spells at Magic Portals, you’ll help conquer Hades and become an apprentice sorcerer. Sign up at the Firehouse on Main Street, U.S.A. for your starter pack. If you get hooked on the game, you may want to purchase extra sorcerer cards.
Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom
A Pirate’s Adventure ~ Treasures of the Seven Seas
Help Captain Jack by discovering 5 treasures hidden throughout Adventureland. Sign up at The Crow’s Nest to begin your raids. Collect all 5 treasure finder cards and you’ll receive a collector card signed by Jack Sparrow! Fun for all ages.
Get your treasure map!
Captain Jack Sparrow’s Pirate Tutorial
Speaking of that famous pirate, Captain Jack hosts a pirate tutorial throughout the day in Adventureland. Check your Times Guide or My Disney Experience app for times.
Nic participating in Captain Jack Sparrow’s Pirate Tutorial.
Apprentice Pirate certificate.
If your child wants to learn sword fighting, I suggest arriving early and have your child enthusiastically wave their hands to join the fun! If they aren’t picked the first time, go back for a later show. You’ll have better luck at the first show of the day as well as the show that takes place while crowds are waiting for or viewing the afternoon parade.
Attend a Holiday Party
After-hours parties are a terrific way to see the Magic Kingdom from a new perspective. All decked out in holiday decor with special treats and shows, the Magic Kingdom becomes even more unforgettable on party nights. Try Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. We like to attend on a day that we’ve taken off from the parks; visit Disney Springs, relax at our resort, and then be sure to stay to the party until the end when crowds are at their lowest.
Mickeys Not So Scary Halloween Party.
Seek Out the Nooks and Crannies
If you race from ride to show without soaking in the details of the Magic Kingdom, you’ll have missed out on some of the most magical qualities of this iconic park. Even the quick-service restaurants have some special nooks — we love sitting upstairs at Columbia Harbour House and Pinocchio Village Haus. In the back of the Crystal Arts shop, you’ll find fascinating glass blowing demonstrations.
Sit upstairs at Columbia Harbour House for a relaxing respite.
Relax in rocking chairs in Liberty Square.
Be sure to stop and watch some of the street performers throughout the day. The Dapper Dans, Main Street Philharmonic, and Citizens of Main Street are extremely talented and worth watching.
The Dapper Dans performing during the holiday season.
Skip the FastPass… what?!
Sometimes you should skip the FastPass+ for the iconic rides with stellar queues. For instance, Peter Pan’s Flight has an interactive queue that will be missed if you only go on this ride via the FastPass entrance.
Watch for Tinker Bell!
Electrical Water Pageant
Think the fun is over as you exit the gates? It doesn’t have to be. Time your exit to coincide with the Electrical Water Pageant. Taking place on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon, the barges pass by the Magic Kingdom (usually about 10:35PM) when the park is open late.
During a family dinner this past week, we were lamenting the end of the Wishes fireworks display at Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World (WDW). Our teen son, Nic, exclaimed “Wishes has been the fireworks show for my whole life”. Well, then I realized that this goodbye was going to be harder than I thought.
Nic’s first visit to WDW was in 2002. At first, the fireworks were difficult for him to watch as he was sensitive to the noise. But over the years, he grew to look forward to viewing Wishes on every visit. And at 17, he still loves to watch the show. As does our whole family.
Since the show debuted in 2003, technically Nic did see the previous show — Fantasy in the Sky. But by the time of his second visit to Walt Disney World in December 2003, Wishes had become the nighttime entertainment at the Magic Kingdom. Michael and I have watched it as a couple, as parents, with our parents next to us, with friends, with Disney Parks Moms Panel family, and with other family members. That’s a lot of Wishes memories that bind us together with the special people in our lives.
When You Wish Upon a Star is one of my all-time favorite songs. It always makes me tear up. And every time Jiminy Crickett announces the following my eyes got watery and my lip quivered…
So, today, I’m just going to take a moment to remember Wishes, as well as the holiday variations enjoyed over the years. We’ve watched the show while staying at Disney’s Grand Floridian, Polynesian Village, Contemporary, and Wilderness Lodge. Sadly, most of my fireworks photos are blurry, but here’s a few memories in honor of Wishes:
2003: Watching Wishes from Polynesian Beach.
One of my favorite memories was when my family surprised me with a Wishes fireworks birthday cruise.
Wishes Fireworks Birthday Cruise
Watching Wishes while on a fireworks cruise.
This slightly obstructed Wishes view was taken from our balcony at the Grand Floridian.
