People are fascinated by Butlins. The history, the old Hi-de-Hi! image. So given the opportunity to take a 21st century Butlin’s holiday this summer we jumped at the chance.
I had all the obvious witticisms thrown at me of course: “Are you going to be entering the knobbly knee competition?” was top of the list. Not that funny after a bit.
Butlins has three locations in the UK: Skegness, Minehead and Bognor Regis. All conjure up images of 1970s and 1980 holidays with parents and out of focus photographs. We were trying out the Skegness site, which is where it all started for Billy Butlin back in 1936.
The site is well – enormous – able to house 7000 in varied accommodation. The site backs on to a Blue Flag beach in Lincolnshire, and can be reached by car of course, or by train from Grantham (which is a stop on the East Coast mainline). The centre of the site is dominated by the Skyline Pavilion, which is the central entertainment zone housing restaurants, bars, theatres (there seemed to be something going on pretty much everytime we walked through from singalongs to Thomas the Tank shows – the place was constantly bustling), arcade style machines, supermarkets, ice-cream parlours and gift shops. From here, you can reach the many (many!) activities on offer, from sports to crafts to dance classes, more bars, more restaurants, the range is actually a bit overwhelming.
Some areas of the site have been refurbished, and landscaped and do look very up to date. We were staying in one of the new Seaside apartments. The apartments are housed in the original chalet blocks, but from the inside you would never know. With two bedrooms, a galley kitchen, lounge and bathroom the accommodation was pretty small, but had everything you would need. The kids made themselves immediately at home in their bedroom pushing the 2 single beds together so they could snuggle up. The addition of a large terrace was a nice touch. Unfortunately for us the weather wasn’t that great, but on sunny days eating out on the terrace would be a pleasant option.
The apartments take their name from their location close to the beach and it’s a two to three minute stroll from the apartment to the beach entrance; a concept that did feel strange to us at first. Why can’t the site be more open to the beach? But of course access to the site is restricted to guests hence the need for a pass to get back in and a beach closing time of 7pm. Just inside the beach entrance, there is a seaside area, with sandpit and deckchairs that the kids enjoyed. The beach itself is a lovely, long sandy stretch not spoilt too much by the wind turbines out at sea! In fact you might see this as a modern addition to the landscape if you’re ecologically inclined.
When booking your holiday to Butlins, you can choose to go freestyle with your dining, or you can choose from one of the Dining Plans, which give you an all-inclusive type experience with breakfast and dinner provided in one of the resort restaurants. We were lucky enough to have a Premium Dining plan which meant we were able to dine each morning and evening in either The Yacht Club or The Deck. Both restaurants works on a self-service buffet style basis; a bit like a college refectory, on a grander scale. We preferred The Deck for dinner as there was more choice and The Yacht Club for breakfast as it was bit smaller and quieter. The food quality was pretty high and the choice varies each day. We had fun choosing the more spicy Indian meals and the kids enjoyed getting their own drinks which they could refill whenever they wished. There was a section for pasta, a grill, and even a vegetarian section with salads and desserts available from chiller units. The only downside to these dining plans is that you are limited to these two restaurants and to the buffet style atmosphere, but it would save you a lot of money over a few days. There are lots more restaurants to choose from on site should you wish, and you can always of course eschew the dining plans altogether and eat somewhere different every night.
One of the main attractions of Butlins for the kids was Splash Water World, Butlin’s extensive water park. It was a bit of a crush getting in; but we had our B Line passes which you can purchase when you book, and these took us to the front of the queue. I had my fingers crossed that the kids would be impressed and they were. Splash Water World is on a grand scale with different pools and features covering all ages. Our kids had a lot of fun trying out all the slides and loved the area where you were pulled around an island by a strong wavelike current which was one of the highlights. The surging bubbles in places made you feel like you were (safely!) swimming through rapids before you were spat out the other end. There are some small pipes and slides in a shallow pool which were perfect for our 4 year old boy. It made him feel great that he could go down these himself. I took our nine year old onto one of the bigger water slides which took us on a trip outside the building, where we slid down gulleys and waterfalls until we were delivered onto a deep pool back inside.
We waited for a sunny second day to visit the fairground at Butlins (typical UK weather – it literally poured down all day the first day we were there which is one of the bonuses of course of parks with indoor activities). Heading straight to the dodgems, there were no queues this early, and so we didn’t have to wait too long, before trying out the Carousel. The majority of the fair was free (with the exception of some bungie rides, go karts and some other bits and pieces) which was a relief; none of the wallet emptying panic that usually accompanies a few hours at the local fair. I lost count of the number of rides the kids enjoyed. All the attendants at each ride were ready helpful and friendly which is a refreshing change to the typical fairground surly expressions.
So how to sum up our Butlin’s trip? Well, Splash Waterworld was a major hit and a huge asset for Butlins, and we loved the fair and the fact that most of the entertainment costs were included. But we found the queuing for the entertainment shows a bit off-putting. You had to queue for virtually all of these, and be there perfectly on schedule or risk not getting in. We’re so used to instant access, this felt like a step backwards. Many people seemed unfazed by queuing hours to get a good seat to see Diversity but we found it hard to handle.
Our Seaside apartment was cosy and had everything we needed for a short stay. The food quality at the Butlin’s restaurants was high and much better than we expected, and we would recommend trying the other restaurants on site so you get a bit of variety. The red coats and staff were very friendly and helpful which helped you feel welcome.
I would say you have to be well organised to enjoy a Butlins holiday to its fullest extent. Activities have timed windows, and you need to be on time to have a chance of getting in to the events with a half decent seat. It’s not so much relaxed as scheduled so it you’re not good at schedules you’ll miss out on a lot.
That said, overall it’s a warm and friendly place and great for families especially those with younger ones. It’s a well-known and evolving British holiday company that you feel is slowly stepping into a new century toe by toe.