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Pól Ó Conghaile: Is Center Parcs over-priced, or value for money?

Center Parcs has opened with a splash in Longford. Do its high prices smack of a rip-off, or a top-quality resort?

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Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest.

Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest.

Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell

Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell

The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest

The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest

Baz Ashmawy and his daughter Mahy, 6, make a splash at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Irelnd

Baz Ashmawy and his daughter Mahy, 6, make a splash at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Irelnd

One of the lodges at Center Parcs Longford Forest

One of the lodges at Center Parcs Longford Forest

Stofra Ní Ghallchobhair (7) takes part in the activities at Center Parcs Longford Forest! Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Stofra Ní Ghallchobhair (7) takes part in the activities at Center Parcs Longford Forest! Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The Murphy family from Drogheda, Ciara (12); and  Andy; at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane

The Murphy family from Drogheda, Ciara (12); and Andy; at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane

Guests enjoy Center Parcs Longford Forest on its opening weekend. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Guests enjoy Center Parcs Longford Forest on its opening weekend. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The Aqua Sana Spa at Center Parcs Longford Forest

The Aqua Sana Spa at Center Parcs Longford Forest

The 'Village Square' at Center Parcs

The 'Village Square' at Center Parcs

Amie Finnegan (9) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane

Amie Finnegan (9) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane

Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Longford Forest

Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Longford Forest

Rory Best enjoying the Mini Captains’ Adventure with his son Richie (4). Photo: Naoise Culhane

Rory Best enjoying the Mini Captains’ Adventure with his son Richie (4). Photo: Naoise Culhane

The outdoor pool at Aqua Sana Spa

The outdoor pool at Aqua Sana Spa

Baz Ashmawy and his children make a splash in Ireland’s newest and largest waterpark, the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Baz Ashmawy and his children make a splash in Ireland’s newest and largest waterpark, the Subtropical Swimming Paradise. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The McGonigle family from Bansha, Co Tipperary; Jack (11); Shane; Katie Mai, (7); Kay; and Charlie, (9) at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane

The McGonigle family from Bansha, Co Tipperary; Jack (11); Shane; Katie Mai, (7); Kay; and Charlie, (9) at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic: Naoise Culhane

Dining at Center Parcs in Ireland

Dining at Center Parcs in Ireland

The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The Aqua Sana Spa

The Aqua Sana Spa

Brian Finnegan and his son Brian (11) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Picture: Naoise Culhane

Brian Finnegan and his son Brian (11) from Dublin at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Picture: Naoise Culhane

The lake and Pancake House at Center Parcs Longford Forest

The lake and Pancake House at Center Parcs Longford Forest

The Murphy family from Drogheda, Aoife (15)  ; Andy; and Monica and at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane

The Murphy family from Drogheda, Aoife (15) ; Andy; and Monica and at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Pic:Naoise Culhane

Center Parcs Longford Forest

Center Parcs Longford Forest

A lodge at Center Parcs Longford Forest

A lodge at Center Parcs Longford Forest

Lucy Murray (10 months) enjoys the pool with her mum Denise. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Lucy Murray (10 months) enjoys the pool with her mum Denise. Photo: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Guests enjoying the launch spectacular of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Naoise Culhane Photography

Guests enjoying the launch spectacular of Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Naoise Culhane Photography

TV personality Karen Koster with her daughter Eve (1) and sons Finn (4) and JJ (3) at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest

TV personality Karen Koster with her daughter Eve (1) and sons Finn (4) and JJ (3) at the official launch of Center Parcs Longford Forest

Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Ireland. Photo: Leon Farrell / Photocall.

Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Ireland. Photo: Leon Farrell / Photocall.

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Inside the Subtropical Swimming Paradise at Center Parcs Longford Forest.

No sooner had the Subtropical Swimming Paradise powered up in Longford than Center Parcs got its first cold shower of Irish scepticism.

Great news for the midlands, we said. But what about those prices?

Yes, it's expensive. Lead-in rates for a two-bed lodge start from €399 for four-night breaks in November. In August, however, a similar break costs €1,399.

Access to the pool and playgrounds are included, but activities are extra - €35/25pp for bike hire, €6.75pp for crazy golf and €37pp for a three-hour spa session, for example.

It's tricky to get a clear view on costs, because prices rise and fall with demand, and you can't check activity rates without an active accommodation booking.

I understand the grousing.

There are ways to save money at Center Parcs (e.g. booking during term-time, using Tesco Clubcard points, or cooking in), but there's no sugarcoating it. This is a pricey holiday beyond the reach of many. As readers have pointed out, it's possible to take a family to France or Spain on a similar budget.

That may be true, but it's not a like-for-like comparison.

Center Parcs spent €233m on Longford Forest, and you can see the outlay in its high-spec lodges and 3,500sq m pool complex, in the safety and equipment on zip-lines and aerial adventures, in its accessible changing areas and Ireland's largest spa.

There are no hard sells on t-shirts, souvenirs or other merchandise, and no resort photographers chasing you around - cruise-ship-style - taking family snaps that cost a fortune to collect.

Prices in its bars and mini-market are similar to any Irish city and, aside from changeover days, the campus is car-free. One morning, I found the beach was freshly combed. As I left, I saw a plaza being power-hosed.

Sure, it doesn't feel particularly Irish. The food won't set your world alight. There are wasps (note the orange traps hanging from trees). But it is safe, spotless, superbly staffed, and at no point will you feel like corners have been cut.

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Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell

Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell

Pól Ó Conghaile at Center Parcs Longford Forest. Photo: Leon Farrell

Plus, can you imagine the insurance?

I've no interest in defending Longford Forest. But I do see a difference between 'value' and 'cheap'. Center Parcs did not set out to build a budget-friendly campsite, a Butlin's or a Trabolgan. It set out to build a Center Parcs.

You wouldn't compare the prices at Kelly's Hotel in Rosslare to a campsite, Disney to Tayto Park, or a cheap 'n' cheerful sun holiday to a Splashworld resort or Lanzarote's Princesa Yaiza. You judge them on whether you get what you paid for.

Did you feel ripped off, or was it worth the money? Will you be back?

Center Parcs is betting you will be back. Its five UK parks run at an average 98pc occupancy year-round, and it's targeting 90pc for Ireland. Guests avoid airport hassle, and prices look a lot better when viewed 'per person', it says.

Whether our idiosyncratic Irish market buys into its popular model remains to be seen. If you can afford it, I say give it a try. But if you feel ripped off, let them have it.

Pól was a guest of Center Parcs.

Read more:

Irish Independent