Is Center Parcs a Marmite kind of place? It’s certainly not for everyone. We have visited Center Parcs three times now and our most recent trip at February half term to Elveden in Suffolk was our first visit during a school holiday (our kids were 5 and 2). It was quite a shock going into the swimming pool on the Saturday with what felt like half of the UK’s kids, it was packed. We had a great time overall but we were pretty shattered by the time we got home. For those of you who’ve never spent half term at Center Parcs and are wondering whether it’s for you or not, here’s my lowdown on what to expect.
The accommodation is pretty good quality and comes well equipped. Dishwasher, microwave, Wi-Fi and a fireplace all come as standard in the Woodland Lodge, which is the lead-in accommodation at Center Parcs. There’s a TV in both the living room and the master bedroom and there’s a large blackboard next to the kitchen which our kids enjoyed scrawling on during their stay. Cots are also included in all properties. If you’re happy to spend a bit more money, you can include a hot tub, sauna, games room or even stay in a treehouse (although I’d say that description is a little misleading as it looks more like a house on stilts albeit a very luxurious one).
This was our main reason for visiting Center Parcs. We’re keen to improve our kids’ confidence in the water and this is undoubtedly the place to do it: pirate ship splash area, lazy river, wave machine, slides galore, outdoor pool, warm “lagoon” pool, it really is a great place to take your children. There are free life jackets, a café, drying rooms (if you’re too lazy to use a towel), coin-free lockers (in some of the resorts, not at Elveden) and even family cabanas for hire where you can watch TV if you feel so inclined.
Center Parcs and in particular Elveden, is excellent if you have as we do, small children on bikes. Elveden is pretty flat and once the cars are safely in the main car park (where they remain until check out) there are long safe streets and paths for children to whizz along to practice their cycling. The landscaping has been really well thought out so you do indeed feel like you are staying in the forest (this is particularly so at Elveden, the newest resort of Woburn is more hilly and the accommodation doesn’t feel as well spaced out). In spite of it being February half term, the roads and paths felt pretty empty.
You can pay extra to specify where on the resort you would like to stay. We didn’t reserve a particular lodge so we were allocated one at the furthest reaches from the resort centre. This really isn’t a problem as the walk from our lodge would only have taken about ten minutes. And it meant that our living room had an uninterrupted view of the forest and we had a great cycle ride each day up to the swimming complex. From our window we spotted rabbits, squirrels (unnaturally friendly unfortunately), a great spotted woodpecker plus a multitude of other birds. We also spied a muntjac deer on one of our bike rides. Cycling along the paths and roads, particularly in the evening, felt really lovely and the boys loved cycling in the dark with the their lights on (not something we’ve done at home yet).
Although you can’t check into your accommodation until 3pm (or 2pm if you pay a bit extra), you can use the resort facilities from 10am. I’m so glad we headed to the pool straight after lunch on our day of arrival, it was the only time during our stay when it wasn’t completely rammed with people. Previously when we’ve visited Center Parcs it has been during term time when the swimming complex is much quieter.
You don’t have to part with lots of cash
It was freezing during the February half term, in fact it snowed for much of our visit. However, we were outdoors for a fair part of our stay, either cycling or making use of the playgrounds. One of the play areas is next to a bar with an outdoor terrace where grown ups can sit with a hot drink (or something stronger) and watch their kids. When we weren’t outdoors we were in the pool so aside from the childcare we booked, we didn’t actually pay for any other activities.
The eateries at Center Parcs are crowd pleasers: Italian, French, American and Indian cuisines are all covered but the menus are rather predictable and the snob in me did long for somewhere which wasn’t a chain. However, the staff were incredibly kind and patient with what must have been an endless stream of overexcited children. At lunchtimes the restaurants were surprisingly quiet but the evenings were sometimes fully booked. Each restaurant has a soft play area for children to disappear into before or after (or possibly during) the meal. I wasn’t a fan of this initially, I’d prefer meal times to be a moment of downtime but once the kids realised there was a play area everywhere we went, we succumbed and enjoyed a peaceful coffee after lunch.