This is part 2 of a series on traveling through Europe with kids. For part one, on London, click here.
I have a confession to make. Ever since my husband and I decided to take the family to Paris, I'd been hoping that the kids would not want to go up the Eiffel Tower. I hoped that at least one of them would have inherited their mother’s fear of heights. But unfortunately their father’s thrill-seeking gene was dominant once again. So we got online and booked a tour. On the morning of, the girls were excited, I felt a bit ill. But since I couldn't be outdone by my seven-year-old, up the tower we all went. At first I tried to stay plastered to the inside wall, but I'm happy to report even big chickens like me can do the Eiffel Tower. If you can relate, you'll be happy to know that all the platforms are caged-in and even the highest platform, The Summit, is enclosed with viewing windows. So no fear of fainting or falling out—yeah, no paranoia here.
Eiffel Tower: We booked a family tour on-line with City Wonder Tours. It was a nice, small group of 20 and our guide started by giving us the history of the tower, making a quick stop across the street for some selfies, then walking us past the long lines straight to the elevator. That alone was well worth the price, as lines can be two to four hours long. Our tour was with two other families; the youngest child was only three and in a small stroller. Each of us got a small monitor with earbuds so we could hear our tour guide over the loud crowds. Our guide was a transplant from Chicago who arrived in Paris five years ago to study French and loved it so much she never left, so her English was perfect. On the first platform the views of Paris were breathtaking. We got a history lesson on all the important landmarks, from the Norte Dame, to the Arc De Triumph. I’m embarrassed to say I didn't know that the same man responsible for the Eiffel Tower, Gustave Eiffel, is also credited for The Statue of Liberty. We found that the entire tour was a good history lesson for all ages.
-If you must take a stroller, make sure it’s one of those small umbrella strollers. Eiffel Tower workers will make you fold it up to get in the elevator and tour the upper decks.
-Take a jacket and scarf for everyone. The view at the top is not only breathtaking but can also be cold and windy.
-Don't wear your fancy new high heels because some of the stairs are open iron grates and will tear them up. Comfortable walking, or I should say standing, shoes are a must. Although your tour will get you past the extremely long lines at the base of the tower, in order to get to the upper most deck, you'll need to stand in a shorter line on the lower deck. I'm told the average wait time is about 20 minutes, with a 15-minute wait to get on the elevator to get back down to earth.
-Make sure everyone has had a snack and gone to the bathroom before you start your tour. It was about four-five minutes into the tour before we got to the first viewing deck where the bathrooms and shops are located.
-Unless you have a tall husband with long arms (like mine), I suggest you invest in a selfie tick. Otherwise your selfies will look like pictures of dismembered heads at the Eiffel Tower.
-Secure all your valuables. We were warned many, many times that the pickpockets are very talented and can even strike at the top of the tower while the view is distracting you. I put my cash in a waist wallet that goes around your stomach and is hidden under your clothes. In a small inexpensive-looking purse, I carried only things that I could easily replace like tissue, hand sanitizer and cosmetics.
-Beware of all the illegal street vendors too. We were told to not sign anything or even admit we speak English and just walk away.
Disneyland Paris & Walt Disney Studios: Walking into Disneyland Paris is like walking into Disneyland in Los Angeles, except Sleeping Beauty's castle is bigger and more chic—very appropriate for the French countryside. Disney's Main Street USA made us feel right at home with its Town Square, City Hall and the same magical music you always hear at Disney's American parks. You also feel the same excitement in the air as people rush by you, with that same twinkle in their eyes anticipating what ride they'll do first or who they'll get to meet, Mickey, Minnie or maybe even Elsa or Anna. Then you realize you're not in the USA as one family walks by speaking in French, another Italian, another German, then Dutch and a couple of other languages I'm not sure I can name. And yet, Disney's employees, or Cast Members, seemed to be able to answer questions in every language, making this American feel quite undereducated in the language department. Yes, my own fault.
