It’s still January, the longest month of the year. possibly the longest month of my life. It’s the time of year when we start looking to the year ahead, making plans, booking holidays. I wish.
I did recently have a holiday though, not of the relaxing kind (although it’s always a bit relaxing just to be out of routine), at Center Parcs Elveden Winter Wonderland.
You may have read about my previous girls holiday to Center Parcs, this was a totally different affair. It was summer, a girls trip, no children, there was a spa, massages, chill time.
I’ve always wanted to do a wintry holiday, but not sure I’d cope with the cold! Wheels and snow don’t always get along well. I imagine myself in a log cabin, fire roaring and hot chocolate in hand. Looking at pretty snow dusted trees. Well this recent Center Parcs trip wasn’t far off that.
Since my first trip in 2016 when I discovered how brilliantly accessible Center Parcs is, I’ve been wanting to return. Combining this with my dream of a wintry holiday, and a treat for the nieces, Winter Wonderland seemed the perfect time to go. Throughout November and December Center Parcs transform their locations and forests into a magical Christmassy Wonderland.
Here’s what we got up to at Center Parcs Elveden Winter Wonderland as a family of 6 including 2 children and myself on wheels!
Hopefully my recommendations may help you enjoy an accessible family holiday.
Check out your options and accessibility
I’ve spoken before about accessibility in the lodge and around the site, so rather than feeling like Groundhog Day if you haven’t read or want a refresh head over to Away With The Girls – Center Parcs Elveden Forest.
I do have one little update to tell you about though. For the past few years when going on holiday I have hired a hoist to help me transfer from chair to bed etc. There are plenty of companies out there that supply mobility equipment for hire.
As the hire for my previous Center Parcs trip went so smoothly I decided to go straight to the same company, phoning them directly. I informed them of what I needed and on which dates I would require their service and they booked me in. When asking for a quote I was informed that I will not be charged a penny as Center Parcs now pay for the hire of any mobility equipment that they do not supply themselves. Bonus. As cost was no longer an issue for me I asked if there was the option for me to also hire an air mattress. Absolutely, it will be added my booking. Well that saves us from the inflatable mattress dramas of Disneyland Paris!
Arrive early to make the most of it
Although you can’t check in to your lodge until 3pm (2pm at an extra charge) you can arrive at Center Parcs anytime after 10am on arrival day. We wanted to make the most of the day, so planned on arriving in time to grab a little lunch before wandering around. The traffic queues into the resort are far less busy this time of day too.
The magic begins as soon as you drive through the gates, there are twinkling lights, snow dusted trees and deer sculptures hidden in the trees. There are also plenty of real dear to spot too, one visited our lodge the next morning!
No cars are allowed on site until check in, so we leave our cars in the car park and start exploring. We checked out where our lodge was situated, and a little stroll around to get our bearings and check out lunch options. We decided on the Sports Café, a chilled bar style restaurant where you can just turn up and grab a table. I enjoyed some hummus and flatbread, while others went for loaded fries, sandwiches and cheese on toast.
Check in time soon came, so off we set to fetch the car. We loaded all our gear into my van to save multiple trips. Also, the accessible lodges come with one parking space just outside. A vehicle can be left here throughout the stay, but all others have to be taken back to the carpark. A bonus to having wheels is that you can keep your wheels!
Dumping all the luggage and food inside Mum and I sent the others off for a swim. We had a little surprise to prepare.
Center Parcs supply Christmas trees and decorations to hire, ready in your lodge when you arrive, this comes at quite a fee! I’m sure they are pretty and sparkly but we didn’t have cash to throw away.
Before the holiday, being the organised people that we are, we collected some little decorations, a mini artificial tree and baubles, a set of battery operated lights. We set this all up on the dining table, placed a few little gifts underneath, hung some chocolate Santa’s on the branches ready to surprise the others with a pre-Christmas mini-Christmas. Their faces lit up as they passed the window on their return.
Visit the main man
Our first date of the holiday was with Father Christmas. I would definitely recommend booking this is advance, as you can imagine he’s a popular and very busy fella in December.
Wrapped up for the weather we walk the short distance from our lodge to ‘Santa’s Workshop’. Flickering lights that appear to be snowing lead the way to this festive village.
Wandering down a magical dirt track we pass snow dusted trees and small wooden cabins. Peering through the doorways and windows you can spot elves working away, preparing Christmas treats.
