Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Zufari at Chessington World of Adventures - Review

Chessington Zoo was transformed by The Tussauds Group in the late 80’s from a failing wildlife park into the UK’s first true theme park. When Alton Towers was still little more than a collection of amusement rides plonked in a picturesque, yet unthemed, landscape, Chessington World of Adventures were building Disney-like dark rides and highly themed immersive worlds.

It’s thee park I get nostalgic about and the park I know best. I first visited in ‘94, and with a few exceptions in the early 2000s, I’ve visited every season since. Not a whole lot has changed from the Chessington of my childhood. Today the theming may be a little dirty, and the trees have grown… But the core elements are pretty much the same. And yet, it’s a very different place in terms of quality of experience from the 90’s park. The park went through years of stagnation with little to no investment.

The few rides Chessington has introduced since the 90s are a world away from the quality of the originals, and every addition feels like it has fallen victim to a lack of learning from past successes… And mistakes. Dragon’s Fury, the park’s Maurer spinning coaster added in 2004, is good as a ride, but the unthemed, ugly, sprawling metal structure is plonked awkwardly surrounding a land ripped directly from Busch Gardens. Land of the Dragons stuck out like a sore thumb aesthetically and it is a cul-de-sac pathway that few venture down. At the end is a rock-n-tug called Griffon’s Galleon. Had it been placed anywhere else in the park it would draw crowds, but not here. The concept of this land was to have an enclosed playground of attractions for children to freely roam, but it doesn’t work in practise. It was another 6 years before the park opened a new ride; a Zamperla Disk-o called Kobra as the showpiece in the new Wild Asia land to replace Beanoland. For my non-British readers, The Beano is a classic comic that was irrelevant in my childhood, let alone today’s generation. Whilst it was always out of place at Chessington, it was bright and exciting and I have fond memories of it. Wild Asia is grey and, whilst aesthetically pleasing, somewhat dead. It’s too open, it’s music soft and slow, and the theming already crumbling round the edges. But the biggest problem is Kobra. Like Fury before it, this land was the first investment after the park decided to take the direction to a children-focused “family” park really seriously, and they decided to put in another 1.2m (47”) ride? Disk-o coasters are really tame for that height restriction.

The nice, but drab, theming in the 2010 addition Wild Asia with it's signature attraction Kobra.
Photos by author.

The park has predominantly focused on improving the zoo in recent years. Nothing groundbreaking, but stuff like Lorikeet Lagoon, a free-flying bird walkthrough and the SeaLife aquarium, however shoddily built (it is a tent with no effort to hide that fact), are actually fantastic additions to the theme park experience, offering an escape from crowds and an unexpected enhancement to a guest’s day when it’s quiet, too.
A Rainbow Lorikeet in the free-flying bird walkthrough Lorikeet Lagoon.
Photo by author.

Additions being the key word there... No one visits a theme park for zoo exhibits.  They are not the core product and Chessington even removed “and Zoo” from the end of their title a few years ago, probably because it was damaging. Even Disney’s Animal Kingdom suffered because potential guests perceive it as a glorified zoo. Perhaps “suffering” is a little extreme… “Not reaching the attendance levels Disney would like it to” is probably better wording there, but it was definitely because it was a zoo, or at least that’s what Disney concluded. Check out this early marketing campaign for the park if you don’t believe me, it speaks for itself…

If you’re having to convince guests that there’s not only more to your product than a zoo, but actually having to tell them it’s NOT a zoo at all, what does that tell you about zoos? That people won’t pay theme park prices for them and that, if they wanted a zoo, they’d have gone to a zoo, perhaps?

In 2011, Animal Kingdom actually overtook Hollywood Studios in attendance, and that trend carried on into 2012. I wonder what changed? The strange thing about Animal Kingdom is that it still receives the “only a half day park” criticism from the masses. There’s actually plenty to do there and I’d argue that it actually takes the most time to do properly, especially considering the park closes significently earlier than the others. People simply do not care about doing the animal attractions.

