Pre kids I was a Mauritius, Thailand, Australia vacay kind of girl. If someone had told my 20-something self that in 10 years time I’d be enjoying a ‘staycation’ five minutes away from junction 13 of the M1, I would have laughed, then cried, a lot. But, alas, times have changed and so have my attitudes towards long-haul flights when accompanied by creatures who consider wailing an actual hobby.
I was a little sceptical of our ‘great British getaway’ to Center Parcs Woburn – in my head it was going to be Butlins with trees…Never the less, off we headed down the M6 with a car full of Pomme Bears, the Frozen soundtrack and every single toy the kids owned.
Three hours and 20 renditions of ‘Let it Go’ later and we’d arrived. A McDonalds-esque drive through quickly saw us through the check-in process and after receiving our keys, in the form of snazzy boyband wristbands, we headed off to a giant car park in the rain. It was here my husband discovered he hadn’t packed the pram. Great start.
You can turn up onsite at 10am but official check-in isn’t until 3pm and as we hadn’t opted for the ‘early arrival’ package (which gets you in at 2pm, at a cost of around £30) we had to schlep off in biblical rain for something to eat, complete with an extremely soggy baby.
We’d booked a three bed executive cabin and once we were in, the kids were delighted with their new home. “This is much nicer than our old house Mummy!”
They were especially thrilled as Center Parcs had kindly arranged our own ‘pets’, in the form of two ducks and a squirrel… “Mummy, can we keep them?!”
“Yes sweetheart, if you want to contract Lyme Disease.”
The three double rooms were a good size, clean, modern, and to our surprise all came with TVs and en-suite bathrooms (meaning no awkward poo moments with my father in-law. Amazing).
The spacious open plan lounge / kitchen had a large corner sofa, which was plenty big enough for all six of us to slob out on – there was even a log burner for a little added ambience. Smokeless logs were available to buy at the on-site supermarket, however, be prepared to re-mortgage your home if you want to buy them and a packet of Kettle Chips – decisions, decisions…
A chalkboard door kept the kids entertained for hours, even though we have one at home that they NEVER touch. Apologies to the family in after us for the small and soggy chalk, the little one kept trying to eat them.
(Don’t ask… Some kind of giant caterpillar, dinosaur vs house on fire situation)
Outside we had a BBQ and even our own private sauna, however, I was too scared to use it just incase this dude rocked up to join me, sans towel…
My only minor criticism of our lodge was the front door – it didn’t lock properly from the inside, so if a child were to pull on the handle (my one year old could reach it) then they’d just be able to wander outside. There was a chain right at the top so as long as it was on they couldn’t really get too far (didn’t stop me getting up three times a night to check it though).
Set in 365 acres of picturesque woodland the Woburn site is slightly smaller than other Center Parcs resorts – but don’t let its size deter you.
Because it’s not too vast, getting around by foot is fairly easy – bonus when you have a baby and your husband forgets to pack the pram. Nothing is more than a twenty-minute walk, and that was with me lugging a non-compliant one year old around.
The main Village and Plaza areas both have good selections of eateries, shops and, more importantly, Starbucks; clean and beautifully landscaped they are perfect destinations for early evening strolls.
Massive ‘big-up’ to Center Parcs’ resident ducks down on the lake – you MADE this holiday for our kids. I seriously don’t think they could have had a better holiday than if they’d had a trip to the Night Garden (I wouldn’t have been so pleased, reasons can be found here). Those birds are either extremely stupid, very tame or completely off their nut – either way I imagine staff have to pump them full of Valium each night just to take the edge off being relentlessly chased.
Subtropical Swimming Paradise
Or as I like to call it, hot humid hell. If you are, however, below the age of 10 and water slides are your thing then I imagine it’s very much like a wet, sweaty Disney Land. Having spent pretty much every day at the pool, I had to keep reminding myself it was a holiday for the kids – albeit paid for by an adult who had Monica’s ‘Barbados’ hair for four days straight.
The main area for pre-schoolers and up is Venture Harbour. Nautically themed, it’s full to the brim with slides, water canons and parents screaming “WAIT YOUR TURN!” Babies who don’t fancy getting rugby tackled by mental four-year olds can hang out in the slightly less chaotic Venture Bay. With shallow water that’s perfect for paddling and three gentle slides, it’s an aquatic paradise for little mermaids and mermen alike.
Images courtesy of barrandwray.com
The outdoor rapids are a must – they look tame but really aren’t! Great fun for grown-ups or strong swimmers only – don’t go taking your toddler down them unless you want social services knocking on your door.
Same to be said about the ‘Typhoon’ and ‘Twister’ rides – I won’t ruin the surprise but I nearly lost my breakfast and bikini bottoms in one fellow swoop (lucky lifeguard).
Adults who fancy leisurely lengths of the pool, this ain’t for you – book a Sandals holiday to Mauritius (err, jealous much).
