We’ve rounded up the best UK theme parks, bringing you fun for all the family
Destinations for adrenaline junkies and more tentative thrill-seekers, theme parks offer fun for all the family. And there’s an extraordinary range of options to choose from in the UK, from the brick-based oasis of Legoland – a top pick for younger children as well as fans of the toy – to Thorpe Park, a must for daredevils with its stomach-churning ride, Stealth and the world’s first horror movie-themed rollercoaster, SAW – The Ride.
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UK theme parks tend to be open from the start of spring (March/April) to autumn (October/November) to allow for park maintenance over the winter season. That still leaves a pretty big window in which to plan your adventure. And if you’re hell-bent on some festive thrill-seeking, some parks – including Alton Towers, Drayton Manor and Lightwater Valley – open up specific areas on select dates in the run up to Christmas.
Read on for our pick of the best theme parks in the UK for the ultimate family-friendly adventure.
The best UK theme parks
1. Thorpe Park, Surrey: Best UK theme park for thrill-seekers
An excellent option for those seeking a serious adrenaline rush, Thorpe Park caters to speed demons and horror fans alike with its 63-metre-high Stealth ride, on which punters all but free-fall 200ft through the air, and SAW – The Ride, a self-proclaimed “horror rollercoaster”. Those looking for the fright of their lives will revel in this no-holds-barred adventure smorgasboard.
That’s not to say it excludes smaller kids; youngsters can swirl around on classic teacup ride, Storm in a Teacup, while jaunts such as the Flying Fish promise a slightly more high-octane “fun, fast, first-time rollercoaster” experience.
How to get to Thorpe Park: A mere 20 miles from central London, you can reach Thorpe Park via Junctions 11 and 13 (not J12) of the M25. The satnav address for the park is: Thorpe Park Resort, Staines Road, Chertsey, Surrey KT16 8PN.
It can also be accessed by train. The nearest station is Staines, from where park visitors can get the 950 Express bus to Thorpe Park. Trains run from London Waterloo to Staines around five times per hour; trains from Reading, Weybridge and Windsor and Eton riverside also run regularly to Staines.
Where to stay: The spectacularly punny on-site hotel is an intriguing novelty option: Thorpe Shark Hotel is “a hotel like no other”. The aquatic-themed hotel includes Unlimited Fastrack ride access on your second day in the park until 11am – just let your full English breakfast settle first.
Chessington World of Adventures caters to a wide range of tastes. The Surrey-based theme park is home to over 40 rides, all split between ten themed lands. Take the Forbidden Kingdom, for example, where laser guns are deployed in an Ancient Egyptian labyrinth, and daredevils can get drenched on water-soaked ride Rameses Revenge. Those with smaller tots in tow might want to head over to the Wild Woods, where The Gruffalo River Ride Adventure is as wholesome as it sounds.
If rides aren’t your thing, there’s a zoo with over 1,000 animals – plus a Sea Life centre. If you’re looking for a more active break, the ever-popular Go Ape has an outlet at Chessington World of Adventures, with two new adventure courses on offer.
How to get to Chessington: Chessington World of Adventures is situated on the A243, a couple of miles from the A3 and M25 (junction 9 or 10). If you’re coming from the south, the park advises that you take M25 junction 9. If you’re descending from up north, take M25 junction 10. Londoners should take the A3 to Hook (Chessington is well signposted on the A243).
The nearest train station is Chessington South, around a 10-minute walk from the park. A regular service runs from London Waterloo and takes about 35 minutes.
Where to stay: Chessington has plenty of on-site accommodation options. The Safari Hotel and brand new Azteca Hotel are fantastic for animal lovers, while the Explorer Glamping Tents let you adventure in the big outdoors from the comfort of a suitably stylish abode.
Blackpool Pleasure Beach is a UK institution; having opened in 1896, it now offers a whopping 125 rides and attractions, all neatly located close to the seafront. Four of its rollercoasters are wooden, including the legendary Big Dipper and the Grand National. Plus, the Pleasure Beach is home to the tallest roller coaster in the UK – the aptly named Big One – which measures three metres taller than Thorpe Park’s Stealth. Come for the rides, stay for the trivia.
Another big hitter is ICON, a recently completed £16.25 million rollercoaster which promises riders the same acceleration as experienced by Formula One drivers. Throw in fresh sea air and fish and chips, and this is the perfect fun-fuelled seaside escape.
How to get to Blackpool Pleasure Beach: The satnav address for Pleasure Beach is Ocean Boulevard, Blackpool, FY4 1EZ. Drivers should take junction 32 off the M6 and onto the M55, then follow signs for Blackpool, South Shore before following the brown tourist signs to Pleasure Beach, Blackpool.
You can also get there by train. Blackpool Pleasure Beach has its own mainline station which can be accessed via Preston. You can also reach the site via Blackpool North train station. Plus, the Pleasure Beach boasts its own tram station, so you can pull up in old-school style right outside the entrance doors.
Where to stay: The Big Blue Hotel at Blackpool Pleasure Beach is the hotel of choice. Pared-down, elegant and perfectly located, the Big Blue is in the middle of all the action. You can snap up a show-and-dine theatre package for an evening’s entertainment, or slink off to the contemporary Brasserie if you’re conked out after a day of beach-side activities.
