Family Day Out: Albert Dock, Liverpool
If you’re a Beatles fan, it’ll be the Fab Four that draw you to Liverpool. For football fans, there are too many sporting heroes to mention. But when you’re four, there’s only three names to strike proper excitement in your heart: Thomas, Bob and Sam.
That’s Tank Engine, Builder and Fireman, if you haven’t already guessed. Mattel Play opened in Albert Dock earlier this year, one of the latest additions to the regenerated waterfront – and we’d been invited to discover what else there was to explore in this Mersey-side slice of Liverpool. Because I’ll admit, I need a bit more tempting than the Fat Controller alone.
With several trips already lined up, we had just over 24 hours to explore and unsurprisingly we could have spent far longer, even without heading into the city proper.
On a weekend where the sun only shone briefly, we were lucky: blue skies as we arrived, so after a fantastic burger with pulled beef in Revolution (for me, pizza for Minnie), we set off for a walk around.
It’s a lovely spot with bunting flying in the breeze, boats sailing in and out of the docks and history galore in the very bricks. Opened in 1846, the docks soon became outdated with advances in shipping design meaning fewer and fewer ships were able to use it for its original purpose by the 20th century. While the warehouses endured a bit longer, it was basically derelict when the docks closed officially in the 70s.
Thankfully, it had also been protected thanks to its historical and architectural importance so after a string of suggested schemes came to nothing, the 80s finally saw redevelopment start until its eventual transformation by the first years of the 21st century. Today, there are bars, restaurants, hotels, museums and lots of family activities during the summer as well.
We didn’t even get chance to head in to the Merseyside Maritime Museum or Tate Liverpool, and as my daughter thinks a Beatle is a small crawly insect, I decided to skip the various attractions in John, Paul, George and Ringo’s honour, including the Beatles Story.
Because when there’s a traditional Victorian carousel with an array of brightly coloured horses, a special Olympics area with brightly coloured oil drums to climb on (possibly not the use they were intended for) and all kinds of fascinating odds and ends in the shop windows, from an old-fashioned diving helmet to an installation at the Tate, you don’t need to step inside at all.
And that’s without any of the extra attractions on: we had managed to time our visit to miss some of the family-friendly Summer At The Dock fun and were too early for the Pirate Festival in September.
One thing I wasn’t about to miss was a trip on the Big Wheel, even if it had clouded over by then. With adult tickets at £9 and children over three priced £6.50, it’s not the cheapest 10 minutes in Liverpool but it’s definitely fun. We hopped on, trying to spot landmarks including the cathedrals and Liver Building, casting an eye out back to the docks and the river, spotting a cruise ship on the horizon and generally enjoying the views from above.
Somehow the afternoon had vanished, and it was time to head back to our room at the Holiday Inn Express, another of the 19th century converted warehouses where we’d bagged one of the best rooms looking right out onto the water – check it out in the video.
With plenty of room for us to spread out and sleep, there’s also a great buffet breakfast which fuelled us for our second day.
Because it was finally Mattel Play time. Minnie was almost bursting with excitement so we were more than ready for our slot at 10am opening time. Even on a rainy school holiday day, it wasn’t too busy first thing although it started to fill up towards lunchtime – apparently slots are limited during very busy times. I still had to drag Minnie out after two hours (and she wasn’t the only distraught person I spotted outside) although one of the hotel staff revealed she’d once spent four hours inside.
It’s not hard to see why. First stop is Fireman Sam – not a particular favourite of Minnie but she spent most of the first hour pretending to put out fires, driving Jupiter the fire engine, carrying out complicated transactions in the shop, jumping on the slides down from jetski Juno and generally having a ball.
Only the lure of Thomas persuaded her to head upstairs… via Bob the Builder territory. I loved the way that each area had something rather different, rather than simply theming the same activities. Here you could build with blocks or huge foam bricks, trace various pictures and dig up sand as well as getting a brief introduction to the characters on one of the screen around – it makes sense to have the shows playing, of course, but that was one of the few downsides for me, as Minnie would happily have sat and watched for a fair chunk of time rather than making the most of the activities.
At £11 per child and £4 per accompanying adult (or even the weekday off-peak parent and preschooler £10 offer), that’s not really top of my list!
Fortunately there was plenty to distract her as we headed to Sodor. A chance to ride around in a miniature train (with plenty of additional pushing from the helpful staff and occasional shoves from me), a ball pit, Farmer McColl’s farm… the list goes on. Only the ensuing meltdown when I insisted we did have to go to lunch gave me an excuse to skip the gift shop. (I know, mean).
Fortunately the fantastic decor at Circo and activity pack for kids consoled her a bit – who can be upset for too long when there’s a monkey mask available. With some delicious calamari for me plus a wonderful dish of pork belly to follow, I was also consoled about not being able to test out the cocktails or wine list as the afternoon held a long drive.
It’s somewhere I’d love to see in the evening. With the circus theme and opulent furnishings, I can imagine the entertainment on certain evenings is huge fun too and the lovely staff seemed as good at keeping small cross visitors happy as the big group sitting nearby. Too full even to manage dessert, it gave me another good reason to return.
PIN FOR LATER
Disclosure: My stay, including a night at Holiday Inn Express, entry to Mattel Play and lunch at Circo was courtesy of Albert Dock. All other activities, including repeated carousel rides and the Big Wheel, were paid for. All opinions, Thomas-obsessed small girls and choice of what else to do, was my own.
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