So, when Chessington finally decided to spend some real money again, it was quite a shock that they decided to spend it on an attraction type usually found at a wildlife park. Because, at the time the rumour of this 2013 major attraction surfaced, I expected a simple safari tour with some thematic elements to lift it into theme park quality. My instinct was that this was a poor decision for the park in desperate need of some real rides. I can quite happily look at animals all day, but I know the majority of guests perceive anything other than a ride to be a waste of their valuable time on park, especially in a country where 10-5 opening hours are the norm. Though thinking about it further, I wonder what else Chessington could have realistically received planning permission for? It’s a little known fact that this park suffers stricter planning restrictions than the park made famous for it, Alton Towers.

Chessington had a rough start to the 2013 season… Zufari was delayed; Annual Pass weekend shelved at short notice and two major attractions; Runnaway Mine Train and Dragon Falls (a log flume) were both closed. Cold, snowy weather clinging on long into spring was also surely unwelcomed. The immediate response to Zufari when it did finally open to the public was so vocal and repetitive it cannot be ignored. Chessington’s Facebook page was alive with rage, as annoyed mothers discovered their kids were too short for the new ride…

You had to be 1.1m (43”) tall to ride Zufari. There’s several reasons why this is a problem, but I think the most prominent issue is that the Vampire roller coaster also has a 1.1m restriction. Many guests perceive height restrictions on rides to be indicators of how extreme the attraction is, not as unavoidable safety requirements, so with Vampire as baseline, eyebrows raise at Zufari. Another issue is that none of the similar attractions found at theme parks around the world have a restriction as high as 1.1m, despite being more intense rides aimed at older audiences. Disney’s Kilimanjaro Safaris does not have a height restriction at all! But the most annoying part for me personally is that the ride has elements clearly aimed at kids younger than 6. It feels as if the height restriction was an afterthought, just like it seemed to be with Kobra. Taller height restrictions aren’t inherently a problem, but the experience has to reflect the audience allowed to ride it. I worry that after this backlash it will be perceived that any tall height restriction for Chessington is bad. What’s interesting is that most rides manufacturers do not list height restrictions in their brochures or on their websites. Surely any park goes looking for an attraction type with an audience in mind? So what restriction should Zufari have? I think 0.9m would be appropriate. But in an interesting plot twist, Zufari’s restriction randomly changed overnight to 1m, just in time for a bank holiday weekend. Huh?

Photo by author.

There are two entrances to Zufari on the park, connecting Forbidden Kingdom (Egyptian themed area) with Wanyama Village (African themed zoo area). I’m delighted they connected these two areas to unite them as Africa.  The main entrance is a little tucked away, highlighted by a large sign and pathway with tall wooden fencing weaving off out of sight. And I can imagine that, unless you were looking for Zufari or were the type of person to make sure you ventured into every crevice of the park, you’d easily miss it… The theming is nice and does the job of conveying the experience ahead nicely, but it fails to be quite eye-catching enough. A new sign to catch people from the main pathway is also positioned too low, so on a busy day is obscured by the many people using this path. The sound of African drumbeats echo out from the entrance across to the main path, clashing with the Egyptian setting, but drawing much needed attention to Zufari.

Photo by author.

Zufari is not just the name of the new ride, but according to the map at least, it’s the name of the entire area. Which is an interesting distinction to make. As you later discover, “Zufari” is the name of a fictional nature reserve in South Africa. It’s a nice idea and a hint of realism, but it’s lost a bit because the ride itself does not have “tours” or similar stuck on the end and it doesn't sound like a place name. I find the name rather awkward, it does what it says on the tin a bit too well, and like other aspects of the ride I’ll discuss later, clashes with the “realistic” aesthetic. Whilst the area aesthetic tries to convince us that we are in Africa, the name so blatantly doesn’t bother and sells itself short as a “zoo safari”. And what did I say earlier about zoos? I wonder how many guests will be disinterested in Zufari because they make a prejudgement about the name? The name also makes no sense… If the reserve is called Zufari, then why is the tour called Zufari?

Photo by author.

