Written by: Joanne Parcell
Do you ever wonder what to do in the holidays or at the weekends with the kids? Here we have some great suggestions for days out for families with young children, so take a look and see if any of the great places to visit may appeal to your family. You may not realise some are probably on your doorstep. Alternatively why not plan a weekend away to one of the fabulous attractions in the UK.
Top 5 things to do in the South West
Crealy Theme Park
There are actually two Crealy theme parks – one each in Devon and Cornwall – so wherever you’re staying you’ll find one close enough, and for families with smaller kids they hit the spot perfectly:
The original site, just outside Exeter, was developed in 1989 with the intention of recreating the owner’s country childhood. That meant making a working farm the central theme of the park, with visitors able to touch, hold and feed the animals, ride the ponies and learn about farming. Although this kind of fare is now on offer from a number of sites in the South West, Crealy’s longevity has enabled it to stay ahead, expanding into indoor play zones, rides and even staging outdoor concerts from the likes of Peter Andre.
Originally a Shire horse centre, the Cornwall site between Wadebridge and Newquay was purchased in 2004 and now offers a similar set of attractions. Character events are held regularly, with recent appearances from Fireman Sam, Rastamouse and other household names – and there’s more than enough catering on both sites, though if you’re looking to make saving there are designated picnic areas which will cut out the inevitable moaning from Dad about the rip-off food that all theme parks seem to offer.
Cheddar Gorge and Caves
It’s easy to forget that this 500-foot deep gash on the Southern edge of the Mendips is the single most impressive natural wonder in the South of England. No-one of any age can fail to be impressed by the interlocking hills, cliffs and dramatic limestone scenery that line the endless, winding road running from the exposed farmland at the top: And whilst many tourists are taken to the gorge by bus and only see the commercial centre of Cheddar itself and the very end of the gorge, it’s those who approach it from the top that get to see the Real Thing. Each bend brings you deeper into the chasm, with the views becoming less English and more Alpine with every turn of the head.
Come early and park at the giant Horseshoe Bend before walking down to the tourist centre to check out the two showcaves, earn your lunch with a walk up the coronary-inducing Jacob’s ladder and treat yourselves to come clotted cream ice cream at the bottom – or drive for around fifteen minutes to beautiful Axbridge, also at the foot of the Mendips but tourist-free and beautifully preserved. There are some child-friendly pubs here that will beat anything in Cheddar for a fraction of the cost.
The International Centre for Birds of Prey (Newent, Gloucs)
Run by the redoubtable Jemima Parry-Jones MBE, a decorated ornithologist who spent millions of her own cash to buy the centre, you’ll arrive here thinking that it looks like a well-run, tidy place that looks after its inhabitant population of enormously-diverse birds in style, and a walk round will impress. But once they start the live demonstrations you’ll see what you spent your very reasonable entry fee on: All the guides are fully-qualified experts with a deep affection for their charges, and you’ll watch the birds catch prey and pass it to their offspring in mid air; you’ll see owls soaring one metre above the ground for 20 metres with just one flap of the wings, and you may even be treated to a surprise low-altitude fly-past from a Brown Eagle some 30 centimetres above your head.
The Eden Project
Given the primary attraction of the huge biodomes at this venue and the species housed within them, it would be easy to write The Eden Project off as a horticultural experience aimed purely at grown-ups, but that would be a very wrong assumption. The operators of this iconic attraction have really pushed the boat to add lots of constructive yet entertaining, classy ideas that no parent in the world could disapprove of:
There are numerous adventure play facilities, and a fully-packed programme running throughout the year including England’s longest zip wire, rock climbing for 7 years and above, plays, storytelling, a circus, ice rink, animation workshops and more. And best of all, it doesn’t matter if it rains…
This is the museum you wished you’d been taken to when you were a kid: Everything’s hands on so you get to wind, push, rearrange and generally meddle to your heart’s content with a range of carefully-thought out exhibits that bring science to life without inducing any boredom. Built using lottery money and winner of numerous visitor awards, @Bristol is very close to lots of great eateries, the historic SS Great Britain and the awe-inspiring Clifton Suspension Bridge and Bristol Zoo.
