Dutch entrepreneur, Piet Derksen, started a sporting goods shop in 1953 at Lijnbaan, Rotterdam. Its name was 'Sporthuis Centrum', 'Sport House Centre'. It succeeded and Derksen expanded into 17 outlets across the Netherlands, and then added camping articles to the range.
In 1968, Derksen purchased woodland near Reuver so staff and customers could relax in small tents. The park, De Lommerbergen, was successful, the tents were quickly replaced by bungalows. In 1987, Center Parcs opened its first UK resort at Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. This brought the company into the sights of expanding brewer Scottish and Newcastle, which later bought the group.
In 2001, Scottish and Newcastle sold the UK side of Center Parcs to venture capitalists Mid Ocean. In December 2003 they agreed to sell the UK resorts to Arbor for £285 million, a special vehicle set up to float Center Parcs UK on the London Stock Exchange's Alternative Investment Market. However, after flotation in May 2006, Center Parcs UK Group PLC was sold to Blackstone Group, and was re-registered as a private company. The chief executive, Martin Dalby, said that the company might add a fifth village. Late in 2004 it was announced it would be built in Woburn in Bedfordshire. Planning permission was turned down but Center Parcs won on appeal.
Whinfell Forest was built and operated by the Rank Organisation, as the sole competition to Center Parcs in the UK. However, after a short period of a few years, Oasis, as Rank had named it, was sold to Center Parcs. Whinfell Forest is not of the same build type as the traditional Center Parcs. Whinfell Forest lodges are mainly two storey and many are set in clusters, rather than off-set terraces. This means guests in a cluster have direct view of adjacent lodges, with less privacy. Center Parcs have updated many Whinfell Forest lodges and continue to add new lodges of an identical style to new lodges at their other UK parks, so now there are also many villas at Whinfell Forest the same style as in Sherwood Forest, Elveden Forest or Longleat Forest.
All activities, at all parks, except swimming and playgrounds, are charged, per use, ranging from £5 to £80 per person.
In July 2016, planning permission was granted by An Bord Pleanála for the first Center Parcs resort anywhere in Ireland, north or south. The 395-acre resort will be constructed in Newcastle Wood, a forest near Ballymahon, County Longford, within the Republic of Ireland. The resort will be called 'Longford Forest' and will open in 2019.
In 2003, Scottish & Newcastle sold the Continental European sites to a joint venture of Pierre & Vacances (P&V) and DBCP, a German investment group. This was given the name Center Parcs Europe (CPE). P&V owned Europe's largest (in terms of bed-count) bungalow-vacation-supplier, Gran Dorado Resorts, a Dutch former joint venture of Vendex, Algemeen Burgerlijk Pensioenfonds, GAK and Philips Rentefonds. P&V brought Gran Dorado in the joint venture.
As CPE was based in Rotterdam, Netherlands, the Dutch and European Commercial Competition Authority did not approve of combining Gran Dorado and Center Parcs, as it would effectively control the European market. After agreeing to a reduction in beds owned, CPE sold all but six Gran Dorado Resorts to Dutch Landal GreenParks. The remaining six parks were added to CenterParcs: Loohorst (NL), Port Zelande (NL), Zandvoort (NL), Weerterbergen (NL), Hochsauerland (D) and Heilbachsee (D).
After the sale, five of the six remaining Gran Dorado Resorts parks were rebranded Sea Spirit from Center Parcs or Free Life from Center Parcs. The Weerterbergen-Resort was sold to Roompot because of the cost of bringing it to standard. All original Center Parcs resorts in the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Germany were sub-branded CP Original. Having completed the integration and rebranding exercise, Pierre & Vacances bought DBCP out of the partnership.
In 2006, after Blackstone Group bought Center Parcs UK plc, Pierre & Vacances agreed a deal to sell all of the freeholds on the CPE sites, in returning for a recurring operational lease on the sites. This hence allowed a further rebranding exercise, with all resorts branded Center Parcs. In January 2009, Sunparks launched alongside Center Parcs in Europe, as a low-cost brand. Many of the former Gran Dorado resorts were rebranded in this exercise, but the sub brand was dropped in 2011 and the parks were rebranded to Center Parcs.
There are now 26 resorts in the Netherlands, France, Belgium, Germany and the UK. No two villages are identical, however most share features that are common. Accommodation is in villas or bungalows, clustered in a park and surrounded by trees and bushes. An exception is Park Zandvoort, set among sand dunes. Certain resorts also provide hotel rooms. The first village had features that have stayed popular like the swimming pool, shops and restaurants. The first dome arrived in 1980, named Subtropical Swimming Paradise in UK resorts and Aqua Mundo in European resorts. A range of sporting activities is available, with restaurants, spas, saunas, and massage.
In 2009 Center Parcs Europe divided its parks into two brands: "Center Parcs", which includes the 5-star parks, and "Sunparks", which includes the 3- or 4-star parks. At the beginning of 2011 the company decided to rename most Sunparks as Center Parcs.
Center Parcs UK and Center Parcs Europe consist of 26 resorts and Sunparks of 4. Also, there are six parks in development, and one park will be taken over from Landal Greenparks.In case of the former Gran Dorado Resorts, the 2002 "Added to portfolio"-date refers to the year these resorts were brought into the joint venture, although they were not re-branded as Center Parcs until 2003.
Three former Center Parcs sites were sold because they could not be expanded. They are now part of the Landal greenparks operation; they still continue to be used and have had some refurbishment: