The kids are alright… but they’ve had a tough couple of years, too. Jennie Noonan lets her sons plan a three-day staycation that’s filled with rides, slides and even robot waiters – but no regrets. On your next trip to Sydney try these kid-friendly experiences that the whole family will enjoy.
Yes, you can pick where we eat. No, you can’t order the entire menu. Yes, you can choose where we sleep. No, you can’t stay up all night.
In the wake of cancelled overseas holidays and scaled-back school events, my husband, Paul, and I are planning a family staycation where we gutsily follow the lead of our sons Pat, 16, Ryan, 13, and Sean, six. While establishing rules for the choose-your-own-adventure long weekend tests a few boundaries, giving the boys (almost) free rein feels like an antidote to the pandemic rut we carved out in our bubble on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. Sean’s brief is vague – “Something with animals, water slides, burgers, pancakes and the Aqua House” (he means Opera House) – but with interpretation and input from his older brothers, we hatch a plan. Experience has taught us that if Sean is happy, everyone is happy. But no, I tell him, you can’t ask for a puppy.
We’re first-timers at Sydney Zoo, which opened in the city’s Western Suburbs in 2019, but even on the scorching day we visit it’s mercifully manageable. Gently undulating boardwalks and paths wind through the 16.5-hectare site and high-tech hidden barriers offer a safari-like experience. We take things up a notch with a 30-minute animal encounter. Our friendly guide (swinging a bucket of frozen deer legs) leads us behind the Africa precinct, metres from shade-seeking lions and dozing cheetahs. We’re on our way to meet a clan of three hyena brothers – Endesha the alpha, Enzi in the middle and the lowest-ranked Etana, who tends to hang back when his siblings are around. Our family’s alpha, Pat, volunteers to hand-feed a chunk of raw meat to the surprisingly sweet Enzi. We learn that despite their bad rap, hyenas in the wild are intelligent, social animals who are dominated by a matriarch and exhibit “a very strong food drive”. Members of my clan are stoked with their own matriarch as they polish off lunch at the air-conditioned Boulevarde Eatery before we head off for our afternoon adventure.
Raging Waters Sydney
The 10 minutes it takes to drive to Raging Waters Sydney in Prospect, about 32 kilometres west of the CBD, barely leaves time for the car to cool down. After a quick change, we barrel straight into a man-made beach that sits in the centre of the water park’s 30-plus rides and attractions. Paul and I take an emboldened Sean on the 91-metre Typhoon, easily the scariest slide he’s attempted, while Pat and Ryan line up for the neighbouring Half Pipe. The adrenaline-pumping rides are fantastic but there are sneaky thrills in smaller moments: Sean’s unselfconscious bopping to the pop music thumping through the park’s speakers; Ryan’s (inevitably dwindling) willingness to pair up with me on slides; Pat schooling Sean about herbivores vs carnivores as we float as a family around the Dinosaur Lagoon.
The Sebel Quay West Suites Sydney
Sean gasps as he takes in the face-smacking views from our two-bedroom serviced apartment at The Sebel Quay West Suites in the historic Rocks district. “I can see the Harbour Bridge – and Opera House!” he yells, having picked up its proper name (such a bummer). He inspects the rest of the room with matched enthusiasm: “That’s a beautiful lamp! There’s a phone in the bathroom?! The zipper on this cushion is gold! It’s so fancy!” I’m psyched to spy a full kitchen and laundry room. We order room service from The Quartier Bistro & Bar downstairs before heading upstairs to blow past bedtime with a swim in the recently refreshed Art Deco-style indoor pool, complete with spa and sauna. Despite our packed schedule, we visit six more times before check-out.
Sydney Opera House
Even Pat, who like most teens is not a fan of the day’s pre-noon portion, is lured downstairs by the buffet breakfast. He’s back in bed soon enough, as Sean and I head to the Sydney Opera House/Aqua House for the Windmill Theatre adaptation of Ted Prior’s iconic Australian books about Grug, the curiously charismatic top of a burrawang plant. During our short stroll around the harbour, Sean chatters ceaselessly, capitalising on my undivided attention. We take our seats and as the house lights dim, he finally stops talking, transfixed by whimsical puppetry and storytelling. With brothers so much older than him, Sean’s tastes run a little mature (he’s more au fait with Minecraft – okay, fine, Fortnite – than his kindy buddies), so I’m delighted at his innocent enthusiasm for this G-rated show. We jump up to join in the Grug dance and I make a silent promise to savour every minute of this magical age.
