As a Mum of two, most holidays these days involve a lodge or cottage stay with plenty of visits to beaches, playgrounds, soft plays and various child-friendly activities. When thinking of a family holiday, the brand name that springs into most parents’ minds is of course “Center Parcs”! But which Center Parcs to choose, which one will suit your children best, which lodge should you choose and what are the tips to get a great deal? Read on for the answers to this and more!
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Center Parcs originated in Holland in 1967, with the first UK version opening in 1987. Center Parcs UK is now a separate entity, and this is reflected by the prices. Getaways on the continent, in the Netherlands and Germany in particular (as well as France and Belgium), can cost half as much as the same stay in a UK park and there are different facilities available such as an indoor ski dome and extra freebies and vouchers thrown in that you wouldn’t get in the UK. All that said though, breaks at UK Center Parcs remain as popular as ever with over 2.2 million visitors flocking to the parks each year.
I think it’s important to cast aside all illusions of enjoying a back-to-nature break in the depths of an emerald green English forest when you visit Center Parcs, as there’s very few Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit moments, the reality is high prices and lots of urbanised facilities and rows of identical lodges set on a plot of land surrounded by trees. However, if you’re happy to accept it at face value, then Center Parcs really does offer a fantastic break for children and families with everything truly on your doorstep, along with no cars and no need to leave the resort at all during your stay!
Also, whilst we’re managing expectations, I think it’s important to note that if you’re searching for the outdoor lifestyle and independence for your children to roam free, then despite the marketing, I don’t think Center Parcs quite meets this objective. It’s not a place for your children to merrily pursue Famous-Five-esque independent adventures; instead outdoor activities at these resorts requires planning and the booking of slots far in advance (probably before you even arrive!) and of course plenty of £££’s. But in reality these breaks will probably still offer a little more freedom and outdoor escapades than your children will experience in their everyday lives at home.
Which Center Parcs?
There are 5 Center Parcs locations throughout the UK, each one is entirely unique and there’s a 6th village set to open in Ireland later in 2019! All the villages offer the same great features you’d expect of a Center Parcs break, surrounded by natural landscapes, mini beaches and water sport lakes. Each village features up to 200 outdoor and indoor activities, not forgetting their award winning Aqua Sana Spa, great restaurants and the amazing Subtropical Swimming Paradise (heated to a balmy 29.5C all year round!), along with a huge array of accommodation in varying sizes and styles.
Most people select the Center Parcs they go to based on the shortest driving distance, however, each village is a little different, so here’s my summary at a glance:
Whinfell Forest Cumbria: The most northern village set on the edge of the Lake District in a 400 acre forest with probably the prettiest lake to wander all the way around.
Sherwood Forest Nottinghamshire: Set in the heart of Nottinghamshire, this resort has lots of lakes and waterside views, more than most of the other resorts. The spa here is excellent and there’s a great Treetop Sauna.
Longleat Forest Wiltshire: The most southern village and home to rare 100-year-old Giant Redwood trees! Ideal for slightly older children due to the size of the property and distances between activities. Visitors can amble around the village on foot, whizz around by bicycle or catch the special Land Train, but note it is quite hilly for walking!
Elveden Forest Suffolk: Features one of the largest watersports lakes where you can try the exhilarating Cable Water Ski or try The Drop, a tower with varying heights of up to 10 metres to free-fall from! Not too far to walk between facilities and quite flat, plus when we went there was a fun inflatable waterslide!
Woburn Forest Bedfordshire: Aimed at Londoners and set just one hour from the city. This is the newest village in the UK (although probably the smallest) and it features the largest Subtropical Swimming Paradise with excellent pools for toddlers and a pirate ship to explore for younger children. However, it does tend to cost £100 or so more to stay at this resort compared to the rest.
Best Center Parcs For Entertainment & Activities
To be honest, they all have much the same offerings with lake-based activities, tree-top jaunts, cycling, laser combat, aerial adventures, electric boats and pedallos, adventure golf, raft building and even teddy bear picnics for the little ones. And if the weather is not playing ball, then there’s so much to do indoors including: exercise classes, squash, badminton, table tennis, pottery and painting, cupcake decorating, willow workshops, forest crafts, indoor climbing, ten pin bowling, arcade games, an activity den for little ones, and everything in between So there isn’t much to pick between here.
Things to note: Woburn does have the newest and best facilities, probably making it come out a touch above the rest, though their pool based activities were all early morning, which wasn’t ideal.
Whinfell’s facilities are probably the most tired as it’s one of the older resorts, but I would say the staff more than make up for this.
And don’t forget to be realistic: all activites cost at Center Parcs, even a trip to the gym, unlike at a hotel, costs a further £13, so I’d say expect to pay at least 50% of your accommodation fee again for activities and the same again for dining out.
