“Peppa!” bellows my 21-month-old daughter. “Peppa! Hello!” Whoever is occupying the giant, felt pig costume on the podium in front of us finally notices Martha flapping her arms like a hummingbird somewhere near ground level, and bends down to return her wave. She beams and stamps with excitement, and, distracted by sheer delight, smears her ice-cream across the bare legs of a four-year-old girl who’s wriggled in to try to touch the enormous cartoon pig.
We’re at the Peppa Pig World theme park in Hampshire, which officially opens its gates to the nation’s excitable toddlers this weekend. For Martha, like many other children under the age of five, this is just about the most exciting thing that’s happened in her short life. Not only is she within touching distance of her favourite TV character, but the colourful world Peppa inhabits in the eponymous cartoon has also been recreated all around her. For a little girl whose first request to me each day is usually “watch Pig?”, this is as significant a happening as man walking on the Moon.
Peppa Pig is the heroine of a series of five-minute British cartoons, notable for their simplistic animation and jaunty music. Plotlines involve little more than Peppa going to playschool with various other anthropomorphic and alliterative characters – Suzy Sheep, Rebecca Rabbit, Pedro Pony, etc – and jumping in muddy puddles with her parents and little brother George.
These everyday, family-centric situations resonate not just with Martha, but also with an audience of millions in more than 180 countries. As well as being cute, Peppa Pig is astonishingly lucrative, generating sales of more than £200m last year, and has made multi-millionaires of the three cartoonist friends who dreamed her up in a London pub in 1999.
Only a tiny fraction of the series’ devotees are here on our preview day, but they’re making enough noise to compensate for the rest. Five- and six-year-olds fly about between tables outside Daddy Pig’s Big Tummy Café, pleading with parents for lollies from Miss Rabbit’s Ice Cream Parlour. And toddlers either stare hypnotically at Grandpa Pig’s Little Train as it completes a circuit of the park’s central area or, like Martha, pound their feet and point frenziedly at everything they recognise from early-morning television. “It’s Mummy Pig!” she screeches excitedly, jabbing her finger at the doe-eyed figure that revolves above the cloud-shaped carriages on the park’s Windy Castle ride.
As Martha darts around the park, squealing with excitement, I am able to take a proper look around. Peppa Pig World, part of Paultons Park in the New Forest, may not be huge, but when your legs are only a foot-and-a-half long, its three acres are no doubt more than big enough.
And though its many whirring and spinning low-level attractions give it the feel of a Las Vegas crazy-golf course, the seven feature rides are enticing and well-realised.
Still three months shy of her second birthday, Martha lacks the patience to stand in the long queues for the rides. So, instead, we make our way to the Muddy Puddles Play Area, where children splash and screech their way through shallow pools and duck beneath fountains and water jets. Everyone is soaked.
At Mr Potato’s Playground, she spends the best part of an hour following a winding rainbow-coloured path between miniature climbing frames and slides, before we head over to see Peppa’s House. One of several recreations of locations that appear regularly in the cartoon, this is home to what the park bills as a “hilarious” diorama of Peppa, George and their parents making pancakes. The scene opposite the mechanically shuffling pigs is actually far funnier. Wide-eyed children grip the bars in front of the tableau, while their parents lean back, bored, against the wall and wonder how long it will be before they can go and get a coffee.
Peppa Pig World is not for adults, though the rest of Paultons Park, with its rollercoasters, log flumes and giant slides, is just around the corner (and included in the same entrance fee).
It takes a while – and the purchase of a plastic jeep that plays the Peppa Pig theme tune – to persuade Martha it’s time to go.
And as we walk towards our car, she stops every few steps to turn around and wave forlornly at the giant Peppa that looms, totem-like, over the park.
“Bye bye Peppa,” she says sorrowfully. “See you soon.”
“Oh darling,” says her mum. “It’s OK. We’ll come back soon, and when we get home, you can watch Peppa Pig, I promise.”
Martha thinks about this for a second. “Watch Postman Pat?” she asks.
www.peppapigworld.co.uk; entrance from £19.50 per person. Children shorter than one metre are free