Notes: (a) Warning – this got really ridiculously long; (b) the footnotes are not important, just adding more detail.
On 27th July 2011, I went to Chessington World of Adventures with my family, and it was AMAZING. Seriously, so good that I wrote a (private) journal entry about it – hence being able, several years later, to tell you the exact date! It was so good, and my experience as a disabled person  was that the regulations were really clear and kind, and the staff were absolutely brilliant: supportive, encouraging and always ready to help. (My final comment back then: And actually? Absolute LOVE.)
So, yesterday – a little belatedly, thanks to the trials of organising such a visit given my limitations and the fact that some of the family live some distance away from me – my sister, my nephew, my son and I went on a much anticipated revisit. We’ve been wanting to do so for ages, and we thought we had some idea of what to expect. We were looking forward to the day so much: I honestly couldn’t over-state how much we loved it the first time around.
Sadly, though, we were really let down. Things had definitely changed for the worse, especially in respect to both regulations regarding and attitudes of staff towards disabled people. You would think and hope that companies would improve in disability awareness over time; our experience was anything but.
BEFORE WE GOT THERE
The first change became obvious before we even got to the theme park and I was checking the Disabled Guide. The regulations around getting a ‘ride access wristband’ had been tightened up. Now, obviously it is quite reasonable to wish to ensure that people need the assistance, but I want to flag up one bewildering change:
“Please note DWP and DLA paperwork cannot be accepted for the Ride Access Pass, however will be accepted to bring a helper free of charge.”
It is entirely mysterious to me why Chessington feel that DLA paperwork can’t be accepted to demonstrate proof of disability. They will accept a letter from a GP, or a ‘Blue Badge’. I thought at first that perhaps they needed something for photo ID – but the letter doesn’t provide that, so I’m still confused.
There were also a ‘maximum’ number of companions I could take on rides with me. I can see that it would be frustrating for other queuers if I came as part of a massive group and expected to be allowed to take them all with me. However…
My strong suspicion is that the regulations have been tightened up not because the amount of disabled people and family getting ride access was so enormous, but because Chessington run a Fastrack scheme, where people can pay to get preferential treatment. They’re obviously not going to stop such a money-spinner, but it means that people who have paid the (quite considerable) entry charge but no extra money afterwards must see LOTS of people getting on before them. And, of course, making it more difficult for disabled people is less likely to affect Chessington’s coffers than cutting down on the number of people paying extra money for Fastrack.
In order to ‘speed things up on the day’ I used their online form to send pictures of both sides of my Blue Badge. By the time we went, however, I’d had no reply and had no idea whether they’d received it or not, which added a lovely frisson of doubt that I could have done without.
When we got to Chessington, it was extremely difficult to find the disabled parking spots. Again, it says online:
“If you’re arriving by car or minibus, please use either the Lodge Gate or Explorer Gate Car Park, where attendants are on hand to direct you to dedicated parking spaces.”
We tried the main entrance, but were turned back by the attendant and told to park in the linked Hotel’s car park, which was “the third left turn after you come out of here”. The third left turn. Of course. I’m sure we should have been able to work that out for ourselves, using our fabulous psychic powers.
In the parking area to which we were directed, all the disabled parking spots were full. Now, this is October – and yes, it’s half term, but I would imagine the warm days of the summer holidays would attract more visitors than late October – so if the spots were full yesterday… You get the picture. Some of the cars parked in the disabled spots did not have a badge on, which might be for one of two reasons: either that (a) the car park is not properly vetted, and anyone can in fact park in the disabled spots without fear of repercussions, or (b) the disabled people who parked there needed their Blue Badge to prove to Chessington that they were indeed disabled, so had to take them with them. Neither possibility reflects very well on Chessington.
The next part went well. We got into the Park safely, and the staff member on the gate was helpful about telling us where to find the Guest Help And Information Centre. When we got there, there was another helpful staff member controlling the queue so it didn’t get too packed inside the small, noisy, building. I discovered that Chessington had indeed received my online submission, and the pass was received with an explanation that there needed to be waiting times between rides (“20 minutes… and no more than 45 minutes”). We were also given as part of the pass, a sheet which described how to get on all of the rides.