So much to say about the pool I’ve thrown it into some bullet points:
- Warm shallow water for little ones to splash in for HOURS at a time
- Good age appropriate slides for toddlers, pre-schoolers and up
- Excellent changing facilities, plenty of family cubicles to go around
- Lodge wristbands also worked on the lockers, so no need to worry about a pound coin (for baby brain sufferers, there’s also a nifty machine that reads your wristband and reminds you of your locker number)
- Cots dotted around the pool area for when your baby is so overcome by heat and excitement they pass out
- Complimentary baby and child life vests, so if you’re looking for some extra room in the case then leave yours at home
- Cabanas are available to hire if you’re feeling particularly swanky, but not many so book in advance
- For nut jobs who fancy a coffee in the 30-odd degree heat then there’s even a Starbucks at your disposal
- The heat, oh dear god, the heat. They could probably knock the thermostat down a degree or two without everyone freezing to death. Our one-year old had a face like an angry tomato the whole time she was there (which thanks to her four-year old brother was for about four hours every day)
- Not much for adults. There’s the lazy river, above mentioned rapids and slides but nowhere to have a proper swim if you’re that way inclined. Realistically you don’t really holiday at Center Parcs unless you own a brood of hyperactive children, so I can’t imagine it’s too much of a draw back for that many people
- Seating isn’t great – a literal handful of sun loungers next to the Starbucks, after that you’re perched on pretty uncomfortable plastic chairs
- Good luck getting past the ice cream parlour and sweet shop on the way out…
Activities wise, we really didn’t do too much – on account of our son’s obsession with the subtropical swimming paradise.
The playgrounds were brilliant, lovely soft wood chippings to prevent them caving their heads in when they fell off swings etc. Also loads of soft play places dotted around in various restaurants (Sports Cafe and Pancake House to name a couple), so you can still wear them out if it’s raining and you just can’t face another day of Side Show Bob hair.
More indoor activities to be had at ‘The Plaza’ – climbing walls, badminton / tennis courts, table tennis etc. Also craft rooms and face painting, along with what I imagine to be an extortionately priced ‘Build a Bear’ type money trap.
On another day of biblical rain we headed indoors for a spot of bowling, which went down a treat but as with everything in Center Parcs you have to book in advance in order to avoid disappointment.
We decided against bike hire, mainly because the resort actually feels quite small and everything was pretty much within walking distance.
We did hire a boat on the lake, but to be honest, it wasn’t as fun as it looked. The ‘lake’ is more like a flooded puddle, it takes about 10 minutes to whiz round it in one of the electric boats – the kids were asking to get off after five. You’ll pay £20 for half an hour – if you’re in a large group then it’s worth splitting the time between you and sharing the costs.
We didn’t really have any intention of eating out during our stay – a four and one year old don’t make for a relaxing dining experience. That said, we ventured out twice, once to the Sports Cafe and another time to The Pancake House.
The Sports Cafe was fairly average and it took around 40 minutes for our food to arrive, that said, it was check-in day at lunch time so full of people whiling away the hours before they could get into their lodges.
The Pancake House was good, got in just before the lunchtime rush so super fast service – omelettes are available too if you can’t quite justify letting your kids OD on puddings for lunch.
The on-site ‘Parc Market’ is fairly well equipped (even managed to find some baby nail clippers), but pricey so make sure you stock up on all essentials before you arrive. Expect to pay double for what you’d normally part with for a loaf of bread.
I had every intention of visiting the Aqua Sana Spa, but I’m not overly fond on being touched by strangers and after a quick nosey at the price list I decided £85 was just too much for 55 minutes of awkwardness. There were cheaper options, facials or 25 minute massages, but to be honest I’d rather spend the money on shoes and let my husband go nuts with the olive oil.
Not keen on a treatment but want to check out the spa’s amazing facilities? A three-hour session will set you back about £40 (check out the different experiences here). In theory I really liked the idea of the sensory rain walk but as it was bucketing it down outside, I just went for a potter to the Parc Market.
If you fancy a swim in a pool that isn’t 50% water, 50% toddler pee then this might be the place for you.
Pleasantly surprised – not an over enthusiastic teenager in an ill-fitting, brightly coloured blazer in sight!
Would we come back for another family vacay? Definitely! In terms of what we needed for a holiday with small children, it ticked every box.
Yes once you’re in it’s a little on the expensive side – activities, food etc but you can easily minimise those costs by going self catering, using the pool facilities, taking your own bikes, walking, playgrounds, soft play etc.
At the end of the day, if your kids are anything like ours then they’ll be happy with the pool, the prospect of a grufflalo and a few daredevil ducks – none of which you have to book in advance.
Tired ‘N Tested Rating:
Prices and booking information can be found at www.centerparcs.co.uk