Nirvana for frazzled middle-class parents or an overpriced Butlin’s for snobs? When it comes to Center Parcs, opinions are firmly divided.
Now Center Parcs UK and Ireland is up for sale. Its current owner, Brookfield, is hoping to cash in on the brand’s success and fetch as much as £5 billion (double what it paid in 2015) for the chain of one Irish and five UK sites which attract more than two million guests per year. So is it worth the price tag? Do the villages make for the perfect holiday — or hell on earth? Five writers give their verdicts . . .
My panic attack in the swimming dome
Kathryn Knight, 51, lives in South-West London with her husband Duncan, 41, and daughter Connie, ten.
We all have our own idea of what hell looks like, and mine is the domed ‘Subtropical Swimming Paradise’ at Center Parcs in Woburn Forest, Bedfordshire, on a Saturday morning in term-time.
That’s where I found myself for a grim ten minutes in April 2014, trying to change my 11-month-old daughter Connie’s swim nappy under that giant, overheated glass bell jar amid a cacophony of noise and chlorine-soaked air so overwhelming I started to hyperventilate.
We all have our own idea of what hell looks like, and mine is the domed ‘Subtropical Swimming Paradise’ at Center Parcs in Woburn Forest, Bedfordshire, on a Saturday morning in term-time, writes Kathryn Knight
There was nothing else to do but to make a run for it: spying an emergency exit sign, I thrust my daughter into my bewildered husband’s arms and bolted, yanking open the door to emerge into the forest outside.
I had never really wanted to go to what felt like a giant Ikea in the first place — let alone twice. But back in 2011, my husband Duncan and I, then still child-free, had been dragooned into a Center Parcs visit for the first time with a gang of my school friends who, as new parents, needed a child-friendly venue.
And boy was it child-friendly. There were lots of children. Everywhere. In the restaurants and cafes, on the bike paths and definitely in the flagship swimming paradise, from where their waterslide screams could be heard from quite a distance. That, and the identikit lodges dotted throughout the site, gave the whole place a faintly sinister Truman Show feel.
Fast forward three years — and by now with a daughter of my own — to Center Parcs we reluctantly returned. This time, the pool was billed as an active draw by my friends, who promised Connie would love it.
I wasn’t about to find out. Off I went again to the coffee shop, having waved Duncan off with a bag of baby swimming paraphernalia which I was sure would buy me a couple of hours’ peace at least.
Kathryn has a panic attack when changing her daughter Connie’s swim nappy under the ‘giant, overheated glass bell jar amid a cacophony of noise and chlorine-soaked air’
Not 15 minutes later, I got a text message: Connie had already been through two swim nappies, could I bring another? Fuming, I had to navigate my way through the changing rooms — now sporting giant plastic blue overshoes over my trainers — to emerge fully-clothed into a spectral horror.
In the boiling heat, with children skidding past me, shrieking, on the watery floor, I tried to calm a now furious and writhing Connie.
And that’s when it happened. The heat, the noise, the sheer enclosed horror of it all. I had to get away, furious daughter or otherwise. Emergency exit it was.
‘You take her’ I balled at Duncan and ran for it.
Am I the only person to have had a panic attack in the Subtropical Swimming Paradise of a regional Center Parcs? Who knows? I do know that you simply couldn’t pay me enough to go back.
It makes the country bearable to urbanites
Helen Carroll, 55, lives in North London with her husband Dillon, 56, and children Daniel, 21, Isobel, 18, and Christian, 15.
Being stranded in the middle of nowhere, where the only cafe shuts at 4pm, is the stuff of nightmares for me.
Diehard city-dweller that I am, I’m always happiest within tottering distance of a Tube station and a Costa — which makes Center Parcs the ‘acceptable’ face of the countryside.
When my three children were younger, it provided the perfect antidote to the guilt I felt that they never got to experience the freedom of cycling, or breathing clean air, thanks to living just a stone’s throw from London’s North Circular.
