Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens

We bought Merlin Annual Passes this year which allow us access to over 30 UK Merlin Attractions across the year free of charge. We have two premium and three standard passes and pay around £50 per month. I intend on making the most of them and getting our money's worth (we've already saved £900) so planned a trip down south for us to visit the Southern theme parks this summer. You can read more about paying monthly for a Merlin Annual Pass here.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens

Travel & Accommodation 

We booked Ready Camp East Horsley for £350 Monday-Friday in the second week of the summer holidays. Ready Camp usually require £100 deposit and then the balance to be paid around 6 weeks before travel. We have stayed with Ready Camp before (you can read about our stay with them in Scarborough here) and knew that they were very well equipped. It was only around £70 more to book a Ready Camp tent than camping with electric hook-up so 100% worth the convenience for us. Ready Camp tents are equipped with furniture, a mini kitchen (including cooking rings, microwave, kettle and toaster) and plug sockets. The only thing they don't have is bedding and their own water supply. East Horsely was perfectly located for the Southern Merlin Theme Parks and everywhere was a 15-30 minute drive away. I think I'll write a full review of the site soon so won't go into too many details here.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Ready Camp Horsley Tent

We wanted to spend a full day in LEGOLAND on the Monday before checking into Ready Camp so booked the (affiliate) Premier Inn Peterborough (A1M) for £31 per room which was just off the A1 (obvs) with free parking and a pub. Ideal for a stop-off on the Sunday night. It was around a 3.5 hour drive to the Premier Inn from Newcastle and then a further 1.5 hour drive to LEGOLAND in the morning.


This was our second visit to LEGOLAND. We had visited before in the pouring rain and with Q-Bots (you can read more about our trip and tips from last time here) and this time we were treated to a beautiful sunny day.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - LEGOLAND selfie

If I am honest, I think this may have been our last visit to LEGOLAND. I find it to be the busiest of all the Merlin Parks (no matter what the weather is), the queues are always SO long and the rides are probably better suited to slightly younger children.

We still enjoyed our day here - we love the Star Wars area - the models here are brilliant and it's really worth taking your time walking through this zone. H&J played in the LEGO park which they weren't able to last time and we spent an hour or so at Drench Towers which is a brilliant splash park (take swimwear).

We dined at the Pizza and Pasta buffet which had increased in price from last year AND removed the unlimited ice cream so wasn't the best value at £50. It was just so busy and as soon as a pizza was refreshed, it was gone. I ended up eating slices of pizza which wouldn't have been my number one choice just because you kind of had to grab anything that was available or go without.

We only managed three actual rides at LEGOLAND this time - I think it's probably because we'd already been on them all last year and the kids just weren't keen on standing in one hour+ queues for rides that just aren't that thrilling. We still had a good day but like I say, I think our LEGOLAND days are over and our trip here was the shortest of all the Merlin theme parks.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - LEGOLAND drench towers

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Viking Water Ride LEGOLAND

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - LEGOLAND hill train

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - LEGOLAND play park

Chessington World of Adventures

We visited Chessington on a rainy day - not too heavy but enough for us to need to have our hoods up for most of the day. If I could give anyone advice about visiting a Merlin Park, it would be to wear waterproofs and visit on a rainy day. The queues are SO much shorter! Fast passes are pretty cheap (in comparison to the other parks) at Chessington and you are given some discount vouchers with Premium Passes so we bought a fast past for 4 rides at £10 each (so £50 in total). This combined with the fact that it was raining meant that we didn't feel as if we were queueing for anything and managed to squeeze loads into our day. I really think Chessington is a brilliant theme park for the whole family - there's an excellent mix of family rides, thrill rides, animal encounters, indoor attractions, family shows and more.

I mainly wanted to visit Chessington for the Gruffalo River Ride - the Gruffalo played a huge part in H, H and J's younger years and we all have a soft spot for him. The ride did not disappoint - it was magical and I loved it. I think if I'd have taken my toddlers on this ride I might have cried as it is so sweet. I couldn't resist buying some Gruffalo cakes for us to enjoy afterwards. During our visit there were Gruffalo meet and greets and shows too but I drew the line at that as I think the kids would have been mortified to have their mam dancing along to Gruffalo songs.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - gruffalo water ride entrance

Of all of the Merlin theme parks, I found Chessington to be the best value. Our lunch was only £22 for 5 of us including drinks in the burger bar (with MAP discount) and like I say, the fast passes were pretty reasonable too. The kids enjoyed a few rides without Steve and I including the swings (rode three times in a row), the indoor battle ball game & the Vampire rollercoaster.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - monkey swings at Chessington