We decided that we would go one a nice, gentle ride to start with, and picked Bubbleworks, which we had all loved on our earlier visit. Previously, you went up the stairs at the ride’s exit – stairs are a bit of a bind, but it was a short distance and there was somewhere useful to park the wheelchair as I hauled myself up the flight of stairs. You then embarked from the ‘getting off’ side.
This time? Things Had Changed – considerably for the worse. To get to the Bubbleworks ride, you needed to go in the Fastrack queue. This involved climbing four steps, then waiting in a queue (which my wheelchair could thankfully fit in). When we were allowed through, leaving the wheelchair near the assistant, as instructed, we came into the ‘disembarking’ side as before. But instead of letting us get on there, I was asked to walk along one side, up some steps, across a bridge, and down some steps before being allowed to ride. The access has got significantly worse for no apparent reason. The reason given for refusing to allow me to embark on the near side is that the staff member had to see that I could climb stairs. Presumably the four stairs I had to climb to get to the queue didn’t count because he personally didn’t see it (only another staff member saw it, who clearly doesn’t count either).
Just to be crystal clear on this point, the previous disabled entry required stair climbing: a few stairs up to the platform after which I could embark from the ‘getting off’ side. If ‘proof of stair climbing’ is essential, well, the old entry worked a treat from that point of view. If ‘making it easier for disabled people’ is also important, well, the old entry worked a treat from that point of view. Incidentally, the positioning of the Fastrack queue meant that I actually had to walk further than the general public queue people did, as we were further away from the bridge.
Coming out of the ride, I got to the bottom of the exit stairs and sat down, whilst my most excellent nephew went to retrieve my wheelchair. He was gone quite a while. When he finally got back to us, he explained that he’d been a while because he wasn’t allowed to go up the Fastrack entry to get the wheelchair that he could see about two yards from him. OH NO. He had to go to the back of the general public queue, push his way through it (explaining to each person in turn that no, he wasn’t queue-jumping, he was just trying to get to a wheelchair – the member of staff didn’t bother making this clear to the other people in the queue, just left a 16 year old to make his own explanations), and then carry the wheelchair down the exit steps (rather than just down the four steps from the Fastrack entry) to get to us.
During all of this, the attitude of the staff towards us all was simply appalling. The implication was that we were being difficult and unreasonable, and the clear message was that they did not care in the slightest about the health of their customers and that we were not worthy of being treated with dignity and respect.
Going to the Vampire ride next, it was all looking better. Some seating could easily be put in the area for people with mobility problems, but the access had at least not changed for the worse. (I can’t quite believe I’m putting that in as a positive – when you have to be pleased that things haven’t got worse, that’s a fairly damning indictment right there.) When the ride came in, however, it coincided with the member of staff looking after the disabled gate noticing another member of staff. It’s always so nice and reassuring to know that having a chat and a hug with a friend is more important to someone than the fact that they’re leaving you standing up when you are clearly struggling to stand. Did I mention the attitude of staff to disabled people earlier? Oh, I did.
The Rattlesnake ride has ‘interesting’ disabled access. It is the exit of the ride, so you pass a lot of people coming off the ride. The path down is very thin, and they have designed it so that large lumps stick out from one side. It is therefore literally impossible for two wheelchairs to pass each other on the main slope: it can only be done in the very bottom corner. Again, this was awkward since we actually met a person in a wheelchair going the opposite way to us. In order that we could manoeuvre round each other, I had to push past other people waiting in the disabled access queue (explaining to them that I wasn’t trying to queue-jump – just as my nephew had had to do in the Bubbleworks situation) just to get to a place where we could pass each other.
We had another less-than-positive experience with a member of staff there, too. Remember how I was told that there would be no more than a 45 minute wait time between rides? Nope, not true. The assistant at Rattlesnake gave us a 55 minute gap. I’d give him the benefit of the doubt, but the staff attitudes were regularly so poor that I actually wouldn’t be surprised if he was being deliberately unhelpful. Perhaps, however, he was just incompetent. Who knows?
