I also made the mistake of thinking that Laura would get a kick out of what I see as a quintessentially British experience: staying in a small, inexpensive bed-and-breakfast hotel in which one's charmingly uncomfortable room is at the end of a maze of stairways and passageways, and where the bathroom is down the hall if not in another postal zone. After one night in such a place I realized my error, and we moved to a hotel with big rooms, real showers, and elevators. My mistake was in overlooking the significance of a surprising fact that I remember reading somewhere: most children's favorite part of Disney World is not Space Mountain but the swimming pool at their hotel. (My kids confirm this. When they wax nostalgic about their own trip to Disney World, which we took a couple of years ago, they talk about the pool, the water slide in the pool, the place where we ate breakfast, and a snack bar where they could make their own sundaes -- but almost never the Magic Kingdom.) Laura's and my new hotel didn't have a pool, although the one where we stayed in Edinburgh -- the distinguished old Balmoral -- did, and that turned out to be Laura's favorite.
Grown-ups like nice hotels too, of course. But kids are more likely to view the place where they stay as the point of the entire exercise. I know this from my own early travel experiences. Among my very first memories are several hazy details of the interior of an old hotel on Cape Ann, in Massachusetts, which I visited with my mother and grandmother when I was three. The hotel made a far deeper impression on me than did the ocean, which I was seeing for the first time but can't remember at all. In fact, a good-sized hotel may seem to a kid like a sort of miniature foreign country: there are strange natives, interesting shops, mysterious corridors that can be explored, and the miracle of room service.
FOOD is a pivotal issue for underage travelers. Every once in a while one hears about an eight-year-old who eats salad, but most such stories surely belong to the category of urban myth. Even at home my kids have trouble finding much they consider edible. Feeding picky eaters in a foreign country -- especially one where the native cuisine is difficult for even an adult to defend -- can be harrowing. The lifesaver in Laura's case was pizza, which along with Big Macs and Whoppers has become a sort of culinary lingua franca. Personally, I am sad that the world is becoming so much the same. But it's a big relief for kids.
Although steak-and-kidney pie didn't interest Laura, British candy did. Candy is a subject of intense interest to most children (see the novels of Roald Dahl), and it is one in which they can often claim expertise on a professorial scale. Studying the confectionery peculiarities of another culture permits a young traveler to savor the tension between what is known and what is not. The British Mars bar, Laura discovered, is what an American child would call a Milky Way; British Skittles, in contrast, are nearly identical to their American counterparts, with the notable exception of the purple ones, which taste more like Wine Gums (an indigenous sweet that appalled both of us). She took similar pleasure in poring over British teen magazines, searching for Britishisms in the English editions of books she knew from home, and scrutinizing the inventories of British toy stores. Among other discoveries, we learned that in Britain G.I. Joe is known as Action Man.