Friday, 13 June 2014

Plymouth National Marine Aquarium

This visit to Plymouth National Marine Aquarium was one of our holiday 'proper days out' which means it was something we had to pay to do.  I don't know if that seems really stingy, but to be honest we just don't have the money to go everywhere we'd like to.  This means on our trips we take our lunch with us, we take drinks, we rarely buy anything from the gift shop - postcards are about our limit!

Prices ::

Speaking of money, there were a couple of things I wanted to say about the entrance prices for the aquarium.  We always take a letter with us regarding Smiler's disabilities, although (whether it's politically correct or not) we rarely get any further than getting it out of his bag before they tell us they didn't need to see anything.  One of those times that a clearly visible indicator of disability is a positive thing, and between the wheelchair, Smiler's allegedly dysmorphic features and his and our signing to communicate, we seem to tick the box.  This meant that we paid £9.75 for his ticket, and Mr Manley went free as his carer.  I was surprised to be told that the tickets were valid for a year, which is a great deal for locals - I only wish that Bristol Aquarium did the same!

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Physical Accessibility ::

The website states that the aquarium is "accessible by ramps and lifts throughout", and although strictly speaking this is true, it would be great if the lift could fit more than one wheelchair / pushchair in at a time - Smiler and I joined the lift queue with six other 'loads' in front of us, which naturally took a while to work through.  If the aquarium was an old building that would be too expensive to improve access throughout then that would be different, but when you join that long a queue you can't help but sigh.  I don't think it is important that the others in the queue were all parents with pushchairs, it doesn't make any difference as physical access requirements are broadly the same, which in my mind makes this an issue for families in general.

Something else that occurred to me while I waited was that it seems unfair that families have to split up because of the size of a lift - the family directly in front of us seperated into mum plus babe in pushchair for the lift, and dad plus quite toddly-toddler headed off, followed closely by Mr Manley, Noah and Petal.  Maybe something that isn't felt so keenly when you know in another year or two you'll all be walking, but one of those very gradual crushing details that get to you when you've already been doing it for more than twelve years.

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Love love love the photos I took around the aquarium - seems that my camera has an enchanted postcard setting sometimes!  That one just up there, with the light filtering through the water picking out the highlights of the fish (and the shark!) - a freeze frame of motion through the water...

Movement around the aquarium ::

As commented in Physical Accessibility above, movement around the aquarium is mostly via ramps for level changes, which worked well for us.  Smiler can self propel in his chair but doesn't usually mind if we take over.  Although there is plenty of space to move around we did steer a few times at busier points, as there were lots of little ones around that Smiler would have sent flying as he focused on the next bit he wanted to see oblivious to those around him.  Smiler walked a little, but his back problems mean he tires easily at the moment so this was mostly at the beginning.  

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Exhibits ::

As the aquarium is firmly aimed at the family market there were plenty of things to look at and find out about that interested both Smiler and his siblings.  Smiler's understanding is at around a 30 month level and so the more visual displays were perfect for him - the vast majority of fish and other marine life were easy to spot within the tanks and there were clear photos of what you were looking for at the side, in case you weren't sure (I was never sure, except with Nemo.  I definitely found Nemo.)

Noah and Petal read a lot of the displays, while Smiler was fascinated by the questions that you had to lift up or slide out of the way to see the answers.  These were positioned low enough that even if he was in his chair he could still comfortably reach them.  In a couple of places there were raised platforms in front of the tanks, which often mean they could not safely be accessed by Smiler - his chair could not get close enough and he was too wobbly on his feet to chance him on the (completely steady and undoubtedly utterly safe for toddlers) platform.  Unfortunately because Smiler is a reasonable height and weight for his age (twelve) it felt too risky, but this was not in many places.

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Told you I found Nemo!

Facilities ::

Usual story with regards to appropriate personal care facilities - disabled toilets but no Changing Place.
I usually ask to use the first aid facilities but the timing worked out okay this time, so can't comment on what those were like!

We ate our picnic lunch outside, which was lovely - you didn't have to go out of the building, find somewhere to eat and then head back in again, and there were well maintained picnic tables to sit at while the kids chattered about what they'd seen so far.  It made a nice change to not feel like some kind of outcast because you brought your own lunch, and the views were incredible!

I can't comment on the food available in the restaurant / cafe as we didn't get anything from there, but it looked clean and bright and while it was busy, this of course is to be expected in the school holidays.

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Smiler was in hysterics over this fish, after we told him what he was looking for.  He just looks like he's holding so still, trying so hard to look inedible!

Accessible Parking ::

There are five or six free parking spaces available for blue badge holders - you have to drive past the entrance for the carpark on your left (evfacebooken though all the signs are really trying to make you go in) and then take a left at the mini roundabout - as always, make sure you display your badge and your clock, set to the the time that you parked.  If these spaces are taken (and I think they probably go pretty swiftly) there are spaces allocated to badge holders in the car park, but you do have to pay to park.

Not important in the scheme of things, but the arrangement of the spaces in that car park is really really odd - all on different angles and lots of turns you have to get half way around then reverse a bit before going forwards again - maybe the architect was a massive crazy paving fan!

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See what I mean about a camera that takes postcard pictures?

And so ...

The building was Smiler-able, with gentle slopes and plenty of turning room, and the huge windows of the biggest tanks meant that he could appreciate the scale of the exhibits, filling his senses with the patterns of light and movement.  The careful and consistent presentation of information suitable for a family audience meant that Smiler could find plenty of displays that he found interesting and could understand.  The facilities relevant to a visitor with a wheelchair were adequate, and though our need for a Changing Place was not met, this wasn't a surprise as they are still relatively rare, but maybe one day! 

Everyone enjoyed themselves, and would happily return another day to see it all again.  The staff were friendly and knew their stuff backwards; the exhibits were attractive, interesting and educational; and there was loads to see.  We were all a little fished out by the time we left, but the kids chattered nonstop in the car on the way back, with lots of 'did you see the crab do that funny thing?  He looked like he was dancing!'; 'turtle!'; and 'I've never seen an upside down jellyfish before'.

 I'd definitely recommend Plymouth National Marine Aquarium to families with or without a member who uses a wheelchair, walking frame or stick, or who has a learning disability.  We had a fab time, and if you choose to visit, I'm certain you will too.

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