A Yorkshire attraction with exotic animals and a thrilling theme park proves a big hit with JO KESSEL and family
"WALK calmly and quietly to those rocks in the middle," zookeeper Ross instructs as he disables the electric fence. My three children and I enter the animal enclosure.
One step, two, three and suddenly I'm pounced on from behind. It takes great willpower not to shriek and shake off the mysterious weighty creature clinging to my shoulders but Ross was insistent about staying calm and I mustn't alarm the children.
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The children ignore (or forget) Ross's instruction to stay quiet. "Mummy," squeals Hannah, seven, "King Julien is on your back."
She's referring to a character from hit movie Madagascar. Sniffing my hair, however, isn't some cartoon creation but a very real ring-tailed lemur. Sociable too. He leaps from me on to a delighted Hannah before nosing the bucket of fruit we've brought to feed him and his Madagascan co-stars.
We're enjoying a behind-thescenes animal encounter at Flamingo Land Resort, a North Yorkshire attraction whose name misleads. Flamingos do feature but they are just part of what began life as a zoo in the 1950s and now includes a theme park.
My children are so absorbed in shaking lemur hands that rollercoasters are forgotten. We head for the penguins where my three creep commando-like on their bellies towards the pool's edge, dangling sprats over the icy water to be plucked from their fingers by beaks.
Then we visit the meerkats who favour nine-year-old twins Nathalie and Gabriel over Hannah because she's too squeamish to proffer the pot of wriggling mealworms.
The zoo is impressive. A real effort is made to protect endangered species and a percentage of all profits are funnelled into conservation projects in Tanzania.
As a rollercoaster wimp this is where I'd stay but the children have stomach-churning plans.
Flamingo Land is one of the UK's few remaining family-run theme parks. Its 400-acre site boasts some of the highest and steepest rides in the world and unlike many similar attractions its on-site holiday village can accommodate more than 2,000 guests in a mix of lodges, mobile homes, caravans and tents.
The theme park prides itself on offering something for everyone. For younger visitors and loopthe-loop wimps there's the Muddy Duck Farm and Children's Planet areas with gentler rides.
For my hard-core brood the place is packed with possibilities from various carousels and runaway trains to Wild Mouse, a coaster with so many curves and pesky turns (I try it once) that bottoms literally jump out of seats.
Scottish owner Gordon Gibb's personal touch is evident. Food is not only reasonably priced but children can tuck into fish and chips as well as healthier options such as fruit-filled picnic boxes.
I insist on us all doing Lost River Ride, a 12-minute log flume safari past the lion enclosure and through paddocks of giraffes, zebras and rhinos before reaching its climax, a near-vertical 70ft drop where the mega-splash landing soaks us to the core.
We dash back to our swish three-bedroom, two-bathroom lodge to dry off. The stylish decor is beige offset by red cushions and chrome pendant lights. Beneath the flat-screen TV in the dining room is the quirkiest invention, a flat-screen log fire where flames can be turned high or low via remote control. They can even be backlit blue or pink, the perfect antidote for soggy limbs.
For self-caterers, the holiday village has a well-stocked supermarket but we've chosen a half-board package. Dinner at the Metropolis Grill is delicious; generously portioned free-range chicken Parmesan with salad for the children and pork medallions with a creamy mustard sauce for mum.
For those still with energy there's a leisure centre with a large pool and gym as well as evening family entertainment.
Flamingo Land is worthy of a far longer stay than our weekend break. There's so much more we'd like to have done in and around the park.
The seaside resort of Scarborough is nearby, as is stately home Castle Howard - where the TV series and movie Brideshead Revisited were both filmed.
It is easily accessible from London, with York and its iconic Minster less than two hours away by train.
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Tigers, penguins, pythons and porcupines; on the way home the children's heads are spinning with it all. Surely rollercoaster G-force hasn't played havoc with their brains? Maybe it has.
"Mummy," Hannah turns to me. "I want a ring-tailed lemur for a pet."
Flamingo Land Resort (0871 911 8000/www.flamingoland.co.uk) offers three nights from £530 (six sharing a three-bedroom lodge), self catering.
Price includes admission to theme park, zoo and leisure centre. Half-board from an additional £14.95 per adult and £7.95 per child per day. Animal Encounters from £20pp. East Coast Trains (0845 722 5225/www.eastcoast.co.uk) London to York return from £26. North Yorkshire Tourism: 01653 600048/www.discovernorthyorkshire.co.uk