The ultimate guide to theme park camping
Thankfully for the sake of parental credibility, my wife is more than happy to take on the role of rollercoaster buddy whenever we visit a theme park, leaving me free to study the site map and work out the quickest route to the ghost train and the candy floss stand.
But that’s the thing about theme parks – there’s genuinely something for everyone. And on a camping holiday they are a brilliant way to spend a day or two, especially if the weather’s not great. As a family we’ve visited theme parks on sunny summer days and squelched our way round them during downpours. No matter the weather we’ve always had a great time.
Several theme parks have their own campsites, meaning you can pitch up on their doorstep and be first in line when the doors open in the morning. If finances allow it, you can also visit multiple parks from the same campsite base. The Horsley site in Surrey for example, is in a perfectly position to allow trips to Legoland, Chessington World of Adventure and Thorpe Park.
On the subject of finances, clearly theme parks are not particularly cheap so it is essential that you keep a keen eye in advance out for special offers. There are often two for one ticket offers available and you can also get cheap tickets online.
So strap yourself in for a whirlwind guide to Britain’s biggest and best theme parks along with some ideas for where to camp.
NICKELODEON LAND/BLACKPOOL PLEASURE BEACH
Blackpool might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but ten million visitors can’t be wrong. That’s how many tourists flock to the Las Vegas of the North every year, making it the most popular seaside resort in the country. A good few million of those visitors also make it to the family-run Pleasure Beach, where they can ride on attractions like The Big One (Britain’s tallest rollercoaster), Valhalla and Avalanche, not to mention the classic wooden Big Dipper which has been causing stomachs to lurch since the 1920s. Another of the Pleasure Beach ‘coasters is Revolution – made famous in the late 70s when a group of Scouts persuaded Jimmy Savile to fix it for them to eat their lunch on the ride. If you’ve somehow never seen this, look it up on YouTube. It’s brilliant.
Technically the Pleasure Beach is an amusement park rather than a theme park, but last year saw the opening of Nickelodeon Land, which as the name would suggest, is themed around the kids’ TV channel. For the uninitiated, Nickelodeon is the home of Spongebob Square Pants and when you enter this part of the park it feels like you’ve just stepped into an episode of the cartoon. Like the show, the whole place is in vivid technicolour, with bright yellows, blues and pinks everywhere.
The rides are all aimed at children, so there’s nothing massively scary, but there’s enough to keep young (and not-so-young) thrill-seekers happy. The big rides are Avatar, the Streak rollercoaster and the Rugrats’ Lost River log flume but there are other attractions themed around TV favourites like Dora, Diego, the Wonder Pets, the Backyardigans and of course Spongebob and friends.
The park reminded us of Disneyland in miniature, especially with characters milling around meeting young fans and the Nickelodeon shop selling just about every piece of Spongebob memorabilia imaginable. Being brand new, the park was in pristine condition, although with the number of visitors passing through, you do wonder how long it will stay that way. We visited on a glorious Saturday in November and it was still very busy, but getting there early meant we had a couple of hours of short queues before the crowds arrived in force.
One of the big advantages of Nickelodeon Land is the fact that it is part of the Pleasure Beach, so you have access to all those ‘grown-up’ rides too. And unlike most theme parks, you are almost in the centre of town so can take advantage of everything Blackpool has to offer as well.
Our seven-year-old – a massive Spongebob fan – declared he’d had “the best day ever”, which co-incidentally is the name of one of the Spongebob songs that plays in the background. You can’t really argue with that.
