A TODDLER’S FIRST THEME PARK: Day Out at Drayton Manor’s Thomas Land Reviewed
[PR Gifted visit in exchange for honest review]
Reuben’s become quite the fan of Thomas the Tank Engine. So when I proposed a trip to Thomas Land, the news stirred a flurry of excitement through our household. Thrilled at hearing about ‘Thomas’ but not quite comprehending what the drama actually meant, Reuben was positively up for the plan. And me, well, let’s just say as a veteran Thomas fan, I needed no encouragement. It was official: we were certified Thomas mad and destined to Drayton Manor’s Thomas Land.
With Drayton Manor a solid four hour drive away from us, we decided to make a mini break out of the trip, driving down to the heart of England and stopping over the night before the ‘big day’. It was Reuben’s first night away from home, and it was every inch the challenge as it was exciting. Making up a dozen lists to ensure we didn’t forget any of the essentials – extra bottles, extra nappies, extra outfits (you get the drill) – my over preparing proved quite useful when on the morning of Thomas Land day, Reuben decided to deposit breakfast all over himself and me, resulting in two orange juice soaked outfits that needed replacing. Thank goodness I’d packed two Thomas t-shirts (for the little one, obvs.)
Having never visited Drayton Manor nor Thomas Land before, we had no idea what to expect. But luckily getting parked without any fuss or stress set the day off well. The car park is
free (EDIT: parking is now £5 as of 2019), there’s tons of space and attendants help direct you into your space.
Walking several yards into Drayton Manor’s entrance, we soon came to Thomas Land’s gate where we were greeted by a cheerful Thomas Land attendant. She welcomed us in, but Reuben was already otherwise engaged because he’d caught sight of Thomas the Tank Engine himself. Polished and proud, he was sitting at the top of Knapford Station on his turntable. So I took Reuben out of his trike and let him toddle off to investigate.
Thomas Land is a spacious area to walk about without feeling cramped. There’s a definite buzz but there’s no stressful bustle. Reuben came in on his trike but he ended walking around much of the park on his reins as it was a nicely chilled out, family friendly environment for him to wander about.
A photographer was taking photos of some park guests who were allowed through the gate to actually sit on or stand beside Thomas. I joined the line but Reuben was not on board with the queuing, as he attempted to sidle through. Sadly we didn’t get our own picture taken with Thomas; something which confused me at the time and I admit still does now. The photographer told us that to see Thomas it would cost £10. I wasn’t too bothered about having a photo taken for us, I just wanted to stand Reuben next to Thomas and take his picture, but it apparently wasn’t allowed. The £10 wasn’t the cost of a photograph, which I was assured was ‘complementary’, rather it was £10 for the ‘experience’. So that was that.
The attendant we saw on arriving was passing by and it turned out she was one of the Fat Controller’s staff. She was really friendly and offered to ask the Fat Controller to come and meet Reuben after one of their performances, which he did. Reuben knew exactly who he was and came over all bashful, it was too cute! The Fat Controller was brilliant; he made a point of talking to Reuben despite him shying away over my shoulder, showing him his important pocket watch and talking about the engines. Then he said he had a small shiny gift for Reuben, and gave us each a special pin badge marking Thomas Land’s 10th anniversary. After our chat we took some photos and let the Fat Controller get back to his business. It really was a lovely moment, so hats off to Thomas Land’s Fat Controller and staff.
Thankfully we found many of Thomas’ friends as we wandered around the park. James had his own scene taken from the ‘James and the Red Balloon’ story, where a hot air balloon has landed on James’ line at Maithwaite station. This was to accompany the new ride of the same name, which was sited right beside. It was a realistic scene true to the original style, with glossy painted figures with gasping expressions on their faces. The balloon’s basket had installed seating so you can sit inside it, and you can climb aboard James too – Reuben took to driving James like he’d driven a tank engine before! (Well, it wasn’t a real working train.)
And Gordon, Henry, Edward, Rosie and Toby were all sitting inside their sheds in one central point. You could only see a small part of their front and faces, but it was enough to get along aside them and grab a selfie with.
All the rides had height restrictions for safety; Reuben was too short for a couple of the rides, such as Cranky’s Drop Tower and the Troublesome Trucks Runaway Rollercoaster, but I didn’t think they were suitable for Reuben anyway so it made sense. Dad took Reuben on his first ride: Flynn’s Fire Rescue, which involved lots of squirting water. Reuben was all excited in the queue but once the ride was in full motion he got a little overwhelmed and started crying. I think seeing me down below made it worse! So Dad had to take on the firing of the hose and poor Reubs had to brave it out.
The themed rides are dotted about the park so you can easily identify which is where; Jeremy Jet’s Flying Academy sits at a central position in front of Sodor Airport (a restaurant/cafe hub) while Winston’s Whistle-Stop Tours – an aerial mounted car track – running above the Sodor Classic Cars and winding around half of the park allows you to take a bird’s eye view of the park below. Winston talks for some of the ride, pointing out various sights such as Cranky and Bertie. As we were all able to sit in the car together this was probably one of the best rides; I sat with Reuben cuddled up beside me while he enjoyed looking around and spotting Thomas’ friends. We obviously had to leave Reuben’s trike behind, which was officially at the pram station below, though with it being unmanned it was a case of making sure nothing valuable was left on it and trusting it wouldn’t go walkabout.