We chose to go in the evening which meant that with the sun down, the only light was coming from the decorations and scenery. This made it all the more magical but did mean you had to watch where you wheel a little. It’s a hard dirt track with some lumps and bumps in places. Nothing too thrill seeking, but I would be aware if you’re a little clumsy on foot or your neck, like mine, isn’t too shock resistant.
Nearing the end of Santa’s village we are greeted by an elf and shown to the workshop. The corridors were a little narrow in places but things were easily moved to allow me access. Along the way we see more elves readying for the big day.
The man himself (Father Christmas, Santa Claus, St Nicholas, he goes by many names), was seated in the corner of a grand room. Adorned with Christmas tree, fireplace, book shelves, toys and gifts, this room was spacious enough for all six of us.
After a hohoho, a chat about what gifts we might like to receive if we’ve been good enough, and some gift giving, we posed for a photo and were escorted out by the elf. Not in a bad ‘you’re barred’ kind of way. In a friendly manner we were shown to the shop where we could collect our complimentary photographs.
Back at the lodge, pizzas in the oven and wine in glasses, the kids opened their gifts and we chilled for the evening. Why is it that after a certain age Father Christmas doesn’t give you gifts at these meetings?!That should be a thing too.
Breakfast with a squirrel
One of my favourite things about Center Parcs is that you’re surrounded by nature. I love it, but also think that it’s great for kids. We don’t get enough time in the outdoors, life is busy and we are always doing stuff. We don’t even just sit and eat breakfast. There’s either a tv on or a phone and table in hand. Although all that is possible here, with television, dvd and free wifi, somehow you get distracted by nature. Well I do. It’s like a backwards universe. You end up staring out at the trees, looking at nothing. Then a squirrel pops along to say hi. We share breakfast. Then a deer come by, and another. They’re not very photogenic. Mr Squirrel on the other hand. Poser.
An afternoon at the pantomime
I say these are my list of must dos, however this I’m still undecided on.
It was brilliantly awful, if such a thing is possible.
Let’s go to the pantomime I said. It will be fun I said. An accessible activity for all the family to enjoy together I said.
The pantomime was located in The Venue, a fully accessible building where conferences and entertainment nights are held. Although the room and building were completely accessible, seating wasn’t really considered. When we arrived the room was already half full of audience members, and although I’d informed prior to our stay that I have wheels, the staff didn’t seem to know where to seat me. There were no reservations.
At first we were directed down the centre isle, where I would be sitting in the isle with the others on seats beside me. However there were not enough seats together so we had to be separated. Not much family fun. Eventually we decided to just find somewhere else to sit ourselves, after rearranging a few chairs we placed ourselves on the edge of the audience, slightly sticking out and partly behind a post. But…
I use the term pantomime very loosely. It was basically a four man and two woman show where a Dean Gaffeny lookalike played a cockney Aladdin with a crazy scouser for a Mum. It involved a half donkey genie, a David Brent dance and some very manual set changes.
Halfway through I thought how could we have possibly spent so much money on such a random and amateur production. Prices were that of your average theatre production yet the stage and cast were a fifth of the size.
By the end I was chuckling along, it was the only thing you could do really. It was such a shambles it was funny. The kids loved it, they were unaware our laughter wasn’t for the same reasons as theirs.
Wrap up and pack for winter
It’s England, it’s December, it’s cold and the weather is as unpredictable as always.
We paid extra to choose the exact location of our lodge. Getting wet sitting down isn’t fun, plus it can take me a while to get anywhere. So being close by was worth the extra cost for us. Wherever you are situated though, it’s cold and could be wet. So take clothing for all eventualities. I live in my hat during winter, not only to keep me warm but just one drop of moisture can turn my hair to fuzz!
I’m a blanket person, I sleep with five of them. If I’m cold I cannot sleep. I take my hot water bottle everywhere, which is a good job because the lodge did get quite chilly at night. We worked out how to change the thermostat during the day, but for some reason it always dropped again at night. I think the heating must be set to switch off at certain times. The first night I did wake up quite cold, so from then on I used my shawls and unwanted bed runners as extra layers!
See the sights
There are obviously activities at Center Parcs that are not accessible to all. I cannot and will not swim, and I refuse to climb a wall. Also, people like different things.
