Get close to the world’s biggest, scariest, most beautiful wildlife as Helen Milbank rounds up the top animal attractions suitable for groups, from zoos and safari parks to a walk with wolves

Meet our cover star, Sutton

Meet our cover star, Sutton

The adorable baby elephant you can see on this issue’s front cover is West Midland Safari Park’s new star attraction. Sutton is the first elephant to be born at West Midland Safari Park and the second African elephant calf in the world to be born following artificial insemination.

Sutton celebrates his first birthday in May 2015. He’s certainly the main attraction for visitors to the park’s Elephant Valley, as he charges around under the watchful eye of his mum and aunt.

Elephant Valley is part of the Worcestershire-based attraction’s safari drivethrough, where groups can also get up close to Sutton’s neighbours including the southern white rhino, Asian water buffalo and Ankole cattle. Luckily he’s safely separated from the park’s more predatory inhabitants, largely the African lions!

Open daily until the beginning of November, discounts are available for groups with free entry for the group travel organiser. Visit www.wmsp.co.uk for more information regarding ticket prices. West Midland Safari Park’s latest attraction – Land of the Living Dinosaurs – is the UK’s largest collection of animatronic dinosaurs.

● SEE GTW’s REVIEW ONLINE AT: www.grouptravelworld.com/attractionlaunch

Staffordshire attraction Drayton Manor Theme Park houses a mixture of wild animals, with the park home to a rare black leopard and Sumatran tiger, as well as meerkats, flamingos and kangaroos, among others.

Drayton Manor’s Thomas Land is a must for young fans of Thomas the Tank Engine, and there are thrill rides for older visitors. Group deals and packages include free parking, selected free entry and meal vouchers – see draytonmanor.co.uk for details.

Head north to the South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, where groups of all ages and interests have the chance to hand-feed a big cat or giraffe, wander among free-roaming monkeys and birds and get up close to the resident kangaroos.

Discounts of up to £300 for groups of 52 or more are available. Visit the website for more details at southlakessafarizoo.com

HOP OVER THE CHANNEL
If your group plans to visit France this summer, pencil in a trip to the medieval theme park Puy du Fou, which is located three hours’ drive south of Paris.

It brings historical events to life through a series of shows – many of which feature animals. After watching the jousting knights gallop through the auditorium on their majestic horses in The Secret Of The Lance, you could see the birds of prey in The Phantom Birds’ Dance. The attraction is also home to 1,400 animals including wolves, lions and tigers, which roam its Animal Prairie.

Find out more at www. puydufou.com

EXPLORE LIFE UNDER THE SEA
For a taste of more watery wildlife, the UK’s worldclass aquariums give groups and insight into ocean life, without the need to find your sea legs. Cheshire’s Blue Planet Aquarium (www. blueplanetaquarium.com) is home to Europe’s largest collection of sharks.

Visit The Deep in Hull

Visit The Deep in Hull

You can dive freely if your group’s home to any qualified divers, whie beginners can opt for the Shark Encounter Dive. They’ll be taught basic dive techniques on the day, before coming face-to-face with a 10ft sand tiger shark.

Blue Planet Aquarium prides itself on being group-friendly, with easy coach or minibus parking, easy accessibility for pushchairs and wheelchairs, special group rates and exclusive offers for coach drivers. Whether you’re taking a group of adults or young schoolchildren, they’ll love the stunning 70m underwater tunnel, daily diver shows and feeding displays, as well as 35 exhibits in five themed areas.

Hop across the country from Cheshire and visit The Deep, Hull’s huge aquarium that’s home to more than 3,500 fish including sharks and sawfish, complete with a glass lift that takes you through the main shark-infested tank (see www.thedeep.co.uk).

Groups of all ages can learn more about the world’s oceans and are well catered for, with discounts for prebooked parties of 10 or more.

Sharks are also on the menu at the National SEA LIFE Centre Birmingham, which has frozen its group prices for 2015 in a bid to attract coach parties to this West Midlands attraction.

Discounted tickets for prebooked parties of 10 or more will remain at the current rate of £14.50 per person and prices have also been frozen for specialist group visits. In addition to its sharks, the aquarium is home to more than 2,000 creatures, including a giant green sea turtle, jellyfish, piranha, octopus and rays.

New for this season is the Sea Stars attraction, home to a variety of species of starfish. Find out more about the attraction at www.sealife.co.uk/birmingham

WALKING WITH WOLVES – Review

Fancy taking your group on a trek with a pack of wolves? GTW’s Helen Milbank lived life on the wild side on a walk with the UK Wolf Conservation Trust

Spending your Sunday afternoon hiking through woodland with a pack of wolves might sound as appealing as shinning up the perimeter fence of a lion’s enclosure and hurling yourself in. But I gave it a try and far from being big, bad and scary, the wolves I met were no more terrifying than your average Alsatian.

