Longleat regularly makes top 10 lists of family attractions. But what do kids really think of it? We took along some new friends to find out.
When Longleat opened, Britain's first safari park was also the first drive through safari park outside of Africa. Tourism organizations, visitors' surveys and travel writers sing its praises. But with dozens of things to see and do, we wondered if children might find it overwhelming. We need not have worried.
We took along two young friends, 13-year-old Lizzie and 11-year-old Nick, to find out. Neither had ever visited before though both had seen the popular BBC television program, Animal Park, filmed there. Here's what they thought.
First the Anticipation
We arrived at Longleat late in the morning - at about 11:30 a.m. and found ourselves in a long queue of cars, snaking our way across the Longleat Estate, behind the house, across fields to an overflow parking lot. Despite this, the time passed relatively quickly and we were soon inside. Parking, given the number of cars, is relatively close to the house and various attractions.
Tickets for the park are sold at a few different locations on the main square, so we only had to wait about 15 minutes. While we were in line, park staff handed out bags of jelly snakes to ease the wait.
UK Travel Tip: If you arrive around midday during school vacations, be prepared for a long wait to enter. But don't be put off by that. Once inside, there are plenty of distractions to help you and the kids pass the time until you're allowed to drive into the Safari Park itself.
We Loved the Safari Park!
It was late afternoon when we finally got into the Safari Park but everyone agreed it was well worth the wait to be confronted by curiously smiling camels, approached by nonchalant lions and to see the park's Siberian Tigers lounge around.
Much to our disappointment, the new colony of lowland gorillas was playing hide and seek and Nico, Longleat's famous silverback gorilla, was hanging out in his private digs and not in the mood to socialize. Maybe he was watching his satellite TV (yes he has one).
We missed the Canadian timber wolves, who were all sleeping, too. But the animals at Longleat are kept as naturally as possible and you have to be satisfied at seeing whatever they happen to be doing when you happen to be passing.
Lizzie judged the Safari Park the best part of Longleat: "The animals were really cool and I saw lots of animals I never saw before."
The Maze Was Way Cool Too
Longleat's Hedge Maze is huge and confusing. According to park staff, most people spend more than an hour finding their way in and out of it. Even when you make your way to the middle, where there is a tower for looking out over the whole Maze, it is still impossible to plot a way out. Nevermind. The whole experience is terrific.
We lost Nick, who was more of an adventurer than the rest of us, for about half an hour. Now and then we would catch a glimpse of him on one of the bridges or platforms that rise above the hedges, but we couldn't figure out how to get to him.
Eventually, he became bored with evading us and stayed put long enough for us to catch him. Nick's advice about the Hedge Maze: "Stay together in the Maze. Stay together!"
Longleat also has a mirror maze - King Arthur's Mirror Maze. "I wouldn't bother with the mirror maze," says Lizzie. "It was not big enough and it was too crowded." We all seconded her opinion.
And The Monkey Jungle!
Nick's favorite (and mine) was the Monkey Jungle. Longleat's troupe of Rhesus monkeys are like brazen hooligans, looking for trouble. They hitch rides on cars passing through and pick away anything loose (rubber, radio antennae, roof racks, plastic spare tire covers). While mothers and babies were grooming in the trees and on the hills, the boys systematically marauded, going from car to car. We watched a station wagon lose it's badly taped and repaired roof rack to a pack of monkeys working as a team.
We thought they were hysterical but the playful monkeys can be so destructive that drivers who are a bit precious about their cars are invited to take a route that bypasses the Monkey Jungle all together.
Other Attractions at Longleat
After adventures in the Hedge Maze, while we waited for our clear shot at the Safari Park, we took in some of the other attractions. Nick, my 11-year-old friend, thought most of the other family attractions at Longleat existed to take pressure off the Safari Park. The rest of the park was "quite good," he said, but, "it's kind of all about the Safari Park, isn't it." (A note for my American readers - "quite" as used by the British is not extra good. It is lukewarm - damning with faint praise.)
Here are Nick and Lizzie's verdict on some of the other attractions:
- Pet's Corner Both children were probably a bit too old for Longleat's animal zoo. They found it small and crowded with not enough to see. "There weren't enough rabbits," Lizzie said.A popular exception was the snake that children were allowed to hold. Lizzie didn't manage to penetrate the crowd to touch the large heavy snake being handled by one of Longleat's keepers. Later she complained, "There were lots of people crowding around the one snake. They should have another one."
Nick, smaller and more determined,worked his way right to the center next to the keeper. Soon he was lifting the heavy snake (in the hubbub we never found out what kind of snake it was) over his head in shy triumph.
- The Bird Show met with a mixed reception. Lizzie thought "it went on a bit". Nick termed it "really good". We dawdled getting to the open air seating and had to stand through the show which may have had an effect on the kids' enjoyment.
Not Sure About the Catering
Most of Longleat's catering is clustered around a large, airy pavilion with simple, child proof furnishings, where hot meals, sandwiches, burgers and pizza are offered. Visiting Longleat is an all day affair and once you are inside, unless you have packed a cooler and use the picnic areas, eating in one of Longleat's restaurants or snackbars is not a matter of choice.
Inside, arrangements are somewhat confusing and, with all the to-ing and fro-ing of parents and children, leisurely contemplation of what is on offer is out of the question. We ended up at the hot food counter, where adult and child sized versions of all the dishes were available. There was apparently a daily special but only one of our party of four noticed it.
No one was really happy with their meal. Lizzie and I both gave up trying to catch the hard, brown,wrinkled peas that came with our food and were impossible to fork up. She thought her sausage and mash was "nice". Nick, was similarly lukewarm about his chicken with mash and veg and left most of it on his plate. Although portions were generous, we all thought the presentation could have been more child-friendly and generally appealing.
Note: Since our visit, Longleat has opened a Tropical Storm Cafe with lighting and sound effects, along with several more food and drink outlets. They make a very big effort to feed the thousands who troop through during school holidays and the offerings are probably better than schlepping a family picnic around the place.
Kids' Opinions in Brief
- The Safari Park is just breaktaking. Worth every penny of the admission charge.
- The Monkey Jungle is just hysterical. We watched a pair of monkeys demolish the vinyl spare tire cover on a 4x4 in front of us. What a laugh - until one of them jumped on my car and whizzed all over the windshield.
- The Hedge Maze is one of the best. Especially for little boys with a naughty streak.
- Helpful, friendly staff Without exception, the staff went out of their way to explain things and to ensure that everyone was having a safe, good time.
- Some attractions were crowded
- Long queues to get in
- The food generated a big thumbs down from all of us
- Toilets were too few and too hard to find
- Too much to take in on one visit
The Bottom Line
We visited Longleat on a cold, overcast day, during the last big vacation week of the English summer. We waited in queues, jostled with crowds in a few areas and were disappointed with our lunch. Nevertheless, Longleat's Safari Park, Monkey Jungle and Hedge Maze are such good fun, and the Longleat staff so good natured and helpful that we all agreed it was a day very well spent.
- Address:Longleat Safari Park
Wiltshire BA12 7NJ
- Telephone: +44 (0)1985 844328
- Visit their website