Being stranded in the middle of nowhere, where the only cafe shuts at 4pm, is the stuff of nightmares for me, writes Helen Carroll
When my three children were younger, it provided the perfect antidote to the guilt I felt that they never got to experience the freedom of cycling, or breathing clean air
We had some highly memorable breaks, first at the Elveden Forest, Suffolk, site when they were all tiny, and then, in the lap of luxury in a treehouse at Longleat, Wiltshire, when they were aged 12, nine and five.
The sites are car-free, so it gave them a taste of my 1970s childhood in Yorkshire, freewheeling all the way to the swimming pool and roaming around the forests, gathering sticks.
The fact everything is within walking distance — unlike in the actual countryside where you have to take your life in your hands crossing cow fields just to get to the one, solitary pub — was also a huge plus.
We didn’t have to stray far to keep the kids entertained and, luckily, given we were there in January and a fair chunk of it is open air, the swimming pool is heated like a bath.
There are also restaurants on site, including an American diner, Café Rouge and Bella Italia — hardly cordon bleu but it suited the kids — so we didn’t have to worry about stocking up at the one minimart in the village before it, too, closed at 4pm.
There are also restaurants on site, including an American diner, Café Rouge and Bella Italia — hardly cordon bleu but it suited the kids
Imagine my delight when I discovered we were able to order Chinese, Indian and Italian food, direct to our Treehouse. How civilised.
The one big downside, however, was the expense. The cost for five of us to visit Center Parcs would have bought us a trip to sunnier climes with money to spare. A glance at the website tells me a four-night stay in one of the luxury treehouses this August would cost us just shy of £5,000 — double the price of a four star all- inclusive holiday to a Majorca hotel!
And, if it’s a choice between two weeks of guaranteed sunshine or a long weekend of downpours at Center Parcs, the sunshine break wins!
A middle-class en masse rip off
Antonia Hoyle, 44, lives with her husband and children Rosie, 12, and Felix, ten, in Lincolnshire.
Unpacking our suitcases on arrival at Center Parcs, I couldn’t hide my disappointment at our lodge’s unimaginative decor and living room barely big enough to swing a cat in.
Our children, Rosie, then ten, and Felix, eight, giggled as my husband rolled his eyes. ‘You’re such a snob.’
Unpacking our suitcases on arrival at Center Parcs, I couldn’t hide my disappointment at our lodge’s unimaginative decor and living room barely big enough to swing a cat in, writes Antonia Hoyle
He’s wrong. I’ve happily holidayed in far cheaper self-catering properties. My objection wasn’t to the size of the lodge, but the fact we’d paid £259 a night on an accommodation-only basis for lacklustre homes indistinguishable from the hundreds of other lodges in Center Parcs’ Elveden Forest, Suffolk.
Woodland wallpaper. Check. Thin curtains. Check. Identikit front doors that mean you’re forever getting lost and trying to let yourself into someone else’s digs. Check.
Some say the homogeny of the forest grounds makes Center Parcs a haven of tranquillity. I say it’s a nightmare of middle-class families en masse — a cynical exercise in charging millions of us premium rates for something we’re meant to believe is special, but is decidedly mediocre.
And don’t get me started on the rip-off of going in the school holidays, when rates are hiked so high it’s cheaper to holiday abroad.
The £779 we spent for three nights’ accommodation was just the start. A quick look through my emailed receipts from December 2020 makes me feel queasy. I was encouraged to panic book activities the second our reservation came through — from laser combat (£124 for four) to aerial adventure (£136).
The latter was a rope climbing course that culminated in a zip wire Felix got cold feet about and, of course, the £30-odd we paid for him to hurtle over a lake in a howling gale was non-refundable.
As it was December, the grounds had been decorated to excess — like ‘Christmas had thrown up’ was how my Center Parcs-loving friend described it — but so many activities were outdoors that bad weather rather scuppered the festive vibe.
Thin curtains. Check. Identikit front doors that mean you’re forever getting lost and trying to let yourself into someone else’s digs. Check
I was encouraged to panic book activities the second our reservation came through — from laser combat (£124 for four) to aerial adventure (£136)
Indoors, with no Netflix or other streaming services, television was limited. Our children were reduced to watching Center Parcs’ in-house cartoon Nutmeg and Clove on a loop, which, given it was designed for kids five years younger than them, they found hilarious. I had the narrator’s voice etched in my brain for months.