Best Center Parcs For Drinking & Dining
There isn’t much to pick between resorts here. All resorts offer a huge range of drinking and dining options (at least 10 in each resort!) as well as the ParcMarket to pick up groceries, DVD’s, wines, beers and bits and bobs you might have forgotten. My personal thoughts: If you like Latin American / Mexican dishes, choose to Woburn or Longleat which feature a Las Iguanas. All resorts feature the Rajinda Pradesh restaurants offering contemporary Eastern-inspired dishes. If you like Italian food I’d pick Woburn with it’s new Strada restaurant, though all properties feature either Strada or Bella Italia. And if you like hearty traditional English grub or American diner style dining then there’s a pub and a Huck’s American Bar & Grill in each resort. But, let’s not forget you’re in a resort, so inflated resort prices apply where you might find yourself paying 40% more than the same meal would cost you in one of these chains in your home town, if not more… One final tip: I would book restaurant reservations in advance, if you wait, you will still find availability, but if you want the 5pm dining slots these go fast, plus when you book in advance, you’ll pay a £5 deposit per person, which comes of the bill at the end, making you feel as if you’ve spent that little bit less.
Best Center Parcs For Childrens Play Areas
One of the most wonderful things for parents about a stay at Center Parcs is the fact the there are numerous indoor and outdoor play areas throughout each resort which are all set adjacent to restaurants and bars, so mum’s and dad’s, granny’s and grandpa’s, can relax with a hot coffee, chilled glass of wine, a pint or a light bite while your children play safely alongside you, a massive plus for all adults!
All the resorts have numerous play areas, but some are smaller than you’d expect. I was a little disappointed by the size of the play areas at Woburn, the soft play area set inside The Plaza was tiny and not nearly big enough to accommodate more than 3 / 4 families of children at one time! The area outside was a little bigger, but not great, however if you head over to the outdoor play area by the Village Square there’s climbing frames and wooden activities galore, however not enough adult seating if you ask me. If you want to make use of the larger soft play in Huck’s American Bar & Grill set inside the Village Square whilst dining, then make sure to book well in advance (even before you arrive!) as reservations get snapped up quickly and some nights when we were walk-in’s, we were told the first table available was 9pm!
So which resort gets my vote? Sherwood, which features 2 larger outdoor playgrounds as well as the Huck’s American Bar & Grill and Forester’s play areas, which were loved by my children.
Best Center Parcs For Swim Fun
The answer here is simple, it’s the newest village: Woburn. This features the largest Subtropical Swimming Paradise and there’s even a large baby/toddler pool with slides; an awesome kids pool with pirate ship and slides; the main wave pool which is nice and shallow at the entrance for little ones and deeper further in for those seeking more fun; and the whole place is easily viewable for parents. It’s important to note though that kids have to be over 1.2m to go on ALL the bigger rides, which could be a little restrictive for smaller children or those families with children of varying ages. All villages offer their own Subtropical Swimming Paradise and none are bad, but at the newer resorts you can use electronic wristbands (which unlock your lodge) to lock your pool locker, and these can be charged with money too so you don’t have to carry a wallet to buy a drink at the poolside cafe.
Best Center Parcs For Service
If customer service matters to you then I would recommend Woburn, we had a birthday during our stay and even the cleaning staff remembered this and left a note on our chalk board along with a Birthday badge, plus they knew my husband and I loved our coffee machine coffees’ so they brought us extra pods (too many too use in fact!!). In the bars and restaurants, the staff were reasonable in all resorts, though expect service levels to drop massively at peak times, we had to chase people for our puddings and bills in all the resorts. Whinfell was a very close second in terms of service which I felt more than made up for the slightly older look of the resort and its facilities. At Sherwood we found that we had issues with the hot tub and they were extremely slow to rectify it, not great when you’re only there for 4 nights!
On a positive note, I would also add, that the activities staff at all resorts are where Center Parcs truly sets itself apart. These intelligent, keen-to-please youngsters, or should I say ‘entertainers’, work tirelessly to beautifully entertain and enchant children (especially the younger ones aged around 4-7). As in all situations there are a few black sheep that fail to meet this high standard, but I’m pleased to say that’s the exception, not the rule.
Best Center Parcs Spa
All Center Parcs feature an award winning Aqua Sana Spa, which offers a wide range of treatments for both men and women, delivered by expert therapists. Choose between deeply relaxing massages to beautifying manicures and pedicures, skin perfecting facials and renewing hot stones therapies, plus enjoy all the facilities including pools, relaxation areas and saunas.
In terms of which resort has the best spa, I would say it’s a tie between: Woburn and Sherwood Forest. The Woburn Spa is the newest and biggest with the best facilities, however the Sherwood Forest spa was incredibly friendly and there’s a great Treetop Sauna. It’s important to note that all the spas are open to the public, so if you want to book in experiences and treatments, I highly recommend adding them to your stay before you arrive to avoid disappointment. Tip: afternoons are usually quieter in the spa, so I’d opt for those.
Best Center Parcs For Cycling
This mainly comes down to the size of the resorts and I would say Longleat, Sherwood, Elveden and Whinfell win hands down here, where bicycles are virtually essential! Woburn is small enough that you can walk or take a scooter for your kids to scoot between venues. Sherwood and Whinfell have more options for cyclists and all resorts offer bike, helmet, bike seats, bike trolleys and so on to hire, though it’s not cheap, so if you can bring your bikes with you I’d recommend that. Bike hire costs: £30 for an adult bike and £22 for a child’s bicycle, so you’re adding more than £100 to your bill for a family of four before you’ve even arrived.
