You can’t put a price on a smile....
Ellen Widdup’s escape to the country
They say the best things in life are free. This is a difficult concept for a child to grasp. And, I have to admit, I’ve had to have a re-think about price-versus-value myself in the last few days.
We gave our daughter a choice for her birthday this year – a trip to a theme park or a party with all her friends.
I was secretly quite glad she picked the former. No cake-smeared children running riot in the garden, no blowing up balloons until our cheeks hurt, no half-eaten peanut butter sandwiches and no filling dozens of goody bags for the guests.
It was nice and simple – a day pass to the adventure land in Windsor and a night in the newly-opened Legoland Hotel in the centre of the complex.
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The evening before our excursion, I tucked my daughter into bed.
“Are you excited about the theme park?” I asked. “It will be so much fun.”
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“Theme rhymes with dream, mummy,” said my daughter. “It must be where dreams come true.”
The park itself is a pretty incredible place.
It is set across 150 acres and ideal for kids who are still too young to enjoy the wild rides at places like Alton Towers.
Divided into 11 sections, the incredible Miniland, where 35 million Lego bricks have been used to recreate some of the world’s most famous landmarks, is at the heart.
The hotel does not disappoint either. It is designed solely with children in mind – with a play area choc-a-block with Lego bricks and a splash paddling area alongside a bigger swimming pool in the basement.
It took us almost three hours to drive to the resort from Suffolk but when we got there the children soon lost themselves in the evening entertainment and were delighted to be sleeping in Lego bunk beds in our Kingdom-themed bedroom.
The whole experience set us back �500 but we consoled ourselves that we were not taking a holiday abroad this year and that the children would love every minute.
The trouble started after our all-you-can-eat breakfast.
With a bag packed full of suncream, drinks and snacks, we rented a double buggy for �12 and headed into the park.
“I would like to go home now,” my daughter piped up.
“We have just got here,” I replied. “There is a whole day of fun ahead of us and it is your birthday, so you can decide what we do first.”
She thought about it.
“Can I choose anything?” she said.
“Yes,” I replied.
“OK,” she said. “I choose to go home.”
Unimpressed with her sulky expression and hands on hips, my husband squatted down and looked her in the eye.
“Mummy and Daddy have gone to a lot of trouble to bring you here,” he said. “It is supposed to be a treat. So let’s see a smile please.”
But things went from bad to worse.
First we headed to the newest of the rides in the park – a giant yellow submarine made of Lego called Atlantis.
Eight vessels which are plunged into a million-litre aquarium make up the underwater experience, which features sharks, sting rays and hundreds of tropical fish.
“I am not going on that,” my daughter said scowling.
Unperturbed, we headed for the entrance.
It was a battle to convince her to climb aboard and then we had to resolutely ignore her as she sulked for the three-minute adventure.
After that we tried to entice her onto the Lego boats. She refused but my two-year-old son had a great time.
Next we boarded the Lego train but were squirted with water as we made our way along the track.
My daughter let out an almighty howl.
“I’m wet, I’m wet,” she shrieked.
The other passengers looked at us with a mixture of embarrassment and disgust as we tried to calm her down.
I wished the earth would swallow me up. My husband had gone a vibrant shade of red. My daughter was hyper-ventilating in the most grotesque of over-reactions I have ever witnessed.
I am sure I am not the only parent who has had to deal with a child in full temper tantrum mode in front of hundreds of pairs of judgmental eyes. And I am sure, if you have been through a similar experience, you will understand how mortifying it is.
We did what we could to silence her screams until the ride came to an end and we bundled her off to a quiet corner.
“What is all this about?” I asked. I felt tears pricking in the corners of my eyes.
Our children are generally well-behaved, polite, and happy. They have their moments but on the whole I am usually fairly proud of them.
But there we were, after maxing the credit card on the perfect treat, faced with a birthday girl who was acting like a spoiled brat.
My daughter was sobbing so hard she could hardly speak.
“This is not like my dream at all,” she gasped. “I don’t like rides, I don’t like getting wet and I don’t like all the noise.
“In my dream park it was just a room full of Lego for me to build with.”
What can I say?
I had obviously not made it clear what a theme park really is. Did that excuse the bad behaviour? No, not at all. But then again, I can see that the whole experience had been a bit of a disappointment to her.
At home the day after, the decision on the daytime entertainment fell to my husband. He celebrated his own birthday this week and we felt that, in light of the disaster at Legoland, it was important for our children to see that adults receive treats too.
“All I want is a picnic on the beach,” he said.
So off we went to spend an entirely free day by the sea.
We built a sandcastle, paddled in the surf and sunbathed, and there were happy faces all round.
Don’t get me wrong. Theme parks are wonderful and Legoland is particularly spectacular. But they are an expensive way to spend the day and if, for any reason it all goes wrong, it is easy to feel resentful of the large sum you have forked out.
We live in a wonderful part of the country, with unlimited things to do for next to nothing. The best thing about that is our children know what to expect from the day trips we regularly enjoy in Suffolk and they like it that way.
I suppose the best things in life really are free. After all, you can’t put a price on a smile.
n Please email me at EllenWiddup@journalist.com or find me on Twitter @EllenWiddup.