UK holiday attractions: Gold stars or banana skins for accessibility?

UK holiday attractions: Gold stars or banana skins for accessibility?

Now that we’ve saved goodbye to the summer holidays, I was interested to know which UK attractions parents of disabled children had found to be disability-friendly. I asked on our Facebook group for some experiences as a way of both serving as a 'well done' for some and as a pointer for those who are wondering how to improve. Special Needs Jungle can also provide accessibility training and consultancy for companies on how to help disabled people have a good time using your attraction or business.

I must stress that this is not a scientific survey and it only mentions those attractions that parents in our group visited this summer and enjoyed with their families. If you run a UK attraction and want to tell us about your disability-friendly features, do add them in the comments below.

Gold stars

So who did well this summer? For children with sensory needs, Ann says her family love Torquay Museum:

Torquay museum can hire out a bag for people with sensory needs. It contains lots of toys and ear-defenders. It also has Virtual reality to try - we have taken our son four times this holiday, mainly to go on the VR. Plus you can go back all year for free." 

Amanda hailed the good experience she had a their local Beefeater:

"I asked for a quiet table away from other diners, as two of my children are deaf (one is also autistic). We arrived and I got the iPad out to set it up for my ASD son and the server asked me if I’d like to order my son’s food first. 

He recognised straight away that if my son was happy then we could all enjoy a stress free meal."

Up in Yorkshire, Gemma was impressed by William's Den:
"Williams Den in Yorkshire is absolutely fantastic. Great staff, great accessibility and facilities and just all round fantastic."

On the other side of the Pennines, Lillian's family loved Blackpool Sandcastle Water Park - it even says on its homepage that it's "proud to be accessible."

"Blackpool Sandcastle water park! They have a social story for autistic individuals and an amazing sensory room. Their staff are autism trained and all in all, one of the most inclusive places I've been to in a long time."

And she's not the only one.  Tina says, "I agree. Still the best for any additional needs. Even years after we experienced it, they still do an amazing experience. If only everyone was like that." 

While Katie also sings Blackpool's praises, "We went a few weeks ago and Sandcastle was very impressive: replied to emails within hours, no questions asked about disability or evidence at check in, but an immediate offer of extra assistance/ poolside lockers etc. First hour of the day is “quiet hour”, it got crazy busy after that. The lifeguards were fantastic - one of them talked my nervous child down a slide."

Chrystal also thinks Blackpool's great, as well as a few other parks:

"Alton Towers are very good, two Changing Places, easy access and a quiet room. The Sandcastle at Blackpool are fantastic although they didn't have an SEN session during the Summer hols because it's their busiest time. Eureka, the national children's museum in Halifax are fab, they have a changing places, SEN sessions with additional staff, a sensory room, spare ear defenders to borrow and you can even ask for a member of staff to help you if you need it."

Sandra's son had a lovely surprise during a visit to Somerset: "Unexpectedly at the dodgem cars at Weston-Super-Mare we had a wonderful experience. My son who is ambulant and profoundly disabled was there with his PA and her son. The young man operating the ride saw my sons enjoyment watching others and offered to close the next ride to everyone except the PA and the boys. So my son got the experience of being driven round with his PA without fear of getting bumped. He was so excited. How amazing is that?

Accessibility at Blackpools Sandcastle Water Park
Accessibility at Blackpool’s Sandcastle Water Park

Kristine hails the autistic holiday centre, The Thomas Centre as a great holiday:

"The Thomas centre holidays in Lincolnshire for families with autistic children we can highly recommend. We have three and it was so calming, accepting, relaxing and we were able to experience activities together for the first time with no prejudice, rush or discrimination. 
Wonderful short break."

Claire has visited a couple of places with her family where they've had a good experience:

"Dairyland Farm World in Cornwall.  Very friendly staff, mainly flat so good for wheelchairs, a peaceful atmosphere, a nice sensory woodland area, animals to feed and pet. They even let my disabled five-year-old have a ride on a pony, they were very positive about keeping him safe (I thought they'd say no due to insurance). Also the Bracknell Lookout Discovery Centre in Berkshire - great sensory activities, a Changing Places toilet, and I seem to remember a separate accessible outdoor play area. It does get very busy though."

Meanwhile, Miriam's family noted Hayle beach's sand wheelchairs:

"The beach at Hayle, Cornwall near the Bluff Inn has good disabled access. We saw that there were also sand wheelchairs available to hire, but not sure where you got these to hire. [find out more here] It was really easy to get to from the two car parks, one at the Bluff Inn and one over the road that was about four pounds for a day. Hayle is the other side of the bay to St Ives. It's really lovely. Plus there is a cafe that serves Roskillies ice cream on that part of the beach too."

And while you should always make use of airport assistance and book before your fly, Louise wanted to highlight EasyJet in particular:

"EasyJet are always amazing when we fly and their staff at Nice airport were wonderful asking if we wanted assistance from bag drop to boarding."