Patting a wolf requires a special technique, as Helen discovered

Patting a wolf requires a special technique, as Helen discovered

Though maybe I wouldn’t have been quite so blasé had each of the three wolves not been attached by a chain to two handlers.

I embarked on a wolf walk with the UK Wolf Conservation Trust – an organisation that works to dispel the myths and misconceptions surrounding these much-maligned animals, conserve the wolf’s natural habitat and improve their chances of survival in the wild.

Wolf walks give members of the public the chance to join a small wolf pack and trek with them through the fields around the Trust’s site. The wolves set the pace and you follow. It’s fascinating to trek feet away from such a beautiful and largely misunderstood animal. While none of the Trust’s wolves are domesticated or trained, they have been socialised with humans, giving visitors the rare opportunity to be able to interact with them.

Rescued as abandoned pups or donated by safari parks, the wolves have developed a unique relationship with their handlers. It’s a one-off chance to chat to the people who know the wolves best, learn about their history and behaviour and even stroke them, as I discovered when I found myself standing just inches away from the piercing eyes of Mosi – one of three juvenile wolves on our walk.

There’s a certain technique to patting a wolf. You keep one hand free, hold out your fist so he/she can give you a cursory sniff, then rub their tummy hard so they feel it through their thick, rough coat. An hour-and-a-half simply flies by, as the wolves mix with their two-legged ‘pack’ for the day. Then you look down and there’s a wolf nonchalantly sniffing at a patch of grass just inches away.

Find out more at www.ukwolf.org

FLYING HIGH

Wings of Africa is a brand new display at Hampshire’s Hawk Conservancy Trust

See the Sacred Ibis in flight at the Hawk Conservancy Trust

See the Sacred Ibis in flight at the Hawk Conservancy Trust

Performed every morning throughout the season, it features birds new to the trust including the Sacred Ibis, which are known as nature’s ‘Hoovers’ as they vacuum the carcass of any insect. The display also hosts the Milky Eagle Owl, African Fish Eagle and several vultures, while special effects mirror the birds’ natural habitat. The new display marks the trust’s 50th anniversary, with further celebrations being held throughout the year.

Find out more at www.hawkconservancy.org

PARADISE WILDLIFE PARK – Review

GTW’s Harley Denham visited Paradise Wildlife Park earlier this year

The final three miles to Paradise Wildlife Park took us through a scenic woodland area. Arriving at the park, we were directed to a spacious car park directly opposite the attraction, which offers plenty of parking for coach parties and group visitors. Entry to Paradise Wildlife Park is priced around £18 per ticket, reduced to £14.40 if booked online, with a special group rate for more than 20 tickets purchased.

The park is home to several big cats

The park is home to several big cats

We were greeted by friendly goats and sheep, with feeding pellets available to purchase at stalls nearby. Heading towards the big cat territory, we were met by three majestic female white lions, with the male sat peacefully on a rockery overlooking his pride. He had originally been born at West Midlands Safari Park.

Wooden balconies provide a view from above, with wire fencing around the enclosure providing a restricted view without interruption. Within the big cat territory, visitors could also view a Cheetah, Snow Leopard and White Tiger. Whilst exploring the selection of animals, we came across two zebras peacefully grazing on hay, with a camel and a collection of active Tapirs close by. Various farmyard animals occupied a shed-like structure including two Shetland ponies, pigs, guinea pigs, rabbits, goats and the newly arrived baby chicks, which were appropriate for an Easter weekend visit.

We headed towards the Tropical Rainforest, which was home to a selection of small primates, and were greeted by very warm temperatures to mimic the species’ natural habitat. Refreshments are available from a number of stalls, where visitors can also pick up snacks. Safari Sam’s Diner serves a more sustaining selection of sandwiches, burgers, pasta and fish and chip fare.

The Tiger Treetops Restaurant is open from 1100hrs to 1600hrs and is situated around the tiger enclosure with balcony views. The eatery serves sandwiches, cakes, drinks and snacks. Paradise Wildlife Park has plenty to offer kids of all ages, with 18-hole safari golf, Paradise Lagoon paddling pool, parks, amusements and rides. The Woodland Railway transports passengers through the designated woodland walk, which is home to a pack of wolves, owls and an insect preservation area, where educational talks for schools and groups are available.

For more information visit www.pwpark.com