Thursday 10 July 2014

Center Parcs - user review

We recently had a week away, the first time we've been away as a family (just the three of us) since our holiday in the Cotswolds which led immediately into my last relapse. In the two years since, we've been on holiday but always with a rolling cast of (very willing) family members. Maybe we've overreacted but as is probably obvious, it knocked me for six.

After going backwards and forwards about going abroad (potential nightmare, even without a three year old in tow!), we decided to go to Center Parcs.  In the past we've always been a bit unsure about these places - there's something of the Young Christian Camping Activity Weekend about it all. We did look at it when Evie was a lot younger but she wouldn't have been able to do many of the activities. These days, our main challenge is wearing her out! So it seemed like a good idea.

Because I was knee-deep in relapse by the time we drove back from the Cotswolds two years ago, we decided not to travel too far, settling for a week at the Sherwood Forest site.

(An aside - we actually managed to lose AN ENTIRE forest on the way there. But that's another story.)
map of Center Parcs in Sherwood Forest
The Sherwood Forest Center Parcs site is 400 acres. I still really have no concept of what that actually means but it's NOT SMALL. All the lodges are somewhere in those 400 acres, with most or the facilities in the middle. The whole point of Center Parcs is that there aren't any cars on site - you pull up, unpack, and park up all the way OVER THERE.

Because of that, Mrs D called the booking office to see what our options were, having a disabled person in our party.
We were told that the best option for us was to pay a £50 premium to guarantee a lodge in the centre of the park, so we wouldn't have to walk too far once we'd got settled. Mrs D said, "as my husband is disabled, is this really the only way we can be based more centrally?" (response: "Is he a wheelchair user?" Nurrrr....).  

Regardless, no dice. Hmmm - not a great start.

When we finally got there (we lost a FOREST) we unloaded and I went to park up in a disabled bay... then completely lost my sense of direction. I found Guest Services who pointed me in the right direction, but they also mentioned that there was a shuttle bus available for guests with limited mobility.

When Mrs D called to book, there was no mention of this and they are strangely quiet about it in brochures and on the website.

I can understand they're trying to create some kind of Pedestrian/Cyclist Utopia, and shuttle buses bombing around might ruin it, but if I'd had more trouble walking we might have thought twice about booking at all. Knowing that there are OPTIONS might be nice for other disabled visitor, as we could've booked one if we wanted to visit a location on the far side of the site.

First thing to say, 400 acres or no, the map of the Sherwood Forest site is incredibly misleading. In a good way.

Once we'd got settled in, we found that everything was easily walkable, and parts which looked like a good 10 minutes walk were more like 2 minutes away. The landscape in the centre is very flat, and while there is a lot of "CYCLIST ENTITLEMENT" (no cars!), there are predominately lots of smooth footpaths which are pedestrian-only.

We had an amazing time. Being in the middle of the forest was beautiful and we were surrounded by loads of animals (Evie loved this) - there was even a duck pond a handful of steps away from our lodge. There was lots to do but we didn't try to organise too much in advance, which turned out to be a good thing. Although we were busy every day, we still had a really relaxing time. And the subtropical swimming pool is immense, so you need to allow some time to spend in there.

The day before we came home, we went into Guest Services to see about arranging a bus to pick me up in order to collect our car in the morning - check-out was an ungodly 10am and we thought this might be a handy bit of fatigue management - certainly better than walking across the park, driving to the lodge, loading up, driving home...

I called security... and they said that they didn't have any drivers in for the next day. Considering the fact that the arrivals and departures are pretty much all on the same day, this seemed crazy. I explained that the reason I was enquiring about the bus was that I am disabled (response: "Are you in a wheelchair, sir?" Nurrrr....), and then he asked if I had a Blue Badge, because if I did, I could park outside our lodge overnight and load up in the morning.

Again, I understand that Center Parcs is a car-less utopia (and it was one of the most attractive things about it for us) - but it would've removed a lot of our worries about packing up and leaving with a 3-year-old at TEN A.M, followed by an (admittedly short) drive home if someone had mentioned this in advance. Maybe they don't want people to take the piss, which we certainly didn't want to.

AN ASIDE - Evie was quite poorly on the last day and we wanted to get her checked out at the Medical Centre (because there is one - genius) so after loading up we used the car to drive to the nurse and ensure we had a good last day (you can use the facilities all day on arrivals and departure).

ANOTHER ASIDE - as I was loading the car up, a Center Parcs car pulled up to take me to the car park... I was very grateful and felt so sorry for the security guard who'd had to drive over to us. But still - a bit of communication wouldn't have been such a bad thing. (NB there wasn't a phone in our lodge and the mobile signal was non-existent).

(this is only based on our experiences of the Sherwood Forest site)
Our holiday at Center Parcs was absolutely perfect - we had a proper rest while still doing all kinds of exciting things, and came away feeling fully recharged - which is kind of what you want from a holiday, isn't it?

As an organisation, Center Parcs (rightly) shouts about how family friendly it is and we found it all totally do-able with a pushchair - but as there were a number of disabled people and wheelchair users there, maybe they should shout more about how Accessible they are?

There are so many ways in which Center Parcs is ideal for people with mobility issues, which is why it was so disappointing when they got a few things wrong. As mentioned above, the paths in the centre are predominately smooth, so I can imagine they are perfect for wheelchair users - but if disabled people think there are no transport options in and around the site then they might not consider going.

Again I can understand why they might 'soft-pedal' the transport on site, but maybe a question on the booking form about additional needs could trigger a phone-call (or email) from someone to explain the options which are available.

National Trust sites usually have a kind-of manned electric golf buggy available for guests with limited mobility - maybe this might work better than buses and vans at Center Parcs. Better for the environment, too!

We understand that the centre of the park is prime real estate, so the £50 premium makes sense - but to stay anywhere else was not an option for us. The fact that our best option as was to pay the £50 just seems a little "Non-Inclusive" - not asking for special treatment, but as I say, to stay anywhere else wasn't an option.

There are a lot of accessibility statements on the Center Parcs website.

But they're not exactly front-and-centre - you really have to look for them (they're below the fold at the bottom of the page, in a long list in small text - see image) and the onus is on the guest to look and make enquiries.

One of the parts of their Accessibility Statement is a pledge to:
Provide information to guests and prospective guests upon the accessibility of our sites, goods and services in a manner that best enables them to access our facilities and services appropriately.
Well, that didn't really happen for us.

It didn't impact on our holiday to a huge extent, but then our access requirements are pretty low.

We had a lovely holiday and are already planning our next visit. But when Center Parcs gets so many things right with regards to Access, it's just a shame that they don't make more of it.

I'd be interested to know if anyone has had experience of other Center Parcs sites.

I'd ALSO be interested to know if anyone has read this far!!!