In our case, no. It’s not worth taking really young kids to Whipsnade zoo.
Bear with me while I put that into context.
Back in September we kicked off a 2-week staycation with a trip to Mead Open Farm and loved every second of it. The following day, though, things took an unexpected turn when we ended up in hospital with The Girl (eczema herpeticum, if you’re interested).
Five days later we were discharged and desperate to salvage some of our holiday before I started back at work after a year on maternity leave. So we squeezed in a much-anticipated trip to the zoo – a first for The Boy and something he’d been looking forward to for months.
The reason I’m telling you all this? Because our trip to ZSL Whipsnade Zoo – the UK’s biggest – wasn’t as good as we expected it to be, and I think part of that must have been down to the events of the week before. We were all tired, The Girl still wasn’t 100%, and we’d been talking about how amazing the zoo would be for months. So the fact it didn’t live up to the hype is kind of understandable, and we may have come away with a slightly different impression had it been a ‘normal’ week.
That said, the biggest issue for us – and the main reason I wouldn’t rush back – was the cost. We shelled out a small fortune, and that would have been the case irrespective of the rubbish week we’d had.
Entrance prices – £72 for a young family
We visited on a Thursday during term time and saved £18 on a child’s ticket by going just before The Boy’s 3rd birthday (under-3s are free). That took the total for our family of 4 (2 adults, a baby and a toddler) to £72 (the full list of ticket prices is here).
£22 of that was for zoo car entry – you can park just off-site and walk in, but everyone we spoke to recommended taking the car in with small kids, as that way we could drive between the different areas.
Another £5 of the total cost was an optional donation, which is fair enough considering ZSL is a conservation charity (although it’s added on to your ticket automatically at the gate – if you don’t want to pay it you need to be prepared to ask the person at the gate to take it off).
Getting around the zoo – wear some decent shoes
Once we’d got over the cost of the ticket price and parked up, we set off for the first of the daily events on our list – the sea lion show. Unfortunately the sea lions weren’t playing ball, so we set off for the birds of prey show instead. When the star of that show went AWOL and it had to end early, we gave up on the daily events altogether and wandered off in search of some animals instead.
The various animals are spread across the grounds by continent, and there’s a lot of ground to cover. We loaded up the double buggy and set off to find bears, lemurs, elephants, giraffes and plenty more animals the kids had only ever seen in books.
The Butterfly House, which opened this summer, was a nice break from the cold outside as it’s kept at a constant warm temperature. And the penguin enclosure was well worth a visit despite the freezing cold wind (it’s right on the far edge of the grounds, on a hill overlooking The Chilterns).
The verdict – would we go back?
We spent 5 hours at the zoo in total, which included an obligatory stop-off at the Hullabazoo soft play area (which is really good – the cleanest I’ve been to) and the playground (also pretty good). Food-wise we bought our own picnic and, bearing the overall cost in mind, I’m really glad we did. (For more info on the food on offer at Whipsnade Zoo take a look here. Just bear in mind a lot of it will be shut if, like us, you go out of season.)
Unfortunately for us I think the kids were just a little bit too young to fully appreciate the day. The Boy – at preschool age – definitely enjoyed himself more than The Girl who, at 12 months and just walking, is at a stage where she gets fed up just sitting in the buggy for hours. There’s a lot of walking involved, which meant The Boy got tired and grumpy pretty quickly, and the cold weather didn’t help.
That all said, I’m going to contradict myself massively here and say that, yes, I would go back to Whipsnade Zoo. But I’d wait another couple of years until The Girl is at least 3 (there’s a reason it’s free for toddlers) and I’d save it for both a special occasion and a sunny day.
Whipsnade Zoo – 5 things you need to know if you’re taking young kids…
1. Go when the weather’s good.
Or just not when it’s windy or wet. It’s all really open and exposed so you’ll have a much nicer day if the weather’s on your side.
2. Book in for the soft play when you get there.
There’s a really nice – and ultra-clean – indoor play area called Hullabazoo but it can get really busy. Check the weather forecast on the day and if it’s due to rain at any point, that might be a good time to be indoors.
3. Use Tescos vouchers.
You can use Tesco’s Clubcard Deals to boost your points and save loads on the price of tickets. If that’s not an option, take a look at the online family offer in case you could save some money that way.
4. Park outside the zoo if you’re trying to save money – even if you have got a buggy.
Having seen how close the carpark was I’d actually leave the car outside if I went again. As long as you have a decent buggy or baby carrier (or both) you can do it all on foot and just nip back to the car if you need to.
5. Consider going when the kids are old enough to appreciate it.
I’d probably say 3 is the minimum age if you want to get the most out of the day. If you’re only likely to go once, leave it another year and it’ll be even better.