Feature: Fairytale Farm

Inspired by founders Nick and Nicola Laister’s eldest daughter, Olivia, who has cerebral palsy, Fairytale Farm meets the needs of disabled children, while still being an attraction that the whole family can enjoy together. As the UK comes out of lockdown and visitor attractions begin to reopen, Bryony Andrews, editor of Park World’s sister publication GlobalAmusementsandPlay.com, spoke to Nick Laister.

Fairytale Farm, based in Oxfordshire, UK, first opened in 2013 and forms part of what was once a 30-acre farm. The area open to the public is around 5.5 acres. Mainly outdoors, key attractions include the Enchanted Walk, Huff & Puff Adventure Playground and Alfie & Friends Animal Area. An indoor café and shop, a play room, an indoor model village called Mouse Town and interactive display Mother Goose’s Garden Party complete the attractions line-up.

“Like a large proportion of families with a severely disabled child, we had children who were not disabled too, explained Nick. “Although there are a number of centres for disabled children, these tended to be somewhat institutional, always requiring advance booking and they don’t really provide for the children who are not disabled, leaving them largely on the sidelines. On the other hand, most mainstream visitor attractions (theme parks, zoos, farm parks) do their best to accommodate disabled children but are generally not fully accessible, leaving the disabled child on the sidelines. Fairytale Farm was designed to allow these families to enjoy a day out completely together.”

Fairytale Farm’s key aim has always been inclusivity. “We want to be an attraction that the whole family can enjoy together, whether disabled or not disabled. Every single member of the family can have a positive experience at fairytale Farm – and the experience will be together as a family. For me personally, I want Fairytale Farm to appear a simple pleasure, slightly old-fashioned even, but with some high technology behind it that the visitor doesn’t see.”

Many of the park’s attractions, such as the Giant’s Camera, Mouse Town, the Beanstalk, the Dancing Musical Fountains are genuinely unique – because the Laisters created them entirely themselves in-house. “Our secret weapon is my eldest son, Guy, who is a computer hardware expert and can just about make anything happen around the site. We are almost completely automated!”

Fairytale Farm ties to cater for a wide variety of disabilities – wheelchair users, autism, visitors with limited vision and more. “It is impossible to make the Farm entirely accessible to every single disability, but we do our best,” said Nick. “We have some plans to improve the experience for our disabled guests further, which should happen over the next 12 to 18 months. Our wheelchair swing remains very popular.”

The COVID effect
“COVID-19 had a pretty devastating effect on us, as we closed on 21 March and were not able to reopen until 20 June,” Nick revealed. “With no income at all, we had to furlough all of our staff and my wife and I had to keep the site ticking over during that period, with the help of a couple of volunteers. We managed to keep our animals fed with a GoFundMe campaign, and we did receive a small grant from the Government. Sadly we have not been able to successfully claim on our insurance, so it has left us in a financially precarious position, and will take us a few years to recover.”

Moving forward, Fairytale Farm has introduced a range of measures to keep guests and staff safe. Every visitor has to book their 30 minute arrival slot online before visiting. The site now has a one-way route with hand sanitisers in numerous locations. There are Perspex screens in front of all tills, and a new an outdoor servery for the café to allow for safer queuing. Inside, tables have at least 1.5m between them, and all queuing areas are operating 2m distancing.

The new system has had some unexpected effects. “Since reopening on 20 June, we have actually been significantly ahead of previous years in revenue, despite capping our visitor numbers,” explained Nick. “Spreading visitors out throughout the day has worked very well for us, with the farm much busier later in the day than would normally be the case, but the staggered entry and one-way route has hit café takings because we don’t necessarily have people around the café at lunchtime, but our ice cream kiosk is selling much more ice cream than last year. Things are very different at the moment for us, but certainly not worse. We have been pleasantly surprised.”

“I actually believe that by this time next year everything will be back to normal, as long as there is a vaccine in place. I really do think this is a temporary situation, but we all have a responsibility to ensure that we keep our guests safe for however long it is necessary. Unfortunately I believe the long-term effect of Covid-19 will be the loss of some great businesses, particularly in the theme park and indoor play/FEC sector, and I think it will be some time before people are confident with indoor play and indoor theatre-style shows.”

New for 2020
The Weather Fairy is a quirky new attraction in the park’s Fairy Dell area. A beautifully crafted, completely bespoke fairy on a swing – designed and built by Margate-based sculptor Andrew Blake – it reacts to the weather to provide a unique and humorous take on weather forecasting. “I got the idea whilst walking along the seafront in Bembridge on the Isle of Wight and watching how the yachts moved in the wind,” said Nick.

Fairytale Farm’s new attraction in Jack’s Yard, meanwhile, is a UK-first: a 10-metre high beanstalk. In front of the beanstalk is Jack’s cow, Daisy, which is a fairly standard milking cow attraction, modified so that it auto-refills – when it refills she goes ‘moo’. “It has all been open since 20th June and is proving very popular. It is a real photo opportunity and has the ‘wow’ factor (as well as the ‘cow’ factor) when people first see it!” said Nick.

Back to basics
“Strangely, in an attraction full of high-tech, computer controlled attractions, it is some of the simpler features that have proven the most popular,” Nick told Park World. “Our Niagara Falls Water Play area, with its water wheel, water channels and dams is always a favourite and gets busy in the summer. And our rubber duck racing, where families can pump ducks down channels using old-fashioned hand pumps and compete with each other, is often given as a favourite. I think the adults like this as much as the children. Our Santa’s grotto is also designed for the adults as much as the children, with authentic antiques and little touches designed to make adults smile.”

Looking ahead
“We have lots of plans to expand. Before COVID, we had already invested in a new indoor play area based around an enchanted forest. This was probably not the greatest investment in hindsight, and probably won’t open now until the autumn.”

Over the next few years, the Laisters are planning a much larger indoor play barn and new café, and are currently building new party rooms, with offices above. “Fairy Dell will get a significant makeover soon, with a fairy village that children can explore. There is to be a new Jungle Book play area, and our first ride will be installed next year – a Piggy Train running around our animal area, manufactured by my good friends at Nicco Parks & Resorts in Kolkata, India.”

Fairytale Farm will be transformed over the next few years, Nick revealed, with an ultimate aim of creating a highly themed environment with great attention to detail… “But with real animals, not fibreglass!”

Check out the article with all accompanying images in this month’s issue of Park World!

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