My First Time Impressions of Center Parcs

I'm currently sat on the sofa nursing a bit of 'Center Parcs flu' after a gorgeous four day break at Center Parcs Sherwood Forest, located about 30 minutes north of Nottingham and deep in the heart of Robin Hood country. It was my first time visiting any Center Parcs anywhere in the UK, so I wanted to take some time to get all my thoughts down on paper as it were as I recover. Was I impressed? What did I like? What didn't I like? And most importantly, would I go again? Settle in as I get stuck into the good, the bad and the ugly of my first ever visit to Center Parcs! Let's start off with the stuff I LOVED, shall we? 

The lodge itself then. Like I say, we visited Sherwood Forest for my first ever taste of the Center Parcs holiday life, and treated ourselves to an executive lodge. This is slightly different than the 'standard' Center Parcs lodge - it was a two storey semi-detached affair complete with kitchen, living room, bedroom, en-suite including hydro bath and a little private outdoor patio with a bbq and mini bird-watching thing. It was perfect, exactly what we needed for our stay - all the home comforts so you could cook your own breakfast or bbq or whatever you wanted but still get those holiday feels. 

The location of this was a little different to the other lodges too - instead of being right in the heart of the woods we were more off to one side/around the back of the Aqua Sana spa. I was worried we weren't going to feel 'immersed' in the woodland setting but it was quite the opposite - we were so secluded and barely ever saw another person about, aside from a few angry geese doing their damndest to seize their share of the breakfast bacon rolls. Very tranquil and perfect if you're just looking to escape from the real world for a bit. 

I won't lie, I am a bit of a restaurant snob. I've grown up in/around cities and being so spoiled for choice means I usually try and seek out the more weird and wonderful restaurants I can find, and on first reading Huck's to me sounded like Frankie & Benny's. And look, if that's your thing then you do you, but to me the idea of eating somewhere like that is less than bleak. BUT, we'd seen good reviews and Sam is partial to a bacon cheeseburger (it's literally what he orders everywhere we go haha!) so we made our reservation and entered with baited breath for our Saturday night dinner out. 

As a young(ish) couple in our thirties with no kids, we're adapt at knowing the prime time to book a meal where we won't be disturbed by screaming kids, and that sweet spot is 9PM. The restaurant was about a quarter full so still plenty of atmosphere about the place and we loved the little hints of theming: retro gas pump, wooden water tower in the centre adorned with neon sign - your typical 'smokehouse' restaurant theming one would expect but all very clean and high quality and new feeling. 

We're both mental for buffalo wings so were pleased to find proper branded Frank's hot wings on the menu as a starter, which were excellent. Sam, of course, ordered the bacon cheeseburger, I ordered a cajun chicken onion ring burger thing and oh my GOD it was delicious. Like so delicious I'm salivating again whilst sat here writing this. Frankie & Benny's this was not. The whole thing only set us back about £50 for two starters, two mains, two drinks and gratuity, which I don't think is bad at all for the quality and the fact that we're essentially a captive audience.

Ah, the main event of all Center Parcs is of course the Subtropical Swimming Paradise, which for some reason makes me laugh every time I say it. It's so unnatural sounding and long. Why not just tropical? Why subtropical? Bizarre. 

Anyway, the pool situation was something else I was slightly nervous of. 'Public' pool, crawling with screaming kids, discarded plasters and hair congealed on the floor - that's the memory I have of holiday village swimming facilities so I assumed this would be no different. Wrong. The pool here is lush. Yes it does have some of that public pool feel but I think that's unavoidable for an indoor environment? It wasn't too loud or crowded or overwhelming (again, we were tactical about when we chose to visit so that likely has a lot to do with it). The greenery is gorgeous and immersive, there's a poolside cafe serving beer and hotdogs, and there's places everwhere to pull up a chair and chill if that's what you fancy. Oh, and this is included in your stay and you get full access every day you're on site, including free lockers.