The path takes you along a bridge into the Zufari plaza. It’s a bland, enclosed path lined with equal height untreated wooden fences, broken up by an occasional carved pole. The carvings are so nice and I wish there were more of them with more colour incorporated to break up the monotony of sandy brown. Later in the season, amateur paintings were added along the fence as if painted by locals, and they help solve the problem and play a huge part in conveying the theme, too. A tree pokes through the bridge floor, a welcomed object of interest, and wrapped around it’s upper branches and strung tight to other nearby trees is rope lined with brightly painted tin cans. I wish there was more of this stuff, serving the same purpose as the bunting in Wild Asia to lift the place from lifelessness, into a more immersive world of moving details. At the end of the long bridge, that from examining Google Maps must go over the access road explaining the unfortunate tall fencing, the path opens up into the plaza.

Photos by author.

The soundtrack of African drumbeats is interrupted by the messy unchoreographed noise of real drums, because to the left is a collection of interactive ngoma drums for guests to play with. They are extremely popular with kids, but more importantly from my perspective is that they add life to the area. The plaza is just an open space with the ride entrance to the left, a few drums, some bins and a signpost. You cannot see the ride or animals from here besides some Flamingos... Given the company history of creating fantastic spectator elements like no other theme park does, it’s a terrible shame that the Zufari plaza offers no spectator value what so ever. Absolutely zero.

Rows of non-riders watch flamingos...
Photos by author.

Zufari has a beautiful entrance that, despite the lifeless signage atop it, signifies itself as an entrance unmistakably. That sounds stupid, but it’s well positioned and large, dominating the plaza and drawing attention away from the lifelessness of it. Artistically it has some lovely details and mix of texture.

Photos by author.

The queue line is horrible. I’m so sick of horrible queue lines. Guests spend the majority of their day standing in line, so is it really too much to ask that parks put a little effort into their design? I’m not asking for extra entertainment here, or even theming… Presumably this is an issue spawned from the fact that designers do not spend enough time visiting parks through guests eyes. I recall an interview with John Wardley on the The Season Pass podcast where he comments on Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom“If ever I’m in the company of Disney executives who want to whizz me in a VIP entrance...” and goes on to say that he wants to stand in the real line. Like most attractions the world over, Zufari’s queue line isn’t covered. I do not expect, nor do I want, the entire line to be covered, but some portion of any space where people wait for long periods of time should shield them from the elements. And I’m in awe, time and time again, at just how few parks bother to do this. The best queue lines are not necessarily those with the most theming, but quite simply those that are the most pleasant. Zufari’s queue fencing is monotonous untreated wooden poles creating a barren sandy brown sea filled with far too many boddies, as it zig-zaggs back and forth and around itself, in a confined area. Would you like some examples of great queue lines? They can be found in the same park! Over at Vampire, ugly, purple, train station, metal pole fencing can be forgiven as the line sprawls through the woodland with the ride entertaining you overhead. The line is shaded by the trees and at no point feels claustrophobically crammed full of people, despite it’s potential to reach 2 hours in length. And Rattlesnake, the park’s off-the-shelf wild mouse coaster, is one of the best queue lines in the world as it descends down beneath the ride, through themed wooden barns, tunnels and rarely switchbacks on itself. The land where Zufari sits was a near completely flat, large field. They could have chosen to do anything they wanted with the layout design of the entire space, with the queue interacting with the ride and following a more sprawling pattern with areas of foliage amongst it. Instead, tall bamboo fencing encloses the queue area, preventing you from looking out at the jeeps and animals. Why?!

Photos by author.

Half way through the line, there’s a strange little hut. Perhaps a food stall, selling sweets, crisps and drinks? No!, There is no shop in this line, despite Swarm at Thorpe and Smiler at Alton queues coming equipped with one, and Chessington recently adding one to Dragon’s Fury. (Maybe the absence is in the name of realism? Lol.)The hut is actually a green screen photo opportunity, like those found at the start of Merlin’s SeaLife aquariums.

Eventually, you’ll approach the preshow building, where you’ll be batched in to take your seat on a bench. It’s a really nicely themed interior, feels much larger than it looks from the outside and whilst the screen feels a little small, it does the job. This preshow was my biggest fear prior to riding Zufari. I’d heard it was an interactive animation show like Stitch Encounter and Turtle Talk at the Disney parks. I’m being selfish here, but I hate interactive shows. Past that, Disney’s Turtle Talk is an impressively clever piece of technology that I knew (assumed…) Merlin could never pull off. I was dreading it.

