Reviewed by David Savage
Visiting London is something that I think most people would probably have done at least once. Other than the obvious fact that it is the capital city and is the home of Buckingham Palace, Parliament, an abundance of interesting, historical sites and The West End, there is an abundance of family-friendly and interactive days out too. My girlfriend and I had been planning to visit the city for quite some time – she had never visited before and wanted to do some of the tourist sights, so once we managed to identify a child-free weekend, we booked the train and started planning our itinerary. The thing with the touristy things in London is that they’re definitely not cheap, especially once you factor in the fact that we live a couple of hundred miles away so probably won’t be back again for some time, so wanted to pack in as much as we possibly could.
A lot of the sights in London are free, but you can only fill so much time standing outside of landmarks, and the attractions that do need paying for quickly add up, so a bit of forward planning is needed to try to get the best value for money. Two of the things that she particularly wanted to do was The Coca-Cola London Eye and the world-famous Madame Tussauds Waxworks, which are probably two of the most well-known attractions in London. A bit of Googling told us that the costs were already mounting up pretty quickly; Tussauds has a standard entry price of £35, and The Eye is £28 so we were already looking at an outlay of £63 each. Then she continued to search, and managed to find yet another thing that she HAD to do… why do women always do that? So, we were now also going to Shrek’s Adventure, because it was apparently silly not to, as it was dead opposite the Eye. And bang went another £27.50, and any hope I had of returning home with any leftover cash. I tried telling her that it was her Christmas present fund that she was eating into, but it was no good. We needed to go.
But then the Googling paid off – she came across the Merlin’s Magical London Pass – a ticket that allows you to access all five of Merlin’s main London attractions for £60. Given as The Eye and Madame Tussaud’s alone were already going to cost £63, and she’d then added in Shrek’s Adventure, we were already looking at an outlay of £80.50, so spending the £60 on the Magical London ticket was an absolute no-brainer. The five included attractions are The London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s Waxworks and Shrek’s Adventure, which we were already doing, plus SEA LIFE London and The London Dungeon, which means that the attraction work out at just £12 each – an absolute bargain considering that they can cost up to £35 each if booked individually. In addition, Merlin also operate the Coca-Cola Eye River Cruise, which is a forty-minute sight-seeing tour of London on the River Thames with live audio commentary (audio guides available in 9 languages). We decided to add this on, at a cost of £13.50, which is more than do-able because of the money saved on the other attractions.
Five of the six attractions are located on the same site on the South Bank on the Thames, a five-minute walk from Westminster tube station. The only exception is Tussauds, which is around 10 minutes away by tube, right by Baker Street station. We pre-booked our slots for the London Eye, London Eye River Cruise and Shrek’s Adventure, but decided not to pre-book Tussauds, SEA LIFE and The London Dungeon as we wanted to be able to slot things in between other destinations and around the weather, so didn’t want to be too tied to times.
The first attraction we tried was The London Eye. Unfortunately, we seemed to have picked a particularly poor weather day for it – we arrived at the site in the middle of a torrential downpour, so were pleased to get indoors in the main building and go and wait for the 4D Cinema Experience which is part of The Eye ticket. We only had to wait for around 10 minutes for the show to start, probably due to the weather outside and the venue not being particularly busy. The showing was only short, but the effects were stunning – the screen is massive, so you can become really immersed in the experience. I won’t spoil the experience by talking about how the 4D works, but it really is fantastic.
We then went outside for the main event. We’d decided to go in the evening because we wanted to see the city lit up, which when combined with the poor weather meant that we were only queuing to board our pod for around ten minutes. The view was fantastic, and the pods being glass all the way around meant that there was always something to look at. We loved looking at the reflections from all of the lights on the Thames, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben (which would have been much better were it not for the scaffolding). We could see the OXO building, many of the bridges spanning the Thames, including Tower Bridge, Tower of London, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Canary Wharf, The Shard and buildings that we named The Toaster, The Ministry for Evil and The Toblerone.
The whole trip took around thirty minutes, which was probably about the right length as the Eye does rotate slowly, so there is plenty of time to see everything that you would want to see. The Eye was a fantastic experience and one that we would love to do again, next time during the day, as it would be lovely to see London from above during the daylight too.
