Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Days out with the kids, or: The Trials and Tribulations of Travel with a Toddler

I take Jess out a lot. It’s a habit I got into when she was a baby with colic; somehow I found a screaming child easier to deal with when I wasn’t trapped within four walls! Often it’s just the park or the beach, but we’ve been to a wide range of places. Places that claim to be ‘perfect for all the family’ (28 rides - 18 for adults, 10 closed – we paid £40 to basically build a sandcastle!) to places that don’t appear at first glance to be child-friendly but which end up being one of our favourite places to go.

So this is my review section. Obviously just my opinion on places, but that’s taking into account Jess’s very vocal opinions too. Jess is now four so although I try to take note of the suitability for older and younger children, my focus is primarily on the suitability for preschool / primary school aged kids.

Agree / don’t agree with my reviews? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments section. Keep it polite please!

Cornwall’s Crealy Park, Wadebridge.
The month we went: late September and early October.
Who went: Jess and I.
Approximate cost: £20.00 for two of us, costs more in season.
Time allowed: 4 hours+

I wanted to take Jess somewhere different for a birthday treat, so I thought we’d go to Crealy. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting much. We had been to Devon’s Crealy a few months before and had been very disappointed, but I figured we’d give Cornwall’s one a try. I was so glad we did!

There are loads of things to suit most ages. Jess is a bit of a wimp when it comes to rides so we were limited as to what she’d go on, but I would think that most kids would find a good selection to choose from. Jess particularly enjoyed the ‘Pony Express’ which has the added benefit of an adult and a child seat on each mechanical horse, so even tiny children can have a go. There are a couple of water rides (both involve drops so probably only for older kids), a small rollercoaster, a pirate ship, two sizes of ‘bumpy’ slides and various other things. What I liked most was that there are lots of other things to do so it’s entertaining even if you aren’t keen on rides.

There are two soft-play areas, one of them a ‘spooky’ soft-play which has very little lighting, the other a ‘normal’ soft-play area. We used the normal one which has drop slides, a small ball pool, a ‘shooting’ area (those air machines that you can shoot foam balls with), plus the usual things. There is a large café attached which we made use of; the food was better than expected and not too expensive with a reasonable range – chicken nuggets and chips etc., but also sandwiches, cakes, lunchboxes and some rather good paninis. The other main café is Treasure Island which also has a smaller soft play area. It does a smaller range of food, mainly pasties, sausage rolls and pizzas. It’s worth noting that the café doesn’t accept cards; although there is a cash point in the shop at the entrance to the park.

Outside there is a range of other activities including a wildlife walk around a pond with stepping stones (child-spaced) and bridge, a castle themed play area, and various animals to see. Jess enjoyed the pirate ships play area (she turned out to be a remarkably good shot with the air-shooters) and the construction themed sandpit with tractor, buckets, spades and hardhats! There are ‘toddler houses’ – small houses with a range of activities suitable for younger children, such as soft play, play house, stacking shapes and so on. There are stables and a petting area, and a range of lizards, snakes, rabbits, etc, some of which are brought out at certain times so the public can handle them – this was a real highlight for Jess who has developed an attachment to one particular lizard there! There is also the opportunity for pony rides although these come at an extra cost. The riders get a walk around the paddock, a rosette and usually a photo. Jess also liked the ‘Enchanted Forest’, a slightly odd indoor attraction with animated animals.

There is a (free) land train which you can ride around the park or hop on and off at various stops, although when we were there (out of season) it was only running four times a day.

There are usually various events or interactive things going on – groom the ponies, handle the lizards and so on. These are included in the entrance fee although there are some activities that involve a cost including mini tractor rides. On one visit, we were disappointed that although we were told at reception the activities were running, that turned out not to be the case and no announcements were made so we were left waiting around for people who didn’t turn up.

There are a number of cafés although when we were there only two were open; not a surprise as we were out of season and no problem as the one we went to was fine.