The room on the broom ride is lovely too - it's a walkthrough attraction based on the story with lots of magic, spells and chances for kids to get involved. Try and let the kids walkthrough in front of the grown-ups so they don't miss anything.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - room on the broom at Chessington

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - gruffalo ride at Chessington

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Gruffalo cakes at Chessington

Chessington has its own zoo - the animals are very close / mixed in with the rides. We managed to see Tigers, Gorillas, Sealions, Giraffes, Lions, Monkeys, Zebra and more. There are various animal talks throughout the day (you're given a timetable on arrival or use the app) and there's a petting zoo and SEALIFE centre too - honestly so much to see and do.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Sealion show at Chessington

The only disappointment for us at Chessington was Zufari. This is a safari ride (included with admission) and we only managed to see giraffes in the very distance. We left thinking 'was that it??'. After chatting to others though I think Zufari is very hit and miss - I've seen some incredible photos of Rhinos and Giraffes within touching distance but it just wasn't meant to be for us. Top tips are to try and visit this ride first thing in the morning when the animals are most active and you normally see more when it's not raining. I think we just had a case of bad luck!

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - zufari truck at Chessington

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Gorillas at Chessington

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Lions at Chessington

Thorpe Park 

I can't believe we almost didn't visit Thorpe Park. Many people will say it's for those over 1.4m tall and in some ways, they are right. There are so many fantastic rides here for those who have reached that magic number. Harry is well over 1.4m tall and I knew he'd want to try some of the more grown up rides but Heidi and Jack are around 135cm so still had a little way to go. I worried they'd feel left out (Heidi is a thrill seeker) and I considered catching the train to London and visiting the London Merlin attractions instead (London Eye, SEALIFE, Shrek Adventure, London Dungeon and Madame Tussauds). There is a train station next to the campsite we were staying at with direct trains to London (around 40 minutes travel time). However, it was forecast to be 24 degrees and Thorpe Park has it's own beach and Angry Bird Land which I knew all of the kids would like so that swung it for me. The London attractions are all indoors so can wait until a winter adventure I think. 

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Angry Bird Dodgems at Thorpe Park

Thorpe Park is now our favourite Merlin Park. The theming is fantastic and there are SO many good rides for thrillseekers. Steve and I would take it in turns going on the grown-up rides with Harry while the others stayed in Angry Bird Land or on the smaller rides with H&J. Because Thorpe Park is perceived as a park for teens and not younger kids, the queues for the smaller rides are pretty much non-existant. Jack rode a shuggy boat on loop 15 times in a row while Steve and Harry were on Derren Brown's Ghost Train.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Angry Bird Land at Thorpe Park

There are a few faster rides for children who are 1.3m tall too - Heidi and I enjoyed the Angry Bird's detonator which goes up so high and then drops you to the floor and Steve, H and J went on Zodiac which was a fast spinning wheel where you pretty much go upside down.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Angry Bird Detonator ride at Thorpe Park

We loved Amity Beach - there's a sandy beach area with free loungers, a pool for kids to splash in, a small play park, a couple of water slides and a kiosk selling drinks and ice creams where you can come and go as you please. The kids loved playing here (they preferred it to Drench Towers at LEGOLAND) and Steve and I chilled out listening to Thorpe Park Radio which is kind of kitsch 50s style and hilarious! They played songs like Hand Jive and we loved it. This attention to detail is kind of what makes Thorpe Park great I think.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Amity Beach at Thorpe Park

Most of the themed scary rides are recommended for ages 13+. Harry is 13 next month and he was fine. I let Steve draw the short straw and go on the horror rides with him - during The Walking Dead ride you are chased by actual Zombies and in Derren Brown's Ghost Train, you wear a VR headset, feel as if you're trapped on a train and 'demons' actually touch you! Plus there are a few surprises which I won't ruin. The boys loved these rides and they're a great option for older tweens and teens (or just grown-ups).

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - The Walking Dead Ride at Thorpe Park

I braved SAW with Harry. Again, the theming was fantastic with some of the 'games' from the films being showcased in the queue and Jigsaw making an appearance on various TV screens and parts of the ride. The huge vertical drop was just about bearable for me.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - The SAW Ride at Thorpe Park

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Derren Brown Ghost Train Ride at Thorpe Park

The Angry Birds 4D movie shows every hour and is the best 4D experience I've had to date. The staff were brilliant and there were lots of special effects. Expect a few surprises on this one which is suitable for all ages.....

