What it's like to visit a theme park now lockdown is lifting

Antonia Windsor
·5-min read
Tornado Springs is the latest addition to Paultons Park in Hampshire, with new rides and experiences in a Western theme
Tornado Springs is the latest addition to Paultons Park in Hampshire, with new rides and experiences in a Western theme

“That was so scary! I didn’t know where to look!” My nine-year-old daughter was fizzing with excitement as she tried to re-establish her land legs after being catapulted 20 metres in the air. “Let’s go again!”

I would have said yes, only the time indicated at the gate of the Storm Chaser – the first free-spinning roller coaster of its kind in the UK and one of eight new experiences in Hampshire's Paultons Park – was now reading 25 minutes. I hate queuing at the best of times, but queuing in a post-Covid environment feels particularly strange. After all, we are still living in a reality whereby I can only mix with one other household in my garden (as a family of five, the rule of six is neither here nor there). And yet there I was, standing in line with perhaps 20 other households in a space that's half the size of my back garden. It doesn't make sense.

In fairness, the park has put plenty of measures in place to encourage families to be mindful of others. Yellow stickers mark two-metre distances along the ground. Gauze-covered frames shield every fold in the queue. Face masks are politely requested to be worn, and there are signs to maintain social distancing everywhere you look. But my thrill-seeking peers weren't paying much attention.

In the clamour to get on the rides people edged closer and closer to the groups ahead of them until the line looked like any typical queue circa 2019. The good news, at least, are the lower rates of transmission in the fresh open air. A recent report by the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) revealed that as few as one in a thousand cases are contracted outside, and a large number of people have now been vaccinated. But pushing my husband’s wheelchair through the crowds, while trying to keep an eye on three skittish children, felt like the biggest return to pre-pandemic reality I’d experienced in over a year.

Stormchaser at Tornado Springs, Paultons Park, Hampshire
Stormchaser at Tornado Springs, Paultons Park, Hampshire

Tornado Springs, the park's new section, was due to open last May following a £12m investment, and it was one of the last events in my diary to be crossed out after the pandemic struck. So when it finally opened earlier this month we booked ourselves in to explore the "Midwest resort town" in the middle of Hampshire. Happily, they’d done a good job and the area looks great with plenty of props and retro signage.

A massive “Route 83” painted on the ground marks the entrance (a nod not only to the road through Tornado Springs, but also the year 1983, when Paultons Park first opened). There’s a driving school for little ones to whizz around in miniature replicas of 1950s cars next to a diner serving hot dogs and burgers. But it’s the Cyclonator, a gyro swing spinning pendulum ride, which dominates the site. It rises to 25 metres tipping 30 people upside down while spinning them and swinging them at the same time. I saw it from the car park and thought it looked, frankly, terrifying. Up close it looked even worse. I lied to my children that there was an age limit and steered them instead to the more timid Windmill Tower, from the top of which I could see how crowded Peppa Pig World was, just across the way.

When I asked one of the staff on the door how much they were limiting capacity, he told me they were reducing visitors by around 50 per cent. It seemed as if most had made a beeline for Peppa Pig. The joy of Paultons Park, though, is the enormity of it, and if one area is busy it is easy to go off and find somewhere less crowded to catch your breath.

We headed to the banks of the lake for a picnic on the daisy-strewn grass with just the sound of neighbouring pelicans for company. We wandered through the Out of Africa area, marvelling at the porcupines and making faces at the meerkats. We ventured to the Water Kingdom where we embarked on the water ride repeatedly, enjoying half the queue time of a similar ride in Peppa Pig World.

A 1950s car in a children's driving school, Paultons Park, Hampshire
A 1950s car in a children's driving school, Paultons Park, Hampshire

Luckily we’d booked ourselves into Shorefield Country Park (shorefield.co.uk) for the weekend, half an hour’s drive away on the coast between Milford and Barton on Sea, which meant I’d spent the first part of my day relaxing in a hot tub and breathing in the sea air instead of making the journey from London. I had also (sensibly) booked a stop-off on the way back, and enjoyed surprisingly tasty food at the new Hall and Woodhouse, the Holly Blue, on the outskirts of Basingstoke (thehollyblue.co.uk). This added just 10 minutes to our journey and meant we could pick over the highlights of our day while enjoying aubergine katsu curry and burgers in a heavily decorated marquee before heading back up the M3.

The general consensus was that the pandemic had made me a wuss.“Mum, you’re more scared of crowds now than of roller coasters,” my seven-year-old reflected. I think, perhaps, he is right. It seems I may not be alone, with Covid anxiety syndrome on the rise. But at least we finally had our day in the wild "Midwest" of Hampshire, crowds and all.

Paultons Park tickets from £42.50 per person ; and from £125 for a family of three (paultonspark.co.uk).