Yesterday N and I went to 360 in Milton Keynes for a meet up with some friends.  We don’t get to see them very often, what with work and family, so we like to make the most of it so the 3 boys can catch up and have a good run around together.  Plus I’d not meet baby C yet, so it was a great opportunity to see how similar she is to her brother at the same age.

We’d debated various locations but as 360 was an hour from 2 of us and round the corner from the third, it seemed like the perfect location, even if it was half term….ah, I hear you say.  Soft play in half term…and yesterday was wet.

Hmm.  Would have been lovely if it had been dry as it’s the first soft play place I’ve known to have an outdoor area as well.  But as it was raining it was as expected – busy (but I’ve seen worse in terms of crowded at Cleethorpes, end of summer holidays, pouring rain – no limits on entry numbers!).

360 has a few sites including a new one in Stevenage.  I can only hope the other sites are better.  Let’s just say, excluding the company, it wasn’t a great experience.

What they do well?

  1. Carousel / merry go round.  This was brilliant.  Non-stop and included in the price (I should think so too, see price below). N loved it…so much so that everytime I lost sight of him on the equipment, I could pretty much rely on finding him on the carousel.  Although there are 2 downsides: a) tantrum when I had to remove him from it to change him and get going b) it’s going to get expensive when I have to tell him at fetes and shows that he can only have 1 go!
  2. Dodgems.  Yep, they had mini dodgems.  I took N on as he was quite interested, and we had a good time driving round avoiding all the other children who obviously wanted to hit us, having the only adult on that session.  How some of the dad who were taller than me managed to get their legs in round the steering wheel is beyond me though.
  3. The equipment – there was a reasonable toddler climbing frame which had some of the similar types to the bigger frame (smaller wavy tiger slide etc).  There were time trial ‘assault course’, funny mirrors, rope swings, slides, rope bridges, ball/air play things.  A good mix, and the boys loved the older children’s frame.  Of course, they never want to go on the toddler frames!
  4. Extras – upstairs they have a series of ‘shops’ for role play – pizza parlour with food/crockery, clothes shop with dressing up clothes), big xylophone/tubular bells type instrument on the wall along with other sensory toys, and a messy play area where they do different activities.  We didn’t get to this area as it was a bit out of the way if you’re not sitting up there.  It almost would have been better if there was a route to it from the climbing frame.
carousel car
Waiting to drive his ‘car’
carousel car
Wwweeeeeee
on the high nets

What could have been done an awful lot better

Ok so the actual play equipment and offer is good.  But was it worth going to?  I think all 3 of us (excluding the children) would say they could and should do an awful lot better.  Even allowing for half term, which surely they should be able to cater for.

Tell people you’re doing a 1 in 1 out.  A sign shoved somewhere isn’t doing the job for customer service, and when you’ve got kids queuing for up to 45 minutes in the rain because they’re meeting people who’re already inside, isn’t really a good system.  Some places have time limits during busy periods.  It winds me up when you pay a lot of money as you want to be able to sit and play for as long as possible (especially when like us we tend to meet at softplay places as they’re in the middle of where we all live), but when there are queues less than an hour after you’ve opened (and still there when we left at 3), maybe limits should be thought about.  It was busy, but not ridiculously so, so maybe they have quite a low number limit for safety reasons.

Pricing – this was ridiculous.  For a 1-3 year old it was £6.95.  Ok, for an all day play session that’s a great price and N definitely got his money’s worth.  However, when you’re also paying £3 for adults – er, why?  Adults aren’t there to play, they’re there to check the child is safe, there’s not an option to just leave the child there, plus the adults are the ones buying the food and drinks while they wait.  But this place also has a membership of £5 to pay.  This is essential.  

The only reason I can see is so they swipe people in and out.  There’re no other benefits.  I could see it being an optional extra; you could offer discounts or special deals for members.  But for people who’re visiting once, it’s a disgusting price.  They can say it’s for safety, but why does every other soft play I’ve been to cope with a signing in sheet?  And those places don’t have problems with the computers halfway through the day.

Food.  The choice was the usual for children – chicken nuggets, fish fingers, hotdog, beefburger or pic n mix sandwich box.  When we went to order lunch at noon, there were only 2 sandwiches on the counter to choose from (I’m hoping they were making to order?!).  

For adults, the menu was pretty shocking.  Compared with other places we’ve been to, there was a very limited choice unless you wanted paninis or jacket potatoes.  Oh, but by 2pm they’d run out of potatoes so all those children’s meals that came with a side of jacket potatoes and adults who wanted a relatively healthy hot option were stuck.  

And, wait for it, there was no cake.  What soft play venues don’t sell cake?  Well, I lie a bit, there was a display of cupcakes, but no-one seemed to be eating those.  I had a burger, and it was grim.  I’ve had a lot tastier in McDonalds.

Cutlery.  Yes there was enough for adults, but there was no kids cutlery.  The nearest was a plastic spoon suitable for stirring sugar in hot drinks or yoghurts.  So N had to eat his lunch using an adult size fork. He wasn’t fussy, but for toddlers it’s a bit rubbish.  I usually go round all the time with a fork and spoon in my bag for him, but decided not to for this visit as every other softplay we’ve been to has provided them  (usually the cheap IKEA plastic ones).  Considering it’s a play place for children, you’d think they’d have thought of things like that.

Staff.  They were fine in themselves, but they seemed so understaffed for a half term.  Only one person taking orders at the till for lunch, one doing drinks, and then one serving/clearing up in a large softplay centre.  At one stage the manager was being yelled out for not having staff serving, which let’s face it is really embarrassing for them and very unprofessional for a company.

Toilets.  I know toilets in softplay places are never nice, but these really weren’t clean, wet floors etc.  Need more checks and the reassurance of a tick sheet always helps with customer confidence.

I’m sure there were other things that weren’t great, but these are the ones that really incensed me (and that I can remember).  Don’t think we’d be revisiting even on a nicer day where we could also use the outdoor play equipment – maybe if it was our local soft play we might, but given we pay about a fiver for both of our local ones (one’s a bit smaller, but does the job well, the other isn’t really that good for our age of children but does have good cake and Costa coffee), it feels like the pricing is way off for them to get the little things wrong.

What are your likes and hates about soft play centres?

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