Dear Alton Towers,
On the 28th September 2020 I spent my Birthday at your theme park. On your website, it states Alton Towers wants to “help guests with additional needs have a fabulous and unforgettable experience”. It certainly was an “unforgettable” day for all the wrong reasons. I went with my girlfriend Lucy and my sister Hannah. Hannah has Cerebral Palsy and is in a wheelchair, but that is all. She is completely aware of her surroundings, understands everything you say and communicates non-verbally.
Through this letter I will: (1) Briefly explaining the day we had and why we were so upset followed by (2) Our suggestions to you about how Alton Towers can do better so we can make this world a more inclusive place. Please note, I have done my research, can see it from your side and understand health and safety comes first. This is not a slanging match, but due to seeing how upset my sister was yesterday, I feel I have a duty to approach this subject in a positive and enlightening manner to ensure other people do not have the same experience.
An explanation of the day we had and why we were so upset
We have been to Alton Towers every year for many years, and have had NO issues. Hannah has previously rode on every ride she wanted, and has had the best experiences. Arriving at Alton Towers around 12 noon yesterday, we went straight to the customer services to gain our disability access band and head off to have fun! We got given a leaflet for our virtual queue but at no point was any explanation on what rides we could go on given to us, or Hannah’s disability questioned further.
Starting off the day we headed to the Smiler. Seeing Hannah in her wheelchair (looking pretty obvious Hannah cannot walk unaided), we were shown to the disabled access entry point, then met by two more workers who showed us up in the lift. Once getting to the top of the lift we were greeted by a miserable woman. I noticed a sign saying to ride the rollercoaster, the individual must have to walk 25m unaided. Once I had noticed this, I told the woman Hannah wouldn’t be able to do so, in which she replied ‘yeah she can’t ride’. The lady then turned to her coworker and shouted across ‘SHE CAN’T WALK’, and shut the door behind us. My issues with this situation is that Hannah is a human – please speak to her directly. Do not embarrass her by shouting out her insecurities across the ride for a crowd of people to hear. We passed three lots of workers, and not one of them thought to explain the rules of the ride before we got up there and had to turn around.
We shrugged this off as we understand the importance of health and safety. Off to Rita we went. Hannah loves Rita, this will cheer her up. We got straight onto Rita with no wait time which was a BONUS. The train before us got delayed due to someone pulling their phone out, meaning that the ride had to be restarted. This resulted in a 30 minute wait. During this time, no-one questioned Hannah’s level of disability or if she could she transfer unaided or if she could walk. Nothing. When the time came, two different workers watched me carry Hannah onto the ride. We both sat down and were strapped in by the workers. Ready to go – how exciting! Until… a worker came up to me (not Hannah) and asked if Hannah could walk. They continued to ask if Hannah could walk off the ride if it broke down. I calmly explained they had just seen me carry Hannah onto said ride, so obviously she could not. At this point, the crowd of people waiting for the next train and in the queue were looking at us. The girl said Hannah could not ride due to health and safety. I began to cry due to being so angry. They had embarrassed us by letting us get on to then be publicly removed from the ride. When I asked to speak to someone about this, I was consulted with the most rude, uninterested member of staff. I have never experienced such a horrendous level of customer service.
Hannah, unconsolable at this point, was angry and fed up due to the ignorance of your staff. We headed off to the customer service centre to try and turn the day around. Alton Towers – your life saver of the day was the lovely and empathetic man we met next who explained health and safety considerations and the rides Hannah could go on. Why was this not done at the start of the day? The staff member then gave us a refund and also managed to stop us all from crying. At this point, we decided to draw a line, look at what we could go on and set off again.
The Teacups… surely this had to go smoothly right? We enjoyed a lovely little ride, Hannah started to smile. When we asked if we could stay on for another go, we were told we had to have a two minute break between each ride so we had to get off to get back on. Considering the fact it took us over three minutes to get the wheelchair and get Hannah off, please explain to me, with NO queue (and I mean no queue) how we couldn’t stay put for a second ride? This is a perfect example of how an adaptation could be made to meet the needs of a person with a disability.
We then went to Duel, as the leaflet specifically said this ride had disability access, and spent five minutes looking for the disabled access entry point. When we couldn’t find it, we asked a staff member. The reply was, ‘Oh yeah we used to have disabled access, but we don’t anymore’. At this point, all we could do was laugh from the shock. Due to the ridiculousness of it all, we decided to leave. Why did the leaflet say Duel was an accessible ride when there was no disabled access?
After spending £40 per ticket, driving for one and a half hours, and wasting my Birthday, we went on two rides – The Runaway Train and the Teacups. If you know Hannah, she is the biggest adrenaline junkie and these rides are known as ‘children’s rides’. She isn’t wrong. Wheelchair users want the same experiences as everyone else.
Our suggestions to Alton Towers about how to become more inclusive
Ok so what is wrong with all of the above? There are two separate topics I want to address:
(1) Ride accessibility
Alton Towers claims, “We are committed to providing an enjoyable and safe visit for all of our guests” and “We reserve the right to refuse admission to certain rides should we feel there is a danger to an individual for whatever reason”. I accept all the above, however we are in 2020, and other parks have been able to make real adaptations for wheelchair users.
Having been to Disney World, Universal Resorts, Blackpool Pleasure Beach and EVEN Alton Towers two years ago… how can this theme park claim to be inclusive for people with disabilities when a fully grown adult can only have fun on a teacup ride. As a family, we are also part of a charity which takes large groups of children with disabilities to Disney World every two years. Disney World claims, on their website, that for ALL rides the individual must be ambulatory OR assisted by members of their party, i.e. any ride is accessible as long as there is another party to support them. The same goes for Universal Studios and Blackpool. Why is this the case in the biggest theme parks in the world, but not one local to us? Furthermore, as an example, at Disney World there are 45 rides over 4 parks which are available to wheelchair users, with 6 even having transfer devices available.
Please learn from the above, this is incredible. As a family, we have helped Hannah to achieve her dreams and not put any limits on her. We know this is not always possible, due to health and safety, but believe me we try. My advice to you Alton Towers, is if you wish to be as big and as inclusive as other theme parks, and provide amazing experiences for all people, please look at what you can do as an organisation to better yourselves. This includes larger changes, e.g. investment in transfer devices, plus smaller adaptations (e.g. as referred to above with the Teacup ride) to provide a better experience.
(2) Employee attitude and awareness
Taking out the fact most of your rides are unavailable to certain disabilities, the way we were treated and the lack of awareness and training with disabilities was the biggest issue here. It was disgraceful. Examples include not speaking directly to Hannah, going through numerous staff members and gateways without them checking our ability to use the rides, rudely shouting “SHE CAN’T WALK” in front of everyone, the lack of awareness of the disability restrictions, the not being able to make very small adjustments (i.e. at the Teacups), and causing a very distressing and embarrassing scene in front of a crowd at Rita and not opening the safety bars promptly to let us off the ride.
This is the reason we are taking this further – Alton Towers needs to invest in clearer guidance for guests with disabilities, needs to train staff on this guidance, and then needs to provide behavioural training for staff to prevent these issues from occurring again. Please let Hannah and me to offer to personnally come and train your staff on how to speak to people with disabilities, expose your staff to awareness and build positivity around this. Not one person spoke to, or apologised to Hannah herself. She had to sit and listen to you argue with me around how her disability has effectively ruined our day. Not our fault, yours.
Becky, Hannah and Lucy.