Photos by author.

A South African man named Chase VanDriver (HAHAHAHA… Ha.), head of the A.C.R.E (African Conservation, Research & Exploration) team, tells us all about the discovery of Zufari and the wildlife that lives there. Because Zufari is “such a big place” they need you to join the research team. You’re warned that you better stay on the track because it’s uncharted territory and who knows what could be lurking out there! He also briefly mentions something about some rock carvings. Some weird animated wriggly thing appears on screen, which later turns out to be the tail of a cartoon lemur. He’s introduced as Chase’s “buddy” and toys around with the camera, tapping on the screen and ruining it’s connection “uh oh!” This adds comical interest and immersion to what was otherwise a dull and pointless preshow, but it does feel very much like the show only exists as a platform to bung in one of these interactive experiences “because they are cool” rather than because it’s appropriate to the rest of the attraction. There are some inherent problems with the interactive talking lemur. Lemurs are not found on the African mainland, they do not talk and this one is obviously very cartoony, and all of those things clash with the mood delivered up until now of a realistic environment. It’s also clearly aimed at young children, many of which cannot ride. I think much of Zufari’s problem is that it tried be a jack-of-all-trades. The interactive cartoon lemur actually works well on its own and the audience seem to enjoy it way more than I predicted, but I think this demonstrates the need for the park to step away from the realistic, boring, drab themes they’ve been going for and try something a little more whacky and fantastical, like Land of the Dragon’s could have been had they put in any effort. (Speaking of which, the newly renovated theming in Translyvania does just that, and it’s really rather lovely. There’s COLOUR!) Another glaring issue with the lemur is of course just how much of a Disney rip-off it truly is. “Helloooo Humans!” and the tap on the screen are uncannily similar to Turtle Talk. Zufari just ends up looking like a mish-mash of Disney rides put together for no real reason and with an extremely limited budget. You may be shocked to hear me say the lemur “works well”, but I do genuinely think it’s pretty good. It’s out of place and irrelevant, but the guests are enjoying it, and that’s all that really matters.

Photos by author.

The lemur waves goodbye as the exit doors open leading into a (physically) short section of queue-line before being batched into rows. But as you exit, you may find yourself now behind where you started, as there is no order to the way you enter and exit the building. This will undoubtedly cause arguments between guests. I’m not sure what could fix the problem, because even if guests were directed, it would still be perceived by guests as there being a possibility for others to overtake and create an anxious atmosphere.

Hey, he was behind me!
Photo by author.

It’s here that you get your first proper look at the trucks, which are impressive to look at. The onloading and offloading of guests is, however, utterly ridiculous. Simple things such as the trucks not aligning with the gates, causing people to go to the wrong row, every single time, are annoying… But the offload and onload platforms being positioned so that exiting guests must cross in front of the onloading ones is just plain stupid. From what I understand, Zufari opened with only one platform where guests would board and exit from, and the only space to add the second platform was further along. But I just don’t understand why it was planned with only one? Oh, and this short section of queue ends up taking forever.

Left: Guests crossing the onload platform in order to exit from the ride.
Right: Loading bays not aligning with the truck.
Photos by author.

Originally the ride was equipped with Disney style seatbelts. The majority of theme park guests are in a perpetual state of rushing. Things have to be obvious. The lapbars would get jammed and need to be slowly released all the way before pulling them out in one swift motion. That is too much for the average guest to handle. It was taking forever. Recently, single lapbars have been fitted that significantly speed up loading. The lap-bar makes you wonder what on earth the 1.1m restriction coupled with individual seatbelts was all about, though. Surely, if anything, the height restriction should have raised, not lowered, with the introduction of a single lapbar? Thorpe Park changed the lapbars of their indoor coaster this season from a single to individual, and dropped the restriction from 1.4m to 1m as a result.