• Wristbands giving you access to the Pleasure Beach and unlimited rides on all the attractions can be bought in advance online or at the park on the day. It’s usually cheaper to buy online. Family wristbands are also available. See the website for more details
RIVERSIDE HOLIDAY PARK
Southport New Road, Banks, Southport PR9 8DF
Facilities: Toilet block, hot showers, laundry, children's playground, games room, shop, cafe, bar. Dogs welcome, electric hook-up available, disabled facilities
Details: Finding a family-friendly site that accepts tents in or around Blackpool is surprisingly difficult. This holiday park-style site is near Southport, which is a good 30-minute drive away. If its peace and quiet you’re looking for then this may not be ideal, but there’s lots going on for kids during the day as well as a bar for adults. Southport itself is a bustling seaside resort and offers a more refined alternative to Blackpool.
Ask anyone to name a British theme park and chances are their first response will be Alton Towers. With just under three million visitors a year, it’s the UK’s most visited theme park and one of the most popular in Europe.
Much of that popularity is down to the quality of the rides. Nemesis, Oblivion, Air, Rita, and Th13teen are currently the major attractions and if you’re a fan of terror-inducing, white-knuckle rides then you’ll love them. As previously mentioned, there are some of us who prefer to keep our feet firmly on the ground, but the variety of attractions on offer at Alton Towers means there’s still plenty to do. In fact, I still insist the highlight of our visit was my basketball shot triumph. That reminds me… whatever happened to that giant orange monkey that I won?
All age groups are well catered for as Alton Towers… the youngest children will love Old MacDonald’s Farmyard, Storybook Land and Cloud Cuckoo Land, while there are plenty of rides for older children, even if they’re not quite up to going on the scariest rollercoasters.
At busy times – Bank Holidays and during school holidays especially – you’ll have to wait in lengthy queues so arriving as early as possible is highly recommended. And here’s where camping can give you a head start on other visitors. The Camping and Caravanning Club has an excellent site virtually at the front door of the theme park, meaning you can easily be at the gates bang on 10am for opening time. A good tip we always follow is to rush straight to the rides at the back of the park and work our way back towards the front. The theory is that you’ll get on the most popular rides before the crowds arrive then hit the less busy ones later, while everyone else is flocking to the star attractions.
The Waterpark attraction is also well worth a visit. You could easily spend a day here – and in fact on our last visit we did, taking advantage of the fact that we were camping nearby. There’s a host of high-speed water slides and flumes including the Master Blaster Water Coaster, which will send you hurtling round the waterpark at breakneck speed.
Alton Towers is in the heart of the Staffordshire countryside and the winding country roads leading to the park can quickly snarl up at peak times. That makes camping all the more appealing. And not only do you avoid the traffic jams but you can enjoy spectacular views from the campsite over beautiful countryside.
• Buying advance tickets online will save you 25% on the prices at the door – £31.50 instead of £42 for an adult ticket. But also keep an eye open in the supermarket for special offer vouchers on some products throughout the year. These can give you really good deals – including two for the price of one.
ALTON, THE STAR
Star Road,Cotton,Nr Alton Towers,Stoke-on-Trent,Staffordshire ST10 3DW
Facilities: Toilet and shower block, laundry, shop, playground, ball games allowed. Pets are welcome and there is a designated dog walk area.
Details: The 195 pitches are spread over two fields, with the top field catering for tents. Most of the site is on a slope although there are a few flat pitches and the views over the surrounding countryside are spectacular. As well as the location little over a mile from Alton Towers’ main gate, a big attraction is the well-equipped children’s playground, which is located right in the heart of the site. If you want to explore more than just the theme park, the site is ideal as a base for visiting the Peak District National Park.
If you’ve ever suffered the agony of stepping on an upturned toy brick in your bare feet, you’ll understand why we were slightly prejudiced against Lego ahead of our visit to their Windsor theme park. I know it’s irrational, but the mere sight of one of those little knobbly pieces of plastic is enough to send shooting pains through my foot. The thought of being surrounded by giant versions of these instruments of torture for a whole day had me in a cold sweat.
Thankfully the people who run Legoland are much better at keeping the floor clear of bricks than our two children. In fact the park was absolutely spotless during our visit – no mean feat at the height of the summer season when tens of thousands of visitors pass through the gates every day.