Wishes from balcony at Grand Floridian
During my December 2007 Disney Parks Moms Panel training, we enjoyed watching Wishes from the Train Station.
Watching Wishes during 2007 Disney Parks Moms Panel Training.
And the following year, we went to a private party for the Disney World Moms Panel, and again watched the fireworks from atop the Main Street train station. Stellar view!
Wishes from Main Street Train Station.
And who doesn’t love noshing down on sweets while watching the Wishes fireworks. In 2011, it looks like we were enjoying the dessert party!
Desserts at Wishes Fireworks Dessert Party.
One of our favorite unique views of Holiday Wishes occurred while waiting to enter Be Our Guest Restaurant for an evening dinner reservation.
Wishes Fireworks from Be Our Guest Restaurant entrance.
Check out a little video from that perspective.
We’ve seen Wishes from many different vantage points around the Magic Kingdom.
Ten Classic but Underrated Magic Kingdom Attractions to Include in Your Next Visit
Your Magic Kingdom itinerary is already jam-packed and you’ve got to see princesses, ride a dwarf train, and have lunch inside a Beast’s Castle. Yep, I get it. When you need a filler between waiting in long lines for popular rides or maybe rain has pushed you to look for indoor fun, some of these overlooked Magic Kingdom attractions at Walt Disney World will provide unexpected amusement.
Let’s take a closer look at Ten Lesser Known Attractions to include in your next Magic Kingdom visit(s). These quintessential pastimes are great for the whole family.
Walt Disney World Railroad
It takes 20 minutes to do a full circuit on the Walt Disney World Railroad. Or you can alight from the train at any of the stations — Main Street, U.S.A., Fantasyland, and Frontierland. Take some time off your feet and enjoy one of Walt Disney’s favorite pastimes. During one visit, our son was chosen to be a guest conductor aboard the WDW Railroad; it’s still a favorite memory.
The Walt Disney World Railroad circles the Magic Kingdom
Swiss Family Treehouse
Okay, there are 116 stairs to climb at this Adventureland attraction. Unfortunately, folks with ambulatory issues will have to sit this one out. If you are able to make the climb, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful vistas and charming rooms nestled within the Robinson Family’s treehouse home. My favorite room is the library.
Climbing the Swiss Family Treehouse is a fun adventure!
Country Bear Jamboree
While tech-savvy kids may find this attraction dated, remind them that this is one of the attractions that Walt Disney helped create. Grizzly Hall is home to 18 bears proud of their hillbilly songs. Warning: You may find yourself singing and clapping. Reminder: You don’t know anybody so have some knee-slapping fun. I love watching the talking heads — Melvin, Buff, and Max.
A wild and wooly good time!
Tom Sawyer Island
As your log raft crosses the Rivers of America, you’ll leave even more of the real world behind. Go ahead and wander; Walt Disney made sure this island was full of exciting nooks and crannies to explore. I love the meandering paths and sitting for a spell (in the shade!) at Aunt Polly’s Dockside Inn.
Our son enjoying a snack on Tom Sawyer Island. Fun for all ages!
Liberty Square Riverboat
Embark on the Liberty Belle’s 17-minute, half-mile cruise around Tom Sawyer Island. Watch the river’s edge for unexpected scenes or sit back (note that seating is limited) and rest your park-weary feet. Visit the Salon on the Promenade deck to see historical photos and maps. You’ll also find padded benches in this interior area.
Cruise aboard the Liberty Belle
The Hall of Presidents
This stirring, patriotic presentation inside a replica of Philadelphia’s Independence Hall offers a respite from rain, Florida humidity, and tired feet. If you or a traveling companion needs a rest, head to The Hall of Presidents. Here’s two options: you can enjoy the time to relax and enjoy a presentation on American History OR take a 23-minute nap. I’ve done both many times.
Hall of Presidents is a replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Don’t miss the roll call with the U.S. Presidents that follows the film. It’s a genius showcase of audio-animatronics.
Currently closed for renovation.
“it’s a small world”
A Walt Disney classic, “it’s a small world” showcases children from around the world. And yes, they sing this special little ditty during the entire voyage. 😉 The colorful collages created by Mary Blair delight visitors of all ages. Some people love it; some hate it. Confession: I’m a fan of the boat ride, costumes, Mary Blair artwork, and… the song.
Cruise through “it’s a small world”
Don your “opera glasses” to join Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse on a 3D musical adventure. Since I can’t hold a tune, I try to quietly sing along to my favorite Disney songs. 😉
Join Mickey and Donald Duck in this 3D musical adventure.
Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress
Another piece of Disney history! Carousel of Progress was developed for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair by Walt Disney. Sit back in the revolving theater and watch the four nostalgic acts of the show presented by audio-animatronics. This 17-minute presentation will have you singing “There’s a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.” It’s been one of my all-time favorite Magic Kingdom attractions since my first trip at age 11.
Carousel of Progress is a family favorite!
Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover
In a narrated ten-minute journey, you’ll get a relaxing tour of Tomorrowland as you weave in and out of the futuristic buildings. We’ve seen Space Mountain with the lights on a few times during rides on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority. Wow! And of course, I love to hear one of my favorite quotes — “Paging Mr. Morrow. Mr. Tom Morrow“.
Of course, you can’t see and do everything on a visit, however I would highly recommend including at least one of these ten underrated Magic Kingdom attractions in your itinerary. Show some love to the classics!
After you conquer the most popular rides, what attractions in the Magic Kingdom does your family recommend?
Universal Studios Florida and Diagon Alley Trip Report
Since the primary purpose of our visit to the Universal Parks and Resorts was to experience Diagon Alley, the first park we toured was Universal Studios Florida.
Lockers – The Less-than-Magical Way to Enter a Thrill Ride
A word of caution when entering several of the attractions at the Universal Parks: be prepared to stow ALL loose items into lockers provided near the entrances to each of those rides.
The lockers are free, but require patience and some finesse to utilize. These lockers are a significant negative aspect to touring the Universal Theme Parks. Frequent Walt Disney World visitors are accustomed to being able to bring bags, backpacks, cinch sacks, cameras, and cell phones onto most attractions as long as they can be “safely stowed” in the provided compartment. At Universal, these items are not allowed on many attractions.
Additionally, be prepared to walk through metal detectors and then “wanded” upon entering several of the coasters. This ensures that any cell phones or other items you might have safely in your pockets are removed and placed in the lockers as well! While the intention of such security and safety precautions are admirable, they are certainly less than magical when trying to have a fun, carefree day within a theme park.
Attractions with Express Pass and Immersive Queues
Nicolas and I decided to use our Express Pass immediately to ride the Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket. It’s a well done speed coaster with some significant drops, inversions, and good G’s. The theming is awful, but the ride is good.
Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket
Several attractions in addition to Diagon Alley were either under construction or not present when we last visited. One of those was Transformers: The Ride 3-D. Nicolas and I used our Express Pass once again. We felt this was a really solid attraction, especially if you have seen any of the Transformers movies. As is the case with many Universal attractions, the experience is a creative combination of ride vehicles, simulators, and screens.
Transformers: The Ride 3-D
The queue for Transformers: The Ride is really well done, but that is not unusual at Universal. In my opinion, the queues at Universal are significantly more immersive and detailed than most others at Walt Disney World. (Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the one comparable standout at WDW.)
Diagon Alley at Universal Studios
Next stop was the stated purpose of our visit: Diagon Alley.
Any adjectives really can’t do justice to how amazing Diagon Alley really is. It is an astounding and immersive theme park experience that truly transports you into the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
We arrived at Diagon Alley midmorning. As expected, the area was already crowded and the wait time for Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott’s thrill ride was well over 60 minutes. There is no Express Pass option accepted at this attraction, so arriving early in the morning or riding closer to park closing hours is your best chance of a reduced wait time.
Immerse yourself in Diagon Alley
If the wait time for Gringott’s is too long, go ahead and explore Diagon Alley. It will take some time to discover all the detailed nooks.The Diagon Alley attraction is beyond anything that I have ever seen in a theme park. Universal has taken great care in providing guests with an exceptional experience. It’s a first class attraction on all levels.
At the outset, you are tasked with actually discovering the Diagon Alley by way of several “hidden” passages off the London streets represented near the front of the land.
Diagon Alley is hidden behind the London streets
Once inside Diagon Alley, the use of visually stunning architecture and set design makes you feel as if you are indeed a student or professor at Hogwarts in search of Butterbeer, an owl, or a new wand. I was fascinated with the scope of the area itself; Diagon Alley was much larger than any of us had anticipated. Pathways, doorways, and storefronts are all magnificently detailed. For example, the signage and exterior design of the Potions store is spot on.
Potions Storefront in Diagon Alley
• Purchasing interactive wands at Ollivanders. The interactive wands are marked by a gold label on the box and are not necessarily inexpensive (currently $47.95 each). A map accompanies your wand. Armed with both, you’ll find locations where your wand is used to cast spells. The spells, if cast correctly, demonstrate surprising and delightful visual and physical effects on a variety of items and objects. This is a really well done aspect to the attraction and worthy of the extra expense.