Top 5 things to do in London
St Paul’s Cathedral
Christopher Wren’s masterpiece still has the wow factor for both kids and adults, and it’s looking better than ever: The much-maligned bridge obscuring the view from Ludgate Hill has thankfully been removed, and the uninterrupted view up from the Thames footbridge taking you to the Tate Modern is every bit as impressive. Girls and Mums will get to stand right where Princess Diana took her vows, whilst boys and Dads can vainly attempt to hear their own echoes on the Whispering Gallery – and everyone gets to climb to the top of the dome and check out the fabulous view.
Sea Life London Aquarium
Housed in the impressive County Hall, this weather-proof attraction trumps the identikit aquaria that are cropping up all over the UK with a suitably lethal set of inhabitants including stingrays, sharks, piranhas, sea scorpions and more. There a glass platform to walk over with sharks swimming right beneath your feet, Cownose Rays that swim in formation, a tunnel made from a 25m long whale skeleton and a tropical rainforest area with a pair of crocodiles. OK, they’re not fish – but they are lethal, and everyone knows that’s what matter when you’re visiting an animal attraction.
Once you’ve explained to your kids that Buckingham Palace is essentially just an office and that the Queen really lives at Windsor Castle, they’ll buy into it – and it’s an unforgettably impressive venue with great views all round, real-life bearskin-wearing soldiers to march behind and the obscenely lavish Queen Anne’s Dollshouse which will impress the boys as well once you manage to get them inside. Unlike all the other castles they’ll be taken to in their lifetime, this is the only one they’ll visit in the UK that’s in full working order, yet alone with a real-life queen and her family living in it. OK, so you won’t get to see any of them – but as any great showman will tell you, always leaving ‘em wanting more…
Who needs to spend hours tramping round London when it’s all on show in miniature, along with every other part of the world and countless other attractions made from everyone’s favourite plastic building blocks? Denmark’s best-loved export has been around for generations and is showing no signs of getting old, and with their UK showpiece getting rave reviews since its launch some 15 years ago they’ve been able to invest in some higher-spec, entry level thrill rides as well as all the highly-imaginative interactive games and simulators on offer. It’s ideal for younger kids, so fit this one in before they start nagging you to go to Thorpe and Chessington
The Science Museum
This is still by far and away the most interactive, fascinating and continually updated of all the London museums, and the only one that all kids seem to enjoy. Every adult that goes seems to come out raving about the place, and with an iMax diving simulator, Red Arrows flying experience, hands-on launch pad and more it’s no surprise. Unlike many attractions this one really does seem to never end, and best of all it’s free to enter. Some of the simulators are payable separately and the café’s predictably pricey, so bring a picnic: There’s a designated area for eating them.
Top 5 things to do in the South East
Leavesden Studios Tour
Any child old enough for Harry Potter will bite your hand off for a chance to visit the set – just outside Watford – where much of the films were made. Check out Privet Drive, Hagrid’s study, Diagon Alley, The Great Hall and dozens of scale models that were used in addition to the outside locations. Virtually anything of any value was kept from all the films in case they were needed to be used again, and there are additional experiences added on including some interactive magic games, some great photo opportunities and even butterbeer on tap. Who needs the Universal Orlando version when you’ve the Real Thing within the M25?
As tourist castles go this is pure Premier League stuff, with expansive, superbly-designed grounds, a gigantic lake-cum-moat and a perfectly-preserved central building with all the requisite Disney-style extras like a mediaeval gatehouse, wildly-expansive sleeping and dining areas, armoury and battlements. Kids are given spy sheets to fill in once you’re inside so you’ll get some time alone to marvel at the rooms, and you’ll be able to lose them all over again outside in the all-important maze whilst you check out the very rare white peacocks. Marketed as ‘The Loveliest castle in England’, it’s no idle boast: If it was good enough for Henry VIII and Catherine of Arragon then how can you say no?