Best Center Parcs For Winter Months / Wet Weather
To be honest no matter what the weather, there’s something to do for all ages and preferences in bad weather at each property, however if you’re going over a wintery / wet spell then I’d opt for Whinfell as it’s pretty much all under a dome and it doesn’t ever seem too crowded anywhere because it’s all under cover.
Which Accommodation Option Should I Choose?
I think we have to be realistic here, all Center Parcs villages have around 95% occupancy all year round, so you can’t expect to stay in somewhere that doesn’t look a little worn in places. If you’re looking for brand new, you will need to stay at either the brand new Irish resort that opens later in 2019 or pick a newer niche independent resort.
If money is no object, or you have plenty of friends or family to go on holiday with, then pick an enchanting Treehouse with your own private outdoor hot tub, dedicated treehouse host, games den and four stylish ensuite bedrooms, these can be found at: Sherwood, Longleat, Elveden, Woburn, the older Whinfell resort currently doesn’t have treehouses.
For those of us paying the more standard prices for a woodland or executive lodge, I would recommend Woburn and Longleat as their properties seemed to be the newest and the cleaning service was fantastic (even changing their cleaning slots to fit in with our little one’s naps!). We had a few issues with facilities working in Whinfell and Sherwood, but out of those two I would opt for Sherwood again as the lodges felt that little bit newer.
All the accommodation options are well maintained, but functional. Furnished in woods, plastics and hard wearing fabrics, they are practical but not beautiful. Many feature outdoor patios, but these are small and generally overlooking a patch of grass and a few trees, not tranquil lakes and deep forests.
Accommodation summary: Woodland Lodges feature open-plan living, a fully-equipped kitchen with modern appliances, sofas, log burning fireplace and private patio. Executive Lodges benefit from housekeeping services, ensuite bath and shower rooms, luxury linen and TVs in the lounge and bedrooms, plus some have a sauna and/or games room! Exclusive Lodges are finished to the highest standard, with stunning interiors, housekeeping services, ensuite facilities, and your own sauna, steam room and hot tub, plus some have a games room with pool table. Waterside Lodges are only available at Elveden Forest and feature a hot tub, three ensuite bedrooms (two with a balcony), unique nautical décor and breath-taking views of the lake. Finally, the luxurious Treehouses sleep up to 8 guests and offer your own private outdoor hot tub, dedicated treehouse host, games den and four stylish ensuite bedrooms.
Finally, location, location, location: the all-important question of is it worth paying extra for: a lodge in the centre or, to choose your lodge in advance. I think this comes down to personal preference. In a smaller resort like Woburn, everything is in walking distance so I don’t think it’s worth paying more to be central, but I feel it is worth paying more to pick your lodge so you can choose to be on the end of a row, as opposed to squashed in the middle surrounded (and in some cases overlooked) by other lodges. Tip: Woburn has a few steep hills, so choose your lodge location carefully, some offer flatter access to the pool etc. When staying at larger resorts like Longleat, I think it is worth the extra expense to get a centrally located lodge to avoid having to cycle / catch the train several times a day!
Final tip: arrive early and leave late! Make the most of your time at the village by arriving early: you can usually enjoy your chosen resort’s facilities from 10am on the day of arrival (excluding the Sub Tropical Swim Paradises’ which tend to be available from 2pm), though you won’t be able to get into your lodge till 3/3.30pm. On your day of departure, you need to be out of your lodge by 10am, but you can still use the facilities till as late as midnight (!), so make sure to make the very most of your stay! Because of this, I don’t think it’s worth paying more for early check-in as you can simply use the facilities for free anyway, it’s just the lodge you have to wait for.
I hate to sit on the fence, but it’s all of them! Every family will have a preference for one or two resorts because they are closer to them and each one of them has their own benefits. It seems obvious to pick Woburn as the winner as it’s the newest resort (until Longford Forest in Ireland opens just five kilometres from Ballymahon), and thus the facilities are bigger and better, but at the same time you get a lot of visitors all year round and to me it always seems to be the busiest resort. If you’re looking for a luxurious nature escape in the British Countryside, then book a cottage stay elsewhere, but if you fancy a break where there are more children’s activities than there are hours in the day, then Center Parcs wins hands down! If price matters though and you’re willing to travel abroad, then a stay at a Center Parcs on the continent is definitely worth considering!
UK breaks start from £299 for a 2 bedroom Woodland Lodge (Monday to Friday), provided you can go during term time. During peak season stays start from £499 for a 2 bedroom lodge for a weekend stay (Friday to Monday), but during summer holidays most stays are in excess of £1,000.
Disclosure: Most of our property, service & product reviews are sponsored by the proprietor or brand being appraised. All opinions remain our own & are in no way influenced by any sponsor.