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 “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!
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. Different facilities are available, such as an indoor ski dome, and extra freebies and vouchers are thrown in that you wouldn’t get in the UK. However, 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 are very few Winnie the Pooh and Peter Rabbit moments. The reality is high prices, lots of urbanized facilities, and rows of identical lodges set on a plot of land surrounded by trees. If you’re happy to accept it at face value, then Center Parcs 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 require 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 sports 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 accommodations 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 on the edge of the Lake District in a 400-acre forest with probably the prettiest lake to wander around.
Sherwood Forest Nottinghamshire: Set in the heart of Nottinghamshire, this resort has many lakes and waterside views, more than most 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 the 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 meters to free-fall from! Not too far to walk between facilities and relatively 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). It features the largest Subtropical Swimming Paradise with excellent pools for toddlers and a pirate ship to explore for younger children. However, it tends to cost £100 GBP or 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 pedalos, adventure golf, raft building, and even teddy bear picnics for the little ones. And suppose the weather is not playing ball. In that case, 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 tiring 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 activities cost at Center Parcs, even a trip to the gym, unlike at a hotel, costs a further £13 GBP, 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!) and the ParcMarket to pick up groceries, DVDs, wines, beers, and bits and bobs you might have forgotten. My personal thoughts: If you like Latin American / Mexican dishes, choose Woburn or Longleat, which features Las Iguanas. All resorts feature the Rajinda Pradesh restaurants offering contemporary Eastern-inspired dishes. If you like Italian food, I’d pick Woburn with its 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 5:00 pm dining slots, these go fast, plus when you book in advance, you’ll pay a £5 GBP 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 Children’s Play Areas
One of the most wonderful things for parents about a stay at Center Parcs is the fact that there are numerous indoor and outdoor play areas throughout each resort which are all set adjacent to restaurants and bars, so mums and dads, grannies and grandpas 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 there is 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. Some nights when we were walk-in’s, we were told the first table available was 9:00 pm!
So which resort gets my vote? Sherwood, which features 2 larger outdoor playgrounds as well as Huck’s American Bar & Grill and Forester’s play areas, which my children loved.
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; 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 chalkboard 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, a few black sheep 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 features 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.
Regarding 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 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 bikes, helmets, 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 GBP for an adult bike and £22 GBP for a child’s bicycle, so you’re adding more than £100 GBP 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, 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 undercover.
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, and 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 I would opt for Sherwood again as the lodges felt a bit newer.
All the accommodation options are well-maintained but functional. They are practical but not beautiful and furnished in woods, plastics, and hard-wearing fabrics. Many feature outdoor patios, but these are small and generally overlook 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, a log-burning fireplace, and a 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 sauna, steam room, and hot tub. 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 breathtaking 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 en-suite bedrooms.
Finally, location, location, location: the all-important question of whether is it worth paying extra for? A lodge in the center or choosing your lodge in advance. I think this comes down to personal preference. In a smaller resort like Woburn, everything is within 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 getting a centrally located lodge is worth the extra expense 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 10:00 am on the day of arrival (excluding the Sub Tropical Swim Paradises’ which tend to be available from 2:00 pm), though you won’t be able to get into your lodge till 3/3:30 pm. On your day of departure, you need to be out of your lodge by 10:00 am, 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 its 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 kilometers from Ballymahon). 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 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 are cheapest from Monday to Friday, provided you can go during term time. During peak season, stays are most expensive for a weekend stay (Friday to Monday). During summer holidays, most stays are more than £1,000 GBP.
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