Thunder Jet Boat
By midmorning, we’re all together again (dressed in matching purple ponchos, no less), packed sardine-tight on the second row of the 23-seat twin-turbo Thunder Jet boat named Lightning. Pulling out of Circular Quay, our cool young skipper explains that during the 45-minute Extreme Adrenaline Rush Ride we’ll reach speeds of up to 75km/h. We’re told there’ll be hand signal warnings before he executes any sweeping 360-spins or slams on the brakes to spray us with seawater. After the first few exhilarating but body-jolting manoeuvres he checks in, making direct eye contact with a shell-shocked Sean. “All good?” He gives him a thumbs up before turning tour guide, pointing out the sights as we steer north out through Sydney Heads. “My second job is driving the Manly Fast Ferry,” he tells us. “I don’t drive it like this, I promise.”
Mission Room Escape Sydney, George Street
Windswept and a bit soaked, we jump on the light rail from Circular Quay and ride five stops to Chinatown to experience our first escape room. Coincidentally, the storyline of our 80-minute challenge involves locating and defusing bombs on a Sydney train. The hyper-realistic set-up has Sean struggling to untangle fact from fiction – “Wait, is this the train we were just on? Are the bombs going to get us?”– but he relaxes once he senses how much fun we’re having working together to solve the brain-teasing challenges. At one point, he serendipitously uncovers a crucial clue, beaming with pride as he accepts high-fives from his big brothers. With a five-minute extension, we complete the mission. “So, we’re not going to fake explode?” asks Sean. “You’re welcome.”
With more than 500 locations globally, this high-concept hot pot restaurant chain is renowned for its unique attractions – quirky décor and menu items, robot waiters and arcade games – but Sean’s mind is blown early. “Whoa, the metal stairs move!” he exclaims, stepping on the escalator. Paul shoots me a glance that says we really need to get out more. Once seated, the novelty continues. We order a jug of fresh watermelon juice, egg fried rice with fish roe and slices of lamb and pork belly to cook in bubbling broths at our table. That last dish arrives as a striploin-dressed Barbie doll (picture Lady Gaga’s infamous meat dress), inspiring the younger boys to branch out from their usual orders of boiled rice and prawn crackers. Paul and Pat bond over their spicy soup and Wagyu ox tongue and stay behind to sample the exotic desserts (think rose ice jelly and deep-fried rice cake with brown sugar), while I lure Sean and Ryan back to the hotel with the promise of a pre-bedtime swim.
After stacks of Bananarama pancakes at Pancakes on The Rocks, we check out of the hotel and drive 55 kilometres west of the CBD to Penrith, hoping we won’t be too heavy for lift-off when we try out indoor skydiving at iFly Downunder. We’re fitted for a flight suit, goggles and helmet during orientation and take our seats around a 360-degree glass wind tunnel. Once inside, it’s noisy but exhilarating as the instructor flings me around, adjusting my limbs to perfect the flying position. We each take two one-minute turns, just enough to get us hooked, especially after the instructor closes our session with an inspiring demonstration of swoops, loops and midair tumbles. We stroll across the car park to Five Guys and over burgers, fries and milkshakes, indulge each other with play-by-plays.
Cables Wake Park
I had assumed keen surfers Ryan and Paul would take on the wakeboarding lesson we’d booked close by at Cables Wake Park, while Pat, Sean, and I would have fun in the adjacent Aqua Park – a floating labyrinth of inflatable slides, runways and jumping pillows. Instead, the momentum of saying yes to new experiences seems to have cracked us out of our comfort zones and we all join in. Pat picks it up quickly and Sean squeals while being dragged along on his tummy doing a “penguin slide”. Paul and I recover some dormant, decades-old skills and by the end of the hour, Ryan’s landing jumps and grinds off a submerged table ramp. Driving home, we’re sore, sunburned– and a tad spoiled – but we’re also feeling bonded and bolder. When I ask if we should do it all again someday, the answer comes back in unison: “Yes.”