We had purposefully left Sunday a bit free, so we could have an easy day where we weren’t too tied to times. We found ourselves with nowhere to go at around 2.30pm, so hopped on the tube and headed for Westminster again to visit SEA LIFE and The London Dungeon. The Dungeons were a little busier than SEA LIFE, so we booked our slot for the Dungeons then headed over to SEA LIFE for a couple of hours.
We had both been to other SEA LIFE centres previously – I have been to the Manchester one several times, Blackpool and also previously to London, and my girlfriend has been to Manchester, Blackpool and Scarborough. Whilst we have both thoroughly enjoyed the other centres, we both think that the London one is head and shoulders above the rest. We spent a really enjoyable ninety or so minutes walking around the centre and looking at some fascinating ocean life. One of the first bits is a glass walkway where we had a great view of some sharks and some frankly massive catfish. All of the tanks and displays were clean, and the fish looked in lovely condition.
SEA LIFE isn’t just about looking at the fish – all the displays have information about the tank’s inhabitants and there are a number of interactive displays, which were interesting enough for adults but were clearly really fascinating for the kids that we saw enjoying the exhibits. One of my girlfriend’s favourite areas of the centre was the jellyfish. As well as some brilliant looking displays of live jellyfish, there was a brilliant game where you could design your own jellyfish on a screen then ‘release’ it into a much larger screen with other peoples’ creations. We both had a go at this and thought it was a really fun little attraction.
Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the penguins had gone to bed so we missed this part of the exhibition, but the area was a good size and I imagine it would have been lovely to have seen them. we would love to come back and bring the kids, so if we do, we will be sure to arrive before 4.30 when the penguins are put to bed. There will be plenty to entertain them, and it would also be an educational visit as the information on the boards is well presented and engaging, so they would happily read them on the way round.
The Rainforest Adventure is an immersive little world, which really draws you in. The dark, the light and the hanging foliage from the ceiling create a heavy, tropical atmosphere which is full of some fascinating fish, poisonous blue frogs, and reptiles. We particularly liked the piranha tank which was stuffed full of some very healthy (and well fed) looking piranha fish.
As with lots of attractions like SEA LIFE, at the beginning of our tour, we had our photos taken against a green screen and one of the last parts of the experience was viewing our images and deciding if we wanted to buy them. We were actually surprised by how much we liked the photos, and they were really nicely presented in a SEA LIFE book. We paid £20 for the photobook which included three large photos, a magnet, a keyring, a postcard and all of our images emailed to us as high-resolution digital images. We thought this was a bit of a bargain as it is a lovely memento of the day and was pretty reasonable value for money.
We both thoroughly enjoyed our time in SEA LIFE, but we had a booking that we had to make at The London Dungeon, so we left and headed next door for our booking.
The atmosphere began right at the beginning as we were queuing, where there was a slightly threatening and mad jester who was pointing us in the right direction and ushering us to the beginning of our tour. The first part, as with the SEA LIFE attraction was our green screen photographs, before we headed down a dark and creepy corridor to enter the chamber and be told what we were doing there. It transpired that we were all traitors, plotting to overthrow the king and now were now condemned to die. We were then herded to a lift, locked in and sent plunging down into the cellars where we were then placed on a dark, twisted boat ride. I can imagine some younger children would find this scary, but most adults would be fine with it. Unfortunately for my hands, my girlfriend isn’t ‘most adults’, and nearly cut off the blood supply to my hands, she was gripping them so hard on the way round.
The tour is brilliant and takes you on a brilliant journey through the ages, drawing in tales of Jack the Ripper, Sweeny Todd and Guy Fawkes. The actors were all fantastic, hilarious and incredibly talented – every single one of them drawing the audience into their tales and performances. Lighting was used to brilliant effect and there were more than a few blood curdling screams from the audience. At no point do the actors touch any of the audience so to be able to elicit a response like that takes real skill and they did so on several occasions.
In a few of the scenes, the audience members were ‘picked on’ and asked to participate but at no point did anyone seem to be uncomfortable with this and I think this is because everyone was so successfully drawn into what was going on that no-one felt silly.