If you need to cater to kids of all ages, Legoland is a top pick as there are plenty of rides and attractions geared up for youngsters (as well as those with weaker stomachs). Duplo Valley offers a “splashtastic” assortment of activities, from a family boat trip down Fairy Tale Brook to a soaking in Drench Towers, the largest water play structure in the UK. Just make sure to bring your swimming gear.
Older kids will enjoy Knights Kingdom, swooping through a medieval castle on The Dragon rollercoaster before – and we can’t stress the chronology of this enough – chowing down on a burger at the Knights’ Table restaurant. Other zones include the Land of the Vikings, The Kingdom of the Pharaohs and Pirate Shores, making Legoland a paradise for young imaginations and budding adventurers.
You can also get the train from London. It takes roughly half an hour from Paddington to Windsor & Eton Central, via Slough. You can also go direct from London Waterloo to Windsor and Eton Riverside, which takes under an hour. Green Line 702 and 703 also run a half-hourly coach service to central Windsor and Slough, running from London Victoria and London Heathrow Terminal 5 respectively.
Where to stay: Legoland has a choice of two beautifully appointed on-site hotels. The Castle Hotel offers themed rooms with packages including evening entertainment and early ride access, plus a free Lego gift in your room. Meanwhile, the Legoland Resort Hotel boasts a pirate-themed indoor pool and serves a delicious buffet breakfast. Short stays at either hotel will get you a second day of free entry into the park.
If you need some respite from all things Legoland, meanwhile, you can opt for one of the theme park’s partner hotels including the four-star Berystede Hotel and Spa (6.5 miles from the park) and the budget-friendly Holiday Inn Express in Slough (5 miles from the park).
5. Drayton Manor Theme Park, Staffordshire: Best UK theme park for young kids
After being used as an army training post during the Second World War, Drayton Manor opened its doors to the public in 1949, and has ballooned ever since. It offers a celebrated range of rides and attractions, but the real clincher is Thomas Land, the Thomas the Tank Engine-themed adventure world set in 6,000 square metres of English countryside. Lose yourself and captivate the kids in the immersive franchised attraction.
There’s also a zoo at Drayton Manor, which is home to over 100 animal breeds, so you can take in the wildlife as you stroll the 15-acre grounds. If you’ve got a devout animal lover in tow, there’s a “Zoo Keeper for the Day” experience which would make a particularly memorable treat.
How to get to Drayton Manor: Those navigating to Drayton Manor via satnav should use the site’s post code: B78 3SA. It’s also accessible by train: the nearest station is Tamworth, situated approximately three miles from the park. Acorn Taxis provides a reputable service (01827 63333).
Park-goers can also catch the Arriva 110 bus from Birmingham, Sutton Coldfield or Tamworth. Alight the bus at “The Square” island in Fazeley, from where it’ll be a short walk to Drayton Manor’s entrance.
Where to stay: Drayton Manor offers a handy stay-and-play package, which gets you an overnight stay in its on-site four-star hotel, evening entertainment for the kids, a meal in one of the Manor’s on-site restaurants, a full English breakfast and, of course, entrance to the park.
If anyone ever asks you where to find Wales’ Biggest Family Day Out, you tell them Oakwood. That is, after all, the park’s tagline. The Pembrokeshire-based theme park is big on wooden rollercoasters (the clue’s in the name); take the 85ft Megafobia built in 1996 by Custom Coasters International that has since been rated the best in Europe by the Rollercoaster Club of Great Britain.
Wales’ biggest theme park offers two distinct categories of rides: Family (bobsleighing, boating and the like) and Thrill (including the uninspiringly-named Speed, the fastest rollercoaster in the whole of Wales). This kind of range makes Oakwood suitable for everyone, from tots to teens.
You can also get there by train: the nearest station is Narbeth, five miles from Oakwood. From there you can get a 15-minute taxi to Oakwood.
Where to stay: Well-appointed, waterside Slebech Park is nestled by an estuary in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Just 2.7 miles from Oakwood, rooms are available for around £80 per night including breakfast. If you’re looking to splash out a little more, The Grove, Narberth, is perfect for couples; it’s located just a mile from Oakwood. Once your stomach has settled from the rides, there’s an eight-course tasting menu up for grabs.
What this Kent-based theme park lacks in hair-raising rides more than makes up for in kitschy seaside charm. After its 2003 closure unexpectedly spanned over a decade, Dreamland reopened its doors to the public in 2015 after a £25 million refurbishment.
Expect old-school classic rides like Messhams’ Wall of Death, in which motorcyclists and unicyclists perform tricks on a barrell-like stage and the impossibly goofy Betty’s Beehive Coaster, where “Dreamland’s nanny” Betty the Bee ushers newbies through their first rollercoaster experience. Don’t miss a spin on the all-important ferris wheel, an established romcom staple (think The Notebook or The OC, except on the UK’s south coast).
You can also get the train to Dreamland. A high-speed connection runs between St Pancras International and Margate and takes just over an hour and a half. Pack a picnic and make a weekend of it.
Where to stay: If you want affordable accommodation that’s within walking distance of Dreamland, BeetBeds offers light, airy, well-appointed rooms. Plus, the park is a mere six-minute stroll away. Looking to treat yourself? The beachfront Sands Hotel offers boutique-style luxury with a terrace, a bar, a restaurant and an in-house ice-cream parlour – all less than half a mile from the park.