How Euro Disney forced Alton Towers’ themes

Runaway Mine Train, Alton Towers

John Broome, who sadly died last week, transformed Alton Towers from a country estate containing a few fairground rides, to a modern amusement park.

It was 1980 when the huge Corkscrew double-inverting rollercoaster opened at the Staffordshire attraction.

In reality, that was the starting point of the era of inland amusement parks in the United Kingdom.

But by 1991, Broome had sold up to the Tussauds Group, and Alton Towers was looking uneasily at the imminent opening of Euro Disney in Paris.

Static visitor numbers of about two million, plus the looming Disney threat, led to an inevitable strategy re-think at the Staffordshire attraction.

Limited theming

Actual theme parks, i.e. those with multiple different themed areas within, were not really established in the UK at the start of the 1990s.

Of course there was Camelot with its overall central medieval theme, plus some impressively-themed individual rides throughout the country.

But the concept of immersive, themed areas within a park was not really a British thing, but on the country’s doorstep, it soon would be.

Euro Disney
Euro Disney opened in 1992

Alton Towers was aware of this ever since Euro Disney gained approval. The Staffordshire park then simply had to change its own course in response.

Also, the family market at Alton Towers had been largely lost, with the thrill rides introduced attracting youngsters and huge numbers of school trips – a concept which Broome himself pioneered.

The need for theme, immersion and “magic” according to Nick Varney – by now a marketer at Alton Towers – saw two highly decorated areas introduced in 1992.

They were the African village-style Katanga Canyon, and the sinister-supernatural Gloomy Wood, complete with the Haunted House.

That year, Alton Towers’ £11.50 admission charge was almost half that of the just-opened Euro Disney’s.

A coupon deal with the Sun newspaper was also struck, in attempt to encourage staycationers.

‘Never a destination resort’

The large investments continued into 1994, with Thunder Valley’s dramatic transformation into the post-apocalyptic Forbidden Valley.

The Nemesis rollercoaster was an immediate success, not only due to its intense ride experience but crucially its marketing and dramatic extra-terrestrial theme.

Three million people came through the gates in 1994 after a publicity campaign that truly rivalled Disney.

Nemesis, Alton Towers
Nemesis boosted Alton Towers’ visitor numbers in 1994

Strikingly though, Varney said: “Alton Towers isn’t as sexy as Paris. On its own, it can never be a destination resort.”

But in later years that is exactly what the Staffordshire attraction attempted to present itself as.

The Alton Towers Hotel opened in 1996, the first in an ever-increasing accommodation offering.

But while Alton Towers has indeed been branded as a resort since 2008, it has never shown quite enough commitment to making itself a serious multiple-night destination.

The entertainment offerings both within the park and around the hotels simply aren’t to the standard of the present-day Disneyland Paris.

But in the early 1990s, Euro Disney’s initial influence cannot be overstated. We can only imagine what Alton Towers would be like today without it.