We’ve just spent a weekend at Centre Parcs Elvedon Forest with our 3-year-old and what everyone wants to know is, was it worth the money?
I feel like I need to preface my answer by saying we are probably not your typical Centre Parcs’ customers. We have just 1 child who we travel with a lot and are used to doing so independently. Our last few staycations we rented a barn in Norfolk, a cabin in Cornwall and a cottage in the Brecon Beacons. We visited Centre Parcs this summer as my sister was holidaying there with her 4 boys (aged 8 to 2) and we wanted to spend time with family while seeing for ourselves what a Centre Parcs holiday was like for young families. We had a great time (see highlights reel here) but would I do it again? Probably not. Certainly not until our son was older and definitely outside of summer holidays.
If you’re considering taking a toddler to Centre Parcs here’s what we liked and didn’t like about it and why, in all honestly, we believe it’s probably not worth the money for under 3s. That being said, if you also have older kids who will get a lot out of it, there is definitely lots to keep a toddler happy.
What’s Center Parcs Elvedon Forest like?
As first timers at Centre Parcs we had no idea what to expect really. I was pleasantly surprised by how pretty the setting at Elvedon Forest is and we loved that (after everyone has checked in) the park is car-free so you can cycle and scoot with little ones without worrying about road traffic.
What I hadn’t considered, however, is that what makes it so great is also a huge pain as you can only drive up to your lodge for check in at 4pm, when everyone else is trying to do the same thing.
While you can arrive at the park any time after 10am on the day of check in, no one gets access to their accommodation until 4pm. Cars have to be left in the main car park until then, so come 4pm there is a rush to get your car out of the car park and, depending on where you are staying, it can take a while to drive to your lodge as everyone else is also unloading then.
We’d booked a dinner for 5pm that day which was a mistake as we were only just getting our bags to our room then. I’m sure more experienced visitors plan their days better but it felt like we spent most of Friday going to and from the car park. (Cars have to be returned to the car park that night so Justin went on another 30-minute mission later that evening.)
I thought our Woodland Lodge was very charming (from the outside) but there were definitely signs of wear and tear in the interior. (We read that the lodges were last updated in 2011 so while they are ‘new style’ they are still over 10 years old now.)
The beds were very sloppily made. Duvet covers had been left off because of the heatwave but all our fitted sheets were also on inside out. I spent a good 10 minutes remaking the beds after check in.
There’s a lot of what you need for a holiday with a toddler (high chair, step in the loo etc) but we have been to places that were better set up for younger ones. Our villa last year at Mousses Lefkfada, for example, came with a baby bath, bath mat & toys, and this gorgeous holiday cottage in Devon had loads of children’s cutlery and plates. I guess the good thing about UK holidays is you can bring a lot of baby & toddler staycation essentials with you, but I did think a family-centric place like this would have more of those things already in the lodges.
The main thing that surprised us though was how toddler unfriendly the outdoor space near the accommodation is. I know each Parc is different but at Elvedon Forest there is a lot of open water. The patio to the lodges is unfenced and in our case it led to a steep hill with brambles and a bog at the bottom.
It was fine with a 3-year-old, Miles had a great time playing in the forest with the older children in neighbouring lodges, but I think if your little ones are younger you couldn’t fully relax out there. It’s very easy to lose sight of the kids. In fact, I had to help a Dad one evening after his 5-year-old followed a deer past our lodge and he couldn’t find him. If you also have an explorer on your hands I think that’s worth knowing before going!
It is fun spotting the wildlife around the park though. Little monkjack deer and squirrels would come right up to our window. We also loved that the accommodation wasn’t overlooked at all. The lodges are set far back from the road and the outdoor areas are quite private – that is, if your 3-year-old hasn’t invited everyone over to play at your place!
Swimming with a toddler at Centre Parcs
We were really excited to check out the Subtropical Swimming Paradise and spent 2 afternoons there as it’s the main free thing to do at Centre Parcs villages. I thought the Wild Water Rapids were amazing; my sister and I got completely tangled and I haven’t laughed that hard since I was a kid.
But the zone for younger children, Venture Cove, is incredibly loud and overwhelming and our 3-year-old was not a fan of it. There is almost too much going on, the gush from all the water cannons and slides is deafening and from a parent’s perspective hanging out in a dark, low-ceilinged corner with damp floors and plastic chairs didn’t do it for me.
We ended up taking Miles around the Lazy River 6 times and hanging out in the marginally quieter Lagoon Pool. But we didn’t spend as much time at the pool as I imagined as it was just too busy and there is nowhere comfortable to sit and escape the crazy for a bit.
