By and large, I am not envious of people who are parents. It does have to be said, though, that there are some pretty amazing things out there for kids to do, and I am occasionally envious of these. So here's guest blogger Tim to tell us about two frankly brilliant places to take your children this half term...
Certain principles of mine have been realigned after becoming a parent. Some were strengthened; spending money, for example, requires a more disciplined approach, as does alcohol consumption. Certainly on weekdays. Other principles might, for the sake of my child's pleasure and sleep, benefit from a little loosening. Take Zoos; any qualms about the wellbeing of proud, exotic, noble giant cats born and raised in Lancashire captivity are put aside in favour of my daughter's spellbound smile. My objection to clothes produced in ethically questionable conditions has retreated at the advance of a toddler's growth rate and tendency to return from nursery covered in paint, mud and spaghetti hoop juice. Concessions must be made to ensure a bundle of joy's happiness. And cleanliness.
So it was that I, amoral and standard-free parent of one, found myself journeying to the Trafford Centre on a Saturday morning. Another principle forgotten. Another "I'll never do" done. And why? For the entertainment of my two year old daughter and her best friend. Truthfully, there are few better reasons.
Our first port of call was Sealife, Manchester's primary (I think only) centre dedicated to the wonders of marine biology. I've always found it a bit strange that Manchester, a city that resorted to building a huge canal to bypass the fact it was very much inland, should host a Sealife centre. We've actually visited it before and enjoyed it but wanted to take the opportunity to go back with our daughter a little older and to check out the Halloween displays which form part of this week's Spooky Seas event.
The experience began with a lovely talk and display about turtles and the conservation efforts around them. The scene was beautifully lit, with effects that enchanted the girls and made them (even more) excited for the day ahead. The bulk of the centre is, of course, based on various tanks full of weird and wonderful fish. Now, even though the girls didn't (and still don't) know their stingrays from their sticklebacks, they charged about enthusiastically and did spend lots of time observing the amazing creatures on show, faces pressed against the glass, genuinely intrigued. Our toddlers were too young to fully appreciate the scope of fish on show, and the educational accessories, but they really enjoyed the environment and the older children there were obviously fascinated by the place. As well as the fish, stingrays, crabs, seahorses (the girls' favourites) and sharks, there were Halloween themed colouring activities, a spooky, I'm a Celebrity inspired tombola, generous goody bags and a soft play area that went down very well. The staff were great, very enthusiastic and welcoming and in all Sealife is a place well keep going back to, confident that our daughter will be more engaged each year. Until she reaches the age where everything is rubbish. But I don't want to think about that right now.
Legoland is just a couple of doors down the way and was very popular, with queues coming out of the door at 10.30am. We'd never been before and didn't really know what to expect, besides Lego. The start of the visit was similar to Sealife - you have your photo taken and then proceed to a short talk by a young, enthusiastic and fun expert. This was less esoteric than its marine counterpart and offered kids the chance to shout, jump up and down and get a free Lego brick. Ticking many boxes.
The next step was a ride. It's a bit like a ghost train except you're taken through a castle landscape that's being attacked by orcs, giant trolls and some resurrected skeletons. Fear not though, your train is equipped with laser pistols with which you are able to fend off said green skins. It's fun, it really is and, to my slight surprise the girls weren't scared but at the end simply yelped the affirming word "Again!"
We pressed on though, through a Mini-World exhibition that, while impressive, was not really suitable for our girls. Certainly not at that time when they just wanted to climb into the display, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the mini-Eiffel Tower my daughter darted towards. Older, more rational children were much more suitably appreciative.
The main room of Legoland boasts several activities, such as go-karts and another soft play area that our two darted for feverishly. By this stage they were in that familiar toddler state: tired, shattered, mardy but having so much fun the suggestion of going home was met with howls and sitdown protests. As a result we missed out on many of the activities available but there was a great buzz about the place, with kids clearly having a huge amount of fun. It was the kind of place you could easily spend a day in, with several hours worth of play arenas to choose from and a restaurant at hand. There was also ample seating for adults, which I imagine was entirely necessary given the cheerful chaos of the room.
Ultimately the fun was all too much for our little ones, who we coaxed back to the car via the Legoland shop, nude statues, fountains and a tasty round of croissants at a nearby cafe. Predictably, they weren't long in the car before they were asleep in their seats, sprawled out, gently snoring, perhaps dreaming of boisterous Lego orcs or serene seahorses. Either way, it was the sleep of satisfied children and not for the first time since becoming a dad, my hitherto held principles had been disproved.
Spooky Seas and Brick or Treat are both on until November 1st at Manchester's Trafford Centre.