Longleat, 45 year old safari park and one of the most important stately homes in Britain, has gone through some pretty dramatic changes of late.
It’s two years since I last visited and this time I found myself thinking 'Legoland'. That’s hardly surprising, it turns out that Longleat’s chief executive David Bradley is the man credited for turning Legoland into a hugely commercial enterprise.
You can’t opt just for the safari park or the adventure playground or to visit the house as you once could, now you must pay the full hefty ticket price and pack everything into one day.
Is it worth it? Definitely - but get there early and leave late. I was there from 10 until 5 and sat down for 5 minutes in the whole day – that’s what it’s like.
The safari park is much the same – still thrilling to have monkeys joyride on your windscreen, to come up close to cheetahs, tigers, lions, wolves and giraffe, to feed the horrendously greedy deer who stick their snouts through your car windows.
Just one noticeable change, the introduction of The Trading Post – a new shop where you can stop off and spend lots of cash. And that slightly sets the note for the rest of the day - everywhere you look there’s a toddler ride demanding 50ps or a stall selling soft toys that your child will desperately want. But it’s clearly working – even mid school term it was packed out – and, like Legoland, it's a thrilling, high octane kind of place.
The old favourites – the safari boat ride, the train and the adventure playground are still the best to my mind but there are masses of new introductions too – the Postman Pat Village (very Legoland), the Jungle Kingdom where you can handle meerkats and parrots, an exhilarating Birds of Prey show called Hunters of the Sky (whirling vultures set to Pirates of the Carribean theme tune - quite something).
A new gorilla island is about to open, best seen from the boat ride and you can also now feed sea lions from on-deck (for an extra quid of course).
There’s even a new restaurant called The Tropical Storm Café (very Rainforest Café). There are now several places to buy Costa Coffee (we approve) and the delicious West Country ice cream stall has been replaced with Walls and Carte D’or (we don’t).
Longleat has become a cash jingling, commercial venture, no doubt about it, but it’s still a pretty unbeatable day out- just know you'll feel like you've run a marathon at the end of it.