Stumped for birthday or Christmas gift ideas for animal-obsessed kids? Book them in for a VIP safari experience tour they will never forget.
[words by Wersha Bharadwa]
It’s that time of year again where frazzled parents ponder upon the age-old question: “What shall we get the kids for Christmas?” Some kids may have lists as long as Santa’s trek across the globe, but for budding zoologists, wildlife explorers or marine biologists, what you gift needn’t come in a box. It’s the same principle for birthday gifts the older they get too.
Sure to delight young animal lovers, purchasing a behind-the-scenes style junior keeper for the day or VIP safari tour experience at West Midland Safari Park, actively supports the park’s research and conservation efforts here and abroad. Some of the safari park’s ongoing work includes habitat restoration and partnerships with organisations safeguarding Sumatran tigers, Sumatran rhino and 112 types of lemur found only in Madagascar (something eco-conscious and nature-loving kids will especially be quick to get behind).
Guests booking VIP Safari Experiences at the park are all treated like celebrities the moment you roll up inside the magnificent park in Bewdley, Worcestershire with experienced and bubbly game rangers like Shelly (who has worked at the park for over 26 years and is fully kitted out in her safari uniform) assuring you the time of your lives upon arrival.
Once you’re checked in for the day, everything is taken care of; from the day’s itinerary and special visits to animal enclosures to refreshment and lunch. You’re also given complimentary guidebooks (normally £5) and a generously overfilled bag, chock-a-block full with boxes of nutritious animal feed.
The most magical hours to see the animals on any safari are at dawn or late afternoon. We set off at 8am before the park opens to the public and where we’re guaranteed to see the most activity. In true safari style, we haul ourselves into Shelly’s Land Rover to protect us from the elements and begin our day driving though the hilly safari reserve.
The countryside setting is undulating and a dedicated road helps us temporarily imagine we’ve been transported to the bumpy plains of Africa and Asia as we pass zebra, Congo buffalo and varieties of deer including endangered barasingha. Being chauffeured by a ranger means we also get to pick the best off-road spots and get super near to the animals as off-track driving isn’t permitted to general admission visitors.
Getting close to and hand feeding Rothschild giraffes is pure magic – we have to pinch ourselves we’re only an hour away from home too. The rare and super peckish herd are less than shy, and having spotted the huge buckets of breakfast food alongside silver birch and sustainable willow we have inside the vehicle, come sashaying towards us with their long lashes at lightning speed. Once we’ve jumped out the car, Shelly introduces each one and gives us a rundown of their personality traits.
We meet female, Acacia, who has heart-shaped patterning, and her five-year-old daughter, Amali, who has a small scar in her ear from where she caught it when little. Rufus, who is the breeding male, has the darkest coat. Faeda and Bwindi are the greediest of the crew, stuffing their faces constantly. They’re also consummate pros at sticking their necks into our open car windows. Twenty minutes later, we’re fully confident in our ability to name each one based on their unique coat patterns or the conical bone protusions on their heads.
The VIP experience covers the safari in far greater detail than a self-guided drive with Shelly helpfully offering insider knowledge about the diverse species and unique family set-ups, alongside facts about natural habitats of various animals housed at the park.
Families are given a behind-the-scenes peek inside the rhino enclosure with zookeepers enthusiastically talking you through their itineraries and rhino enrichment programme for the day. Feeding the Southern white rhino family and especially gazing into the eyes of a newborn calf is extremely moving and great fun at the same time – more so for the kids who get to stroke a less tentative older male and learn how its horn is made of the same keratin found in human hair and nails. We also hear how the white rhino here are classed as near threatened in the wild because of habitat loss and poaching. You’ll leave with greater compassion of their current plight in the wild and fully wanting to do more about protecting the beautiful horned mammals.
While our VIP experience is jam-packed, it never feels hectic and rushed at any point; we linger around a family of lionesses and their cubs tearing up breakfast meat and a grizzly male lion who makes his presence very known by roaring up a racket as we park up beside a metal safety gate in his grassland kingdom.