This doesn’t mean you have to sit around like a bore though, there’s plenty to see. Particularly during Winter Wonderland.
While some of the crew were swimming I would go for a wander, I like exploring. The forest is relaxing and comes alive after dark. The natural wildlife and the festive installations. Sparkling reindeer are hidden away, squirrels are squirrelling.
There is access to the pool, and for those that want to swim, assistance to get in, and a hoist/chair is available. Around the pools are plenty of seating areas, food places and a Starbucks. So I did join the crew for a bit to see what chaos was going on. Well basically sat with the little ones while the big ones did rapids and cyclone!
Book dining out in advance
Although we ate in our lodge a fair amount, taking a food shop with us, we did want to eat out at some point. Hucks was recommended.
Not being as organised as usual, we attempted to book a table just a few days before we arrived, you can do this online. Already our options were limited, spaces were sparse.
We booked for mid afternoon as we didn’t have a busy schedule that day and weren’t really fussed. But if you want to eat at a certain place and a certain time, I recommend booking a few weeks before, particularly for peak times and weekends.
Access to the restaurant was great, I informed them in advance that we needed space for a wheelchair, as I know often American style restaurants use booth style seating.
I chose Mac and Cheese, because if there’s cheese I’m there. I have to say it was the best Mac and Cheese I have ever eaten! Others had burgers, and there was an all you can eat style buffet for the kids.
A good view for fireworks
During Winter Wonderland there are firework displays twice weekly, Wednesday’s and Sunday. The display starts at 6pm, but man does it get busy.
There is a designated viewing spot for those with disabilities and mobility issues. Just make sure you register and grab your wristbands from the information desk anytime during your stay. Prior to the fireworks obviously.
We headed to the access area by the beach and cabin around 5.30pm, armed with hot chocolates. It was the perfect view, we couldn’t have seen better really.
However, I’m in two minds about the fireworks. It was by far the best display I had ever seen, synchronised with the music, it was full on and pretty. Reflections sparkled in the lake. It was magical. I mean when else do you get to see Father Christmas take to the zip wire?
Those little animals though, the wildlife. Are they terrified, shaken? Or do they enjoy it too, have they got so familiar with it? I’m not convinced.
Everybody Loves a Quiz Night
Well I do anyway. Children not so much. Even though this quiz was creatively titled ‘Quizmas’ the totally Christmas theme was a little unexpected. I’m alright at quizzes when I’m at home, unless the theme was food related I probably wouldn’t win. But I do ok. Under pressure though, different story. Do you know the real name of the lady that plays Kevin’s Mum in Home Alone? Google not permitted. I don’t.
We didn’t come last, that’s the main thing!
Head to Pancake House
Again making the most of our stay, after packing up, departing the lodge by 10am, and driving our cars to the main carpark, we headed for some brunch.
My nieces are pancake super fans, who isn’t really. So when you can dine in a restaurant where all courses feature pancakes, why wouldn’t you.
We tried to prebook but they don’t take bookings for arrival and departure days. This didn’t matter though as when we got there just after 10am the place was pretty empty. It soon filled up though, with all those likeminded people grabbing a brunch treat before they head home.
There was a long wait on food, I’m not really sure why, but when it arrived it was delicious.
Some people might take a little convincing on the pancakes-with-everything idea, but I loved it. I had sweet potato pancakes with feta, sweet corn and spinach. Although I was tempted by the mega chocolate tower one after, I just couldn’t do it. I’ll try harder next time.
We were seated on large round table, I do love a circular table for dining. Not only is it more sociable to chat with everyone, it is also easy to access with a wheelchair as there are no table leg obstacles.
After drinking way too much tea I discovered another great thing, Pancake House has a changing places loo. Fully equipped with hoist etc. I’m not sure if there are other toilets with hoists on site at Center Parcs, but to save always going back to your lodge I’m sure Pancake House would let you access this facility even if you weren’t dining.
It was a great weekend had by all. I would definitely go back, and would recommend this if you fancy a festive holiday. Center Parcs is mostly great for access, they try hard anyway. The payment for hoist hire is a thoughtful extra I haven’t experienced before. Not even at Disneyland.
Isn’t it funny though that after a holiday you always need a holiday. I do anyway. You try to cram things in, make memories and new experiences.
Plus there’s something about coming home to sleep in your own bed.