The Snow Centre (Hemel Hempstead)
This is the only indoor snow centre anywhere near the capital, and makes a thrilling yet constructive and challenging day out for anyone old enough to walk. Anyone wishing to get to grips with some basic skills prior to heading off on a ski trip will appreciate the tuition, though if you fancy careering down on a sledge instead or just enjoying learning a new sport then the instructors will spend time with you to get you moving in safety – and most importantly will teach you in perfect English. If you decide it’s not your cup of tea and you just want to let the kids get on with it, they serve gluhwine behind the bar – so everyone’s a winner.
Diggerland (Strood, Kent)
This business is expanding rapidly with four sites now open, and it’s not hard to see why: Kids and adults of both sexes will delight in trying out small and large JCBs, learning how to dig up treasure, attempt tricky manoeuvres and drive around in dump trucks. Really young kids get to be picked up and ferried around by the machinery in complete safety, and drive mini Landrovers and tractors whilst older visitors get a swift ride round the site in the Landrover safari. It’s good, clean fun and a complete novelty for all ages. Go now. It’s a no-brainer…
People from all over the world visiting the famous Regent’s Park Zoo in central London are frequently surprised at how small it is, but anyone in the know will tell them that they haven’t really visited London Zoo. The Zoological society of London moved their flagship facility out to larger grounds in Whipsnade many years ago and it remains the single most impressive attraction of its kind in the UK. It actually contains a safari park and the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral as well, in impressive surroundings on the Eastern fringes of the Chiltern Hills and offers endless attractions specifically aimed at the younger members of your family as well as the large-scale animal attractions that will please everyone. After this any UK zoo will frankly seem inferior…
Top 5 things to do in the North East
Adventure Valley, Durham
Durham’s newest day out lays on a huge range of activities aimed squarely at the younger end of the market in a safe a controlled environment. More adventurous kids will find enough to keep them busy with the entry level zip wires, pedal go-karts and the chance to pan for gold, and toddlers will enjoy meeting some very child-friendly animals whilst they’re let loose among the sand and hay in the Busy Bees Barn. When it’s cold or wet, the 12,000 square feet of soft play in the Indoor Play Town will keep the weather at bay, so unlike most theme parks you can rely on Adventure Valley being open all year round.
The Life Science Centre, Newcastle
This award-winning facility manages to achieve the (almost) impossible by making science tremendous fun. The under 7s get their own special Young Explorers Zone, and the solar system is made fully accessible to all courtesy of the Naughty Monsters who inhabit the planetarium (admit it, you haven’t got a clue about the various planets either, have you?) There’s a 4d simulator ride with smoke, water and more added to the mix for older kids, and the Curiosity Zone lets budding scientists of all ages play with magnets, mirrors, cogs, water and even music with no rules – keeping minds open and promoting independent thought at all times.
This splendidly-maintained and highly-atmospheric venue near the Scottish border is not just the most impressive castle in the North of England, but also the real-life home of the Duke of Northumberland. More importantly though – certainly from a family perspective at least – it’s also been used extensively in all of the Harry Potter films, and therefore comes with a media credibility that other castles can’t match, no matter how hard they try.
JK Rowling’s influence is clear as soon as you get inside, with broomstick training on offer along with more traditional mediaeval-style fun: Kids can dress up as princesses, train to be a knight or take part in the Dragon Quest, all within a credible environment refreshingly free of gimmickry yet still wildly entertaining.
Kirkley Hall Zoo
Northumberland’s newest tourist spot has over one hundred different species to check out, with emus, wallabies, marmosets, meerkats and lots more on offer. The keepers are very much an integral part of the experience, providing explanations, anecdotes and fun facts to keep everyone of all ages entertained. It’s open all year round, with extremely reasonable ticket prices, and with a rolling programme of kids’ activities plus forest trails and gardens to explore, you can count on Kirkley Hall to deliver, pound for pound, more than anywhere else in the region.
