The full Morgan low down on going to Center Parcs, without spending all your money!
Center Parcs was always somewhere I thought of as being a bit pricey and pointless. Why would I pay so much money to wander around a forest? There are forests everywhere! Why would I pay so much for a UK break when I could go somewhere else (warmer) for the same money? Why do they charge loads on top for the extras like cycle hire and classes? And so on!
Tom went as a child though and had good memories of being there, plus we had been in Liverpool city centre for a while (amazing by the way) and a week in the countryside seemed like a good plan. We had a look at the prices and did a bit of thinking about making it an affordable and fun option.
The first part is not spending too much on your initial package. Obviously, prices go up during holidays, so book outside of the UK school holiday times if possible. If not, try to look in advance and move your dates around a bit to see where you can get the best deal. There are a range of lodges available from basic woodland ‘cabins’ to treehouses and lodges with hot tubs and saunas. I had read that the old-style, basic cabins were dated and that it was best to upgrade. Now this might well be true, I can’t speak for all the cabins at all the Center Parcs, but we went with the cheapest accommodation and were really impressed with our 3 bed home, which cost £874 for the week (w/c 9/3/20). It definitely didn’t feel like we missed out not being in a more expensive option. Although of course a hot tub would be fab! The basic option for our family size, has 3 bedrooms (2 twins and a double) a family bathroom and a big open plan kitchen/dining/living room. The kitchen is fairly well equipped (microwave, toaster, oven, hob, utensils, crockery etc), there is a TV, the sofa is a huge L shaped job and outside is a garden table, barbecue and a lovely view of the forest. Plus, in a great design decision for somewhere you are outdoors a lot, as you come in the front door there is also an extra toilet, a utility space, and an area to leave boots/coats/pushchairs/(children?) to dry in front of a radiator!
Next up is the activity choices. Center Parcs has an absolutely amazing range of extra activities on offer. There are things for all age ranges: football classes, cooking, zip wires, boats, golf, painting, even stroking baby owls! It is hard not to feel like you are cheating your children of these wonderful experiences if you don’t sign up for a bunch. We didn’t show our bigger two the full list, we went through it and made a shortlist of ones we felt were worth the money and that they would get the most of out. The activities last different lengths of time, some require parents to be there and some are three hours long with no parent needed (YES!!). We made it really clear that once they had been booked in for their choices, they would not get to add anything else to the list once we arrived. I have to say that all the activities the children did were so well organised and thought out, they had an amazing time at each one and it really did feel like it was worth the extra cash. Arthur doing Falconry was something really lovely to see and he was just so happy the entire time.
However, you wouldn’t need to add activities. You get access to the fully heated ‘subtropical swimming paradise’ included in your original package; all the pool areas, the wave machine, water slides and play/splash areas (not all CPs have these). That alone is enough to keep most families busy. We were happy in there for hours most days! Then outside there are paths, tracks and forest spaces to explore and a few outdoor play areas to let the kids go wild on. There is also wildlife everywhere. Our three loved walking around watching the squirrels, ducks and geese. The animals also provide some free indoor entertainment as they come up to the patio doors a lot. We even had a pheasant come pecking around to find food!
Then the food. It is pretty expensive to eat out at Center Parcs. There are a range of high street restaurants (Cafe Rouge, Bella Italia, Starbucks) and then some house brand options like Pancake House and Forester’s Inn. Most of them do offer a couple of good deals. Those would probably be worth looking at if you did want to treat yourselves to a meal out. For example Bella Italia offer DIY pizzas for kids, so it’s kind of an activity too and Cafe Rouge do an afternoon tea for two for £18.99 (you can add the kids on for about £3 each). A fish and chips at the Forester’s Inn is £14.30 though and chicken fajitas at Huck’s are £15.49: it’s not ridiculous money but if you are a largish family you could spend a lot pretty quickly on food and drink. I planned most of our meals before hand, did an online shop and then put it straight into the car to drive to Center Parcs. I planned for easy things like pasta and sauce, pizzas, pie and mash so that after a busy day I wouldn’t give in and use the (very tempting) dine-in service or just head to a restaurant. The Parc Market is pretty well stocked, so for the last couple of days we bought from there. They stock a wide range of stuff, including Co-op products and the Cook range, which is pretty handy. Also make sure you bring a small amount of cleaning products/loo roll if you do a weeks stay. They do provide you with a couple of bits but I would have brought a general surface spray and maybe loo cleaner if I had known in advance. There also isn’t a washing machine in the cabins, so pack enough pairs of knickers or bring some laundry stuff to do a hand wash in the sink!
So there we go, ways to be able to enjoy Center Parcs without it costing too much! We really did have a fabulous week. It was lovely just being able to walk around (the parks are pretty much car-free zones) or even just look out of the windows and enjoy the forest and being so immersed in nature. The children all had an absolutely amazing time. Bertie (who is just over 2) loved spotting all the animals and splashing around in the pool’s shallow areas. Arthur and Eirlys enjoyed their extra activities so much and would have stayed on the water slides all day if we had let them!
Downsides – It wouldn’t be a fair post if I didn’t admit to their being a few negatives, as these would probably change the experience for some people. It can get very busy and crowded in the pool areas, which is not everyone’s idea of a relaxing time. I honestly thought it would annoy me more than it did, I was having too much fun watching the children enjoy themselves, but it can be a bit much. If you end up in a cabin far away from the Village Square, it is a bit of walk to where the pool and shops are. We did enjoy the walking, but then it didn’t rain much! You can hire bicycles, which does look like fun but costs extra, or bring your own with you. It does also require some willpower not to spend money in the shops, restaurants or on more activities, or at least it did for us!