Butlins – is this British all inclusive style holiday, inclusive to all?

When looking for a relaxing couples break, Butlins isn’t exactly first on one’s list. You imagine spending days on golden beaches with your partner, where the sand has been warmed by the sun. Crystal clear oceans, small waves lapping at your toes. An exotic cocktail in one hand and a fan in the other. The smell of suncream and the salty sea fills the air. Butlins on the other hand (for those that have never been there) conjures images of knobbly knee competitions, floral swimming caps and happy campers.

Jake and I had been looking to go away for about a week. We wanted ideally an all inclusive holiday, one where we could really relax without a care in the world. We searched numerous package holiday websites with very little luck, everywhere was too expensive, or the dates weren’t great or it was just too far. My parents were also concerned about distance, they wanted to be able to reach me with ease and speed should something happen and with my condition deteriorating that was a very real possibility.

I love a bargain, and it was from one of my hundreds of discount emails that I came to think of Butlins. I thought there was no harm in looking but didn’t expect it to be the place for us. I found the website far from user friendly, although my mother didn’t share my difficulties. I don’t know whether it was because I was using it on my phone or my tendancy to be a bit of a luddite, but I couldn’t work it out so well. What I did manage to find out was there were to be a number of musicians as evening entertainment and plenty to do during the day. Jake and I decided to give it a go as it seemed ideal not only for us but to allay my parent’s fears.

I found the booking process a bit confusing but doable. We wanted desperately to have a ‘silver room’ which is a very basic room with a shower. Unfortunately they had sold out by the time of our booking, and we had to settle for a ‘standard room’ which instead had a bath. The differences between the rooms were minimal, but due to my troublesome knees I cannot get in and out of a bath. At least without great fear that my joints will lock which causes excruciating pain and strongly restricts my movements for the following few weeks.

Despite my unwavering anxiety the journey to Taunton railway station went without a hitch. Luckily we managed to find a table in a quiet area of the train. It was even more fortunate that the table we had found was a specially adapted for disabled people, a feature I had not come across before. We’ve all seen the priority seating on buses, trains and tubes. They are normally by a door way and have slightly more space. This table had a hinge in the middle of it. This meant I could lift my half of the table to a vertical position allowing much more space to move in and out of the seat. It was a wonderful feature that I hope to see on more trains in the years to come.

Once at Taunton we had to wait for a service bus to Minehead. We, like many others assumed that once the bus had picked up at the train station, it would take us straight to Butlins. Oh how we were wrong. The bus arrived half full already, and by the time the cases had been loaded and all the Butlin’s passengers had got on there was hardly room to breathe. Okay that’s a bit of an exaggeration but it was as full as it possibly could have been. It even meant the driver had to turn down passengers from the next stop because it was just so full.

The bus was so warm. So, so warm. We were packed in like sardines in a tin. It was painfully clear the air we were breathing was made up entirely of other people’s breath. Secondhand CO2…. lovely. luckily as we moved faster and the passengers emptied out, the air felt fresher and the rain coming through the now open window was cooling and refreshing. It definitely wasn’t the worst journey I’ve experienced but there is a considerable amount of improvement needed.

As the bus pulled up to the stop outside Butlins I was delighted and pleasantly overwhelmed by the vibrant colours and happy environment. People smiled and chatted as we made our way up the the check-in desk. There were *redcoats interacting with the children, laughing with the parents and one was even juggling. The children clapped with glee as the parents queued up to collect their welcome pack. Similarly to Disney land, you could just feel the happiness as soon as you stepped into that environment. It put everyone at ease, from tired children to stressed out parents, everyone seemed to just relax a little bit.

We weren’t allowed to enter our room for a couple of hours and we were a bit apprehensive about lugging our luggage around as we tried to find something to kill time. Luckily we were pointed in the direction of a luggage storage room. It was free and right next to the check-in desk, which was perfect.

