Center Parcs: How much will it cost you and is it worth it?
Family destination is world-class, but will Irish holidaymakers pay the price?
Ronan McGreevy’s daughter Rosamund in the subtropical swimming paradise at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photograph: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland
There is nothing that prepares you for Center Parcs Longford Forest - unless it is another Center Parcs. I had a good idea of the concept having visited Woburn Forest in the UK two years ago, but it is still remarkable to see how an unprepossessing woodland in Longford has been transformed into a visitor centre like no other in Ireland.
Take the largest waterpark in Ireland and add the largest adventure centre, children’s indoor play centre and artificial lake, and then build the equivalent of a small Irish town with all the ancillary services, footpaths and roads, all done in four years, and the first-time visitor begins to realise the scale of this tourist attraction.
Guests enter the complex via a winding approach road which leads to a security hut and a large car park, the only humdrum vista of the visit. Cars are only allowed at the start and finish of your stay, to transport guests and luggage to their lodges. The preponderance of bicycles everywhere on site is a pleasant spectacle with families cycling together, a tantalising glimpse of what a car-free utopia might look like. Bicycles are the most efficient way to get around, given the distance between attractions. You can hire them for a fee (see below); seasoned Centre Parcs visitors bring their own.
With the exception of the 30 apartments overlooking the lake at the centre of Center Parcs, visitors stay in lodges which are half timber-frame, half brick. Each is set in echelon to the other, and all have the forest at their back. They are fully equipped for a visiting family with a log burner for the winter and a barbecue for the summer - often the triumph of hope over experience in Ireland. There’s a TV with a basic channels package and the wifi - given the Midlands’ reputation as a wifi blackspot - is excellent.
Most visitors divide their time between their lodges and the subtropical swimming paradise, which are part of the basic package. There is a whoosh of heat as you enter; heated to 29.5 degrees all year long, it feels even hotter when the sun shines. The pool is fringed with deck chairs to recreate the beach experience, and the glass roof means it is possible to get a sun tan on the four days that the sun shines in Longford every year.
There are three rides, the best of which is the Tropical Cyclone which includes a sheer drop. There is a reasonably priced cafe, two whirlpools, a toddlers’ section, a lazy river, and the most popular attraction of all, the outdoor wild water rapids which snakes its way down the outside of the building. It will be a bracing experience in the middle of winter and a sign warns all visitors to vacate it immediately in the event of a thunderstorm.
The subtropical paradise is set in the village square, which includes a couple of gift shops, a basic supermarket, ParcMarket, and nine restaurants including Indian, Italian and American-themed ones and some cafe/bars. Guests have to pay €5 deposit each to book a table, which is taken off the bill or forfeited if you don’t turn up.
There’s also a sports bar with dozens of televisions large and small tuned to different sports, alongside pool halls and snooker tables.
The subtropical swimming paradise overlooks an artificial lake fringed by a beach house and a stretch of sand where visitors can hire kakaks, pedalos and electric boats, or get lessons in water sports. The zip wire, another standard feature of Center Parcs everywhere, crosses the lake.
There is a tyranny of choice for those interested in the activities Center Parcs have to offer. There are more than 100 in total. There’s adventure golf, archery, aerial adventure, aqua-jetting, American pool and astroturf, and that’s just the As. Three things act as a constraint. One is availability - the most popular ones have to be booked well in advance; secondly there is not enough time to do everything; and the third is price.
Activities have to be booked separately from the basic package, and they are not cheap. The laser combat looks like a pile of fun, but it will set back a family of four (two adults, two children) €100, though this is at the extreme end of pricing and there are other more affordable activities.
Center Parcs also has a spa, which will be available to paying guests for €50 for a three-hour session, which does not include the cost of treatments. Aqua Sana Spa is an impressive destination in its own right with an outdoor pool and large restaurant. From September, guests will be able to visit and stay the night without visiting Center Parcs.
It was noteworthy the number of English staff working alongside their Irish counterparts at the weekend for the opening. The staff are polite and unfailingly helpful and seem to be genuinely pleased to work there.
The opening weekend was reserved for celebrities, social media influencers, travel journalists, broadcasters and reviewers. Among those present were Ireland rugby captain Rory Best, former Kerry footballer Aidan O’Mahony, former Olympic hurdler Derval O’Rourke, Westlife singer Cian Egan and his wife Jodie Lambert, celebrity chef Rachel Allen, actress Denise McCormack, fashion blogger Rosie Connolly and TV and radio presenters Seán Moncrieff, Baz Ashmawy, Karen Koster, Dermot Bannon, Dermot Whelan, Louise McSharry, Anna Daly, Maia Dunphy, Colette Fitzpatrick and Maura Derrane. Also present were Irish Times journalists including Damian Cullen, Roisin Ingle and Mark Paul.
They all seemed suitably impressed, but will paying guests feel the same way?
Center Parcs is a world-class tourism facility. It will transform the options for family holidays in Ireland. There will be many conversations around the dinner table when thoughts turn to the summer holidays. “Will we go to Lanzarote or will we go to Longford?” Center Parcs is not cheap and does not pretend to be, yet its owners have built a successful business model around confounding the expectation that holidaymakers will only pay for expensive holidays if they are abroad, and preferably to somewhere that is sunny.
Center Parcs is betting that the squeezed Irish middle with their mortgages, childcare costs and car loans are not so squeezed that they cannot find a few thousand euro down the back of the couch for a short break in Longford.
It is not quite true to state that you can go to Spain for the price of a holiday at Center Parcs; Spain is still more expensive when flights for a family are included. Even so, many will pay a premium for skipping the hassle of foreign travel, especially with young children.
The affordability of Center Parcs will animate many conversations, but not for the children we were with, for whom it was an enchanting place. “When are we coming back?” they asked. Pester power may be as important as price in opting for Center Parcs.
The investment Center Parcs has made in Longford - €233 million in total - is an impressive statement of confidence in the company’s tourism product and, by extension, middle Ireland. The company believes there are enough Irish people of sufficient means to sustain a business venture of this magnitude into the future. Its fate will be a useful barometer for the fate of the Irish economy in years to come.
Ronan McGreevy was a guest of Center Parcs.
How much will a Center Parcs holiday set you back?
Center Parcs holidays are either a three night/four day stay, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, or a four night/five day stay Monday to Friday. Prices quoted here are based on two adults and two children staying mid-week.
Two-bedroom Woodland lodge
Mid-term: Monday, October 28th - Friday, November 1st: €1,099
Off-peak: Monday, November 4th - Friday, November 8th: €349
Peak summer season 2020: Monday, July 27th - Friday, July 31st: €1,199
Four bedroom Woodland lodge
Mid-term: Monday, October 28th - Friday, November 1st: €1,699
Off-peak: Monday, November 4th - Friday, November 8th: €499
Peak summer season 2020: Monday, July 27th - Friday, July 31st: €1,599
Bicycle hire for the duration of a visit: Adults €35, children €27.50
Aerial adventure: €32
Aerial tree trekking: €30
American pool (one hour): €8.50
Archery (55 minutes): 12 years + €26, under 12s €22
Badminton (one hour): €8.50
Craft (pleasure boat) hire (30 minutes): €9.75
Indoor climbing (55 minutes): 12 years + €20, under 12s: €17
Laser clay shoot out: 12 years + €27, under 12s €23
Wildlife walk: 4 years + €8.75
Pottery painting studio (90 mins): 12 years + €6.50, under 12s €5.50
Rollerskating (60 mins): €9.50
Segway experience (45 minutes): €30
Treasure trail (90 minutes): 12 years + €6.50, under 12s €5.50