For years I've driven up the M1 past Junction 13 and seen the elephant on the brown sign pointing to Woburn Safari Park, yet for some reason we've not visited until now. It's only about 40 minutes from where we live so getting there was nice and simple - always important when you have a toddler and baby in the car.
What's there to see
The safari park is in two halves - the road safari and the foot safari. The road safari gives you the opportunity to see some of the bigger, badder animals (lions, tigers, bears, wolves etc.) from the comfort of your own car, whilst the foot safari is more like your traditional zoo.
After paying through your car window you're straight off into the road safari, though you can skip it (or parts of it) if you want to. We missed out on the monkeys because Master C needed a feed - not that Mr C was too disappointed as he was convinced they'd steal our windscreen wipers!
Spotting a rhino from the car
It's novel staying in your car to view big game and this does set it apart from other zoos. For Little Miss C it was a bit tricky to tell her exactly where to look for some things, and strapped into her seat she can't see especially well anyway so I fear she may have missed out quite a bit. I saw other cars where they had their children sat on a knee up front - not something that I would be happy doing, but each to their own.
The foot safari covers smaller animals but is extensive enough that it alone could easily occupy most of a day. There are performing sealions, super-cute otters, smelly penguins and hogs and many others, plus all the extras that you might expect in a modern family attraction - a decent playground, huge soft play, swan boats on the lake and train rides.
There are numerous keeper talks and feeding sessions scheduled each day. We saw an excellent and informative talk by the elephant keepers, with two elephants performing to entertain the children. The session ended with the elephants being walked around so that the audience could touch their skin and see them up close and personal. Little Miss C amazed me by being incredibly brave and really wanting to get close to them.
If you go with a pushchair it is worth noting that there were a couple of walk-through animal areas, like the lemurs, where they had to be left outside, presumably for safety reasons. That meant one of us had to wait with Master C (asleep in said pushchair) whilst the other one went in with Little Miss C.
In the foot safari area there are all the usual facilities that you would expect on a day out - toilets, cafe, shop etc. As we were visiting in the depths of winter not everything was open, but I was a little surprised at some of the things that were closed. For instance there is a cafe in the soft play barn, but this cafe wasn't open at the same hours as the soft play itself so thirsty parents had to trek to another cafe to bring coffees back with them.
A very closed cafe in the soft play area
Once the cafe in the soft play area did open I went over to try and order us some lunch only to be told that there was no hot food being served due to lack of staff! This was surprising and disappointing on a weekend day between Christmas and New Year. The place was full of children and their parents and we weren't the only ones that had to drag away a confused child. There were no signs up anywhere saying this was the case - a poor show!
We did find food at the main restaurant, which was efficiently served but otherwise uninspirational. We spoke to the catering manager who happened to clear our table and expressed our disappointment at the other cafe not serving food. She said that they hadn't expected it to be so busy, though I find it interesting that a tourist attraction hadn't predicted that a weekend in the school holidays might be busy, especially one where the weather was good.
In the soft play area I went with Master C to find the baby changing facilities and was slightly concerned to see a dad changing a baby's nappy on the carpet outside the toilet area. Once I went in I could understand why - the room smelt horrible and there were some very strange damp, mouldy areas on the wall right next to the flip-down changing table. Let's just say that for Master C's next nappy change we just used the car.
I feel rather torn after our trip to Woburn as to whether or not I'd recommend it to others. Thinking purely about the animals we saw there it was great. Lots of variety, great opportunities to see things up close, knowledgeable staff and all the animals seemed very well looked after. It was just some of the facilities and attention to detail that let the place down, but these are so important when you're on a day out with small children. Not bad overall though, and we're ultimately glad we went.
Full details of opening times and prices can be found on their website. Until 14 February 2013 they are open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. From 14 February until 4 November 2013 is the main season and the park is open daily. Winter tickets are £15.99 for adults and £11.99 for children and in the main season they are £19.99 and £14.99 respectively. Under threes are free.