Kingston Maurward Animal Park, Play Barn and Gardens, Dorchester
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A couple of weeks ago I saw an advert on Facebook announcing the opening of a brand-new indoor play barn at Kingston Maurward Animal Park & Gardens on the outskirts of Dorchester, and I thought YES, a new play barn and café to investigate - independent play for the girls and a giant coffee for me!
And then I thought, hang on a minute - there’s an animal park at Kingston Maurward?? It seems that I am quite a few years out of date as when I last visited Kingston Maurward back in the day of music festival school trips it was ‘just’ a stately home with some lovely lawns and a lake, as far as I knew.
But, friends, things have moved on and I missed the memo – Kingston Maurward Animal Park & Gardens has definitely made it onto our list of great family days out, and I encourage you to give it a try!
From an age suitability point of view I’d say the under 12’s would get the most out of this attraction but older kids, especially animal fans, would also enjoy a visit.
The Play Barn and café – warm, dry and great fun for the under 8s (roughly!)
We chose an especially freezing and wet November day to visit, the rain was apocalyptic; so we were grateful to park up (ample free parking by the entrance to the Animal Park, Play Barn & Gardens) and roll straight into the brand new and spotlessly clean kids’ Play Barn.
The girls wasted no time in getting stuck in to the wooden adventure play area while we ordered in the drinks (deluxe hot chocolates for the girls, no less, and coffee for us) and they ended up spending at least a solid hour enjoying the various gangways across two levels, curly slide and various hidey holes with a team of newfound friends. There’s a great little games board too, and a handy trench (laughing out loud at that description) called The Stable for younger tots to sit, crawl or roll in safety.
Refreshments wise, there’s a full range of hot drinks and delicious looking cakes, crisps and snacks, and a chiller cabinet with sandwiches, pasties, sausage rolls and yoghurts – ideal for a pick and mix light lunch. A lunchbox is available for kids at £4.95 which looked like a good lunch option.
The indoor play area isn’t huge – it’s not a full-whammy soft play but that adds to the appeal in my books, it’s not crazy busy and small enough to keep an eye on younger ones without the risk of getting marooned 3 floors up in between a set of foam rollers! Certainly enough to keep kids under the age of 8 entertained, although that’s just a rough guide and not a set age restriction.
As is usually the case with young kids in tow (and a husband who has a bladder the size of a pea??) we made plenty of trips to the toilets which are a few paces away behind the nearby entrance and gift shop; baby changing facilities are available in the ladies’ loo.
Mercifully the rain had moved on by the time we were ready to emerge from the play barn (to be fair I did have to entice the girls away on the promise of some chocolate orange) and we began to explore the animal park.
There are so many animals to see, including many rare breeds, and I liked that they were all within easy walking distance for our youngest walker (we didn’t bring the buggy – more on buggy-friendliness in a mo.) There’s a mix of farmyard favourites and some more exotic species – I’ve been told we can expect more to come over the next few years in the way of zoo animals as the animal park has plans to expand its range of residents.
You can buy pots of animal food from the gift shop so we nipped in and chose some goat food – the girls loved feeding the friendly Pygmy goats and we managed to make our pellets last for ages while they made sure each of the goats got their fair share. Handily there’s a handwashing station nearby as we got covered in goat-lick but this is all part of the animal park experience!
We moved on to the impressive birds of prey, and from there the girls caught sight of the rheas – which I have to admit I’d thought were just short ostriches (have you ever heard of a rhea? Just me?) so they trotted over to have a good close up look.
Next up was the cool new wallaby area where you can actually walk right into the enclosure and get amongst the animals – though the wallabies kept hopping away as soon as we got close – man those things can jump fast! – and just as we’d finished up in there a bell rang to signify the start of the guinea pig fishing!