In one area, a careful wave of your interactive wand conjures up a feather pen that writes mysterious messages on parchment in a storefront window. The spells can be difficult and it takes patience and practice; just like students at Hogwarts must practice their magic!
• Enjoying Butterbeer or, even better, Butterbeer ice cream. Butterbeer is an extremely sweet and unique drink that we’ve found in the Universal Parks and at the Harry Potter Studios in London. The Butterbeer ice cream, found at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, was a delectable treat at 10 in the morning! I loved it. My wife said it was too sweet.
Butterbeer Ice Cream
• Exploring the various shops and eateries that are authentic to the Harry Potter films and books. Some of the locations include the Leaky Cauldron, Madam Malkin’s Robes for all Occasions and of course, Quality Quidditch Supplies. During this visit, we invested in wands. I won’t be surprised if we find ourselves donned in robes on our next excursion to Diagon Alley!
• The Gringott’s attraction is a truly remarkable thrill ride experience that complements Universal’s cadre of attractions that combine ride vehicles, live sets, simulators, and 3-D screen technology. We rode this attraction on our second day with very little wait time. This was accomplished by taking advantage of the 1 hour early entry to Diagon Alley provided by staying at Loews Royal Pacific resort.
While exploring Diagon Alley, be prepared to open your wallet or use your debit card frequently. There is Harry Potter merchandise available literally at every turn!
Be sure to experience Diagon Alley both during daylight and at night. The area takes on an intriguing atmosphere in the dark. Specifically, pay attention to the dragon sitting atop of Gringotts Bank.
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen is a recent addition to Universal’s CityWalk. Conveniently located, take a break and enjoy a different level of creative detail.
A well executed steam punk theme runs throughout the restaurant. The establishment somehow fits in very well with the level of theming inside both of the theme parks, but is refreshingly different at the same time. While the food was well done, it wasn’t exceptional. Creative milkshakes and sundaes are the highlight of the menu. I had the Chocolate Banana Brain Freeze and it was well worth the calories! (Stay tuned for a more in-depth review soon.)
The Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen
Up Next: Hogwarts Express, Kong, and Raptors
Share your thoughts about Diagon Alley and/or Universal Studios!
We were thrilled to spend a few days (pre-Thanksgiving) at the Universal Studios Orlando Resort. Visiting the second iteration of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley at the Universal Studios Theme Park was our primary objective.
Islands of Adventure
A few year ago, we visited the Hogsmeade area at Islands Of Adventure. At that time, we were impressed and delighted by the first phase of the Harry Potter themed lands. Family vacations to Europe, a Southwest USA road trip, and of course, Walt Disney World excursions had delayed a return to Universal. We were anxious to experience the second phase of the Harry Potter attractions. Guess what? The wait was worth it!
Loews Royal Pacific
Outstanding and beyond my expectations pretty much sums up my impressions of not only Diagon Alley, but the overall experience of our second stay on Universal property. Since I was pleased with our prior stay at the Loews Royal Pacific resort, we chose to stay a second time for a variety of factors: the ability to have the Universal Express Pass included as part of our guest experience at the hotel, the extremely convenient location, and the charm we found there a few years ago.
Loews Royal Pacific
The Royal Pacific has recently undergone refurbishment, and based on some chatter in the Theme Park blogosphere, maybe to mixed reviews. For me, the renovation was more than adequate with clean and comfortable rooms. Certainly, the modern/contemporary decor can be construed as somewhat mismatched to the Pacific Island theme. Although not comparable to the theming at many Walt Disney World resorts, it’s still a nice room in a well-designed and pleasant resort. I would not only recommend the Loews Royal Pacific to others, I would certainly consider staying there again. Twice charmed at this point!
CityWalk at Universal Studios Orlando
The convenience of being able to obtain an Express Pass shortly after checking in might only be second to the incredibly pleasant walk along a beautifully landscaped waterway towards the Theme Parks. In about 10 minutes, the entrance to CityWalk interrupts the path, and then it’s only a short jaunt to Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios, with Islands of Adventure being first along the left-hand side.
The shopping and dining area called CityWalk is cool, but for me, pales in comparison to even the pre-Disney Springs (aka Downtown Disney) area at Walt Disney World. CityWalk is long on food and drink options, but significantly short on charm, with one new exception, the Toothsome Chocolate Emporium and Savory Feast Kitchen.
Up Next: steampunk theming and Diagon Alley rocks it
Share your thoughts on a Universal Studios Orlando stay!