And then of course, there's the infamous main event that is the Center Parcs rapids. It's my understanding that every Center Parcs across the country has their own version of this, and each are equally as mad and brutal and weirdly addictive. You start off outside and splash down a series of ramps, each more out of control than the last before moving inside to what eventually becomes a vertical drop off a waterfall into a plunge pool. I don't think it's possible to do these just once, every single time we came off wanting to run around and do it again. And we did.

There's a few other slides and bits around, and a wave pool but honestly they're nothing to write home about: it's all about the rapids. I can see why they're so iconic.

I can see why the service industry is struggling in the rest of the UK - it's because Center Parcs has nabbed all of the best service workers! Seriously, I don't know whether they have great pay, good incentives, or some other magic going on but this was some of the best service I've had in a long time. Ever since COVID, the whole service industry has changed drastically and I don't think I've had what I would consider to be 'great' service since pre-2020. Our visit to Center Parcs was refreshing in that aspect, sadly it felt like going back in time. Every staff member we encountered was friendly, helpful, chatty and generally elevated the entire experience for us - we didn't question the included gratuity on any of our bills for a second!

Having watched a few vlogs and read a few blogs prior to our visit, I was worried we were entering a Walt Disney World style warzone where pre-booking is paramount and you're completely doomed if you haven't scheduled every minute of your entire visit. Wrong again - whilst we did go ahead and book things like meal reservations and a few activities, we left a lot of our time open too. And that's what's great about a Center Parcs holiday - you can make it whatever you want it to be/can afford. We wanted a chilled weekend so stuck to the pool, eating and wandering through the woods but if you're after something more high octane you can do that too. Want a balance of both? That's an option as well. You can carve the exact trip you want out of your stay and in that aspect I'd say there really is something for everyone. 

I read the words 'treetop sauna' and knew instantly that was something I had to experience on our visit. I've had massages/treatments before but I've never done a proper spa day, so was very excited for my first ever experience of one to take place at Center Parcs' Aqua Sana. Set around a Roman style heated pool complete with jacuzzi bubbles and massaging water fountains, the spa has a series of themed experience rooms. Everything from volcanic saunas that smell like the Wicker Man pre-show room, to rainforest shower rooms with warm showers, scented mist and animals noises to the aforementioned treetop sauna - a sauna built with a view out across the top of the trees so you can relax in a robe whilst watching the squirrels beat each other up. 

I also opted for a 30 minute back, shoulder and neck massage which was an upcharge but honestly given the variety of what's available in the spa itself I'd have been more than happy with that selection. It's also worth noting that you can book mini-treaments on the day like hand/arm massages for only £20 extra which I thought was a bargain. I'd also seen some complaints of this being very expensive, but from my knowledge it seems comparable to any other spa treatments/days anywhere else, nothing extortionate or unreasonable.

OK, so we had a fantastic time but it wasn't without room for improvement either. Going into this as a theme park enthusiast and not a holiday park enthusiast, it was hard for me to shake some of that expectation learned from experience for something that is so comparable and also so...not. I tried really hard to shake it, but in my opinion there just would have been some things that would have been improved had Center Parcs borrowed slightly from the theme park manual. 

Look, I'm not a Center Parcs expert. But truthfully, after reading some of the online discussion I don't think even the most hardcore Center Parcs goers truly know how to work the hydro bath. What I'm saying is: why are there no bloody instructions for anything in the lodges? You're pretty much just left to fend for yourself, which I understand is part of the charm of a self-catering holiday but this was maddening. I shouldn't have to resort to scrolling through comments on old Facebook posts to get the most out of something I've paid for. It wasn't just the bath either - the TV, the door locking mechanism, the dishwasher. Nothing had instructions. Holidays are meant to be relaxing, and shouldn't include interludes of me yelling at various appliances because they won't do what I need them to. 