There are plenty of plastic chairs and even a café bar and Starbucks in the Swimming Paradise, but it felt like everyone was on top of each other and lots of the chairs were claimed already whenever we went in. I’ve since read there are Cabanas you can rent so this might be worth doing for large groups/families who want a base for themselves.
For older kids, the pool is wonderful. The slides and wave pool seemed a lot of fun and my older nephews could wear themselves out doing the flumes and rapids over and over again without much queuing.
There are a few (literally 10) sun loungers outside so if it’s a sunny day and you arrive early, claim them!
What activities can 3-year-olds do at Centre Parcs?
Aside from swimming, we booked Miles onto a pony ride and did adventure golf and had a ride on an electric boat as a family. We didn’t want to spend too much on paid activities as we’d already spent so much on the holiday. (Apart from swimming and playgrounds everything is extra – even a few petanque balls is £6.) The Mini Trek aerial rope course looked great but was cancelled due to the heatwave.
I was really impressed with how easy everything is to book on the app and how smoothly everything ran – there was hardly any wait time during what is obviously a very busy time of year. But you can very quickly get through activities – the pony ride is 14 mins, adventure golf was 30, the boat ride was boring after 15! – that we were often left wondering what to do next.
Miles would have been more than happy to spend all his time at the playgrounds and in the mini soft play they have in restaurants (more on that later) but this is no different than what we do at home really.
The weather did make things a little more difficult for us too. There is a small, sandy ‘beach’ area by the lake but it had no chairs or shade so wasn’t practical in the 30-degree heat. Swimming was prohibited in the lake (we think because of algae) so there was nowhere to paddle and cool off either. I’m not sure if there are parts of the park we missed but apart from our lodge there didn’t seem to be anywhere you could relax away from other families.
We did go to the disco in the bowling alley one evening which all the boys enjoyed. I’d recommend looking up if there’s one on during your visit as all our toddlers loved it.
Restaurants at Centre Parcs
We dined at Bella Italia, The Sports Bar, Hucks, The Forresters Inn, The Pancake House and had Italian takeaway one evening and I really enjoyed all our meals. They were all as expected – nothing fancy but still tasty. BBQ ribs followed by a chocolate fudge sundae at Huck’s American Bar and Grill was definitely my favourite. There is a Co-op Supermarket on site too with a bakery and sandwiches etc so we grabbed a couple of lunches there that were purse-friendly.
All the restaurants had good kid’s menus and service was very friendly. They also all have children’s play areas in them which was both a blessing and a curse really. Our 3-year-old is not the best eater so convincing him to come to the table and eat when there is soft play right next to us was difficult. We ended up feeding Miles at the lodge before going out to dinner and then letting him play when at the restaurants. Usually on holiday he will do colouring or a puzzle at the table while we eat so I wasn’t used to having one eye on the play area while also trying to enjoy a meal. My sister’s boys didn’t have that problem though. They all loved their meals, especially the decorate your own pancakes and gingerbread men at The Pancake House. This was just something we struggled with personally.
I thought there might be a fancier dining option for adults who are child-free but there wasn’t at Elvedon Forest. We ate early each day though so maybe the main restaurants get a bit quieter and more adult-friendly after 8pm.
What we spent
For a 3-night break at Center Parcs Elvedon Forest in August 2022 for 2 adults & 1 child we spent £1400.
Approx costs were as follows:
£904 on accommodation (New Style Woodland Lodge, 2 bedroom)
£100 on 2 adult bikes and 1 child seat
£75 activities (Junior Pony Ride £20.50, Adventure Golf 9 holes £24.50, Electric Boat 6 seater £30)
£320 food & drink
I hope this doesn’t come across as a negative review as we genuinely enjoyed our weekend at Center Parcs and I can see why it would be appealing for families with children of different ages and interests. Even with all the faff over parking and unloading, it’s a lot easier to check into a lodge at Center Parcs than flying with a baby or toddler – that I cannot argue with.
I also like that it does feel like a getaway. My gripe with family staycations is that sometimes you travel so far just to end up buying cereal in Tesco on your first day and destroying the illusion of being on holiday. Being in a scenic, self-contained resort surrounded by nature does make you feel like you’re on a break – we’re just the kind of people who would rather be exploring new places than doing activities.
Like most travel with toddlers, I found it quite exhausting. The ferrying between one activity to the next, the amount of stimulation and distractions for little ones, the general noise of being around so many other families – it wore me out! But I’m just one middle-aged mum with a very subjective opinion, I know so many people who absolutely love it. Please take my opinion with a pinch of salt and let me know if you have any questions about Center Parcs with toddlers.
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