After, we’re stunned into silence as we watch the pack of African wild dogs (one of the world’s most endangered mammals) play fighting in their huge run of land. By 10am, when the park officially opens, we’re ready for our own snack as we pass by happy families driving in through the gates to catch their first glimpse of the morning activity.
After wolfing down some delicious, pressed juices and chocolate brownies Shelly has packed for us, we park up and walk down to the Discovery Trail. The safari park itself is beautifully maintained; four miles of it dedicated to the safari drive through and the rest made up of a zoo area called the Discovery Trail where Penguins, lemurs, all manner of reptiles, bats, goats, meerkat and hippos reside.
VIP experiences include unlimited access to the Discovery Trail and a wristband for adventure theme park too. When you factor all that in with the fact you’re welcome to fit in another safari in your own car if you so fancy later on, price wise, it’s an experience gift with huge bang for your buck.
And while we love hearing stories about the animals at the park, our host Shelly’s tales about the people who work here are just as heart-warming. She’s truly passionate about her work with the wildlife and met her husband here 23 years ago when he was working with the carnivores. Next, we meet Amy, who heads up the Reptile House. She introduces us to Barney, a friendly and relatively relaxed boa constrictor.
Amy teaches us brilliant and important lessons about the pythons, anacondas and boas (a small warning here: you’ll find it difficult to pull little ones out of the reptiles book section in the main gift shop afterwards). After shedding some initial trepidation, the children get to hold Barney and instantly fall in love with him. Barney is quite the charmer (pun intended), and gently coils up around their warm arms.
(Human) Feeding Time at the Zoo
There are two main restaurants, Dino Diner and Burger Co. Both serve café and brasserie style fare and the waiting staff are young, friendly and speedy with service. Dino Diner sits opposite the mind-blowing Land of The Dinosaur and Ice Age walk-through attractions. A sure-fired hit with young explorers, the vast area is home to the UK’s largest permanent collection of life-size animatronic dinosaurs.
An outdoor, interactive-style Ice Age museum also features huge animatronic ice age beasts including Woolley Mammoths and Sabre Tooth lions. We dine on appetising fajitas and burgers and there is also an array of kid-friendly fish and chips and chicken nuggets options alongside soups and salads.
Desserts include a variety of ice creams and there’s the option to purchase refillable unlimited soft drinks. If a less formal bite takes your fancy, there are plenty of options at the smaller kiosks dotted around. The food court next to the theme park serves up jacket potatoes and fried chicken and you can grab pizza at the Lost City Food Court near the Discovery Trail entrance.
After lunch, we encounter three brand new meerkat pups, Kovu, Kenai and Kyr over at the African Village section of the Discovery Trail. The park’s first litter in over nine years, they’ve been named using the same first same initial not because the keepers are fans of The Kardashians, but because every year, babies born here are named with the same letter of the alphabet.
This year it’s been the letter ‘K’. We’re able to join the penguins inside their cove too and throw them some fish before they dive into cool waters for an afternoon swim. Time escapes us and the guided part of our adventure comes to a close with a meet and greet the Sea Lions. Here, your mini-VIPs not only get to hand feed the park’s fabulous and friendly California sea lions, they also get front row seats when the sea lions show off their amazing skills in a dazzling show in and out of the water afterwards.
At the end of the day, the kids are quick to remember we still have some boxes of animal feed left over. The VIP experience is quite special in that while you’re given all those feed boxes earlier on, the team understands you’ll likely go through the safari again that day, or you’ll be lured back at later date. They say creating memories together is the best thing you can do for your family and here, you’re able to build a slew of them. All the kids can do after the visit is talk about the park and about when they can come back.
How to Book
West Midland Safari Park. Bewdley, Worcs, DY12 1LF. The VIP Safari Tour experience costs from £185 per person and includes (but is not limited to) a tour of West Midland Safari in a jeep, a chance to feed a number of animals, photos from your day on a memory stick, taken by a guide, lunch and a free return code. Visit wmsp.co.uk/vip-experiences to book or message the team via the website contact form: wmsp.co.uk/contact-form.