Legoland had always been one of those places that I had never really been sure about. Was it a theme park with rides and attractions or some sort of giant model village? Well in reality it’s a bit of both. Miniland, as the name would suggest, is a miniature world in Lego form, featuring towns and cities made out of 40 million bricks. New in Miniland for 2012 is the Lego Star Wars experience – due to open in March – which will surely appeal to kids of all ages (especially those in their 30s!). Seven of the most famous scenes from the six live-action Star Wars movies, plus a scene from the animated Clone Wars series are recreated using of 1.5 million Lego bricks.
Unsurprisingly there are lots more Lego structures dotted around the site but there are also plenty of exciting rides to enjoy. This is very much a child-friendly theme park, so there are no rides with the fear factor of some of the Alton Towers rollercoasters. That’s not to say they are boring – there’s plenty of thrills and spills to be had, not to mention the odd bellyache. Especially if you eat lunch just before getting on board the swinging pirate ship, the Jolly Rocker.
Legoland doesn’t have its own campsite but there are many nearby that would be perfect for visiting the park. All in all a great family day out.
• The website offers 10% discounts on the gate price of £36 for adults and £28.50 for kids and it is also possible to buy discounted two-day passes.
HORSLEY CAMPING AND CARAVANNING CLUB SITE
Ockham Road North, East Horsley, Surrey KT24 6PE
Facilities: Toilet and shower blocks, parent and baby room, laundry, dishwashing facilities and a children’s play area. Electric hook-ups and Wi-Fi are both available and there’s a small shop.
Details: A pretty site in deepest Surrey, less than an hour from central London by train and a half hour drive to Legoland at Windsor. The site’s modern toilet block has excellent facilities, including a parent and child room, privacy cubicles, food preparation space and dishwashing and laundry facilities. There’s lots of room for children to play and a well-stocked lake for fishing.
Drayton Manor is home to Thomas The Tank Engine and this fact alone would be enough to guarantee that the place is packed with youngsters by the carriage-load. Thomas remains massively popular with the pre-school set and, as a result, Thomas Land is a major attraction for families. It features 20 rides and attractions based on the series about the little blue engine and his railway pals – including Cranky’s Drop Tower and the Troublesome Trucks Coaster and the newest addition, Blue Mountain Engines.
But Drayton Manor is not just for kids. It also has a selection of thrill rides – all of which boast terrifying sounding names. You don’t need to be a genius to work out that Apocalypse, Pandemonium, Shockwave, G-Force, Stormforce 10 and Maelstrom are not for the fainthearted.
The 2012 season is the park’s 62nd year and there are a number of new attractions planned, including live Ben 10 shows based on the popular kids’ cartoon series that will take place at the entrance to the Ben 10 rollercoaster.
There’s also a 15-acre zoo within the theme park’s grounds, which houses a Sumatran tiger, monkeys, meerkats and a pair of black leopards, as well as various birds of prey and reptiles.
• The pricing system at Drayton Manor is quite complicated and how much you pay depends on the age of each visitor. Online discounts are available and you can buy family tickets ranging from £75 (family of three) to £125 (family of five). Children under two go free.
DRAYTON MANOR CAMPSITE
Drayton Manor,?near Tamworth,?Staffordshire?B78 3TW
0845 130 7633
Facilities: Toilet and shower block, a baby changing room, parent and child showers, disabled facilities and child play areas. Dogs welcome.
Details: The Camping and Caravanning has taken over the running of this campsite, right in the heart of the theme park. It was due to reopen as a club site at the end of March. As well as being ideal for families wanting to make the most of the
Park’s attractions, it should also prove to be a useful base to discover more of the local area, including Snowdome in Tamworth, the National Forest and Lichfield Cathedral.