We decided to have a little explore around the resort while we waited to get into our room. The fairground rides were simple, pretty and old-fashioned, but in a good way. It was hardly a theme park but instead there was an air of nostalgia. Wooden Waltzers and a golden carousel and a glorious helter-skelter were intermingled with more modern style rides. From the moment I arrived I had my eye on one ride in particular. Loads of swings that were swirled around then lifted high into the sky. I desperately wanted to go on it but I was concerned that I wouldn’t fit. The rides are marketed for children and adults, but neither Jake nor I were convinced I would fit.

Like many people with chronic conditions, my medication has made me pile on weight. It’s not due to an unhealthy diet (although I do enjoy a chocolate or ten) and it’s not due to laziness. I cannot exercise weight off in the same way able bodied people can and no matter how much I diet, everything stays the same. It’s frustrating and annoying but apart from ditching my desperately needed medication, there isn’t an awful lot I can do about it.

For many people if they couldn’t fit in the seat they would laugh it off, and it wouldn’t phase them. Unfortunately I am not one of those people. I would have been embarrassed and depressed and it would have put a dampener on the holiday. My desperation to go on the ride clouded my judgement but Jake convinced me to leave it, and I did….until the last day. After assessing all of the adult’s sizes that went on the ride every time I passed, I concluded I would fit…just. so I braved it. I waited anxiously in line, until it was time to test my theory. My anxiety got the better of me and I squeezed myself into the seat a bit hastily. I ended up cutting my finger slightly on the metal bar but I didn’t mind because I was in and that was all that mattered and it was time to enjoy my ride.

When we could finally get to our room, we were rather underwhelmed. It was functional, but that was about it. There was nothing wrong with it, it was just basic and maybe in need of a lick of paint. It reminded me a bit of my camping days with Girl Guiding – just without the bunk beds. The most surprising thing about the room was the bed. As I’ve mentioned in my earlier post **”Princess and the Pea” I have terrible trouble sleeping. I struggle on almost every bed I sleep in, even my own, but there is nothing worse than sleeping in an unfamiliar hotel bed. Or at least I thought that. The bed in our room was perfect for me! I slept like a log every night, which is unheard of for me. Jake can sleep pretty much anywhere, but for me to get good quality sleep, in a strange and budget looking bed was a miracle. Being able to get a good night sleep at the end of each day did wonders for my pain levels.

We opted for the ‘premium dining plan’ to make it as close to an ‘all exclusive’ experience as we could on a budget and in the UK. Our dinner on the first night however, left much to be desired. I couldn’t fault the food, more the environment. It was our first time in Butlins and we didn’t have a clue what to do. There was no one there to explain what was happening, we didn’t know if we had to wait to be seated, or how to get drinks or what to do. We didn’t know if we helped ourselves, or we were brought food. It was very confusing and very overwhelming. My trusty earplugs came in use as my rising anxiety levels increased the sensory overload. It was busy and noisy and a stressful experience. Luckily, this only happened on the first night. After that there were people who scanned our room key and welcomed us to the restaurant, we knew it was all you could eat and there were plenty of staff around to help. The first night was definitely a blip, and maybe my already fairly high anxiety levels augmented the situation for me, as Jake wasn’t too phased by it. I’m just glad everything seemed to go to plan more after that first night.

All in all the food was lovely. All you can eat suited us perfectly as Jake has a big appetite and I can never decide. This meant I was able to try a little bit of everything, and when it came to the desserts, I definitely got my money’s worth. Out of the two restaurants available on premium dining, we preferred ‘The Deck’ it was busier and bigger, but they had live cooking stations where they created made to order dishes fresh. We didn’t visit the other restaurant ‘The Yacht Club’ for dinner but didn’t appear to have the live cooking stations when we went there for breakfast one day. The freshly made pancakes with various toppings were definitely a highlight of the breakfast menu, but there was truly something for everyone. A full English breakfast, cereals, boiled eggs, smoked kippers, pastries, cheeses, meats…the list was endless. All the cooked options were hot, fresh and delicious. We began the day with very happy stomachs and that is how we ended each day too.