I gather the spa is lovely, but it was fully booked by more organised mums (during Covid, when spaces were limited). The swimming pool — unusually empty because of pandemic restrictions and full of exciting slides — did win me over; the burger, pizza and pasta-dominated restaurant scene did not.
Deer might be lurking in the woodlands, but vegetables are harder to spot. The closest we came to healthy eating was ordering crispy onion bhaji from the onsite Indian takeaway. After spending £59.70 on an unhealthy pancake breakfast, I knew it was time to go.
‘Let’s come back in the summer!’ Rosie said as we drove away. Not likely. Much as the children loved it, I’d sooner go camping.
Posh Butlin’s that’s paradise for mums
Rachel Halliwell, 54, lives in Cheshire with husband Carl, 59, and has three daughters aged 28, 25 and 16.
Whenever I look back on our one and only stay at Center Parcs, it’s always with a strange pang of longing. I know people can be snobby about these places but, honestly, it was the easiest family holiday we ever went on and I remember every day with fond nostalgia.
Which is no mean feat when you’ve got a five-year-old and a toddler in tow. But then tow them is what we literally did.
For four days, we strapped each into a little carriage that attached to the bikes we’d hired, so we could explore the place without any moaning.
We went to Whinfell Forest in the Lake District. And it is very much the middle-class Butlin’s it’s often accused of.
Whenever I look back on our one and only stay at Center Parcs, it’s always with a strange pang of longing, writes Rachel Halliwell
It had none of the rugged nature that lay outside its gates. Instead, its ‘forest’ felt manicured and its restaurants kid-friendly to a deafening degree.
And, yes, you did have to queue for everything. I certainly didn’t enjoy elbowing past the pushy mothers determined their offspring would have as many goes on the water slide as they jolly well liked, no matter how long my own children had been waiting.
But I loved not having to think about how to keep everyone entertained. That might sound like lazy parenting but, surely, the joy of not hearing the words ‘I’m bored’ fall from your children’s lips, would make any mother cheerful about lowering the parenting bar.
My husband was less enamoured. It was all a bit ‘posh holiday camp’ for his liking. But as a child of the 1970s, whose parents refused to take me to Butlin’s, my deprived inner eight-year-old saw that as a virtue. When we left, it was like a great childhood injustice had finally been settled.
The fact we all had a good time made the eye-watering cost worth every penny. And when grandchildren come along, I’m sure we’ll be happy to pay for an easy hit.
Prosecco and soft play perfection
Eimear O’Hagan, 41, lives in the Scottish Borders with her husband Malcolm, 41, and their sons Ruadhan, eight, and Donnacha, five.
As soon as I check in to Center Parcs I can feel my muscles relax. I order a prosecco, open my new book and let that wonderful holiday feeling wash over me.
No, I’m not dressed to the nines at the cocktail bar of a fancy five star hotel, or lazing by the pool of a luxury villa, but I couldn’t care less, because I am at my own version of heaven on Earth — The ‘Sports Bar’ in Center Parcs.
In a separate, enclosed area of the pub, my two children are bouncing off the walls of the soft play, while my husband and I enjoy a drink (or two — no cars at Center Parcs means it’s perfectly acceptable to stroll back to one’s lodge a bit tiddly) without being interrupted.
As soon as I check in to Center Parcs I can feel my muscles relax. I order a prosecco, open my new book and let that wonderful holiday feeling wash over me, writes Eimear O’Hagan
Contrast this with the summer we took our two year old son to France. Waiters rolled their eyes when we entered a restaurant, and there was no relaxing by the pool because it was an ungated toddler death trap.
My overwhelming memory of that holiday is pure stress.
Or the mini break to a five star hotel just outside Dublin when the boys almost went square-eyed from looking at screens because every time they so much as laughed, let alone ran around, the mostly elderly fellow guests sighed and looked pointedly in our direction.
This is why mums like me love Center Parcs.
Since our first stay at the Whinfell Forest site in Cumbria in May 2018, we’ve returned at least once every year, apart from 2020. And each time I fall in love with it a little bit more for making holidays a joy and not an endurance test.