Guinea pig fishing?! It’s where kids are given a makeshift ‘fishing rod’ with a piece of lettuce, cabbage or cucumber pegged to the end of the line and they can feed the guinea pigs (and a rabbit) over the fence, much to their delight! Our girls loved this experience (one of the numerous things you can do at the weekends as a free/included hands-on activity) and spent ages feeding their new little mates, going back for third or fourth pieces of food to restock their fishing line.
Other things you can do at the weekends (and throughout school holidays) includes pony grooming and feeding the pigs, rheas and wallabies, though the park is open seven days a week – keep an eye on the website and Facebook page to find out what’s on and when.
After a brief top-up snack picnic – there’s lots of outside seating if you want to bring your own food – we had a little wander down the leafy pathways to meet the rare breed chickens/poultry, colourful peacocks, sheep, pigs and a very cute alpaca, finishing up neatly for a quick go in the outdoor play area suitable for kids up to age 10.
I wanted to have a walk around the gardens before we went home and I had anticipated having to kind of drag the girls with me for this part of the visit, but I was pleasantly surprised; the gardens were as much an attraction for them as it was for us grown-ups, because the gardens are like a series of exciting mysterious mazes! Lots of hedges with entrances to hidden areas (mind the deep pond and the lake if you’re letting younger ones run ahead), mystery areas to be discovered and puddles to be jumped in – so a really nice way to finish up our visit.
One of the things that I really liked about this attraction is that there’s a little bit of something for everyone in the family, from tiny kids to grandparents – I like a nice leafy autumn walk so this bit was for me.
There’s a longer lakeside walk which we didn’t do today but when I next return I’ll check it out. Speaking of the lake, in the warmer months you might like to consider taking a blanket and having a picnic lunch by the lake – it’s a really nice spot and I know this is a tradition for many families who are familiar with the site.
If you’re visiting on a weekday during term time there’s also the option of a café lunch at the Coach House Cafe next to the main house, or of course there’s the new café in the play barn which is open 7 days a week.
The pathways around the site are mostly grassy so in terms of accessibility there are some limitations. There are steps around the gardens, but you can pick up a site map at the entrance that shows a flat route. For those visiting with babies and toddlers, a sturdy, bigger-wheeled buggy (or a carrier) would be best if you have one, and dress for possible mud and puddles if visiting at any other time than high summer – wellies were definitely a must, today!
Admission and entry
I’m going to link to the admission prices page here in case pricing changes in due course but at the time of writing, entry for a family for 2 adults and 2 kids over the age of 1 is £26. Comparing this to the bigger zoos and animal parks I think this is a really reasonable price, especially when you factor in that it includes entry to the play barn and a range of ‘join in’ activities throughout the day.
If you’re likely to be a regular visitor you might like to consider the option of an annual family pass, which is £85.
One thing to mention is that you can’t just to pay to use the play barn and not the gardens or animal park - it’s a one price covers all policy. One adult is £8.95 and a child over the age of 1 is £5.95.
I often get asked about doggies and if they’re welcome – dogs are allowed around the lakeside and gardens on a lead but only assistance dogs are allowed in the animal park.
It’s not a large attraction like one of the big (and expensive!) zoos but for families with younger children it’s the ideal size to get around and enjoy without it being overwhelming, too busy or too hands-off. Here, you can get up close to the animals and enjoy the various elements of the park within easy reach. And it sounds like the animal offerings of the park are going to be enhanced year on year as they’ve just received the necessary zoo permissions, so watch this space!
Keep your eyes peeled for the various special events held at the animal park throughout the year and in particular the school holidays – next up is a very special bearded visitor to the grotto within the main house in December (date to be announced very soon), and there’ll be lots on in the February half term.
The park is open daily from 10pm-5pm, though the play barn closes at 4pm. It’s open all year round, apart from the Christmas shutdown from 23rd December to 5th January.
Thank you so much to Kingston Maurward for having us along today – our entry was very kindly gifted so that we could check out the new play barn and spread the word – but as always I only ever write about places that I’d genuinely recommend to friends and all of the opinions in this piece are my own without influence.