The place was pretty clean, the toilets were very clean, and the staff were polite and helpful. I asked where a particular animal was and was told he wasn’t currently on display; when Jess expressed disappointment they brought him out especially for a hands on session. I had an extremely grateful little girl!

Children shorter than one metre pay a higher cost and can’t go on a lot of the rides although there are plenty of other activities for them, and their ticket covers them for 12 months. For everyone else you can get a free return ticket valid for a week, but you do need to ask for them before you leave as they require a special card to be issued.

One visit has been followed by several more and I am now debating whether to buy a season ticket. Two options are available, a season pass which allows entry to both Devon and Cornwall branches, and a Cornwall Crealy pass which is valid for the Cornwall branch only. The only thing that puts me off getting a season pass is that they are closed from November until Spring; I know they must be quiet out of season but now I live in Cornwall I want something we can visit all year round.

Crealy is definitely worth a visit if you are in the area. Excellent for kids and interesting enough to keep adults happy too.

Paradise Park, Hayle
The month we went: Every month!
Who went: Every combination: Jess and I, the two of us and my mum, a large group of us including younger and older kids.
Approximate cost: £28.00 for two of us (there are often offers in the local paper).
Time allowed: 2-3 hours

Paradise Park is somewhere that we keep going back to time and time again. I remember going as a child, I took friends as an adult, and now I take my child. I’m glad to say that for the most part, it has improved as it has aged.

The main attraction is of course the birds; the Park has been saving a variety of birds for many years. They have gradually expanded this to cover a small range of other animals including otters, red pandas, squirrels and various farmyard animals and pets. There are usually different shows and activities, all of which are worth attending although it’s the same events each day. We’ve been to the birds of prey free-flying show (very informative), the birds of paradise show, Flight of the Rainbows (the lorikeets perch on you while you feed them for a small cost – about 50p), feeding the farm animals (great for most kids, not so much if they are nervous around animals), and various others. Jess’s absolute favourite is feeding the penguins; the staff allow a couple of dozen children to help them and they usually have a photo call afterwards where you can stroke the penguins and take pictures. The only issue is that if they are busy, your child might not get picked to help which can be disappointing. Be aware that some of the shows may be cancelled in bad weather or out of season.

There is a pirate themed play park with climbing frames and slides for both younger children and slightly older ones. It also has a wooden raft, animal rockers and ‘climbing trees’ – wooden trees with handholds on them like a climbing wall. There’s a train which runs at frequent intervals around part of the park; it’s a separate charge and isn’t a long ride so although Jess enjoys it, I think it’s rather overpriced for what it is.

The other new(ish) attraction is the soft-play area which is included in the entry price. It’s a good one, with a decent under 5’s section and plenty for slightly older kids including drop slides, rope bridges and so on. We had a ten year old with us on one visit and he found plenty to entertain himself. The toddler area has a separate ball pool, slide, climbing area, etc, and is enclosed by a low barrier so that the smaller ones can’t escape. There is a decent sized café within the soft-play building although we haven’t tried the food there yet. We usually look around the Park first, then finish off with a quick visit to the soft-play area, although if it’s cold or raining it’s a good place to regroup.

As well as the café in the soft-play area, there’s another café in the grounds near the entrance. It overlooks the otter pool although the wall is too high for smaller kids to see in from the café which is a shame. The adult menu is quite a nice selection although the kids’ selection is fairly limited – a couple of chip meals and a lunchbox option. The meals are nice enough but rather over-priced in my opinion although they do some lovely cakes which aren’t badly priced, the yogurt topped berry flapjack in particular is gorgeous. The café is family friendly with highchairs and friendly staff who aren’t visibly annoyed by requests for a particular animal themed lunchbox and certain coloured straws. There are plenty of places to eat if you take a packed lunch too; a large grassy area with picnic tables near the entrance, further tables on the farm, and a reasonable indoor area next to the café.

