Last weekend marked the seventh year in a row we have visited Butlins. So what has changed since our first stay in 2010?
For one thing we have grown as a family. The first time we went, Isaac was two and Toby had only just passed three months. This year, the boys are eight and six and Kara is now four.
We had worried before coming this year that familiarity might breed contempt and the boys would have started to outgrow Butlins. That categorically wasn’t the case. They may have grown out of some things – the giant soft play area isn’t the big draw it used to be and the toddler rides went ignored – but they have grown into others.
Last year was the first time the grown-up fairground rides (the dodgems in particular) had caught the boys’ attention. This year, Isaac was tall enough to go on rides unaccompanied while Kara was able to join us on almost every ride too. All of a sudden it became possible for two adults and three kids to all do things at the same time, opening up a world of new possibilities. We spent a good couple of hours every day on the dodgems, helter skelter, chair swings and other rides. None of them can hold a candle to what you will find at, say, Alton Towers, but they were all plenty of fun and came with the bonus of minimal queues.
Being that bit older, the kids were more amenable to waiting for and watching the big stage shows too. These have been painful in the past. To get a half-decent seat, you need to queue at least an hour beforehand (or leave an adult in the queue to dash in and reserve a table, a practice I find understandable but infuriating) and the evening shows don’t finish until around 8:30 which can be tough on little ones who have already had a long, exhausting day.
This was just one example of how now having an eight, six and four-year-old is so much easier than it was, say, two years ago. Kids who don’t start throwing tantrums if asked to queue for more than five minutes. (Ours now last at least ten …) No daytime naps to work around. No need for a stroller. Letting the boys wander around the main pavilion (still affectionately known in our family as the ‘big white tent’) or the fairground unsupervised and generally not having to keep an eagle-eye on three kids every minute of the day. Being able to sleep in past 7am while the kids entertained themselves quietly (well, quietly-ish, anyway). Unloading and reloading our stuff requiring fewer than 285 shuttle runs between car park and apartment.
A holiday, in other words. As opposed to ‘same crap, different location’.
It wasn’t all perfect, of course. The kids started out difficult to control due to overexcitement and finished off difficult to control due to overtiredness. But we had fun. We swam. We played arcade games. We gave ourselves whiplash on the dodgems. We ate ice creams – it’s never too cold for ice cream, right? – and pizza and giggled at the 1950s-style singers in the American-style diner. We managed a few shows and carved pumpkins and did Halloween themed arts and crafts.
Every year we go to Butlins the location may not change but our experience does. This was in many ways our best one to date. Four days of mild weather with barely five minutes of drizzle, three kids in that magical age window where there is something each of them is interested in and many things they will all happily do together. And – a lovely bonus – we got to watch a surprisingly impressive fireworks display on the Saturday night.
There’s nothing fancy about Butlins. This is by no stretch of the imagination a five-star experience – but it represents good value. Some of the older accommodation is cramped and in need of renovation – but the kids don’t care. The entertainments are relatively unsophisticated – but 2p arcade machines and slapstick, pantomime-style shows have the kids roaring with laughter. There’s a decent selection of buffet and sit-down restaurants that doesn’t cost the earth.
This is the great British seaside holiday at its most simple and old-fashioned. And that’s not meant in a disparaging way. We love our luxury summer holidays but nonetheless Butlins has an enduring appeal for us with, yes, a slightly ramshackle charm. It continues to deliver the goods for our growing family year after year. We’re booked in for the 2017 Halloween weekend already.
This is a personal review. I was neither commissioned nor incentivised in any way to write this post.