Accessibility exit passes at Paulton's Park was helpful for Jane and family:

"Paultons Park- brilliant. Didn’t take a diagnosis letter but still took Betty to the first aid/ nurses' station and said I hadn’t, as it was obvious she had Down’s syndrome. I showed them my stoma bag and the little girl we were with had her diagnosis Ietter for a bowel disease. 
We all got ride passes. Went to the exits on rides and got straight on. 
One ride we had to wait 15 minutes but it was Bank Holiday and riders had to be got off a coach at a time. 
Couldn’t fault them. 
Brilliant day out."

Banana Skins...

But not everywhere has got the memo that the purple pound counts as much as everyone else's. Many lack Changing Places and often, parents have been shocked to find they’re disbelieved when they say their child is disabled. It seems that many still don't understand about invisible disabilities – or is it that the narrative of the “scrounger” has penetrated so deeply that a child must have a wheelchair before they’re willing to accept a disability exists? Whatever, it’s always best to bring a photocopy of a diagnosis letter or of entitlement to Disability Living Allowance just for an easy life.

One parents related a friend's experience:

"A friend has autistic twin boys who are 16. Both non-verbal and need constant supervision. She took them to a local charity garden centre/petting farm that’s run to provide work for people with SEND and was told that the next time they came, she’d need to provide proof of their disabilities. The fact that both boys are runners, they flap and shout wasn’t proof enough apparently."

But the biggest banana skin goes to Legoland Windsor, which was always a favourite of my sons. Back then, we never had any difficulty with exit passes for their autism, but this has changed to a new system that, parents say, is proving so unworkable for them, they no longer go.

Here's Deborah's experience:

"Awful time at Legoland Windsor. They have changed their rider access pass. You now have to wait the full wait time for a ride, but as a virtual queue, but you can only programme one ride at a time. So we virtually queued for a ride, when we got there it was broken. We started to queue for another ride. We got to the ride at the time stated and then had to queue for 35 minutes to actually get on the ride. After that, we virtually queued again for the same ride that had been broken earlier, this was the ride my autistic son was really wanting to go on. When we went to eat, they'd also closed most of the food stalls that he'd eat from and replaced them with only hot-dog stalls or all you can eat buffets, neither of which he will have. When we finally get to the front of the virtual queue and go to the ride, we find it's broken again. 
The whole experience left our son and us tired, angry and in his case, anxiety sky-high and going into a meltdown. We were there for over eight hrs and we went on ONE ride. At a spend of £200 for the day, tickets and food etc, not including Lego bought, it just felt like a rip-off. Also the staff had absolutely no autism awareness and couldn't understand what we were telling them. I never want to go back, which is a shame as we have had some lovely times there in the past."

Chrystal agrees:

"Legoland Windsor has changed their access pass due to abuse of the system (aimed at people who don't understand the concept of queuing) but because of the change, many with severe learning disabilities/autism now can't access it, although some find the system better. You pick a ride and are then able to wait somewhere else until your time, you then join a smaller queue. Other merlin parks let you access the ride then you're "blocked out" for a wait time after, reducing anxiety and aiding understanding. However, they have opened a sensory room...We used to love it when it had the cards. We have Merlin passes but have only been once since the change, never, ever again. It's impossible. If you have a child that doesn't understand queuing, how do you explain queuing away from the ride, especially if they are able to express which ride they want to go on and just not able to understand the wait?"

So, Legoland Windsor, something is not right with your system, we suggest you re-examine it before half-term!

If you have other experiences about accessibility at UK attractions, please add them in the comments below (rather than on Facebook) so others can see them.

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Tania Tirraoro
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Tania Tirraoro

Founder, CEO at Special Needs Jungle
Founder of Special Needs Jungle. Parent of two sons with Asperger Syndrome.
Journalist & author of two novels and a guide to SEN statementing. PR & social media expert. Rare Disease & chronic pain patient advocate.
Tania Tirraoro
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3 Comments

  1. Wheelie Autistic Tubie

    It really does depend on the disability as to what is and what isn’t accessible.

    I have a fully mobile (sometimes too mobile – runner!) autistic kiddo, she loves Thorpe Park. Their ride access system works for her, she can go on all the rides, the only issue is the noise as she won’t wear ear defenders.

    Then there is me- I can walk a little, but am now a wheelchair user, I am also autistic. The ride access system works well for me too. Access to the rides – not so much. Two rides have large sets of stairs to get on, one has a lift that is out of order and has been for at least a year- and the other has a lift but they have blocked it so I doubt they will ever use it. – climbing these stairs is hard work for me and leaves me drained and in more pain. So I can only do one of them per visit- which is a shame because I love both rides.

    Then – a full time wheelchair user who can not weight bare – they would find that the only 2 things they can access are the changing place toilet and the 4D angry birds show (not able to transfer into the seats means missing out on some of the effects.)

    So 3 different people with 3 different disabilties have vastly different reviews on accessibilty for the same place

  2. Stephs Two Girls

    I definitely second the Sandcastle in Blackpool, we had a brilliant experience there this summer – even though it wasn’t the kind of place that suits my autistic girl. Because of the sensory room, I was able to have fun there with her older sister while she mostly relaxed (my mum stayed with her). I’ve also found Blackpool Pleasure Beach to be very understanding and helpful.

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