The Waikato is a mighty playground for the kids – big and small – at any time of the year, but especially during the school holidays. The region is jam-packed with fun, boredom-buster experiences.
With the mid-year school break from July 9 to 24 July, the Waikato Herald asked Hamilton & Waikato Tourism for a playlist of some of the great things to do with the kids, including some of the coolest free stuff too.
Hamilton Zoo is home to some 600 mammals, native and exotic birds, reptiles and frogs, and there is the new playground for the children to explore, as well as a new cafe.
At Ōtorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park nocturnal kiwis can be seen up close in specially designed "night-time" houses.
Project Ruru at The Sculpture Park at Waitakaruru Arboretum launches on July 9 and 10 and runs through the holidays. Included is a "find where the ruru rest" game inviting visitors to discover 15 different works of art depicting ruru (morepork).
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is an ancient forest-covered maunga alive with many of our most endangered wildlife.
A different kind of animal encounter awaits at Cornerstone Alpaca Stud in Gordonton. Think Instagram-worthy photos of the kids as they help feed these cute, friendly animals.
Round up the whole family and head to SkyCity Hamilton which boasts a variety of entertainment under one roof – from tenpin bowling and escape rooms to burger joints and restaurants.
Leap is for fun – and for burning off energy. This indoor trampoline park in Te Rapa has some 30 floor and wall mounted trampolines where visitors can bounce, jump, twist, flip – and land safely.
In the same building is Megazone, a laser tag arena, where anyone 5 years and older can stalk and attempt to zap their mates in a variety of games played in the dark with fluro artwork, mist and mirrors.
Take your little ninjas to the newest indoor activity in town, Ninja Valley for some high-energy fun with 65 trampoline-based activities, two ninja courses, climbing towers, a zipline and high ropes course.
For some relaxed fun, try a game of Ice Age mini golf, arcade games, virtual reality or beat the clock in an escape room upstairs at Centre Place in Hamilton.
Part romance, part twisted fairy tale, Shrek the Musical, is coming to Hamilton these school holidays. The colourful characters of the original movie are on stage at Clarence Street Theatre, July 19-23. For the chance to win a family pass, keep an eye on the Hamilton & Waikato Tourism Facebook page.
Free family days out
Free attractions and activities in the Waikato include walks and cycle trails, waterfalls, the world's only hot soda water geyser, the Mokena Geyser in Te Aroha, museums, and more.
The many family-friendly cycling trails threading through the Waikato are detailed in a free guide booklet that can be downloaded from the Hamilton & Waikato Tourism website.
Easy Waikato walks are dotted throughout the region, with family favourites including Lake Ngāroto and Yarndley's Bush near Te Awamutu.
Also free and mighty spectacular after rain are the Waikato's waterfalls. The highest in the North Island at 153 metres is Wairere Falls, located between Te Aroha and Matamata, while the Waitomo district's Marokopa Falls are often described as the most beautiful in New Zealand. There's plenty on offer at Hamilton Gardens to intrigue and inspire young visitors, in particular the Surrealist Garden with its weirdly whimsical biomorphic-shaped trees known as the trons.
Many museum exhibits are free too, including some at the Waikato Museum in Hamilton where the first day of the school holidays will see special activities to mark Matariki.
For culinary creativity – and sweet indulgence – Mamas Donuts has donut decorating sessions on Thursdays and Fridays during the coming school holidays.
The fact it's not summer is irrelevant for the younger crowd when it comes to ice cream. Amongst the local licks are Hoops & Scoops, where there are donuts to decorate too, and the iconic Duck Island Ice Cream offering up kid-friendly flavours like fairy bread and lolly cake. Then there's gelato at the likes of The Scoop Gelato in Waharoa.
Fluffies, hot chocolate and eats to please even the smallest of appetites are served at cafés throughout the Waikato region. A number have play areas to entertain the children and give adults some timeout, or there are adjacent playgrounds.
Amongst those with their own play zones are Punnet at Tamahere, Café 77 in the quiet village of Manawaru half-way between Te Aroha and Matamata, and Café Irresistiblue at Monavale Blueberries near Cambridge.
Others like Rock-it Kitchen in Raglan have wide open spaces to play in, or playgrounds within shouting distance – e.g. Forever Bound and Poppy Peach in Tamahere Village with the skateboard park right there, or the Verandah Café where there is the Hamilton Lake Domain Playground.
The wild side
For a bit of 'wild' these school holidays there are adventures like a jetboat trip on the Waikato River, or some thrills in a go-kart at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park, or going to earth, well under it actually.
The Waitomo Caves system has been a million years in the making. Decorating the caverns are strange stalactites and stalagmites and twinkling glowworms.
Then there's the Troll Cave – a novel take on the escape room experience where the kids need to avoid this grumpy beast's pranks while solving the riddle to escape from his lair.
Kids into adrenalin rushes will be eager for the blackwater rafting, abseiling, ziplining and jumping off subterranean waterfalls offered by several Waitomo adventure companies. Age – mostly 13 years and older – and weight limits vary and can be verified when making bookings.
And for more heart-pumping experiences there are adventure companies like Raglan Rock where rock climbing and canyoning down waterfalls are specialities. Raglan Rock tailors experiences to suit families with most activities being suitable for kids aged from eight years.
Happiness is…the school holidays in the Mighty Waikato.