One of the more recent additions to Diggerland’s burgeoning empire, their North East outlet is pulling in the punters by the thousands with the perennially-popular themes of scale, power and control. No-one of any age can resist the chance to sit at the controls of the various industrial vehicles on offer here, and play to their heart’s content with diggers, Landrovers, robotically-controlled earth movers and more. Ironically – given the volumes of mud and soil you’ll undoubtedly end up shifting – it’s actually good, clean fun, and visitors below 90 centimetres tall are admitted free of charge.
Top 5 things to do in Yorkshire
This place is in fact a theme park and a zoo, so children (or indeed adults) that don’t like rides will be very well catered for. You’re able to enjoy close-up encounters with lemurs, meerkats, penguins and sea lions, plus there are various shows and handling experiences on offer. If your kids would rather be on the rides, however, there are plenty of junior and family-sized contraptions to enjoy, along with no less than five sedate, scenic rides – and if you’ve got older kids or want some thrills of your own, you can buy the kids an ice cream and let them watch as you take on some of the 7 different adult-sized rides.
There’s literally something for everyone at this leisure paradise: It’s best known for its indoor snow slope which offers fun for all ages with skiing and boarding for age three and above, and toboggans on hire for parents with younger children. Safety kit is provided as are lessons if necessary, however you’ll also find mini golf, dodgems, a bowling centre with toddler-friendly ball chutes, laser tag, an aerial assault course, a child-sized laser maze and a huge soft play and party area. Factor in a 14-screen cinema and numerous affordable eateries and you’ve got a boundless source of 21st century-style entertainment for all ages and tastes
Lightwater Valley, Ripon
Like many theme parks, Lightwater enjoys promoting its daredevil adult rides – and they are the most impressive in the region – whilst playing down its attractions for younger visitors, but toddlers and younger kids will love this place. The setting is way above par in attractive rolling hills north of Ripon, and there are pedal boats, spinning teacups, swinging boats, a mini Ferris Wheel, magic shows and more to delight the most youthful members of your family – with a proper, segregated falconry centre on the same ticket to boot: This section of the park is home a wide variety of impressive raptors, which are flown for your entertainment throughout the day and will bring a much-needed slice of rural serenity to a day that’s otherwise packed full of colour, commercialism and excitement.
Brimham Rocks, Harrogate
This is like nothing else you’ll find in the UK, with hundreds of weird and wonderful rocks shaped and smoothed over millions of years into perfectly-balanced formations that look as though they could tumble at any minute, yet somehow don’t. Kids of all ages get to hunt for various different named formations such as the Dancing Bear and the Eagle and Gorilla – and then crawl through the Smartie Tube and balance atop the Rocking Stones. Fans of Roger and the Rottentrolls will recognise the scenery, but no-one can fail to be impressed by the sheer novelty and scale of Brimham. Entry is free, as is car parking if you’re a National Trust member.
The Deep, Hull
This is hands down the best aquarium in the UK. As soon as you approach it you’ll be impressed by the sheer scale and 21st century external appearance of the place, and once inside there are over 500 species of every type of underwater creature you could imagine, with a particular emphasis on sharks. Not only do you get the now-obligatory transparent underwater tunnel experience, but there’s a glass lift taking you up through the tank and beyond, and unlike most aquariums there’s a hands-on area that lets you touch crabs, starfish and sea urchins. One visit will net you an annual membership, and you’ll want to return as there’s more than enough to fill an afternoon if you take it all in. Perfect for a rainy day.
Top 5 things to do in the North West
This resort needs no introduction, though many assume that the prevalence of stag and hen parties, adult-sized rides, conference facilities and famously-miserable landladies makes Blackpool somewhat unsuitable for kids – but it’s actually got lots to offer: The Blackpool Sandcastle is a tropical indoor waterpark with slides for older kids and a wave machine and pirate ship for younger ones, whilst the Blackpool Tower will delight kids of all ages: Once you’ve entered through the small aquarium at the front there’s a pushchair storage facility before you take the lift up to the top, where you’ll find the impressive Walk of Faith – a glass floored area with a 500-foot drop underneath that will make kids feel in charge as they invariably walk over it quite happily whilst adults are more tentative. By the beach there are some great trampoline-based attractions with harnesses and instruction on offer, although the lure of the infamous Pleasure Beach will always be present – and it’s still the most visited attraction in the UK.