At first my husband and I were hesitant to take our girls to Euro Disney thinking this would just be a repeat of what we've already done in America. However, I'm happy to report it's not the same park. While we found our classic favorite rides like It’s A Small World, Mad Hatter's Tea Cups, Big Thunder Mountain Roller coaster, even the Buzz Lightyear Laser Blast, we also discovered some new favorites, like Crush’s Coaster and Ratatouille’s Adventure. In fact, the French mouse has his own little village in the Walt Disney Studios Park. And as far as family friendly is concerned, nobody does it better than Disney no matter what country it's in. All the Cast Members greeted us with a friendly smile, more than happy to help with whatever need we may have had. We even stumbled upon a drawing lesson given by a cast member inside the Art of Disney Animation experience. They gave the kids step-by-step instructions on how to draw a Disney character. That lesson turned out to be one of my kids’ favorite moments of our entire trip.
The only frustration we had all day was all the cigarette smoke in the air. Disneyland Paris is a no-smoking park; it even states it on the park maps with dedicated areas for smokers, but the rules aren’t enforced. There was someone smoking at every seating area we stopped at, outside every shop, restaurant and down every path we wandered. But then again, it is Europe.
-All the usual Disney tips apply at Disney Paris including using Fast-track Passes and wearing your most comfy walking shoes. Even though these two parks are not as large as their counterparts in Orlando or LA, I easily logged in 20,000 steps on my Fitbit that day.
-Take a break between rides and let your kids look around at the shops that are strategically placed at the exit of each ride. But don't let them buy anything until they've seen everything at the end of the day. Then head over to The World Of Disney Shop in-between the two parks. That shop has just about everything under one roof. And a promise to get a new toy is how we got our kids to agree to leave the parks in the first place. The carrot and the stick works every time.
-Take a rain poncho, or light jacket. You don't want to get stuck inside a restaurant or shop waiting out the rain. At Disney, time is precious when you want to see and do everything in one day. But even if you forgot a raincoat like we did, just about every shop had ponchos to sell you in kids and adult sizes. Disney doesn't miss a beat.
-When you first walk into the parks you’ll find the standard park map. Make sure you pick up the English version. You'll find it under the British flag.
-Everything is priced in Euros. Make sure you know the conversions for that day so you know what you're actually paying for things. And if you run out of Euros, credit cards are taken everywhere.
-The snacks are a bit different than what you'd find in Los Angeles or Orlando so if your kids are very picky, pack your own snacks from home. Meals are a bit different too, although you'll find burgers. Keep in mind, chips are actually french fries. And if you get tired of the selections in the park, there are a few more restaurants to choose from just outside the entrances.
The Louvre: is so big it's estimated that if you were to spend one minute looking at each piece of art there, it would take you eight weeks to see everything. No wonder the famous French Museum is so intimating for travelers with children. However, we found a way to enjoy the art and make it fun for the kids too. We hired a tour guide that took us through the Louvre on a scavenger hunt, making the tour fun for the little ones yet educational for us all. We met Kelly, a PhD student in French Art History from Boston, near the entrance to the museum, where she gave us a quick history lesson on all the monuments around the former castle. Then we got to pass by all the hundreds of people in line, saving us hours of “my feet hurt and I've got to go to the bathroom”—and that's just from my husband. But all kidding aside, it's never fun to tour a museum with bored, tired children in tow.
Kelly started the tour by giving my girls a Top Secret mission book. Inside she showed them a time line so they could understand just how old all the artifacts are. I liked it because it made mommy and daddy look really young in comparison. Our hunt had the kids answering questions about the Medieval Period, French History, and Italian Renaissance. But in order to do that, they had to find clues about some of the museum’s most famous attractions, like The Great Sphinx of Tanis (the largest Sphinx outside of Egypt), The Palace of Sargon (including the original foundation that was on the same sight as the Louvre but 2,700 years earlier), Venus de Milo, and the ever-popular Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
Our tour ended with the kids putting together all their clues and finding the hidden treasure in the museum. The tour took about two hours and cost €305 at ParisMuse.com. Yes, pricey, but it was a priceless. I guarantee you, my family would not have otherwise ventured to see this unforgettable museum with young children.
-Wear comfortable shoes and short sleeves. Some of the museum’s rooms are not very well air-conditioned, and the large crowds can generate a lot of heat.