One of the last parts of the experience was another ride, this one called ‘Drop Dead’. This was another brilliant part of the day. I would say a highlight, but the whole experience was so good that it would be genuinely difficult to pick out a true highlight. I think we would possibly have to miss this out if we did bring the kids with us next time as whilst I think the nine-year-old would be absolutely fine with it, it would be too much for the six-year-old.
We had decided to book in Shrek’s Adventure on a Monday morning at 11am, but because we were concerned about being late actually turned up at around 10.15 and the staff could not have been more helpful and had no issue at all transferring our booking to the 10.30 tour. Fantastic customer service.
Just like the London Dungeon, the experience starts almost as soon as you walk through the door and the staff really go out of their way to build the atmosphere and make the whole experience ‘Shrek-tacular’. I suppose I would best describe Shrek’s Adventure as a child-friendly version of The London Dungeon. The participants are transported from London’s South Bank to the Land of Far Far Away, via a magical 4D bus. Unfortunately, the bus has landed on an important person’s girlfriend and squashed them – rather like Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz. We then spend the next hour or so meeting lots of weird and wonderful characters that everyone who had seen the films knew. Much to my girlfriend’s disgust, I was not one of those people so had absolutely no idea who any of these bizarre individuals were. She, on the other hand, knew all of them so was probably excited enough for both of us!
I have to be honest and say that of all of the Merlin attractions that we were going to see, Shrek’s Adventure was not the one I was most excited about but in the end, it might even have been my favourite. It was an absolute hoot from start to finish. It was funny for both adults and children, including those amongst us who weren’t familiar with the characters or the story.
Every single one of the actors were brilliant, funny, engaging and very believable. The children there were clearly having a wonderful time and loved having the characters they knew from the films brought to life. For the parts of the tour that required audience participation, they chose the children to take part which is as it should be and would have made the day even more special for them.
At the end of the experience, we were returned to London safely from The Land of Far Far Away and were given the opportunity to meet the big green man himself, and have a photograph taken with him. My girlfriend was far more excited by the prospect of this than I would have thought was normal, but I went alone with it anyway and we had our photograph taken with him.
As with SEA LIFE and The London Dungeon, the last part of the experience was looking at our photos. The way they were presented here was brilliant – in a ‘leather bound’ journal. Because we had previously bought our photos from SEA LIFE, we were given a really generous discount on the photo book, so for £21 we were given the lovely book containing four photos from the green screen, the picture with Shrek, a keyring and a magnet along with around 15 different digital images. This is superb value for money and we were really pleased that the person who sold them to us thought to ask if we had previously bought photos, so we were entitled to a discount, because we’d missed signs that might have advertised this.
We had booked the London Eye River Cruise to start a 1.45pm, which we had thought would be the best one following the 11am Shrek tour, but because we had got on to the earlier Shrek tour, we popped over to the cruise ticket station and asked if we could transfer to an earlier trip. We were told that there would normally be a £10 transfer fee, but because the boats weren’t busy, our reservation was transferred for free. Again, this was brilliant customer service from the staff and we were really impressed. It gave us just enough time to pop over the road to grab a quick lunch before returning at 12.30 for the 12.45 sailing.
We departed from The London Eye Pier, right underneath the Eye itself. The boat has an outside upstairs deck and a seating downstairs, which is inside. Because the weather was dry, and the boat wasn’t full, we were all able to get a seat upstairs. The views were fantastic, but that wasn’t the first thing that struck us. The chap (Mick) who was leading the tour was immediately likable and engaging and was absolutely perfect for his job.
We started off with blue skies and a chilly breeze on a lovely calm Thames. We went under Westminster Bridge and saw the House of Parliament, and there started the really informative and interesting commentary (who knew Westminster Bridge was painted green because it is the closest bridge to the commons?). The view from the upper deck really is fabulous and the PA system was very clear – we were able to hear every word perfectly. The experience from an open-top boat is completely different and much better than that of a closed-in boat, and the photographs we were able to take were much clearer with no reflections.
