There are two standard responses you get when you tell people you are going to Center Parcs. Either "You'll have a fabulous time" or "I hope you're taking plenty of money as it's very expensive." I have just returned from a fantastic break so the first phrase is definitely true for me. I really did not find it to be as expensive as people had told me it was and I believe the break can be as expensive or inexpensive as you make it. Once you have paid for your accommodation, everything else is an optional extra, therefore you are in control of your budget. Here are my top tips to making your money spread further at Center Parcs.
Firstly, there are lots of free activities included in your break. We absolutely loved the subtropical swimming paradise which is a million miles away from the normal experience I dread at our local pool. The subtropical swimming paradise is designed to make swimming as fun and stress free as possible. There are rows of family changing cubicles, free hot and clean showers with complimentary shower gel and you use your Center Parcs wristband to access your own personal locker which is fab. Once inside you can stay as long as you like and enjoy the waves (every half hour), child and baby pools (with free toys to borrow), lazy river, spa pools, outdoor lagoon, splash pools, swimming pools and numerous flumes and slides. There is so much to explore. We spent 3 hours in the pool but could have stayed longer. Center Parcs have thought of everything - you can borrow swimming aids and buoyancy jackets for free which is a lovely touch. My advice would be to either head down for the pool opening at 10am and leave for lunch or visit after lunch and spend the whole afternoon there. If you did wish to purchase food from the cafe I didn't find the prices too bad if you chose carefully - our children enjoyed a children's meal and drink deal for £5.95 and I shared a portion of large fries (£2) with hubby.
Another part of the park which we weren't expecting was the huge adventure playground. It was fantastic and there were lots of interesting climbing frames and nets, slides, wheels, treehouses and sand pit's to keep my 3,5 and 7 year old entertained for hours. I was offered advice on my facebook page to take a picnic for our first day and I'm really pleased we did. There is a lovely picnic area next door to the adventure playground and we spent the whole afternoon here before we could enter our accommodation at 3:30pm. Definitely pack a picnic for your first day if you are planning on arriving before 3:30pm - there are picnic tables by the lake too.
The ranger's lodge is situated in the heart of the forest and is a free area to explore. We spent a few hours here reading and learning about the various animals in the woods, looking at the insect hides, trying to spot wildlife and completing the 'spotter's board' with details of the animals we had spotted. There are a few little toadstool picnic tables here too which are the ideal place to enjoy a snack (plan ahead and take your own snacks in a cool bag).
A break at Center Parcs would just not be the same if it didn't involve cycling. You are welcome to bring your own bikes from home to keep costs down (remember a bike lock). We decided to hire our bikes - you can hire for 24 hours or for the duration of your break. This is an ideal option if space in your car is limited. We also took our children's fold up scooters as these did not take up much room in the car and they loved playing outside our lodge on them. Our children loved going on a family bike ride around the forest. It was something we did every day and thoroughly enjoyed so definitely worth the cost.
There is a small beach at Whinfell around the lake. Make sure you pack your buckets and spades as it is the ideal place to relax for a few hours for free.
You can pick up a 'What's on during our break' leaflet from guest services or the village centre and it will detail all of the activities available during your break. There is a free children's disco a couple of times per week in the leisure bowl or if you prefer something a little more low key, make sure you pack some DVD's and popcorn to enjoy a family DVD night in your lodge.
My last free activity I would recommend would be to make your own nature trail or wild scavenger hunt for you family. Our children loved running around the woods collecting pine cones, feathers and leaves.
There are many low cost activities you can book on your break and it can be tempting to book too many. My advice would be to book nothing for your arrival day while you get your bearings and leave one other day completely free of pre-booked activities so you can relax. On all other days I would book one or two activities. Activities can be booked and paid for up to six months in advance which is great when planning your budget. Maybe book something every month to spread the cost or do what I did and use some of your Christmas money to pay for your activities. You can check out the full range of actvities here. Our top low cost activity pick would be the baby owl experience. This is only £6.50 per person and is suitable for all ages. The experience lasts 45 minutes and we all got the chance to hold, stroke and learn all about owls. This is a great activity for families and you can take as many photo's as you like so also great if you are a budding wildlife photographer. Other low cost activity options include mini crossbows and mini ballerina's (both £6.50 each) and the teddy bears picnic (£9.75 per child inc lunch).
There are a few free softplay's dotted around the park. We tried the softplay inside the lakeside inn. Our children enjoyed it and I found the drinks prices to be very reasonable - a child's juice (with lid and sparkle straw) was only £1 and a glass of wine/pint was just over £4 each. A round of drinks for 5 came to just over £11. Considering this included softplay and free wifi I found this to be excellent value for money.
When it comes to shopping, the on-site supermarket was expensive (a loaf of bread was £1.79). We would advise planning your meals and bringing your own shopping with you. Plan picnic style lunches to enjoy when you are out and about and definitely pack a couple of disposable BBQ's to enjoy if the weather forecast is good.
There are lots of restaurants located around the site and as you are on holiday it is nice to have a break from cooking and plan a couple of meals out if your budget allows. Make sure you pick up the 'inspirational dining offers' leaflet from the village centre which details the offers of the week in various restaurants. During our break, Bella Italia were running a 2 courses for £9.95 deal if booked before 5pm and kids could enjoy 3 courses plus a drink for £5.25 which is a bargain. There were also buy one get one free deals on burgers and fish n chips at the Sports cafe on various nights which would work out fairly inexpensive. If you can never fill your children, there is an 'all you can eat kids buffet' at Hucks for £8 including a child's cocktail and dessert which we found to be excellent value.
Our children were given spending money from their grandparents and of course wanted to spend it in 'just for kids'. I hate paying over the odds for something and quickly googled the prices of toys whilst in store. I am pleased to say that they toys our children chose were actually cheaper in store than they were on amazon that day (a cuddly owl, Thomas trains and Ninja turtle shell).
So, these are our top tips for making the most of your money at Center Parcs. As you can see, you really don't need a lot of money and you can still have lots of fun on a smaller budget. Check out our flipagram on youtube for more top tips and please comment below if you have any other tips to share.