So, as I’m writing these words, I’m already expecting that I’m being added to a list and someone will be round to collect me shortly to cart me off to the Tower of London. I’ll spend the rest of my days chained to a wall in England’s former royal prison with only the famous ravens to keep me company. And all because I dared compared Disneyland with an exclusive invite for tea at Buckingham Palace, but for David and I, there certainly was a venn diagram at play.
First things first; some background. Buckingham Palace, the seat of the British Monarchy and home of Queen Elizabeth II, is a major tourist attraction for those coming to London. However, apart from during a very brief time in the summer when guided tours take place, you’re not really ever getting in unless you’re name’s Kate or Meghan and you get lucky with a prince. And even if you do pay for a short tour of certain rooms in the central London tourist attraction, the gardens are always off the menu. To visit or explore the Palace’s gardens, a 42 acre private park for the Royal Family (almost exactly half the size of Disneyland in Anaheim, which is 85 acres), you’ll need to be invited to one of three yearly garden parties which take place in May each year and are hosted by either Her Majesty the Queen or a senior member of the Royal Family.
David and I were invited to join as in his day job he had been very prominent in sharing best practice with other education practitioners, so much so, that the Department for Education wanted to recognise all of the hard work. A bit like a perk of being a Cast Member at a Disney Park, once he was on the list to attend a palace party, he would bring an additional person in with him, and, obviously he picked his husband, a very serious supporter of the monarchy (he knew divorce was likely on the cards if he didn’t!)
Much like a trip to Walt Disney World, the ticket being in hand wasn’t the end of the pre-trip planning. We had to sort identification for entry, plan which entrance we’d use - some would get us into the palace more quickly (it totally felt like we were planning a Rope Drop morning at one of the parks making sure we could maximise our time), and make sure our outfits were in order! We settled for new lounge suits. Formal, fashionable but not too stuffy.
Fast-forward to Mid-May, and we got dressed, ensured we were as well rested as we could be, and had some comfy, but obviously palace appropriate shoes on, because, like a Disney theme park visit, we’d be on our feet a lot during the party. We arrived, as we do when we’re visiting one of the parks around the world, in plenty of time and in advance of ‘opening’.
Our invite allowed us into Buckingham Palace from 3pm, but we were in the Mall by about 2pm, and again, like a visit to Disneyland you could tell you were heading in the right direction by the other people around you. In this case it wasn’t the mass of Mickey Mouse t-shirts that gave it away, but the top hats, fascinators, suits, military uniforms and glamorous dresses of the other guests.
It was about 2:40pm, when we were shepherded into a holding area with the other guests in nice orderly queues, when the feeling first hit me. I turned and said to David: “It feels like we’re waiting to get into The Magic Kingdom!” First it felt a little ludicrous to say it - and perhaps a little disrespectful, but David quickly agreed. “It does, doesn’t it!” Again, as per our usual pre-entrance routines, we had to snap a few excitable selfies as we waited for the ‘rope to be dropped’ and entrance allowed.
Just before 3pm, the rope was dropped, security checked our tickets and ID and we were strolling towards the famous archway of the palace. It really felt like walking under the railway station in one of the Castle Parks - something really familiar to you and once you’re past it, wonder awaits.
We walked across a main courtyard, and although there were two other entrances with smaller queues to get in, we’d chosen one which meant we got something extra. It’s a bit like waiting that extra few minutes in a queue so you get to ride at the front of one of the mountain coasters. This time our reward was to walk through the palace itself, through the hallway and into a grand ground floor sitting room, before exciting to a garden with tea tents and masses of guests (about 9,000 in all).
The background music loop for the garden party was provided by two live bands, a mix of string, brass and percussion, who even dipped into the Disney catalogue with some of their song choices throughout the three hours we guests of the Royal Family. Music from Indiana Jones and Star Wars played by a live orchestra filled the grounds of the palace and with the Victorian splendor around us it was a weird mix of the Magic Kingdom’s asthetics with Disney’s Hollywood Studios’s soundtrack.
Perhaps the most ‘Disney-like’ experience was when the members of the Royal Family arrived at the Garden Party just after 3:30pm. God Save The Queen marked their arrival and the entire 9,000 strong crowd fell silent. It really was something to behold.
Shortly after Prince Charles, The Duchess of Cornwall and the Princess Royal separated at different locations within the main section of the lawn. Queues formed slightly after and David and I realised we were seeing a very-royal version of a meet-and-greet as it was possible to join a queue and wait for the opportunity to chat with one of the senior members of the family, including the Heir to the British throne himself.
We took tea - like Disneyland in Anaheim, the garden party was a dry affair, but the treats on offer included a lovely little selection of finger sandwiches, cakes and pastries. We decided to walk off a very generous lunch, which is when we stumbled across another parallel to a Disney park.
As indicated earlier, the gardens at Buckingham Palace, which were completely open to guests of the party, are vast and half the size of Disneyland Park in Anaheim. As we walked around the garden, which is essentially another London park but just for the Royal Family, we came across very picturesque areas (summerhouses, rose gardens, lakes and statues) where additional queues were forming as guests commandeered them as Kodak-style picture spots. There was no Memory Maker or Magicbands here so guests relied on fellow guest to snap the perfect keepsake.
The atmosphere was really lovely. As we walked round we’d come across really interesting things, like the Queen’s tennis court, or even a path to a garden shed hidden out of sight - it was like grabbing a glimpse of ‘backstage’ at one of the Disney Parks, where the magic wasn’t lost but you suddenly had a bit more of an idea of how the magic was made - in this case, how the landscaping was so perfect.
In a similar way of the fireworks will mark the end of the day at The Magic Kingdom, exactly at 6pm, God Save The Queen played again with the guests falling silent in respect once again. Memories of Main Street USA came to mind as we slowly navigated the crowds once again and avoided a crush as we trundled out of the grounds and back into the Palace to make our way out. The same behaviour sprung to life - dawdling essentially, anything for a few more moments in such a wonderful place.
We slowly moved back through the sitting room and into the hall of the palace and made our way to the entrance. In a similar fashion to our visit to Shanghai Disneyland last year, we really didn’t want to leave so extended our trip as long as we could with a few more photos of Buckingham Palace now we would say we’d been there.
Whilst garden parties at the Palace are invitation only, for ten weeks during the summer, beginning 20 July 2019, the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace are available to visit for guided tours. Tickets are needed in advance and begin at £25 for adults (£22.80 for over 60s and students / £17 for under 17s, with under fives going free).