The live commentary was fantastic and engaging throughout and we both felt that the way it was presented was perfect; friendly, informal and light but very informative and interesting. The tour then took us past the Eye, down the Southbank where we learned some really interesting facts about the OXO building, some of London’s darker side and that the ‘Ministry for Evil’ building we had previously identified was actually Charing Cross Station. We saw Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, learned about some of the iconic buildings in Canary Wharf and lots more. Halfway through the cruise, the rain started, and about ten minutes from the end, it became really heavy. At this point, we gave up on the top deck and went downstairs to the indoor part of the boat. It was lovely, warm and comfortable and because of the excellent PA system, we could hear just as well. The boat has panoramic windows, so whilst not quite as good as being in the elements, it was still a great experience from inside too.
The whole experience was great – it was honestly one of the highlights of our trip to London and we learned lots – I’m originally from London and there was stuff there that I didn’t know about, so I feel like I’ve learned a lot myself. Whilst this tour is an additional extra on top the Merlin’s Magical London Pass, it is a good price and well worth the extra fee. We would absolutely do this again if we were visiting the area.
We managed to squeeze in Madame Tussauds on the last full day of our visit. This is the only attraction that isn’t on the site at Westminster. Tussauds is a couple of minutes’ walk from Baker Street tube station, which itself is only about 10 minutes on the tube from Westminster tube station.
Both me and my girlfriend had visited Madame Tussauds at Blackpool recently, and I visited the London site years ago, so we both had a bit of an idea what to expect. Whilst the Blackpool site seemed to be mainly slanted at British popular culture and TV, the London site takes a far broader perspective with some of their exhibits.
We spent our afternoon wandering amongst movie stars, the royal family, pop stars, famous sports personalities and world leaders. One of the more popular exhibits was the Harry and Meghan stand, where there were queues of people waiting to have their photos taken with the happy couple.
There was also a Bollywood zone, an area for well-known YouTubers, and scenes from specific films including Psycho and King Kong. We really enjoyed having our photos taken sat on ET’s bike, as well as with Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and Henry VIII.
The majority of the exhibits were included in the standard ticket price, but the Sherlock Holmes Experience and Alien Invasion were added extras, at £5 each. We decided not to go for these options because we’d had such a packed few days previously, but we might do them if we went again, and the Sherlock Holmes part in particular did appeal to us.
It is fantastic being able to get so close to some famous faces, for some reason it is particularly fascinating to stand next to them and see how you measure up to them. The detail in the skin and the eyes on the figures is something to behold and the figures are so realistic. Walking around the waxworks is great fun and we loved taking selfies with the figures.
The last part of the experience is The Spirit of London ride. This is a ride in a London black taxi around ‘London’ through the ages – a kind of time tour, starting in the middle ages and taking you through Victorian times and the Sixties, right up until the present day. This is included in the ticket price and is a lovely way to end the visit – it was great fun and we both thoroughly enjoyed it.
We had a cracking time in London, and the Merlin’s Magical London Pass made it rally very affordable. Compared to the standard entry prices, you save £87 – paying just £12 per attraction. With this and all of the free things there are to do around London, such as going to see Buckingham Palace, the changing of the guards, Parliament and all of the fantastic free museums, a completely packed long weekend away in London is actually quite affordable and there really is something for everybody.
We loved every single one of the Merlin attractions – they all offer something a bit different and there is no repetitiveness at all. The pass can either be bought in advance before you go, or you can also buy it from the Eye offices whilst you are there. We booked time slots for some of the attractions but left others more open as we wanted to retain some flexibility. We didn’t really have to queue a great deal, and were able to book slots for the ones we had left to the last minute right before we went in. The customer service from Merlin enabling us to do this was fantastic and there was no stress at all when we needed to change slots.
The Merlin’s Magical London Pass is excellent value for money and is valid for 90 days (you can only visit each attraction once).
Merlin’s Magical London Pass cost £60 per person for the 5 London attractions (River Cruise is an add on ticket). For more information or to buy a pass visit www.merlinsmagicallondon.com.
For even bigger savings a Merlin Annual Pass costs from £109 per person and gives access to all Merlin’s 32 attractions and theme parks in the UK. For more information visit www.merlinannualpass.co.uk.