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Chessington World of Adventures

Address Leatherhead Road
Telephone 0871 663 4477
How to Find it: 5 miles north of Leatherhead on the A243. Half a mile from Chessington South Station. Exit M25 Junction 9.
Area: 14 hectares / 35 acres
No of Species No of Animals Star Rating
Mammals 49 156 Conservation
Birds 88 225 Enclosures
Reptiles 20 45 Education
Amphibians 4 5 Recreation
Fish Research
Total 161 431
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This critique last updated:  Nov 2010

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GoodZoos.com Reviews

You come across the Chessington World of Adventures in the middle of London’s green belt on the Kingston to Leatherhead road, and you can tell at once from the rows of coloured flags and acres of car parks that this is no ordinary zoo. You might be forgiven for believing that Chessington is no more than a glamorous fairground – a nineties theme park with animal sideshows; but as soon as you pass through the gates you learn that this impression is not altogether true, and Chessington does have claims to be a serious animal collection.

Most people remember Chessington simply as Chessington Zoo, an attractive and entertaining collection of animals that has been a summer day-out for Londoners for three generations. The Zoo was opened to the public in the summer of 1931 by the late Mr. R. S. Goddard in the grounds of Chessington Manor. The manor itself has an illustrious history. Originally built in 1348, it became a school for Officers of Archery, and was visited by Queen Elizabeth I. During the Civil War it became a Royalist stronghold, and was burnt to the ground by Cromwell’s army. When it was finally rebuilt in 1660 it was renamed ‘Burnt Stub’. Now it has a commanding position in the centre of the theme park, a venue for conferences, Jacobean banquets, and business lunches.
Chessington is now owned by the Tussaud Group, a leisure company best known for its ownership of Madame Tussaud’s and the London Planetarium. Their other interests include Warwick Castle (the most visited stately home in Britain), Alton Towers, and Rock Circus at the London Pavilion. Chessington is their only zoo. In 1987 the zoo had a change of name and became the Chessington World of Adventures, a name which seemed to reflect the decline in popularity of the traditional zoo, and highlighted Chessington’s attempts to broaden its market appeal. Several million pounds were spent converting what was once a zoo and a funfair into a Disney-style theme park with a monorail (the ‘safari sky-way’), a ‘Wild West Town’, and a host of funfair rides and amusements.

But let us ignore the theme-park aspects of this zoo for the time being. A winding pathway takes you around the park, and the first impression is of a bright, clean, interesting zoo. A lot of wood has been used in the construction of enclosures, and in landscaping the public areas — old railway sleepers, conifer trunks, pine posts, rope, and thatch. The effect is natural, soft, and rather unexpected given the futuristic, technicolour logo that greets visitors to the park. It is not a large zoo, and the walk around is undemanding, but the designers have made it unregimented with something new and surprising around every corner. It is a clean, well maintained, and well staffed zoo, and it shows.

Depending upon the direction you choose at the gate, the new ape house will either be the first impression you receive of the animal collection, or else the climax of the tour. Either way it is an indication that the zoo may still see its role as more than just an adjunct to the theme park. Opened in 1984, the ape house accommodates gorillas and chimpanzees in surroundings modelled on John Aspinall’s ape house at Howletts. The cage is a fair bit smaller than Howlett’s great Gorillarium, and has no slides or swings, but then it holds far fewer apes. Some time will be required to build up the group, but the first gorilla birth in 1990 must have given the keepers here great cause for optimism. It is a good ape house, and provides plenty of diversions for the animals, on a floor covering of deep straw. The other apes at Chessington, the lar gibbons, have a splendid long enclosure at the opposite end of the zoo, full of vegetation, with plenty of opportunity to display their unique brachiating locomotion to good effect.

