In the early days of my career as a coaster enthusiast I thought nothing of seventeen hour days book-ended by cheap flights. Waking up at 3:30am was never hugely enjoyable, but it was a necessary evil if I wanted to maximise park time while minimising spend.
Two decades later I’ve reached the point where budget has become less important than a good night’s sleep, which I’ve found to be a prerequisite not just for an enjoyable day, but also for a day where I’ve enough functioning synapses to string a coherent sentence together. My circadian rhythm was foremost in mind as I finished up work yesterday evening and headed straight to Dublin Airport for an hour-long flight to London Gatwick, timed with the aim of getting into bed at something approximating to my usual time. My plane was fully boarded and ready to go ahead of schedule, but unfortunately we sat on the ground for almost an hour due to a lengthy queue for take off. I’ve no inside knowledge on the primary cause of the delay, though I suspect that the unavailability of the recently-commissioned north runway will not have helped the situation very much.
Despite the problems, I arrived in Gatwick in time to catch the last train of the night from the airport to Chessington South, with a short connection at Clapham Junction. It’s fashionable to complain about train services in the UK, but those who do really have no idea how good they have it compared to my home in Ireland. To give two simple examples, the train I use to get between Dublin and my current base in Kildare is only available on weekdays – and the final daily departure from Rosslare Europort to Dublin departs at 17:55, almost an hour before the 18:46 scheduled arrival of the Irish Ferries boat from Wales. (The latter has been the case for as long as I can remember; the powers that be apparently have no interest in changing it.)
I stayed overnight at the Premier Inn adjacent to Chessington World of Adventures, mainly because it came in at about a third of the cost of the two on-site options. The room was fine, though it would be remiss of me not to record that the air conditioning units were disabled despite it being a warm night. I asked the staff member at reception if they could help, but they were unable to override the system, recommending instead that I leave the window open – a suboptimal option in a ground floor room. I guess you get what you pay for.
Chessington World of Adventures
20th May 2023
When I decided to visit Chessington World of Adventures this year I booked flights and accommodation for 27th May – the second Saturday after the announced opening of the park’s first new roller coaster in almost twenty years. As is my habit I printed out a “travel pack” with the various pieces of documentation, double-checked it, then went to bed. The next morning, I spoke to my London-based brother, who agreed to meet up – but he was unable to buy a ticket that matched mine as the day was apparently sold out. Shortly afterwards an email arrived that explained why:
“Ahead of your visit to Chessington World of Adventures Resort, we wanted to make you aware that some of our engineers will be taking part in industrial action on the date of your booking. We fully respect their right to strike and remain committed to reaching an agreement to resolve the matter.
We want to reassure you that the Resort will remain OPEN. You will still have the opportunity to encounter our 1,000 plus animals AND enjoy an enhanced Zoo, entertainment and show offer. Unfortunately, however, some of our rides and attractions will be unavailable, including our wilder rides like Dragon’s Fury, Croc Drop, KOBRA, Rattlesnake and Tiger Rock. Our aim is to open 40% of our rides, more suited to younger families. For those of you booked to visit on or after Monday, May 15 the NEW World of Jumanji will also be open as planned.”
While the language made it clear that the new area (and thus new coaster) would be open, I wasn’t overly enthusiastic about continuing my trip on a day when more than half of the park would be closed. Fortunately I was within Ryanair’s twenty-four hour grace period, so rather than tempt fate I made the rapid decision to move my dates back by a week. The strike was subsequently cancelled, but my flights were locked in at that point leaving me little choice but to run with the change.
A further spanner was thrown into the works on the morning of International Star Wars Day, when the park announced that their new roller coaster would have mandatory virtual queueing via a web app – those without smartphones need not apply – and a maximum of one ride per day. This didn’t sound even remotely like my idea of fun, to put it mildly, but my bookings were non-refundable meaning that I had little choice but to get myself set up for it. I registered an account that same day, and made a point of testing it during the week before my visit to make sure it was working properly.
I arrived at the park at 9:45am, and in attempted to make a reservation – alongside the other five hundred or so people at the gate – only to discover that the system had gone down entirely. I thought it might be my mobile phone signal, but it was immediately clear from looking around (and listening to the chatter and associated colourful metaphors) that I wasn’t the only one. As I walked into the park I kept my part of the distributed denial of service attack going in the hope of getting a reservation, but to no avail; the page simply would not load.