I’ve been sitting in the truck for a while now, and I turn around to look at the control box to try and work out what’s going on. There’s a man still standing on the platform, trying to retrieve something he left on the truck behind us. The operators are staring at him with distain. He’s finally ushered off the platform by attendants, and we’re off…

Photos by author.

You cannot see out the front of the truck and as you leave the station… You really cannot see much of anything. Approaching a flooded section of path, the narrator says something about Flamingos, which you cannot see from the truck. It’s not as if they are out of sight, hiding, you literally cannot see into their enclosure because it is too far away and the rock wall too tall. I don’t… get it…? The landscaping is interesting here, but because no foliage has yet to grow it’s not visually impressive. I get the feeling that Zufari is going to improve drastically over time as the foliage grows, because to be fair, the best thing about Kilamanjaro Safari’s at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (and the park as a whole) is foliage.

What am I supposed to be looking at?
Photo by author.

The truck continues along the path and… It’s weird. There’s really nothing to look at except stuff that really should be behind the scenes, and I do not understand why the truck drives amongst it. I heard one woman during this section exclaim, “they aren’t free roaming!” because announcements state over and over that the animals are free roaming; yet here you can clearly see pens that sometimes have animals in them. Now, because you come to this section first, you’re excitedly looking out for any animal, and to have that rewarded by a few antelope behind a fence is really frustrating. The trucks pass through a narrow path with a partially themed animal house to the left and some rocks to the right. The narrator tries to draw your attention away from some unsightly doors to the animal house just a few feet away by pointing out the weird rock carvings… A common criticism of Zufari from the enthusiast community has been how these rock carvings are never mentioned again. They were presented as being a relevant part of the narrative, then forgotten. I think perhaps they were added as a mere distraction, and accidently given more narrative weight than intended. At least they tried to actively choose where guests are looking, it may not have worked brilliantly, but it’s a huge step up from not bothering at all.

Oooo, mysterious rock carvings!
Photo by author.

It is genuinely ages before you see any interesting animals… The truck finally leaves the backstage tour of the animal houses into an open area with giraffes and Zebra feeding. Off to the right is Wanyama Village and the hotel, and the animals are free to roam all the way down there. Which means they often are all the way down there. I’ve yet to have a ride when the ostriches have been within reasonable distance of the trucks. This section ends all too quickly as you turn to pass down the other side of what turned out to be the giraffe house, with a large vertical verge on the other side of the truck. There’s some open areas where I assume animals have free roam next, but I’ve yet to see anything making use of the space. Eventually, the rhinos can be seen to the right. They are always in that same spot, at least in my experience.

I know I'm awful at taking photos, but is it just me or are these the least interesting I've shown you thus far? And this is what we came to see...
Photos by author.

The rhinos are awesome to watch, and are close to the trucks, so the narrator waffling on in an attempt to deliver a story is completely ignored by everyone on board desperately trying to photograph the animals. If you do pay attention to it, you’ll hear something about the road being blocked ahead, but it’s not until the truck reverses, then turns off to the left, that you see the tree blocking the path you were supposed to take, because you cannot see out the front of the truck. It is completely lost on the majority of guests.

 Photo by author.

A cute little signpost warns us to not enter the cave ahead, that you thankfully approach at an angle and so can see out the right side of the truck. The truck enters a flooded section of path, and then passes into the cave, with the realistic garage door shutting down behind you. Mist blasts the truck and guests squeal in fear and delight. The theming is good, however bland, as long as your eyes do not stray far up the walls into the black drapes attempting to conceal the roof. It is far from dark enough in here to employ a technique like that. The finale consists of water gushing down towards the truck, before you exit the cave passing through a waterfall where those on the outside and back row seats may get wet.  It’s fairly dramatic. Whilst there are low atmospheric rumbling sounds in the cave, more dynamic audio could really transform the show. Perhaps chanting of some kind could have referenced the spiritual narrative suggested by the carvings or thunder could have been a dramatic accompaniment to the gushing waterfall. It’s fun and refreshing on a hot day, but just not quite there.

None of my cave shots came out well...
Photo by author.