CHESSINGTON WORLD OF ADVENTURES
Nine themed lands, a zoo and a sea life centre make this a theme park with a distinctly wild feel about it. Just 12 miles from the centre of London, it started out life purely as a zoo before World War 2 but in a bid to reverse declining visitor numbers it was developed as a theme park in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later it is one of the most popular theme parks in the country.
New for 2012 is the Madagascar Live Show, based on the DreamWorks animated movie – a big favourite in the Duff household. Personally I’m not a big fan of zoos but the theme park side of the attraction has plenty going on in its own right, including a good selection of thrill rides and rollercoasters – all aimed at the family market.
The spinning rollercoaster Dragon’s Fury is probably the star attraction at the park, reaching speeds of 45mph and heights of 60ft. It might not be one for the hardcore thrill-seeker but younger visitors will find it exhilarating. Other popular rides include Rameses Revenge and Dragon Falls while for younger visitors there’s the Bubbleworks, Dragon’s Playhouse and the Dragon’s Tale Theatre.
• Discounts of up to a third are available if you book in advance on the park website. Another benefit of getting advance tickets online or on the phone is that you can take advantage of the Rainy Day offer. If it rains for one hour or more during a visit between March and August, the park will guarantee you a free return visit.
These are limited to certain times of the year, but given the British summertime this still seems like a very generous offer
LALEHAM CAMPING CLUB
Laleham Park, Thameside, Laleham, Middlesex TW18 1SS
Facilities: Toilet and shower block with free use of hot water. Coin operated laundry equipment also available. Children's play area with a sandpit in the centre of the site. Floodlit car park
Details: Around 20 minutes drive away from Chessington, Laleham Camping Club, which was formed in 1973 and is run by its members for its members and fellow campers, manages the site. Temporary membership is included in site fees. The club runs social events and entertainment throughout the year, open to all campers. Vehicles are only allowed onto the site for unloading and loading of tents, caravans and equipment. Laleham village has a local shop and nearby Chertsey has supermarkets as well as pubs that serve food. Chertsey has a Sainsbury and a Co-Op. London is only 30 minutes away.
With 1.87 million visitors a year, Thorpe Park is second in popularity only to Alton Towers and for nerve-shredding, adrenalin rides it runs the Staffordshire theme park close. While Legoland, Chessington and Drayton Manor are more targeted at younger families, Thorpe has firmly set its sights on the older, more demanding thrill-seeker.
The SAW ride – theme around the horror film series – is billed as the scariest rollercoaster in the world while Stealth, which accelerates to 80 miles per hour around 1.9 seconds, once held the title of the fastest. Other monsters include Nemesis Inferno, Colossus, Storm Surge and Loggers Leap. The new big attraction for 2012 will be The Swarm – Europe’s tallest winged rollercoaster, described as “a death defying flight through apocalyptic devastation”. It will also feature a headfirst drop from 127ft. Er, anyone need me to hold their jacket?
• As with the other big theme parks, booking tickets online in advance is the way to go to avoid having to pay full price. Discounts of up to 25% are available, with an adult ticket costing £31.50 on the website, compared to £42 at the gate. A family ticket (two adults, two children) costs £102 online, a saving of £34 on the regular price.
CHERTSEY CAMPING AND CARAVANNING CLUB SITE
Bridge Road,?Chertsey,?Surrey?KT16 8JX
Facilities: Toilet and shower blocks, parent and baby room, laundry, dishwashing facilities and a children’s play area. There is a games and TV room while electric hook-ups and Wi-Fi are both available. Dogs are allowed and there is a designated walking area.
Details: This is an attractive, well-sheltered site, with the sort of facilities that you’d expect from the Camping And Caravanning Club. However, it is its location that makes it highly recommended for theme park campers. This campsite is right on the doorstep of Thorpe Park but is also handy for Legoland and Chessington, making it an ideal base if you want to spend a week or so hitting the different theme parks. As all three parks are run by the same company, Merlin, it’s possible to buy a season ticket that would make multiple visits much more affordable.
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