Every year in September, the Magical Taxi Tour takes children with life-threatening illnesses on a three-day trip to Disneyland Paris. OnRoute Magazine (by Transport for London) talked to one family who participated this year and the driver who took them.
The trip is organised annually by the Worshipful Company of Hackney Carriage Drivers, starting with the Grand Depart at Canary Wharf before heading across the channel into France. When running, it’s an incredible sight with more than 100 taxis, City of London Police escorts, Gendarmerie Nationale, London Ambulance NHS Trust vehicles and AA breakdown trucks stretching out for more than three miles.
None of this would happen without the taxi drivers, who give their time and use of their taxis for free, and sponsors who fund the £1,500 per taxi necessary to meet the expenses of hotel, fuel, food and admission charges.
A few weeks after this year’s tour, driver Ahmed Kasabali and the family he took on the trip, consisting of dad Tony Matharu, daughter Freya, 13, and son Theo, 9, were reunited at the Knowledge of London offices at Pier Walk. Ahmed’s FX taxi was sponsored by funds raised by the Licensing and Regulation team at TfL and Helen Chapman, TfL’s Director of Licensing and Regulation, met everyone to chat about their experience and hand over gifts from London Transport Museum, including model taxis.
Ahmed was a delivery driver before getting his badge last year. He’d never even heard of the Magical Taxi Tour until the day he stopped his cab behind another, which had an advert for the tour on its rear bumper. Intrigued, he googled it and as the father of two young sons himself, rang the charity and volunteered.
‘I was keen to help,’ he explains, ‘and I was so very happy to get Tony and his family as my passengers. The time I spent with them was wonderful. ‘On this kind of trip, where you will be driving with someone for long hours, it’s important to have a positive person with you because they will be with you for three days. I feel like the luckiest driver on the whole tour to have had Tony and his family with me. It felt as if we had known each other for years.’
Tony, who describes himself as the ‘biggest kid in the family’, had also never heard about the tour and it was while his daughter Freya was undergoing treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital that he was first approached about it. He recalls: ‘A person from one of the cancer charities said going on the Magical Taxi Tour could be a possibility.
I don’t remember registering for it, but the charity said they would take care of it and our names were put forward and we were made aware this could happen. I thought it would just be a normal trip, but my wife showed us photos from previous years and I suddenly realised this is such a huge thing and very exciting.’
The family had never been to Disneyland and were a little overwhelmed by the whole experience, including the journey there and back. Although Freya is more of a Marvel fan than Disney, she really enjoyed all the rides at Disneyland and the huge party held there on the last night in Paris. She also loved Ahmed’s TX electric taxi with its panoramic roof and doors that open like a Bentley’s.
Freya’s younger brother Theo had never been on a rollercoaster before and although initially slightly nervous, is now a big fan. He was also very keen on the Mickey Mouse-shaped pancakes served at the Grand Depart at the beginning of the trip, although not so much on the very early start from Canary Wharf.
The long way down
It’s a long drive to Paris from Canary Wharf, but as Ahmed explains, it is very well organised with breaks every two hours or so. ‘One of the highlights for me was when the convoy stopped at a petrol station in Paris,’ he says. ‘Normally, you just stop for fuel and maybe a coffee, but here there were bands, music and people in costumes, and free food and presents to welcome the children. Everyone was so excited to see us, it was so lovely.’
Tony also says getting to Disneyland was just as good as being there. ‘It made us feel very special to see all of the outriders and the French traffic police almost dancing with their semaphore like arm directions. We were treated like royalty. We had a few conversations with locals and other drivers and they were asking us ‘what is going on?’ It was priceless to us and so nice to have been given this opportunity. We want to thank Ahmed from the bottom of all our hearts.
Ahmed, you made it worthwhile, your openness, your love. The day after we got back it wasn’t the same because you weren’t there.’ Ahmed replies: ‘When I joined the first day and saw that this family was going to be my family, it was wonderful. It was such a lovely weekend, maybe some of the loveliest days of my life.’
Tony, who is a behavioural specialist working in a school in Kent, says that at the Grand Depart many of the taxi drivers mistook him for a driver as well. When he told them he wasn’t they said he really should be. He is now considering whether he should start doing the Knowledge and Ahmed has already offered to lend him his blue book.
Having met Ahmed and the family, Helen Chapman said: ‘Being able to sponsor a taxi at the Magical Taxi Tour and attend the big send off at Canary Wharf is a hugely emotional experience. I felt so hugely emotional experience. I felt so privileged to meet the warrior Freya, her brother Theo and dad Tony, and they were immediately so welcoming that I felt I had known them for years. It was heart-warming and infectious to see their excitement and I felt humbled to stand and wave them and all the other families off on a trip of a lifetime.
‘To meet Ahmed was also so heartening. A newly qualified driver with a young family of his own and giving up his time to help this wonderful charity – a true inspiration. Seeing the convoy of black cabs leaving and the excited smiles and waving never fails to reduce me to tears and this year it was all the more special having spent time with them all.
‘I was so pleased they all agreed to come in and have a chat with us about their experience after the trip, and we even managed to introduce them to our Commissioner, Andy Lord. It was great seeing Ahmed reconnect with some of the Knowledge examiners that put him through his paces and they had a chat with Tony about the Knowledge too, so who knows – perhaps one year in the future we will be sponsoring a cab that Tony is driving!’
The next trip will be on 20 September 2024 and Licensing and Regulation is hoping to sponsor two taxis for this outing. If you feel you could help in any way at all, contact the charity direct.