Whipsnade is one of two zoos owned and operated by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL’s other site is London Zoo in Regent’s Park) and is nestled in the picturesque Dunstable Downs. It is the UK’s biggest Zoo, with 3,313 animals calling it home. It’s open from 10am, 364 days of the year, only closing on Christmas Day.
It was our little Maggie’s second birthday and she LOVES animals – especially elephants and monkeys. We KNEW that a perfect place to celebrate this big birthday, with her grandparents and her sister Bess, would be the Zoo at Whipsnade – and boy, we weren’t wrong. She has huge eyes on a normal day; at the Zoo they turned into saucers as she couldn’t believe her eyes.
From Base Camp to the Adventure Play Park – this is an amazing place for children.
Starting at ‘Base Camp’, we met lemurs and chimpanzees living alongside bison, and wolves – and to Maggie’s delight, a ‘cuddly’ Bear. From there, we walked up to towards the Penguin’s pools, and for a time, took a rest overlooking the Chilterns – the park is in the most spectacular location! The penguins really piqued the girl’s interest and we were lucky to catch the end of feeding time which was incredibly informative – Bess is proud to reveal her favourite penguin facts at a moment’s notice ever since.
From the penguins, we walked to the rhinos and then caught the elephants just as they were about to take a walk through the site, trunk to tail. Utterly mesmerising and honestly, so humbling to see such magnificent animals so close you can touch them. The girls were struck mute by the sight and quite delighted to find that their skin is apparently ‘as tough as old boots’ (first time we had heard Bess utter that particular phrase..!)
After a refuel at the Africa Outpost (great coffee, by the way, and the kids can get an ice cream here. If you are thinking of taking a picnic with you, this is a fab place to stop and eat on the benches provided and take in the views over the valley while you eat), we took the (free) bus to the tigers and watched from above their enclosure while they stealthily strutted about. There is a little nook just at the entrance which Bess found and we were able to stand just a few metres from where one of these elegantly ferocious cats sat, grooming itself in the sunshine. Fabulous.
After a good hour playing on the Hullabazoo adventure playground, we ended our day in the Butterfly House which was quite magical. Butterflies in all colours fly around you, landing on your shoulder and nibbling away at fruit that sits on perch-like tables. There are 30 different species of butterfly housed here from all around the world. We loved to just stand still and wait for them to think we were practically part of the furniture so that they land on your arms, and shoulders – and even Maggie’s head!
Aside from staring open-mouthed at the 205 species that there are to see, there was so much to do: from taking a train around the site to playing on the quite frankly ENORMOUS wooden play area, there is a lot here to occupy your time. And if you find it raining, don’t fear: there is a great indoor soft play for the kids to go bonkers on while you drink a very decent cup of coffee.
We Loved (and We Loathed..)
Tiddlers Love: There’s not a moment’s hesitation when my children are asked what their favourite part of the day is: “THE CHIMPANZEES!”. We could have watched them easily for an hour, pootling about their enclosure, nibbling ticks from each other and scratching their bottoms, to much hilarity.
Tiddlers Loathe: According to Bess: “The BISON! They are really STINKY”.
Grown ups Love: This zoo is beautifully run – the enclosures are well-tended, and the animals appear content, and incredibly well looked after. The penguins especially reside in a beautiful, spa-worthy custom pool overlooking the Downs!
The site is enormous so a good tip is to take buggies and prams for little ones and scooters for slightly older, to save their legs and your voice; there’s only so many times you can say ‘come on! hurry up!’ They will get tired, as will your shoulders from carrying them when they are weary. However, ZSL have considered this and there is a regular bus that is available to ferry you from ‘continent to continent’, with the loveliest drivers who have easy chat and a kind smile for the kids.
Grown up’s Loathe: OH MY. Whipsnade can be an EXPENSIVE family day out. With children priced at £16.50, and adults at a whopping £22.80 per ticket it’s easy to be relieved of your wallet’s contents before you have even walked through the gate. This is, for most families, going to be the highlight of a school holiday, or a birthday treat perhaps. But you do get a discount for a family of four on the usual ticket price, and additional children get 10% off. Not loads, but better than full price. And you can no doubt also find vouchers online, which will bring down the cost significantly. It’s also worth remembering that although the annual family ticket is a rather sizeable outlay, you’d easily get your money’s worth after just three visits. And if your kids fall in love with Whipsnade as much as ours did on our visit, that means a lot of free days out over the course of a year!
Where to Eat and Drink?
We took a picnic with us and across the site there are some really great places to grab a picnic bench and enjoy either views of the animals or the AONB that is the Chilterns. There are plenty of great cafes and restaurants however, should you wish to buy food, and the coffee is very good, as is the ice-cream selection! If you are with toddlers you’ll be relieved to know that toilets are frequently placed so there is no mad dash across the site when The Jiggle starts.
Exit Via The Gift Shop
My husband is always delighted by our trip to the gift shop, of course, and this is pretty much as you expect; cuddly toys, t-shirts, bags, caps, animal figurines, plastic tableware for children; but it is well laid out, and to Matt’s relief, there are a number of ‘deals’ on offer. The girls left delighted with a lemur and a lion, and a pair of sunglasses each as we trundled back to the car, worn out from our fantastic day.
SO: Would We Visit Again?
Considering we possibly only covered a third of what was on offer, we would definitely go back – and in fact, the girls have both asked to visit again (and again, and again, and…) since we got home. They are full of the day that they enjoyed at Whipsnade, and it certainly not only gave them some great memories but also filled them with lots of fun facts about their favourite animals.
When you have kids there is NOTHING better than the Zoo – for them or for you. Watching their little faces light up as they discover extraordinary animals is a wonderful, wonderful thing as a parent; and ultimately, is my lasting thought of our day at Whipsnade Zoo.
The Motherload® Guide Rating: 9/10
DISCLAIMER: ZSL very kindly gave us free tickets for this trip, but as ever, we review any experience on The Motherload® as truthfully as possible in keeping with our ethos.