It was tempting to head to the new ride to see if I could blag my way on board, but rather than lose the opportunity to rope drop I decided it would be better to beat the multitudes to Vampire, a thirty-three year old Arrow Suspended Coaster that is the only example of its type in Europe. The genre, which remains one of my favourites, is sadly a dying breed; as of this typing there are just five examples left worldwide. Chessington’s installation is unique among them in that the original trains are gone; floorless replacements were supplied by Vekoma for the 2002 season. This is a good thing; they are a worthy upgrade over the originals, to the point that I’d love to see them retrofitted onto the other extant examples.
Most of Vampire’s track is physically located in a wooded area in the south-east corner of the park, though in a nice touch a section of the layout routes around a dining area and over a midway. I realised subsequently that this extended footprint can almost be thought of as a signature feature of Chessington; three of the five coasters at the park have spread out layouts that interact with other rides and attractions, and the two that don’t are off-the-shelf models presumably acquired at off-the-shelf prices. I'd love to see this sort of thing more often, as it makes for a much better overall experience.
Though I’d ridden Vampire several times before – it was my 40th credit back in the day – I’d somehow allowed myself to forget the station area, which features an animatronic organist playing spooky music. This was a nice touch, though if Wikipedia is to be believed it represents a significant downgrade over the original theme: a castle ballroom with flaming chandeliers and gothic murals. What was there was perfect adequate though, and the ride itself was exactly what I’d hoped it would be: a respectably thrilling journey through trees, the sense of speed amplified by the swinging sensations that have no modern equivalent. There was a bit of Arrow rattle, but nothing unmanageable and certainly nothing severe enough to impede enjoyment.
I made another attempt to use the virtual queuing system to reserve the new coaster, but found that it was now getting stuck on the park logo screen, so I decided I’d kill a few minutes by walking onto the Gruffalo River Ride Adventure. The park’s signature dark ride, which opened in 2017, uses the building and transport system from the late and much-lamented Bubbleworks attraction, and it has to be said that it’s a decidedly mediocre replacement (and that’s being generous). A commenter on YouTube said it best: the original ride had imagination. If you’re a Gruffalo fan then you’ll be right at home, but if you’ve never heard of the franchise then you’ll find there are many better ways to pass time.
As crowds had started to build at this point I made my way across to the new coaster to ascertain the lay of the land and maybe take a few photographs, and to my surprise discovered that staff had opened the standby Mandrill Mayhem (#3064) queue while the reservation system was out of action. It was almost empty, too; I waited a grand total of two trains before taking the inside seat of row four on the left hand side. I knew ahead of time that the ride launched backwards, but I’d somehow missed the fact that the reverse section features a drop and a beyond-vertical spike, a neat touch and something remarkably “out there” for a family park – made all the more interesting by the fact that many (if not most) guests won’t have noticed this element before boarding. It’s no accident that the park has chosen not to include it in their official published POV.
The train speeds up on its return through the station, taking a left turn around the back of Mamba Strike (SBF Visa Top Dancer) before rolling right into a slow inline twist. A further left turn, this time at the back of Ostrich Stampede (SBF Visa Super Jumper), leads to what is unquestionably the signature element: a climbing 405° helix around a sculpted rock. The train slows as it approaches the apex, before rolling back along the entire course, aided by a slight LSM boost en route. The overall experience was great, and I’d loved to have ridden more than once, but by the time I disembarked the queue had been closed, as staff said that the reservation system would be working again in within 20-30 minutes.
I thought about waiting in the area with phone in hand, but decided instead to join the queue for Dragon's Fury, a Maurer Rides spinning coaster. The standby time was posted at 90 minutes, though it quickly became evident that this was somewhat optimistic – only five of the original eight cars were in use, and operation speeds were best described as unhurried. I decided it was worth waiting regardless, and passed the time refreshing the Mandrill Mayhem reservation system on a regular cadence. It was the better part of an hour before I finally managed to connect, only to be greeted by a kick in the face: “Queue Full, cannot be reserved.” The system had apparently opened and filled completely in the brief interlude between my 23rd and 24th attempts.
It’s probably worth saying something here about how I don’t generally go to theme parks expecting to spend half my day refreshing a web page. I’m not unsympathetic to Chessington having an IT failure – it happens to everyone working with computers at some point – but it really would have been better if they had flipped to a backup plan at the start of the day when the system wasn’t working, such as giving out timed ride passes. While there’d be no absolutely bullet-proof way of ensuring people didn’t claim more than their official entitlement of one slot, Merlin employs clever people and I'm quite sure they could come up with something. Besides, I don’t think it is at all appropriate to require guests to have a smartphone, even in this day and age; the battery on mine would have expired by mid-afternoon if I hadn’t thought to bring a power bank with me.
