We’ve just got back from Center Parcs and I can confirm an excellent time was had by all. Since the small boy appeared on the scene three years ago we’ve been eagerly anticipating the time when he was old enough to appreciate Winter Wonderland Center Parcs. The lights in the trees; Christmassy activities; meeting and chatting with Father Christmas. This year was our chance, so in August we booked it. Four magical nights in the Winter Wonderland at Whinfell village, we couldn’t wait.
When we first started going to Center Parcs around 8 years ago, we had stacks of disposable income. We were young(ish) with decent(ish) jobs, earning ok(ish) money. Since then we’ve added the small boy to our ranks; my husband’s business has taken a knock during the economic downturn and I’ve quit my old, miserable, but fairly well paid job in search of self-employed happiness.
This means that from now on our holidays and leisure activities need to be more budget than barnstorming. With this in mind we set to work figuring out how to have an amazing time without spending an awful lot. I confess there were somewhat mixed results with this, but if you’re going, you might learn from our mistakes.
The secret to saving money or not spending it in the first place is planning. We formulated a two-pronged attack. I was responsible for meal planning and catering. Together we chose which would be the most fun activities with the best fun-to-cost ratio. Husband was responsible for paying for it and remembering to put all the holiday food in the car before we left. Remember that.
Food at Center Parcs
Center Parcs does indeed have its own little supermarket, most of the products are reasonably priced and in line with maybe Tesco, but in this house we run on an Aldi budget. The plan was to stock up on staples at home and buy fresh fruit and veg etc there.
The night before we left I sent Hodge to Aldi with a perfectly detailed list of essentials which he dutifully bought. These essential essentials were neatly packed in a bag ready for popping in the car before we left. I was to pack up a few fresh things that were floating around our home kitchen, such as bread and milk before we left that morning, which I did do. Jobs-a-good’un.
The flaw to this plan, and I suspect you’ve already picked up on it, was that the large bag of essential foodstuffs bought especially for our holiday was left beautifully packed at home. Meaning that on arrival we had to re-purchase said foodstuffs at the ok-but-slightly-more-than-we’d-normally-pay prices. Ouch.
Activities at Whinfell
If you’ve got kids then the secret to a budget-friendly break at Center Parcs is the exotically named “Subtropical Paradise” or “swimming pool” as we call it. If you can tear yourselves away from the pool-side cafes and state of the art cabanas, then you can while away a few hours each day enjoying the waves, rapids, canyon rides and water slides. This was the key to our master plan and by jingo it worked!
The small boy loved it, we all loved it. There was a little something for each of us. I got to swim properly in a small roped off area. Husband, the ageing adrenaline junkie loved the rides and slides and the small boy liked bobbing up and down in the waves and pouring buckets of water over my head. You could really easily spend the day here.
In terms of forking out for fun we booked two things which we thought he’d love. The first was “Woodland Tails” which was brilliant; we had a walk through the woods with a ranger who then took us back to the Rangers Lodge to meet a polecat, a hedgehog and a very tame and beautiful tawny owl. The small boy loved it and it was worth every penny.
Ok, so we did massively push the boat out on an absolutely non-negotiable part of the break. Husband and I wanted, needed, insisted upon having a spa session together. This meant the small boy needed to be put in the crèche (or go to a brilliant party, which is how I sold it to him). Together our three hours of spa-bliss and a crèche place cost almost £100, but by-heck it was worth it. We really needed that afternoon of relaxation.
Center Parcs is littered with playgrounds and is incredibly bike friendly. You could easily get away with not booking and paying extra for any activities at all. There are a few free things around the village, trim-trails and so forth to keep you occupied. Or you could just spend your time bouncing from one Starbucks to another.
Winter Wonderland What’s On
During the “winter wonderland” season at Center Parcs they have a twice weekly firework display. I’m not a massive fireworks fan, but it was free. It was the small boy’s first display and it was absolutely lovely. There were lots of oohs and aahs from the watching crowds and the look on his little face just about says it all. Totally worth the £3.95 each for a mulled wine and mince pie while we waited at the pub.
Our second Winter Wonderland toddler activity was a visit to meet Father Christmas. Priced at £10 we thought this was actually really good value for money. You could explore Santa’s Workshop before going in to meet the man himself. You had a nice chat with him, got a pretty decent present and your picture taken, all included in the price. His workshop was located in a beautiful winter wonderland which we spent a few hours exploring.
After this we all felt incredibly festive and it was worth going to Center Parcs for just for that experience alone.
We do really love Center Parcs. I think as the small boy gets older we’ll start giving him a small activity budget so he can decide what he wants to try or do. We can’t wait to go back. We’re going to book a return visit for the spring. Hopefully this time my husband will remember to pack the food.
I’ll admit, it wasn’t the bargain-basement break we were after; but it was the slightly more expensive but brilliant holiday we needed, and that’s what counts.
I’ve also had a separate article about our winter wonderland Center Parcs break published in Mums & Dads Magazine, you can read it here.