Exiting the cave and approaching the station, most guests comment “is that it?” Zufari isn’t long enough and does not feel like it covers enough ground. The irony is, it’s huge by normal attraction standards, but the problem is the type of attraction and what is expected from it.

It is entirely possible that you may ride Zufari and not see a single animal. Depending on the weather, time of day and who knows what else, your ride will vary drastically. And it’s no surprise that when the attraction first opened it was met with criticism about a severe lack of animals, when it was barely hitting 5c. As the weather has warmed, reactions to the ride have improved, both from the general public and enthusiasts, as the animals have been more willing to spend time outside enjoying the sun.

Comparisons to the likes of Disney’s Kilimanjaro Safaris really cannot be avoided. Copy-cat examples of Disney’s experiences are found the world over and even the Tussauds classics are no exceptions to the pitfalls of over-inspiration. I have no inherent problem with copying, or being heavily inspired, except when it is so obviously damaging. With the many ripoffs around the world of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the western themed runaway train coaster concept is now so generic it’s easy to forget that it is a Disney copy. But with Zufari being one of only a handful of these kind of attractions, it just looks like a cheap copy and from a practical perspective I bet it’s harder to make creative and operational decisions with so few examples of what not to do.

I don’t personally think Zufari is a bad attraction in it’s own right… The problem is they picked a difficult type of attraction to work with. The standard of the others are rather high. Even if Zufari were a lot better, it would probably still be at the bottom of the pile. I believe that had it been what I expected it to be – a high quality safari style ride with theming and no pointless story, it would have been infinitely better. If all the money had poured into funding animals, landscaping and physical theming elements, it would have felt whole. And that’s ironic, because what I thought Chessington needed was a ride. I still do, but they need a real ride, not a transport attraction masquerading as a ride. Whether or not a more solid safari experience would have been better from a marketing perspective is however debatable. My instinct says no, but most guests do not realise Zufari is more than a safari, so what difference would it have made?

See, if you think about roller coasters, even poor roller coasters (by anyone’s definition) are ”good“ rides. A roller coaster doesn’t have to try very hard to be good because it is a large, visceral experience that is universally comprehended. It seems like a worthwhile waste of time and money. Physical movements are something that all animal life instinctively respond to, think about when babies giggle as they are swung. Everyone’s familiar with the simple pleasure of dropping your neighbours office chair. It’s so easy to provoke a response physically, but not so much with the other senses that are more open to subjectivity. Dark rides and other narrative driven experiences have to be exceptional to be considered as good as an average roller coaster, and they are also really difficult to market.

I’m not suggesting the park should add nothing but roller coasters and never try for a narrative based ride, but I do think they need to focus on attractions with predominantly physical elements to them. For all the criticisms of Sub Terra, what it demonstrates is an understanding that a ride like Magic Kingdom’s Alien Encounter probably worked because it was of such high quality, and that because Merlin could never match that standard of story telling, a physical element was absolutely necessary.

Zufari isn’t physical enough, nor does it provide enough dark ride style elements to a high enough standard, nor does it have a story that works... NOR does it have enough animals or scenery to look at. It tries to do a bit of everything, and the result is expectedly average.

When I first rode Kilimanjaro Safari’s, it came with a narrative about poachers and an animatronics elephant to help tell the story. That aspect of the attraction was awfully tacky alongside the real animals and facts about them you’d been delivered until that point. I didn’t want Jungle Cruise. Disney later removed this section of the ride and focused on a realistic, high quality safari experience. If DISNEY removed a narrative from a ride type because it DOES NOT WORK alongside the nature of that ride type, WHY would anyone else think they could pull it off? It is madness.

What makes Kilimanjaro Safari’s so good? It is a dense, lush environment so beautiful that the fauna almost become second to the flora. If all the animals are hiding, you can enjoy searching for them amongst the jungle. There are so many different kinds of animals too see, with several popular animals including lions, hippo, cheetah, elephants, rhinos and crocodiles and more, so missing a couple of species is no big deal. In fact, over 30 species feature in Kilimanjaro Safari’s 800 square miles of terrain. And not once will you see a pen, fence or wire appearing to cage the animals in. You get to see the other trucks, which provides interaction and scale, plus just like Zufari’s, they are awesome looking vehicles – you want to see them! And you’ll also get a real guide who can respond intuitively to what’s going on around you, where Zufari’s narration may inform you about an animal you cannot actually see, causing negative feelings.