Heading back to the centrally positioned Knapford Station we wanted to make sure we had a ride on a train. We actually got two rides on both Percy and then Thomas as they were running along side eachother, to and fro Tidmouth Hault. The engines carried several carriages at a time, which ensured minimal waiting time. Everyone managed to get on for a ride, pushchairs and wheelchair users included, as there were holding bays at the back of each carriage. So when we took Reuben’s trike onto Percy and later, the pushchair onto Thomas, it wasn’t a problem. We just left the wheels in their rightful place and found a cosy little carriage for the three of us. And there was plenty room – each carriage had two benches facing either way, and me, my husband and Reuben all sat comfortably on one side. And with a toot and a short announcement from the star engines, we were off; the winding track taking us through the leafy perimeter of the park and zoo.
When Percy brought us into Tidmouth Hault Station we decided to make a pit stop at Mrs Kindley’s Kitchen for some lunch. We’d brought bottles of water with us but with it being such a humid day it had warmed up, so we opted for the meal deals which included drinks. Now in hindsight, we realised the tea room was probably the worst place we could have picked from all the choice we later came across through the park. (And I hadn’t realised until later that Sodor Airport was actually an eaterie, but besides, we were the other side of the park where Mrs Kindley’s was the only option.) It looked quaint and well looked after, and the seating area was cleverly laid out to resemble carriages, each bench named after one of the engines. But the food didn’t match up.
For £5.95 the adult meal comprised of a sandwich bun or panini with a bag of crisps and a bottle of pop. We chose cheese and ham paninis, which were pretty basic but tasted okay. I was much more annoyed about Reuben’s lunch. For £4.95 the kids meal box consisted of a choice of four items; for Reuben we picked a cheese sandwich, a fruit bag, packet of Pom Bears and a Fruit Shoot. While the fruit, crisps and drink were decent enough (although the fruit bag was ballooned up and had a ‘display only’ sticker on it that Dad got swapped for a fresh one), it was the cheese sandwich that was especially terrible; it was just a tiny pre-packaged bun with a piece of cheese in. It wasn’t fresh and it was just too dry; Reuben didn’t like it at all (he actually threw it on the floor) and we ended up sharing our paninis which we took out with us to eat as we walked. And on our walk back round to Thomas Land we passed some fantastic restaurants which we wished we held out for, as we could have had a more substantial meal of pizza or pasta for the same price.
After lunch we headed back into Thomas Land to try some more rides, as I was aware Reuben’s usual nap time was approaching. Locating Harold’s Helicopter Tours – a ring of Harolds that raise up and fly in a circle with real chopper sounds – it was time for Mummy and Reuben to take a ride! At first I jumped in the front seats with Reuben who was more than happy to take the controls, but adults have to sit in the back (I’m guessing due to weight distribution) so I slid behind Reuben hoping he wouldn’t notice. He’s 17 months old and still feels safe on Mummy’s knee so I was a little nervous when he tried to twist round to reach me. Up the helicopters rose and of course Reuben needed Mummy, but I’m proud to say I saved the situation from snowballing into a meltdown. With us both still fastened in, Reubs nuzzled his face into me while I kept talking to him about what we could see up there, and got him to stay calm and look out at the helicopters going round. I was so proud of how brave he was!
Meanwhile, I had been eying up the Troublesome Trucks Runaway Rollercoaster. It looked great fun so I challenged myself to ride it on my own. The queue for the rollercoaster was probably the longest of all the rides, but on the third round I was in. Even though it’s aimed at little ones I thought it was great – it has some thrilling twists and turns without the stomach churning so it’s exciting enough without the risk of being sick – and on the second ride round I joined everyone with putting our hands up in the air. Give it a couple of years and Reuben will definitely be riding this one with me!
We popped back to the car to make Reuben a bottle of milk up so we had to get our hands stamped at the Drayton Manor gate to ensure we could get back in again. We decided to swap the trike for the pushchair, thinking ahead that Reuben’s nap was impending.
Back at Thomas Land, Thomas had returned to Knapford Station so we got on board for our second ‘tour’. It took us back up to Tidmouth Hault again, where this time we decided to have a look in the exhibition where the old model Thomas layout from the original tv series was on display for viewing. This was a real trip down memory lane for me as I’d watched this version when I was a toddler so it was interesting to see it for real.
Reuben had a run about and explore before climbing back into his pushchair, and we all stopped for a cool drink. We were right near the zoo so we walked up to check out the animals. I was just pointing out a tamarin to Reuben and found he’d dropped off to sleep! I was quite surprised he’d managed it with all the excitement but the zoo’s chilled out ambiance was obviously the perfect place for a nap.
There’s one downside to taking a toddler to a theme park, and that’s once they’re asleep it’s game over. Reuben didn’t wake up until we got back to the car to head home, by which time he was still snoozy and ready to go anyway. All of a sudden I’d remembered the rides we wanted to go on while he was awake – the Sodor Classic Cars, Blue Mountain and Diesel’s Locomotive Mayhem. I felt quite sad I’d forgotten about them because now it was too late. But rather than go home saddened, we talked about the fun we did have, because it really was such an awesome day, speaking for myself as an adult and Reuben, still just a little, little one. How the Fat Controller made Reuben special, that Reuben met the real Thomas and Percy – and we vowed to return to Thomas Land…. at Christmas!