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Angry Birds 4D experience at Thorpe Park

In terms of food outlets, Thorpe Park has a Burger King and KFC franchise which pleased the kids.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Teacups at Thorpe Park

Thorpe Park is open until 8pm on certain days throughout the Summer at no additional cost. The park was a lot quieter after 5pm and I love that we didn't have to rush around. We ended the day with a ride on Tidal Wave which is hands down the best water ride we've ever been on - nothing prepares you for how wet you'll get. There was no queue after 6pm for this ride so Steve and the kids went on a couple of times in a row. Just the once was fine for me! We can't wait to return to Thorpe Park once Heidi and Jack reach 1.4m. I think we'll probably stay in the adjoining Shark Hotel as you get unlimited fast track before 11am if you do.

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Tidal Wave at Thorpe Park

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - How wet are we after Tidal Wave at Thorpe Park

Exploring the Southern Merlin Theme Parks with Tweens  - Water splash on Tidal Wave at Thorpe Park


Tips for Visiting Merlin Parks

  • Each park has its own app. Download before you visit and use throughout the day. The app shares live queue times, gives you walking directions, allows you to plan an itinerary, shows you which rides are in the area you are standing in (and their queue times), there are maps, showtimes and more. Worth their weight in gold and free to download. 
  • Log into the park's free WiFi on arrival - parks are busy and this can mean that 4G signal is poor/slow. We found the WiFi to be much quicker.
  • We find it easier to give each child their own backpack and carry their own things. I bought 10litre ones from Decathlon for £2.99. Typically we pack phones and headphones, a microfibre towel and swimshorts, a water bottle (you can refill for free at all parks), some change, a few snacks and a lightweight waterproof jacket. Don't bother with lockers - there are places to leave your bags on all rides. Snacks and phones were a must for ride queues. 
  • We never get to theme parks for them opening (we're late risers) which I think is the best time to avoid long queues, but found that the queue times did dies down after 3/4pm. We find mixing queuing for rides with watching a show/visiting a water play area/park/walkthrough experience/animal encounter is the best method to combat queue fatigue!
  • If you're sending older kids on a ride alone - check where the ride exit is and arrange a meeting point first as often they can be pretty hidden (hello Vampire ride!)

Benefits of a Merlin Annual Pass

  • You don't have to worry about entry fees or queuing to get into parks - simply scan your pass at the ticket gates. It is so easy! 
  • 20% discount on most dining in the parks and shopping in the gift shops 
  • Fast track discounts (extra money off voucher for premium pass holders)
  • Free parking for premium pass holders (this saved us almost £50 over the week)
  • Discounted entry to partner attractions
  • Up to 40% off accommodation
A holiday abroad for 5 of us in the summer holidays will set us back £2.5k at the very minimum and then we'd have spending money on top. For us, a Merlin break like this saved us so much money. I have already built the £50 per month for the passes into our monthly budget and the accommodation set us back £350 for Ready Camp and £60 for two Premier Inn rooms. We spent on average £40 on food in the parks and our entry and parking were already covered. We had a BBQ back at the tent most nights which was around £20 including beer and our fuel cost around £65 for the entire trip. We stopped off at National Trust Belton House on the way back (for which we also have annual passes). We did splash out £50 on fast passes at Chessington but we could have saved £ by taking picnics to the parks too. I reckon our 6 night mini-break cost under £700 all-in which considering how much fun we had, is really good I think. 

You can check out some of my other Merlin posts below:



  1. I loved this Sam - this might be a lengthy comment. I LOVE Legoland because we live fifteen minutes away and have had annual passes since the children were toddlers. As they're still only about 1.1m they're still small/young enough to really enjoy it and because we've had the passes it doesn't matter if we don't go on many rides - some times the park is HEAVING. And you're right, it's just a generally busy park. If we were further away we wouldn't visit that often and the queue times would definitely put us off. QBots are great but SO expensive there too. I grew up ten minutes away from Chessington and spend a big chunk of my childhood there. It's changed SO much over the years and it's definitely a great family park but we've had a couple of really bad days there over the last year that have put me off slightly - reading this has made me realise I need to go again and give it another try. The zoo, Sea Life and so many rides are fantastic. We felt the same after the safari ride - is that it!? Ours were just too little for Thorpe Park. They didn't like the small rides enough to go on them more than once and when we went it was SO hot and the beach area was heaving that it just wasn't enjoyable. I think we'll wait until ours are a little bigger like yours and then try again - it's so local that it would be a shame not to! Great post Sam - you've summer the parks up really well x

  2. We visited Legoland in Denmark a billion years ago and I was always anti a UK version but it does look like they've replicated it really well!

  3. Great post! We had merlin passes when the kids were teeny & did the london attractions and chessington one summer basing ourselves in a travellodge in surbiton. Really enjoyed using the passes! we def might look at buying them again in the future-thorpe park looks great and one we haven't done before.


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