Oh dear. The Scorpion Express. Following the instructions on our guide, we made for the exit of the Scorpion Express, which was apparently the disabled entrance. It looked mysteriously unwelcoming, so we asked the man in the food place opposite whether we were in the right place. His answer?
“I haven’t a clue.”
Not “I’m not sure, but I’ll ask someone.” Not “I’m not sure, but you should ask X person over there.” Not even “I haven’t a clue – I’m sorry.” Just a shrug and a dismissal of any responsibility.
But lo! It gets worse! We try the exit-as-entrance, as instructed on our guide, and a member of staff on the platform comes over.
“You can’t go in there,” he says.
“But the booklet says…” I say.
“Oh. Dunno.” To do him credit, he went to find out. “Nope, you have to go in the queue with everyone else. The guide’s got old information.”
So the guide I was given that morning was out-dated. Not just out-dated, but not given out with a correction slip, or even a warning that it was out-of-date. Please don’t try and tell me that Chessington don’t have the money or resources to sort out their literature, because I won’t believe you. What’s more, they hadn’t even bothered to give a member of staff working on that very ride the right information (let alone warning him that they were handing out misleading literature).
Incidentally, my experience with staff surrounding this experience was so awful that when we were trying to find our way to the disabled entrance for the next ride (which was probably, but not certainly[!] at the exit), I asked a member of the public in preference to staff. I kid you not: I reckoned I had more chance of getting a polite and helpful response from someone who was enjoying a day out than with people who are actually PAID to give assistance. What’s more, I was right. She was excellent, that woman, answering the question I asked and then giving further helpful information as to what to do next. Chessington, you’d be better off paying her! She gave considerably better service than many of your staff.
So, I have been checking the Chessington web-pages as I write this, and in order to find the incorrect instructions for the Scorpion Express, I downloaded the online disabled guide. Which is, impressively, even MORE out of date – still giving the disabled entrance point for Bubbleworks as “Through Fangtasia Gift Shop” (the one we had on the day did not say that, though in its notes it still said “Access via the Ride Exit has 13 steps” – rather irrelevant since you do not now enter that way).
A FEW RANDOM NON-DISABILITY ISSUES
There were a couple of other things which were less than satisfactory, but which weren’t related to disability issues. I mention them here for completeness.
When we arrived at the entrance, it was to be faced with a sign saying “Dragon’s Fury Closed”. A disappointment, but sometimes rides are closed, so at least there was warning. It was, however, a completely inaccurate warning. Not only was Dragon’s Fury open (which is great – believe me, I’m not complaining that it was open!), but the Safari Express AND the Tomb Blaster rides were both closed without warning or explanation.
The camera in Bubbleworks wasn’t working. “I don’t know why,” shrugged a member of staff (not to us as we weren’t that interested, but we could over-hear as we were stuck in the shop waiting for my poor nephew to get back for quite some time), “maybe it’s got water on it.” Maybe a camera in a water ride can’t cope with water. Seriously?!?
And finally, a plea that Chessington consider having more than one piece of music, a couple of lines long – or at least that they play it less continuously! I’m sure there must be other visitors who feel the same way – we can’t be the only family to be driven to distraction by it! (This, however, I do remember from last time, so in all fairness, that is not quite as relevant.)
Congratulations to anyone who read their way through this mammoth post. It’s a pity that after using up more spoons than I had available yesterday, I had to spend some of today’s spoons writing this post, but the experience as a disabled visitor was so poor – AND so much worse than it used to be – that I felt it was important. It’s really not okay to treat people in this way, disabled or not. And it’s a real shame that the company have moved backwards so massively over the past five years.
Badly played, Chessington. Badly played.
 For those who don’t know, I’m severely disabled with ME (which I’ve had for more than 20 years), and am a wheelchair user with both pain and fatigue issues.
 The latter is particularly ironic in my case, as my Blue Badge was given to me based on the DLA paperwork: both are due to be reviewed on precisely the same day.
 Though I would personally recommend disabled people do not visit Chessington at the moment, whereas 4.5 years ago I was encouraging everyone I knew to visit.
 #notallstaff Please note that there were members of staff in the Park who were GREAT. But a shockingly large number were dreadful. Last time, they were all fantastic.