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Could Tayto be the answer for parents' what-to-do Easter head-scratcher?

Tele man Jonathan Bell and his family took a jaunt south to take a bite out of Ireland's only theme park and zoo

Tayto Park is an hour and a half outside Belfast.
Tayto Park is an hour and a half outside Belfast.
There is plenty to do at Tayto Park
Cu Chulainn Coaster at Tayto Park
Tayto Park.
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Easter is here and with it comes the head-scratcher of just what to do with the kids as they begin their month-long break from the toils of school - well it feels that long.

The flashing lights of Portrush, the Newcastle seaside or the hills of Belfast and its zoological gardens are sure to be high up the check list of many.

But should you consider another name - Tayto?

Located at  Ashbourne, Co. Meath, the family-owned and operated Tayto Park first opened its doors to the public in 2010. And I had to check as you'd swear it opened yesterday. It is spotless and well-prepared for the season ahead with plenty of new facilities.

It's an hour-and-a-half straight from Belfast. Ok it's about an hour twenty past the 'are we there yet?' point, but on that you can't win. The last leg to the park, while a decent enough road off the motorway may slow the journey up at the height of the season.

But the arrival is cause to pause.

The towering gates are Jurassic Park-esque, and it very quickly becomes evident it's not just a theme park you've arrived at. Enormous bison greet you, waving their horns half in welcome, half in a 'we can take your tin can car' sort of way.

Tayto Park has something no other theme park in all of Ireland can boast of - and likely many of Europe's best theme parks - a zoo.

It's got all the amusements you can imagine across the site with the centrepiece the Cu Chulainn Coaster - Europe's biggest wooden roller coaster - which dominates the sideline. The ladybird rollercoaster and the rocking boat solid favourites with my three and five-year-old.

Although my car-mad boys just loved the Nissan driving school. Instead of the usual strip of tarmac in a loop a mini road circuit complete with roundabouts, traffic lights and parking spaces has been built which they let you loose on after a short video on how to drive.

But what's great about the site is how it has been laid out. It's compact but not cramped. The theme park and zoo are intertwined to a degree so as you move from one ride to the other there's big cats eyeing you up for lunch. They are close as the many 'these animals may bite' notices remind you.

New this year is the lemur wood. An enclosed walkway where you can mingle with the lemurs. We were warned they may jump up on your shoulder if they take the fancy. They didn't but we did get curious looks. And despite the frenzy not so far away there was a serene calm in the enclosure.

The animals are spectacular. Big cats, monkeys and meerkats feature alongside farm animals and of course the big bison. But the stars have to be the birds of prey. Stunningly beautiful eagles of all kinds tower above you and you just can't help but marvel.

The park has a dedicated conservation programme and has ploughed thousands into programmes around the world to support many of the relatives of those it plays home to as well as being instrumental in introducing the red kite back into Irish skies. 

It's all thirsty work though and the park has seven food outlets to chose from. We ate in The Lodge a cavernous log cabin with a feast on offer. Everything from sandwiches to a full Sunday dinner on offer. And I was impressed.For the number of people they were serving, the food was good quality - especially the chips. Although you'd imagine as the park is the brainchild of a potato farmer, they'd have to be good.

We were there the Sunday before Easter started proper and while busy it was a pleasant crowd number. The dining hall was packed but there were seats. It was easy to keep an eye on the kids running about and there was no stress of waiting on a ride. We charged past signposts for '50 minute' waits. So be warned. Visitor numbers last year topped 750,000 and they're likely to continue rising.

We were there in the middle of April - but it was freezing. Which will always be the danger of building a theme park in the middle of Ireland. It reminded me very much of my January visit to Euro Disney, although that was some time ago.

There is plenty to do. We spent around four hours and didn't get to do everything. The centrepiece rollercoaster was shut because the wind was too strong and we'd not time for the Viking Voyage log flume. 

There's also a 'Dinosaurs Alive' attraction, 5 dimensional cinema and a tour of the Tayto factory we never got around to - including many more attractions while I would have loved, the kids would have not tolerated watching me have the time of it. There's an arena for a Raptors - birds of prey display. It would be well worth doing a little planning ahead for show times and feeding time as there won't be enough time to do it all.

Businessman Ray Coyle at Tayto Park.
Businessman Ray Coyle at Tayto Park.

But new this year is a returner discount meaning you can get back to the park for a second visit at a reduced rate.

But think of a theme park and you easily rhyme off Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Legoland and Disney but to name a few and maybe Tayto deserves its spot. Because that is clearly where they want to be and have grand ambitions.

There's a new rollercoaster on its way, more attractions planned for the years to come and its first family fun festival coming this summer. The owner has also spoken of a determination to build a hotel on the site.

And look several hundred words without a mention of crisps. Because although they have stacks of Mr Tayto soft toys in the gift shop, packs to buy at every concession, a mascot roaming the site and a free pack on leaving - it's really not about crisps. It's about family fun and enjoyment - and that's what you can expect.

Booking online tickets are €15.50 or €18 at peak times with concessions for seniors and those with carers. Entry with wristbands giving unlimited access to all the attractions is €28.50 euro or €31 euro at peak times. Tokens are €1 each on site to get onto the rides without a wristband.

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