Other primates, the monkeys and lemurs, are housed in a newly enlarged area of the zoo -, the monkey walk. Here you can see Celebes macaques, lovely little white-throated capuchins, and Barbary apes, among others. The monkey walk is attractive, well laid out, and fun. There are good outdoor pens, not particularly spacious, but well appointed, often planted with grass, and scrupulously clean. Honeysuckle climbs over the covered walk-way, and there is a little hedge of bamboo between each outside cage, affording each group of monkeys some privacy from the monkeys next door. Elsewhere, black and white colobus monkeys have a super tall outdoor cage well equipped with ropes and branches.

Many of the best known and best loved zoo animals may be found somewhere at Chessington. There are giraffe. penguins, camels, lions. polar bears, tigers. sealions and gorillas. The giraffe inhabit a tall, clean, giraffe house with a rather small concrete paddock, and the giraffe have bred here. The polar bears are a young pair, but they look healthy and content which is not always true of this species in captivity. Their enclosure allows for underwater viewing of the bears in a cool, blue, underground viewing room, although you will be lucky to catch them taking a dip.

Cats are well displayed here, although none of the cages are particularly generous with space. Indeed the limitations of space do keep many of the enclosures below a comfortable size, and there is an impression that more room could have been used for some of the animals. The cats include jaguars, and snow leopards, which despite being close to the noise of the fair, have bred in 1990. Tigers are well displayed in a long, luxurious enclosure.

Until recently there were three elephants at Chessington, but the zoo had the misfortune to lose two within a short period of time, and being left with a single cow elephant gave managers the opportunity to reconsider the keeping of these animals. The elephant house had never been spacious, and the public did not take well to the sight of a solitary elephant. So eventually the decision was taken, and it was undoubtedly the right one. The final elephant departed in 1991, and the elephant house was closed. There are beavers with crystal clear water, and otters in a small but interesting compound. Sealions have a typical and rather unexciting pool.

The old bird garden had to move to make way for theme park rides, but Chessington has modelled a new home for its bird collection in ‘Bird Land’, a thoughtfully designed area with plenty of water, wooden bridges and walk-ways. The birds, a large and varied collection, include many familiar species, such as flamingos, owls, storks, and parrots. The flamingos in particular have a delightful pool, grassed around and landscaped with a rocky backdrop. Ibis have a similar enclosure, and the penguins have a small but attractively landscaped pool, with underwater viewing, a rocky bank, and a pebble beach. Andean condors, one of the largest living flying birds have a high outcrop of rock on which to perch.

There is a new and attractive reptile house which is part of the wild west town, decorated as ‘Snakebite Saloon’. Inside it lives up to its name with several large snakes including a beautiful yellow anaconda.

The best feature of the theme park, so far as the zoo is concerned, is the safari skyway — a bright yellow monorail ride which glides high above many of the zoo enclosures. There is a recorded commentary that supplies information about the animals beneath. The rest of the theme park tends to occupy the perimeter of the park, and the theme (since there has to be one) is a loose collection of geographical associations. Thus the park’s best roller coaster (the ‘Vampire’) is in Transylvania, the runaway train is in the Wild West, and the Dragon River Water Ride is in the Mystic East. There is a circus too, and appropriately enough it is Tamara Coco’s circus without animals.

Do funfairs and zoos really mix? It is a difficult question to answer. Where does a zoo like this spend its operating surplus — on better enclosures, or on more rides? Does it trivialise the serious nature of the modern zoo to present animals alongside sideshows as if they were both objects of human entertainment, and nothing more? How do we know if the zoo management sees the animals as anything more than another way to win visitors and earn money? Chessington World of Adventures seems to have struck a balance acceptable to its shareholders, and it is certainly popular. Despite the huge shift in emphasis of recent years from the zoo to the theme park, it has managed to maintain a good animal collection, attractively if not lavishly housed. If you want to visit a good zoo, you would do better driving north to Regent’s Park, east to Howletts or Port Lympne, or south-west to Marwell. If however, you want to take the family for an exciting and entertaining day out, you should certainly get that at Chessington.


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