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Open Mic

Chessington's Fall from Grace to Disgrace

Damien Bennett

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This month's article is by Damien Bennett


Roller coaster enthusiasts are not the most hip people in the world. To most people the vision of a Ďroller coaster enthusiastí drums up images of lonely men in anoraks with glasses thick enough to see the cells on your skin. The visions, from my experience are not far from the truth, but there is a certain passion within each and every enthusiast that can not be explained and demands attention.

I have to admit, a month ago I thought I had kicked the habit. I found I was no longer interested in the ups and downs of the theme park industry. Hand me a bottle of beer and a good-looking lady (ok maybe not the lady) and I was happy. I didnít have to worry about trivial matters anymore, what Alton Towers were planning to build and whether Paul Orsmond would ever meet Elissa Alvey seemed to fade out of the interested part of my brain and into the side crammed full of useless knowledge and trivia.

Yes indeed I was a free man. That was until Marcus Sheen came a long and ruined it all.

I guess bad habits donít die fast. Make no mistake about it I consider my interest in roller coasters to be a bad habit taking away the value of the more important things in life. Marcus had sent me a message asking whether I would like to be a guest writer for a new section on Coaster Kingdom. I pondered over the offer, and replied saying that nothing was of interest at the moment, but if something came up I would give him a shout.

Now I have to admit, and I apologise to Marcus in advance for this, I never actually intended to write the article. I never thought Iíd have anything to write it about, and I would have been right had it not been for one fateful visit to Chessington World of Adventures.

The time I spend back at home during my break from University is usually spent moping about. Going on MSN, Watching TV and playing football. From the depths of my boredom came an idea, why not spend a day at one of the parks I used to love visiting. So I grabbed the phone and rang my good friend Mike and it was arranged that the following day we would go to the wonderful, fantabulous, absolutely crazy-bingo Chessington World of Adventures.  

The night before I could not contain my excitement. Like the kids on the half price Disney advert I couldnít go to sleep. The thoughts of riding my favourite ridesÖ OK the bull stops there. I was expecting the day to be fun, but had heard rumours that the park might not be as good as it had been on my last visit. After a sound nights sleep we headed off unaware that Damienís Ďenthusiast brainí was ticking and ready for a comeback tour.

I donít plan on writing a trip report, so Iíll sum it up in a short sentence:

The day was short and shit.

Maybe I am being romantic, but when I part way with twenty-seven pounds of my hard-earned cash I expect to come away citing more positives than negatives about my day. The sad truth is that Chessington is a shadow of its former self. Old attractions ruined by the greedy corporate minds of its owners, imagination and innovation replaced with double takes of attractions and themes from other parks. There is simply no innovation, no risk or atmosphere. The park is bland and boring, there are no new things to intrigue you, no scenery to get your imagination going.

In a way what Chessington has become is a mimic of what society has become. In todayís world nobody is prepared to take a risk. Innovation is frowned upon, as suits in large oligopolies would rather go with a tried and tested formula than something new and original. In this day and age we are taking imaginative, passionate people from the high positions and replacing them with business students, straight from university. People with no passion, except for the greed of money. People who are better off working out the trivial matters in accounts rather than bothering the artists and designers that made the theme park industry what it is.  

Even the new enthusiasts are showing signs of blandness. Born and bred in an era of placid thrill rides they donít know what innovation is. Suggestions of new rides coming from the so called experts are often now just normal thrill rides plonked on a grid of concrete. When asked for suggestions of what would make a good new ride at Chessington even its fans were hard pushed to come up with anything more exciting than a Huss Topple Tower. Similar to the music industry the theme parks in general try as hard as possible not to escape the comfortable surroundings of the typical Disney-esque themes of the West, jungles, space and movies.

Maybe there is an excuse for the lack of quality that has been going into our theme parks as of late. Sure us enthusiasts can get on our soapboxes and moan away but the reality is that theme parks are businesses. They are not natural money makers like some of the more ignorant enthusiasts assume, the recent closure of Southport Pleasureland being a perfect example of this. So what can they do? Maybe the large amount of corporate sponsorship within our parks is the only thing that is keeping them open as flights become cheaper and cheaper. The majority of families are now able to afford a proper holiday and are turning their backs on the theme parks they used to treasure.

Lack of innovation is one thing, but survival is another more important issue. You can mill about all you like pointing out how poor our parks in the UK are compared to those in Germany but did you ever think why? Clearly not for more than five minutes. You see the vast majority of Germans are still happy to holiday within their own country. The UK has the highest amount of foreign-holiday makers in the world. Asking the likes of Thorpe Park, Chessington, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers to compete with Europa Park is like asking a member of the ECC to beat Justin Gatlin in a one hundred metre sprint. It ainít gonna happen - the running one hundred metres I mean, not the beating of Gatlin.

So this puts us in a difficult position. With the market for theme parks in the UK being so small how much can we really demand? Can we demand the levels of theming you get to see in parks like Phantasialand and Europa Park? Probably not. But what we can demand, or ask very politely for is for the parks to put in a little effort. Sometimes it is the effort you put in and not the money that counts. For example instead of replacing themed, wooden signs with tacky, plastic signs why not put in that little bit of extra effort to make another themed sign. Itís not that hard and it can add that little bit extra to peopleís experiences.

It is the lack of effort at Chessington in the recent years which has annoyed me. Log onto the infamous South Parks forum and have a gander. There you will see the pride that Chessington team leaders take in their job, and more importantly letting other people know about how important it is. People are happy to boast about how senior they are at a theme park, how much they can make a difference but they donít seem to put the responsibility they lay claim to into practice. Either because of lack of motivation or sheer laziness even the Ďsmartí employees at Chessington donít want to make that effort to make peoples day better.

Chessington as a park seems disillusioned. On my last visit unexplainable actions had been undertaken. If you are lucky enough to be running a park with brilliantly themed queue lines of the likes of Rameses Revenge and Tomb Blaster then why make people wait outside the queue on the pathways? If you have the money to employ five people to work on one thrill ride then why are the loading times still eight minutes? If you have themed music for a ride, why do you make the decision to turn it off? Pre-recorded announcements, done by professionals are replaced with cocky ride hosts who tell jokes about their mates that no one understands. Adults with the sense of humour of Jim Davidson trying out their pub routine for later on unsuspecting families, who provide a poor audience as they donít even laugh out of kindness.  

When people complain about issues that are of no financial matter you know you are doing a bad job. When you have to bribe your audience into thinking they had a good day by providing them with cereal box toys as they leave you know you are doing a bad job. Chessington already has some wonderful resources at it disposal. Staff that would care about their jobs with a bit of motivation, an audience that will not destroy the scenery and a good variety of rides with pleasant theming are all within their arsenal. Why they choose not to maximise these resources is beyond me. How they come to the decision that plonking Eclipse in the middle of a well themed area is the right thing to do is beyond me.  

When I wrote this article I had it in mind to explain why Chessington comes to these decisions. I canít. Some of the decisions management takes inside the park are unexplainable. Sure I can understand the reasoning behind the sponsorship, behind the lack of major rides and lack of investment but the laziness, the allowing of staff to get away with murder and the blatant ignoring of some of Chessingtonís prize assets are surprising and bewildering. It makes you wonder just how the management at Chessington got their jobs after all.  

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Coaster Kingdom Magazine
Issue 24: Dec 2006

Issue 24
Coaster Kingdom looks back at the highs and lows of 2006

Open Mic - Jamie Shoesmith
Chessington's Fall from Grace to Disgrace
Damien Bennett looks at how Chessington has taken a turn for the worse

In The Picture
In The Picture
Click to enlarge image