OK, this is probably a little unfair as it's not a Center Parcs exclusive thing, but my god I wish accommodations would upgrade their TVs. We were smug and brought a Chromecast with us, planning to chill in the evenings after a day's rambling with a movie or TV show using the streaming services we pay for, but alas. Despite having a HDMI and USB port built into the wall, it wouldn't work. Not only that, the built in Freeview was on the blip pretty much our entire stay. And look, I know a Center Parcs holiday isn't about watching TV, it's about getting out into nature and whatever. BUT, at the end of a day of doing that, I just want to settle in and watch some Netflix, not whatever terrible reality TV show ITV2 have decided is good programming. And again, I GET that for joe public, terrestrial TV does the job, but it's something that irks me at every hotel I stay in, and Center Parcs was no different. 

It was genuinely shocking to me, given the focus on wildlife in Center Parcs, that there was no wildlife spotting guide or interactive...thing available? I at least expected a bare basic laminated bird-watching chart, at best maybe some sort of digital checklist available via an app or something. But nope, nothing. And I like to think I'm quite good at identifying British wildlife but there were a few that had me stumped, with no way of figuring out what we'd just seen. 

Equally, I do also wish they told you on the maps where you're most likely to see certain animals and at what time. I really wanted to see a badger, and whilst we did see three dead ones in the road to/from the park a live one in its natural habitat would have been much nicer. I don't know, I feel like they've missed a trick there for something that I figured would have been included as part of the experience. 

Also just animal...stuff in general? No petting zoo?! What the hell. 

Considering how sprawling the park is, and how many different sections there are, the directions in the park in general, suck. Driving in we immediately got lost because the roadside signage is terrible, walking from our lodge to...anywhere, we got lost because the pedestrian signage is terrible. We shouldn't have to resort to using bloody Google Maps to find our way from one end of the park to another, and yet on several occasions this is what we ended up doing. 

The annoying thing is there's only about...ten different named areas? So on all the signposts you just need to have them listed and the general direction they're in, and you're sorted! Again, I appreciate that Center Parcs is frequented by people who are likely delighted at the premise of being lost in the woods, but I do not fit that category. 

And my final point - theming. Like I say, I understand that Center Parcs is not a theme park. And this is something I kept reminding myself of the whole weekend. The problem is, the place hints at theming. It teases here and there: the entrance to the spa looks like a Roman bath, the sweet shop is like a diet Hansel and Gretels, the Subtropical Swimming Paradise (hehe) is a giant indoor oasis. So it's hard to get away from wanting more when they dangle it like a carrot in front of you the whole time. 

I'm not saying go full Efteling, I don't expect ornate carvings and back stories for the rapids and whatever, I just think it would benefit from being a level up from local sport centre? Like put slanted rooves on the cabins, have proper themed entrance ways to the shops/attractions. I think just a 10% elevation in theming around the place would do wonders and make the entire place feel more premium? I don't think it was overpriced as some have stated, but it certainly wasn't cheap and some areas did not reflect the price we paid in my opinion. 


So would I go again? Absolutely. I don't know what I was expecting but it certainly exceeded my expectations. I think next time I would book to do a few more activities like maybe a high ropes or something, but I had a brilliant time just relaxing and taking it all in at a wound down pace. I definitely need to get back to Huck's again too - I'd also be intrigued to see which park has the best rapids!

I appreciate this was a LONG post so thanks for sticking with me if you're still here, and tell me: have you visited a Center Parcs before? If you have, which is your fav and what do you love the most about it? If not, how come you haven't visited before? What would your expectations be? Let me know in the comments, I'd love to have a chat!

Talk later xoxo,


  1. We are very much a Center Parcs family, and I enjoyed reading a first-timers experience. I totally agree with some of the improvements they could make - the TV set up really frustrated us as well!

    IMO, Sherwood has the best rapids… but each village has a different set up that will appeal to different people.

    We are taking another Center Parcs family for their first visit to Europa/Rulantica in a couple of weeks… I’m hoping for their minds to be blown!