I was minutes away from the front of the queue for Dragon's Fury when the ride ceased operation so that maintenance could investigate a suspected issue with with one of the cars. The problem was apparently critical, as the stoppage lasted forty-five minutes while the offending vehicle was transferred off and moved into the maintenance barn. I had a birds-eye view of the operation, though my excitement clearly wasn’t at the same level as a guest in a white Energylandia hoodie who filmed the entire sequence on his phone. It’s funny how easy it is to spot younger coaster enthusiasts; I was absolutely the same at his age.
I took the opportunity to attempt one last Mandrill Mayhem reservation, and unexpectedly got one – albeit with a four hour return slot, neatly timed to let me join the queue about ten minutes after I had to leave the park for my 5:00pm train back to Gatwick Airport. I decided to keep it on the off-chance that my time would move forward to a point where I could use it, but it never did; all my refreshing ended up being for nowt. It could have been worse I suppose; if the cards had fallen even slightly differently I wouldn’t have been able to ride at all, and while that might have generated a really sardonic trip report I’m altogether happier with the credit on my list.
If the reader will indulge me for one last rant before I move on, I do appreciate that a ride like Mandrill Mayhem will not be accessible to all park visitors in an ordinary operating day. 28 riders per train and a four minute dispatch interval (or thereabouts) equates to a daily maximum of about 3500 guests – well short of what the park as a whole can handle – and to that end, some form of demand management system is probably inevitable. I’d suggest however that system should be what almost every other amusement ride in this world uses, namely a physical queue with a posted waiting time. Guests should be able to self-select, going elsewhere if the time is above their own personal limit. And yes, perhaps I am a Luddite, but I don't care.
At 2:00pm, four hours and change after arriving at the park, I entered the Dragon's Fury station. I immediately spotted a sign indicating a maximum of three adults in each car, though this seemed to be somewhat fluid; groups were being told to stand on a scale before a final decision on loading was made. My car had two adults on one side and an empty rear, and a result we were able to enjoy some fabulous spinning, far and away the best I’ve had on a coaster of this type in the last few years. The layout was varied and interesting, and the experience impossible to fault. I’d have loved to have ridden a second time, but I wasn’t willing to stand in line again and the one-shot paid line jump pass was unavailable.
I’d asked friends for advice on the best choice for lunch, and the general consensus was the Monkey Puzzle Beefeater outside the park. The second best option was the Smokehouse, so I headed there. The food was better than I’d expected given recent animated Twitter commentary on Merlin’s food subcontractor, and it was even reasonably good value by theme park standards, but it’d be remiss of me not to record that the staff took over thirty minutes to serve a queue of ten people. I’m just grateful I wasn’t visiting on a busy day.
It was 3:30pm by the time I’d finished eating, and there was really only time for one more ride – and it wasn’t going to be a coaster, as all of them had ninety minute queues. On the spur of the moment I decided to head to Zufari: Ride into Africa, which the official park website describes as “a thrilling off-road truck journey” with “unexpected dangers”. This was respectable, but very short; the five minute journey provided a close up look at giraffes, scimitar-horned oryxes (of the non-golden variety), and an apparently empty cave. Readers retracing my steps might want to queue if the wait is twenty minutes or less; I definitely wouldn’t stand in line for any more than that.
Was my visit worth it? An interesting question. Two flights, two train tickets, and a night in a hotel enabled a grand total of five rides, and while I might have boosted that number slightly by making different choices I’d have been hard pressed to get into double figures given the crowds today. The coasters were good, but it’s fair to say that the virtual queue nonsense put a real damper on things, making it impossible to relax and go with the flow. I imagine I’ll be back to Chessington World of Adventures sooner or later, especially if there’s any truth to the rumours circulating about future attractions – but if circumstances allow I’ll be timing any trip for a weekday during school term.
POSTSCRIPT: On Wednesday 16th May, four days before my trip, Merlin Entertainments advertised on LinkedIn for “IT Support Team Leader’s” to join their technology team. Though nothing was said about the virtual queuing system, one hopes that that sorting it out will be part of the mandate. Separately, I'm optimistic that they’ll also recruit for an apostrophe specialist, as they evidently need one.
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