The dinner times were a bit restrictive for us. As a place targeted for families 4-7:30 pm would be ideal for younger children, but for us, we could have done with it continuing to be served until much later. It was a minor inconvenience at most and down to personal preference I guess.

The entertainment was the highlight by far. There are several venues with different things on each night. The only problem with that was, we just wanted to see everything! And it’s impossible to be in three places at once, as much as I wish it wasn’t. Each venue had plenty of seating and all were wheelchair accessible. However they could do with investing in a larger lift. At a push, Jake and myself could squeeze into it with a pram, but there could probably only be one wheelchair and one other person at a time. For a busy place with lots of prams, wheelchairs and mobility scooters, this wasn’t really acceptable.

Although all of the entertainment (except the ***circus) is included in the price of the holiday package, many of the activities are at an additional cost, so be prepared to bring a fair bit of cash with you. We paid to do archery and shooting and we thoroughly enjoyed both. Shooting was my favourite, I’d never done it before and enjoyed it because I was better than Jake…by a lot. Although this activity seemed to be stair access only. We couldn’t find any sign of a lift to get up to the activity venue. We may well have missed one so I’d advise people to enquire about access when booking. The archery was on the ground level so that should be fine for people of all abilities.

Although we had to pay for the circus tickets it was well worth the price. If you book online with your holiday package it is just £5 each. It was incredible! I spent half the time with my mouth wide open in awe and the other half wincing fearing something would go wrong. Note to all clown haters, there is a clown – Chico Rico and he was hilarious. There wasn’t a thing about him that was scary (except the possibility of audience participation.) What I especially liked about him was that he didn’t cover his face with garish paint. There was no creepy red smile from ear to ear. No Ronald-Mcdonald-esque crazy bright wig. His clothes were plain and he wore a small cap. His makeup consisted of a small dot of red on his upturned nose and he wore comically large black shoes. There didn’t seem to be a single person in the audience that felt anything but joy as he entertained.

Chico Rico spinning plates

The resort site is large, and can be daunting if you struggle with mobility. There are plenty of benches around for a rest and you can request accommodation close to the entertainment, but this does depend on what accommodation option you have chosen as the site is divided into sections. If like me your condition fluctuates, there is a hire shop where you can hire wheelchairs and mobility scooters, which many people did. For me the mobility scooter hire was a bit too expensive, I’ve also never used one before, and knowing my coordination I’d probably drive it straight into a tree. Instead I took regular breaks and kept my pain killers handy.

Overall, Butlins is perfect for people that are disabled. Almost everywhere I looked there was someone using a mobility aid. It made me feel more normal. Usually I’m the only person under 60 with a walking stick, occasionally I’ll see someone younger, but I still stick out like a sore thumb. At Butlins I didn’t look weird, I blended into the background with everyone else. My walking stick didn’t make me unusual like it usually does.

Butlins seems to attract people with all kinds of disabilities which is a truly great achievement. It welcomes everyone and the staff were brilliant. There were people with all kinds of disabilities or special requirements. There were plenty of adults with learning difficulties as well and the redcoats in particular really helped them be involved. The redcoats didn’t shy away from anyone. One particular instance comes to mind where a man who had downs syndrome was dancing to the music. At the time he was the only adult there apart from the redcoats and the children dancing stayed clear. The redcoats danced with the man, joining in with his dance moves and helped the children understand that they shouldn’t be confused by him or scared of him. He just wanted to have fun and dance. Seeing him beam when they joined in with his dancing was a wonderful and heartwarming experience.

The resort is almost completely wheelchair accessible. There are a couple of places where there is some room for improvement, but overall this is one of the most inclusive places I’ve visited. We enjoyed it so much, that Jake and I extended our stay for an extra weekend. It is a truly wonderful place for everyone and I can’t wait to book my next visit.

*Redcoats are Butlin’s resident entertainers

** https://painprincess.com/2018/06/01/the-princess-and-the-pea/

***Gandey’s Circus – Greatest Showman Tour

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