Legoland Discovery Centre, Trafford Centre, Manchester
Lego’s first foray into the UK market at Windsor is undeniably successful, but totally inaccessible for anyone living north of Birmingham – however, this impressive facility at Manchester’s giant shopping mall more than makes up for it. You get to reach for the stars in their 4D cinema, get some Lego building instruction from on–site experts, check out world-famous landmarks , build and test racing cars and much, much more. It’s not uncommon for kids to be at this centre for a couple of hours or more before they even pick up any Lego as there’s so much else for them to do, though that doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of the chance to play with it for any longer than you need to…
Anyone who’s been to a planetarium will tell you that it’s not enough to fill a day, and that something else is needed with an added fun factor to make it into an educational and entertaining day. Someone’s clearly taken note, as this attraction combines a 30 minute planetarium experience with over 90 minutes of space-related fun and games: It cost £10 million to build and takes you through six differently-themed interactive galleries featuring hands-on exhibits and audio visual presentations. There’s even a guided tour round the solar system from Wallace and Grommit on the first floor, though anyone expecting to be told that the moon really is made of cheese will be slightly disappointed …
This award-winning attraction trounces every other zoo for hundreds of miles around.Chester Zoo has over 8,000 animals and 400 species to look at including some of the most endangered in the world. Encompassing everything in terms of scale, you can enjoy everything from butterflies to elephants in 100 acres of beautifully-kept gardens, and if it rains there’s plenty to see in the Tropical Realm, at Islands in Danger and in the Realm of the Red Ape. None of the enclosures at Chester look cramped or inadequate, so you always feel that the animals are being well looked after – the new Rhino facility, for example, gives them enough room to gallop around – which you won’t see in other zoos, and combined with the friendly staff who clearly have a genuine affection for the animals they look after, the whole place comes across as a highly benevolent enterprise, It’s not surprising that this is the nation’s Number One charity zoo.
Ullswater Steamers Lake Cruises – Ahoy there Pirates!
The scenery surrounding Ullswater is amazing enough, but once on board this particular cruise you get to load up the cannons and take on the pirates in a two-hour extravaganza with on-board activities and chocolate treasure. Fancy dress is encouraged, though not compulsory – and children are supervised throughout proceedings, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. Other child-orientated themed cruises are also run at peak holiday times and weekends, and for any parents wanting to give their kids a taste of the lakes without attempting to drag them up the mountains there couldn’t be a better day out.
Top 5 things to do in Scotland
Blairdrummond Safari & Adventure Park, Stirling
By far and away the best live animal attraction in Scotland, Blairdrummond packs quite a punch with creatures of all sizes competing for your attention: They’ve got elephants, giraffes, chimps, rhinos, lions and a tiger plus smaller animals like lemurs, penguins and the obligatory meerkats. Once your kids have taken in all of that then there are several rustic physical attractions for them to test out, including an over-the-water zipwire, slides, pedal boats and a highly-convincing wooden fort. Stump up some additional cash and you can take them to a funfair, bouncy castle or face painting booth to complete the day.
Seaprobe Atlantis, Kyle of Lochalsh
This award-winning semi-submersible craft takes you round the spectacular coastlines of the Kyle and the Isle of Skye, though the key attraction here is that you get to check out the scenery under the water as well as above it: The Seaprobe has a fabulous underwater viewing gallery with full head height clearance, comfy seats and all-round vision. You’ll travel through kelp forests with starfish, crabs, jellyfish and anemones and more, see a 500-foot long WW2 naval wreck, seals, otters and even the occasional whale. There are even on board toilets and refreshments, and best of all the cruises take place in virtually all weather conditions.
The sheer spectacle of this building – rearing up at you from everywhere you look in Edinburgh’s historic city centre – will be enough to make your kids nag you into paying a visit, and once you’re there you’ll be glad you went. The operators frequently run kids’ treasure trails with historical characters to go and investigate and prizes dished out for successful completion. The views are stunning and completely different in each direction, whilst there are endless cannons and fortifications to go and explore, with one large gun being fired every day at 1pm.
