Butlins comes of age

Everybody knows Butlins! It s all knobbly knees competitions, isn't it? And unfunny has-been comedians falling into swimming pools? And custard pies. And Hello campers! and Gladys Pugh and... oh, no. That s Hi-De-Hi! But even so – it s pretty close, isn

Everybody knows Butlins! It's all knobbly knees competitions, isn't it? And unfunny has-been comedians falling into swimming pools? And custard pies. And "Hello campers!" and Gladys Pugh and... oh, no. That's Hi-De-Hi! But even so - it's pretty close, isn't it? No? Well there's only one way to find out - and that's how my wife and I and our three-year-old son Elliott ended up at Butlins in Minehead for a midweek break last month.

On arrival we were greeted by not only a welcoming Redcoat but also Billy Bear, who waved at my son and caused the sort of instant delight only possible in small children. Unlike us, Elliott had no preconceptions as to what we might be in for but already he was happy and we hadn't even parked the car yet. We all went to Center Parcs in January which is close in some respects to Butlins. But then that's not saying much. I mean, Blackpool is close to the Lake District...

Having parked the car, I have to say that first impressions were not good. In order to get from the car park to the check-in desks you are forced through a huge area of gaming and games machines - flashing lights and noise which, at the risk of sounding like a snob, I found intensely depressing. The sight of small children looking bored just a few feet from parents who, before they'd even checked in, were standing next to their cases adding coin upon coin to their personal debts is not something Butlins should be proud of. Centre Parcs has its fruit machines, of course, but they're set away in a room where, if you don't want them, you never need even see them. To have them thrust into our faces like that within minutes of arrival wasn't really giving the right impression. Or perhaps it was.

However, now was not the time to give up and go home. And Butlins scored its first bonus points just a few feet away with the superb children's soft play area.

As you might imagine, having a three-year-old means we've seen a lot of soft play areas, all over the south but Butlins' is one of the best. Not only does it only have one entrance and exit, making it easier to relax without worrying that your little darling has sneaked out the back way, but the staff working on it seem genuinely interested in ensuring the kids are safe and have a good time. Not only that, but it stretches up high and I know Elliott isn't alone in loving the thrill of being up higher than everybody else.

So thumbs up for the soft play area. A shame that it's sandwiched between Burger King and Pizza Hut but let's pretend that's an unfortunate coincidence rather than a cynical attempt to subliminally encourage our kids to want nothing but fast food. Besides, after an hour on the fruit machines, their parents probably haven't got enough money left for a Whopper and fries anyway.

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The first impression of our accommodation wasn't great either. We were in a Silver Plus room which could best be described as "functional". Two bedrooms separated by a bathroom. No real living space but what the heck? The camp beds were a little uncomfortable but I've slept in worse and we didn't expect a four-poster bed with velvet cushions.

And although the layout had a touch of "army barracks" about it, the area ouside our living quarters was perfect for scootering - so we could stand at the door while Elliott scooted up and down to his heart's content.

One problem was our DVD player. While we didn't come to Butlins to watch TV, if you have a small child who goes to bed early, being able to watch a film or two in the evenings while he sleeps happily away in the next room is all part of the holiday. And our DVD player didn't work. We asked one of the maintenance people to find out how to make it work and perhaps bring us a remote control for it but we never saw him again.

Anyone who's read all the above might be forgiven for thinking that we had a terrible time and hated every minute of it. But the thing is: we didn't. Once we'd got used to the surroundings and our fellow "campers" (I've never seen so many tattoos and bad attitudes in one place) we actually had a fine time. The food, which was one of the things I was most concerned about, was superb. Hardly any queuing, plenty of choice and the food itself was at least as good as pub grub. Even Elliott, who's a very fussy eater, managed to find enough to keep him happy.

As far as the on-site entertainment was concerned, the reports are also almost all good. The indoor Skyline Pavilion had plenty on every day from Barney's Sing Along Show (shame the music stuck half a dozen times but the Redcoats soldiered on regardless and it was impossible to tell whether Barney was embarrassed as he's purple) to Pingu's Fun Fitness and Bob the Builder's Show. Puppet fun at the puppet castle was impressive too.

And Splash Waterworld kept everyone happy, especially on the one day it rained.

However, Elliott's favourite was Bob the Builder's Yard - a collection of fairground rides and the like for youngsters featuring trains, cars, giant teacups - you know the kind of things. As he's never been to a funfair, he thought it was all great and, with no extra charge for any of it, so did we. A shame it closed at 5pm as that was the only time we had any tears (and it wasn't just Elliott). An extra half an hour or so may not have stopped the tears but it would have got us closer to bed time.

The other popular favourites were the Junior Driving School (�2 but worth every penny) where Elliott got to ride an electric car around a specially mapped out circuit, receiving his own Driving License (sic) at the end. He also particularly loved the crazy golf (a little expensive at �7.50 for the three of us but great fun) and the adventure playground.

One criticism I should make is of the all-encompassing A4 brochure you are sent when you book which is something of a waste of time. It's really difficult to see what's on and because it covers all three resorts (in addition to Minehead there are also Butlinses at Bognor Regis and Skegness) you're never quite sure what your resort is likely to contain. I think the problem is that the designers have tried so hard to make the resorts look lively and vibrant, that looking at the brochure for long just makes your head ache. A less "busy" design would have been better.

Fortunately, on arrival you're given a welcome pack which contains a "What's On This Week" A5 brochure, which is far more use - vital in fact. Just don't rely on the orientation map they give you which is utterly useless. Doesn't even have the toilets marked on it and let's face it, what are you going to need most urgently when you've just driven a few hundred miles with a three-year-old - the toilets or directions to a shop selling fake vampire teeth?

However, I can't finish without paying tribute to the Redcoats and other staff at Butlins who are undeniably superb. They always had a smile and nothing was too much trouble. If, for example, you have a spillage at your table in the restaurant, just a glance will bring over an army of eager helpers armed with kitchen roll and J-Cloths. Three cheers to every one of them.

Butlins also has full evenings of entertainment, of course, which during our week included First to Burst (interactive gameshow fun for all the family), Glen Leon as Tom Jones, Faye as the disco diva Kylie and much more besides. Sadly we weren't able to sample them because Elliott was worn out by 7pm and fast asleep soon after.

And while he happily dreamed of purple dinosaurs and enormous revolving teacups, we settled down to a bottle of wine and wondered where that man we asked about the DVD player got to. Hope he's OK...

o Butlins has three resorts in the UK - Minehead, Bognor Regis and Skegness. To find out more, your best bet is to log on to Butlins.com and request the free DVD and brochure. You can also book online (with a variety of last minute discounts available) and it pays to book early, they say. Alternatively, ring 0845 070 4734, 9am to 9pm seven days a week.

o Dunster Castle is a National Trust property and open daily except Thursday until November 1, from 11am to 5pm. The grounds are open daily from 10am to 5pm. For more, try www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-dunstercastle.