I have three bugbears with Paradise Park. Firstly, although the toilets are fairly clean, they are all near the entrance and the soft play. Jess always seems to need the loo just as we get to the farm area, and she always needs it RIGHT NOW, so I’ve lost count of the mad dashes back to the other end of the park. Secondly, there seems to be a lack of bins especially near the indoor picnic area, so my attempts to clean up after us usually result in carrying a bag of rubbish around the park. And thirdly, the cost of the season passes, especially for the children. Children’s passes (for three year olds and over) are the same price as for adults, I was not terribly happy about paying almost £45 for a three-year-old’s pass!

For most people, it won’t be worth buying a season pass anyway as you have to visit extremely regularly to make it financially worthwhile. Instead, do a return ticket – once you’ve paid to go in once, you can buy a return ticket at the end of your visit for £3.75 which is valid until the end of March. If you use a return ticket to go into the park you can then buy another return ticket at the end of your visit and so on, so you only actually pay full price once a year.

Despite my moans, Paradise Park is a great day out and one of our family’s favourite places to go.

One of the really great things about Paradise Park is that they are open all year apart from Christmas Day, so you don’t have to worry about them being shut for the winter. I’m thinking about starting a new family tradition – a Christmas Eve picnic at Paradise Park!

Blue Reef Aquarium, Newquay
The month we went: Early November
Who went: Jess and I
Approximate cost: £18 for the two of us
Time allowed: 1 hour

Parking for the aquarium is not ideal. Your best bet is to park in a public car park (I believe The Manor is the closest) and walk down, which takes about 10 minutes if you are an ambler like me. There is parking for blue badge holders which isn’t widely advertised; I couldn’t actually figure out how to drive to it anyway! The Manor car park is reasonably priced and parking there means a nice wander through Newquay anyway so it’s not too bad.

The aquarium is next to Towan Beach. It is a well presented building and inside it was bright and clean. The staff were friendly and exceptionally helpful; they didn’t always know the answers but they tried to find out and they were very pleasant.

The aquarium is nicely laid out and has a good range of creatures. The tanks are well labelled and the information presented is pitched at an appropriate level and is interesting. There are some hands-on information boards; Jess enjoyed trying to guess the answers to the questions and spinning the answer wheels.

We got there just as they were feeding the crocodiles which I enjoyed watching. The member of staff doing the feed was very informative, talking about how the crocodiles have been trained not to eat the animals and fish that share their tank. Other particular favourites for me were the jellyfish, the octopus and the coral display. Jess was particularly taken with the giant turtle. We both enjoyed the underwater tunnel with sharks, rays, other fish and the aforementioned turtle, but Jess’s favourite part was the above water section that looks down on the sharks etc from above. The turtle kept popping its head and flippers above the water next to her which she loved; I had to virtually drag her way.

There is a café which we didn’t get chance to try. The menu looked quite good if a little expensive, but every unoccupied table was loaded with trays of dirty dishes which put me off a bit. The gift shop is pleasant, a fair range of items (no postcards of the turtle which disappointed Jess) and a good range of prices, so it wasn’t hard to find a little keepsake which wouldn’t bankrupt me.

I was considering getting a season pass as Jess’s Christmas present. They are a little under £30 for an adult’s pass. You can use the passes in other Blue Reef Aquariums but there are only a couple of others; it’s a different company from SeaLife Centres so they can’t be used there. After visiting, I’ve decided against an annual pass, I’m just not convinced it’s worth it. We probably will visit again as we did enjoy it, but it barely takes an hour to go round (at least with a four year old with a limited attention span!) so for us, it’s only really worth going if we are already in the area.

Probably better for older kids, it’s a nice attraction as far as it goes. I’ve been to a range of aquariums from Southend SeaLife (lovely staff, well kept, but takes about 15 minutes to walk around) to Brighton SeaLife (AMAZING, spent hours there and could have spent longer). Newquay falls somewhere towards the Southend side of the scale – nice enough but don’t plan on spending a whole day there.

Two big plus points: they don’t close in the winter (open every day except Christmas Day), and it’s right on the edge of the beautiful Towan Beach, which is as nice as the more popular Fistral Bay but much less crowded. So if you are heading to Newquay, it’s worth popping down to Towan and tying in a visit to Blue Reef at the same time.

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