Left: On Kilimanjaro Safari's, even the less popular species are interesting to look at. You cannot take a bad photo on this attraction because the environment is so well designed.
Right: Compare the environment this giraffe calls home to those on Zufari. 
Photos by author.

But, this is Chessington, not Disney. I’m not sure if that matters or not? I feel like every park should be going out of its way to make exceptional quality that suits them, within their budgets, not making low budget versions of other people's ideas....

Foliage really is a big deal, and that’s why I think Zufari may improve drastically over time. There are other reasons Zufari might become a great attraction, though - changes are already being made and have been taking place since it opened. In all fairness, Zufari and Sub-Terra are very experimental and completely different to anything else in the company portfolio, so an openness to listen to criticisms from guests and make amendments as necessary should receive the highest of praise and they have definitely been listening. Whilst I do believe that the majority of parks do not pay enough attention to the mistakes and successes of others (or even themselves), it cannot be easy to predict how the public will behave or respond. Not only that, this is an attraction with live animals. Working out the best way to get the most from them must be a huge, ongoing battle for the zoo team.

Some things are inexcusable though and have little to do with this unusual ride type, but everything to do with simple themed entertainment design principles. The repetition of texture and colour around the Zufari area is a huge pet peeve of mine, but even this has received treatment in the form of new amateur paintings and signage, as if created by locals, and it does help. My biggest criticism of Zufari that it cannot be enjoyed as a non-rider. It’s the one thing that Tussauds/Merlin have always done so exceptionally well that they are undoubtedly the world leaders. On the Zufari plaza, to the right opposite from the ride entrance on the left, is a pathway leading towards Wanyama Village. There’s a bridge where the trucks pass underneath… The walls of this path are solid, thick, untreated wooden posts over 5ft tall. WHY? I want to watch the ride! This would be a perfect spectator platform! Why are the posts not more like 4ft, with windows for smaller children down low, and caged or netted higher up for safety. The following path is bamboo, both sides, over 6ft tall. Whilst I understand there are back-of-house areas to the right, the left should be a view of the Zufari plains, which would aid as a distraction from the wall hiding the service road and the back-side of attractions like the Runnaway Mine Train. This weaving path continues for what feels like an eternity, too. Any attempt to theme it would be unsuccessful with guests becoming disinerested because of the sheer length of the path. I feel like the attraction should have been designed so that the left side of this path was at least partially open, requiring a decent view. My suspicion is that there is not, and that is why it’s covered. An afterthought.

The view over the fence of the jeep rolling through the flooded path is awesome. I just wish guests didn't have to tip toe to see it...
Photos by author.

I’m in two minds about Zufari. Usually, this means a clash between my experience as a regular visiting enthusiast and the experience I presume normal guests have. But with Zufari, there are awkward pros and cons, none of which seem all that significant on their own but contribute to a mediocre experience for all. The time it takes to do the attraction (not because it’s long, but because of all the faff) seems an unreasonable trade for the experience, especially considering the park usually closes at 5pm. Ignoring all the “petty” design details that contribute together to a negative experience, but that the majority of guests won’t notice individually, it’s the shortage of wildlife, the unimaginative landscape and drab environments that just aren’t good enough. I imagine the finale is pretty awesome if all you expected is a safari, but is it a big enough trade off for the shortage of actual safari and lack of animals? I’m not sure. It is a good addition, and I do genuinely believe that with time it may find its place as a signature must-do attraction, but it’s going to be massively dependant on the difference the plants make as they grow. Introducing more wildlife would also make a huge difference. Personally, that pre-show puts me off wanting to ride on a casual visit, but I try to remind myself that I am not the target audience, even if I’m not entirely sure who is.

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  1. Hey, at least there are 'fun facts' about animals to read while you're waiting...that are sometimes embarrassingly wrong. Backwards knees, indeed...

  2. Zufari would be the best part here.