Glasgow Science Centre
This very highly-rated, 21st century interactive museum is constantly updated with all the latest hands on exhibits, and you’ll never find yourself telling your kids not to touch anything. It’s virtually impossible to get round it all in one day so you may have to delay the IMAX and planetarium for another visit – or the recently added body parts exhibition for that matter, which is truly fascinating stuff for kids and adults alike. They take Tesco Clubcard points as well as cash, and you can take a picnic if you don’t fancy paying for refreshments once you’re there.
Nevis Range Mountain Experience, Torlundy
Just seven miles north of Fort William you can take the mountain gondola up to 650m on Aonach Mor, where you’ll find sledging on offer in winter, plus year-round mountain trails, a kids play area and the Mountain Discovery Centre. There’s a restaurant and bar open all year round, and fabulous views over to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain. Scotland does offer some other all-season ski lift trips for families, but none of them offer the scenery or range of attractions for kids at the top that you’ll find here.
Top 5 things to do in Wales
Heatherton World of Activities, Tenby
Whilst people are gradually latching on to the bohemian charms of delightful Tenby itself, not so many are aware of Heatherton: There’s bucket loads to do for the younger members of your family including pedal boats, a kids’ driving school and a large indoor play area. Water Wars will give them a chance to get properly soaked if they haven’t already managed that in the Master Blaster enclosure, and older kids are fully catered for as well: There’s a scaled down ‘safe’ karting track for kids aged 6 to 13, adventure golf, archery and even the chance to walk on water in a zorb. No other park in the UK caters quite as well for kids of varying ages, with plenty for teenagers and parents as well as toddlers.
Greenwood Forest Park, Snowdonia
This park was voted Best Family Attraction in North Wales in 2011 and 2012, so they’re clearly hitting the spot at least most of the time. There are 17 acres of very rural yet contemporary entertainment: They’ve got the world’s only people-powered roller coaster here, the longest sledge run in Wales, the family-orientated Jungle Boat Adventure, a warren of tunnels for the under 7s, a series of treetop-level towers connected by slides, nets and walkways and a giant bouncing pillow for the under 12s. What more could you possibly want?
Snowdon Mountain Railway
If you’ve got toddlers it’ll be some time before they’re ready to reach the summit of England and Wales’ highest peak the hard way – and that’s assuming you’re prepared to do it with them anyway, so why not do what most people so and take the train? It’s a fascinating climb and it goes quickly enough to provide different vistas at every turn, whilst the kids enjoy the mounting excitement of getting closer to the top as they feel their ears start to pop. The dreary café at the top is a thing of the past, replaced by a brand spanking new state-of-the-art award-winning visitors centre with good food, souvenirs – and outside there’s an amazing viewpoint.
Cardigan Island Coastal Farm Park, Cardigan
Situated on a spectacular headland overlooking the Cardigan Island nature reserve, this mid-Wales attraction offer a very different cast of characters to the other zoos and safari parks on offer around the UK, with bottlenose dolphins, Atlantic grey seals, seal pups, harbour porpoises, sea birds, choughs and skylarks all visible. Closer up there are prairie dogs, Welsh mountain ponies, a wallaby, Vietnamese pigs, emus, rhea and a lama – plus an adventure playground, sand pit and some indoor attractions if it’s raining.
The National Showcaves Centre for Wales, Dan Yr Ogof
Offering ten attractions on one ticket, these caves have been voted Britain’s finest natural wonder. There are three separate caverns with commentaries, an impressive replica iron-age village with dwellings made using authentic materials and techniques, a chance to meet some Shire horses and an indoor centre for toddlers with an adventure course and pedal karting track. The climb up to the one of the cave entrances is worth it for the view alone, and once there you’ll find a full size dinosaur kingdom which many adult visitors tend to dismiss until they see it, and subsequently rave about how impressive it is. Most of the itinerary here is weatherproof, though if you’re in the area and it’s sunny you’d still be missing out big time if you passed it by…