-Make sure everyone's had a good hearty meal before the tour. No food or drinks are allowed anywhere inside the museum. Not even on some out-of-the-way side stairs…yes, we got busted.
-Don’t expect to see everything in one visit. Pick what you really want to see and stick to a short list. That way you'll have to go back to Paris to see more of the museum. Plus, kids get in free.
-There are a few small souvenir shops in the lobby but the biggest one is on the plaza just outside the entrance.
-Pictures of all the artwork is allowed, bring your selfie stick.
-The tours are recommended for children five years or older. We saw a few brave parents trying to maneuver around with small ones in strollers, but it didn't look like fun for the parents or the kids. I would suggest giving your stroller age child their favorite movie on an iPad with earbuds so not to disturb the other visitors.
-After your tour, get a bite to eat and take the kids to the playground so they can work off some energy. There are plenty of little eateries in the basement of the Louvre and in the park across the street. The Tuileries Gardens is where you'll also find a nice playground with beautiful big shade trees.
-Do a double tour. We went to the Louvre on a Friday when the museum is open late. My husband was nice enough to stay with the kids in the park while I went back after an early dinner to see some more of the art.
NIGHTTIME BUS TOUR: If you're one of those families who like to drive around looking at Christmas lights during the holidays, then you'll love the bus Night Tour. Our first stop was at the Eiffel Tower where everyone anxiously waited for someone to flip the switch. When they did, it was beautiful. But nothing compared to what happens at the top of the hour, when the entire structure turns into a twinkling tower, like the biggest Christmas tree on earth. Everyone, kids and adults, oohed and awed with delight.
Then we got to see more of why Paris is called The City of Lights. Paris at night has an energy all its own, from the couples strolling down the Seine glowing under fanciful street lights that line the river like candlesticks, to the glimmer of the most famous opera house in the world, Opera Garnier, to the long line of people under the red lights of the infamous Moulin Rouge. Plus the night tour gives you a peek at how Parisians really live, literally: as we passed by some of the nicest apartment buildings near the Eiffel Tower, sitting on the top deck of the bus allowed us to peek inside the apartments or at least the ones with the lights on. Not to sound like a peeping Tom, but we got to see some beautifully decorated, very chic living spaces. Paris at night is a traveler’s delight.
-It doesn't get dark in Paris in the summer until after 9:30 or 10, which means the lights don't go on until probably after your kids’ normal bedtime. A short afternoon nap might help everyone stay awake for the night tour without getting tired and cranky. The entire tour lasts about two hours.
- We bought the bus tour Combo Pack, saving us money on a daytime tour and the night tour. The daytime tour we used for getting off the bus and seeing some of the sights up close. However, you’ll have to stay on board for the entire nighttime tour.
- The recorded bus audio also advised us to not visit Paris during the month of August. That's when many shop owners go on holiday closing their stores for the entire month. And even though there's a law that a closed shop must post the location of the nearest open shop, your options will be limited.
- Take a warm jacket and scarf for everyone. Even if it's warm when you get on the bus at 9:30, it quickly gets cold as soon as the sun goes down and windy when the bus starts to move.
- Sit on the second level of the bus towards the back. Your views will be obstructed if you sit inside either on the first level or under the canopy that covers the first few rows of the top level.
- Make sure you know how to switch your camera to a nighttime lens to get the best shots.
Notre-Dame: Last but certainly not least, we took the kids to see one of the most famous cathedrals in the world, Notre-Dame. Let me warn you, the line to get inside is always long. When we got there, the line snaked back and forth across the plaza. Much to our surprise, however, it moved fast and only took about 20 minutes to get inside, much more quickly than some of the Disney rides. To distract my kids from having to stand in another line, I left my husband there to save our space and walked the girls over to some of the bushes on the plaza. When I first visited the cathedral three years ago, there was a man there showing tourists how to feed the small birds that inhabit those bushes. He showed us how to hold up a small piece of bread in each hand, enticing the small birds to land there to have a snack. That has always been one of my favorite memories of Paris. When we got to the same area, much to my surprise, the same man was showing the tourists how to feed the birds. Now it's also one of my children’s favorite memories of the city.