We had the most amazing week away at Center Parcs in September. We visited the Whinfell forest site in Cumbria and Thomas loved the whole trip so much that even though we’ve only just finished unpacking and putting our cases away I’ve already booked to go back next year!
My favourite thing about Center Parcs was how close it is. Planning for this trip was totally different to our preparations for our first holiday to Gran Canaria, there was no weighing our cases and ticking off lists, meticulously choosing what was absolutely essential because it would all need to be lugged through the airport with a potentially grumpy toddler strapped to my back.
No, packing for Center Parcs was much more relaxed, more of a throw everything in the back of the car and hope for the best affair. In the end we took far too much, but the experience of going on holiday was so much more hassle-free and enjoyable and that’s one of the reasons that for me, staycationing in the UK beats holidaying abroad especially with a toddler!
Most people say the same thing when they hear your going to Center Parcs – “you could go abroad for the same price”. Yeah you probably could but you’d have to spend a lot more time traveling and there’s a lot more stress involved! It’s crazy how many people don’t understand that I’m not particularly fond of heat, they look at me like I’m an alien when I tell them I’d much rather spend the week in the forest and wear wellies than flip flops. Let’s face it, Tom is not built for a tropical climate, my little winter baby gets a sweat on going round the shops!
People also ask “isn’t Center Parcs stupidly expensive?” And the answer to that is yes, Center Parcs can be extortionate but it can also be done on a budget if you’re prepared. There are loads of ways you can make savings. I’ve put together some tips for keeping your costs down while having the best holiday possible at Center Parcs;
- Book off peak – if your kids aren’t in big school yet (or you can get them out) and your job allows it then you need to avoid the school holidays, the break I’ve booked in February would have cost more than double if I had booked it for a week later, because it’s half term. I know this isn’t always possible when you have older kids though. Midweek breaks can also be cheaper than weekends.
- Bring your own food and drink – the thing you’ll spend the most money on at Center Parcs is food and drink, the supermarket isn’t too bad but I wouldn’t want to see your bill after a big shop there. The prices at the restaurants are ridiculous, we paid almost £50 for two burgers and cokes the first night we arrived, they know they have a captive audience. But there’s an Aldi (and a Morrison’s) 10 minutes away from the Whinfell site in Penrith, so after the first night of dining out we ran to Aldi sharpish to do a big shop for the rest of the week. The lodges all have ovens so eating at home and packing sandwiches each day will save you a lot of money! I’d pack a few rolls of toilet roll too because they don’t supply you with much and once you run out it costs a fortune on site!
- Use the free activities – It’s so easy to go overboard booking millions of activities for the kids but this can end up really expensive, and tiring! Sometimes you have to walk quite a distance between activities and let’s face it the kids are probably just excited to be on holiday, the younger they are the easier they are to please, Thomas was probably happier just walking through the woods, talking to rocks and looking for squirrels than he was pony riding! There’s a few really good playparks dotted around Center Parcs that are free to use and the best part of any Center Parcs holiday. The subtropical swimming paradise is also completely free, we spent most afternoons swimming!
Not all the paid activities are a rip off though, we made some amazing memories watching Tom learn new skills and enjoy interacting with the brilliant staff who run the activities, and at the end of the day you can’t put a price on that. Anyone who follows us on Instagram will have seen how many new things Thomas tried and loved, I probably fell into the booking too many activities trap because even though I thought I’d been sensible, only booking one or two activities most days I still felt exhausted by the time we got back to the lodge each night (may have something to do with walking 10 miles with a toddler strapped to my back though) I think next time I’ll leave more chill out days where we can just explore the forest and go swimming, but if anyone is looking for recommendations for activities to try with toddlers here’s our Top 5 Center Parcs activities for toddlers
- Swimming – easily Tom’s favourite part of Center Parcs, and like I mentioned before totally free, so there’s no reason not to go every day. The swimming pool is more of a water park really with waterslides, spa pools, wave pools, toddler areas and both indoor and outdoor areas you could easily spend 2 or 3 hours a day in the subtropical swimming paradise at Center Parcs, there are even cafes inside the swimming area if you need refreshments.
- Pots with tots – my favourite activity was the pottery painting, I love the idea of having a little memento to take away and remember your trip. During this activity your toddler will get the chance to Paint their own piece of pottery, these are then glazed, fired and you pick them up the next day. For 2 years running now we have decorated a mug with Tom’s handprint and it’s so cute to compare them both.
- Teddy bears picnic – easily one of the cutest activities and good value for money considering each kid gets a little packed lunch and a stuffed bear to take away with them. Weather permitting the whole thing will take place outdoors, if it’s cold or wet they have an indoor room set up for the picnic. The kids go on a “bear hunt” to find Bramble the bear, then once he’s found they all have a little picnic and story time and there’s a little dance at the end.
- The pantomime – a little more pricey because you have to pay for the adults too and make sure you get there early because the good seats fill up but this is a great chance for mam and dad to sit back and relax while the kids enjoy the show. Tom had never been to any sort of show before, so I didn’t know what he would be like, but he was enchanted. I’ve never seen him sit still for so long, but if your little one isn’t the type to sit still don’t worry there’s an area at the front of the stage for kids to mill around and have a little dance if they wish too. At the end the cast come out to have photos taken with the children.
A few people have asked me which Center Parcs site I think is the best, we visited Elveden last year and I loved their “venture cove” toddler pool area. There are small differences to each site that may appeal to personal preferences. I’ve heard that Longleat is quite hilly and that Sherwood is more spread out so further to walk, but I honestly think that the differences are so marginal that the best thing would always to go to your closest one just to minimise the stress of the journey.
One thing I did notice was how well all of the restaurants on site cater for food allergies and dietary requirements, in your welcome pack you’re encouraged to ring ahead to talk to management about your dietary requirements before you arrive. In The Pancake House we were asked before our order was put in if we had any allergies, and in the sports café I noticed they have a whole separate menu for gluten free, dairy free or vegan guests (they even had adapted children’s menus). I think this is brilliant for parents who may worry about their own or their children’s dietary requirements when booking a holiday.
My top tip for visiting Center Parcs with a toddler would be to take a baby carrier, Thomas is so independent these days and hates going in his pram but it really is a lot of walking. Our Tula toddler carrier was perfect for getting Tom back to the lodge when he was tired out from swimming. Also don’t forget your waterproofs! Our beautiful British weather can be rather unpredictable at times and toddlers love muddy puddles!
I’d also recommend everyone to try the subtropical swimming paradise at night. It’s much less busy after 6 and the fact that the roof is glass means that the whole place is darkened and the atmosphere on a night feels almost dreamlike. The outdoor pool is lovely and toasty and a perfect place to relax and look at the stars.
One of my favourite features of the lodge was Badger Watch – a channel on the televisions that streamed live from a location within the forest near a badger den. Although I watched for quite a while and didn’t see anything more than a fly, I was assured by Tom’s 5 year old cousin that badgers did appear at times. I personally couldn’t shake the urge to find the camera and give everyone a fright!
I’ve heard amazing things about Center Parcs at Christmas time, apparently the whole site is transformed into an enchanted winter wonderland with Christmas themed crafts and activities available that are apparently magical for children. I am desperate to take Tom and experience the magic of Christmas at Center Parcs, hopefully next year we will be there to meet Santa!