Nick Varney: Giant of the UK theme park industry

As chief executive of Merlin Entertainments, Nick Varney is undoubtedly the most powerful man in the British theme park industry.

His company operates Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Chessington World of Adventures and Legoland Windsor.

Merlin’s annual pass has around 200,000 holders in the UK, all of whom are able to access the group’s theme parks whenever they like.

The company has also spent tens of millions of pounds on new rides and attractions at the four parks over the last couple of years.

But what do we know of the man at the helm of one of Britain’s most successfully-emerging companies?


His career began in marketing during the mid-1980s, and he became marketing director of that department at Alton Towers in 1990.

Alton Towers developed into Britain’s finest-themed amusement park with Varney in charge of marketing

He oversaw the major transformation of the park in terms of its first major themed attractions and areas – Katanga Canyon, Gloomy Wood and Forbidden Valley all being unleashed upon the public’s psyche under his reign.

He headed the marketing department across the Tussauds Group – Alton Towers operators at the time – in 1994 and drove the company’s most successful year up to that point.

The launch of the Nemesis rollercoaster and its associated Forbidden Valley theme of post-apocalyptic destruction was beamed into the homes around the UK via captivating television adverts, increasing the park’s attendance to the highest levels in its history.

The following year he left to become director of marketing at Vardon Attractions – a buyout of whom would lead to the formation of Merlin Entertainments in 1999.

Heading Merlin’s growth

His company has grown year on year via a series of aggressive business buyouts – particularly Tussauds and all of its assets.

Gaining control, via lease, of Britain’s four largest theme parks just prior to the global financial crisis means that Merlin’s level of success in their operation is currently hard to gauge.

The Swarm was brought Thorpe Park this year at a cost of £20 million

This year has seen a number of operation cutbacks at all of Merlin’s theme parks, with reduced ride and park opening times being examples – but multi-million pound investment has also continued during this time.

However, as Merlin nears closer to becoming a public company on the London Stock Exchange, it is displaying more and more signs of already being one each passing month.

It is clear that with Varney at the helm, Merlin has taken a number of financial stances and even actively heads a campaign for a reduction in VAT on tourist attractions and hotel rooms.

He argues that the current rate of 20% makes the UK uncompetitive with Europe, where it is in single figures in many cases.

A famous quote also came last year when he said that free admission to museums and art galleries was largely exploited by “foreign tourists and middle class people who can afford it”.

Critics would argue that he is merely looking out for his and his business’ own interests, but he has always stated that tax relief on the tourism industry would generate tens of thousands of jobs for the young adults that form such a large part of Britain’s unemployed.

The jury is still very much out on Varney’s Merlin in comparison to the infamous ‘magic’ of the Tussauds era, but when the company floats and after the recession has eased, we will all be in a position to make a fair assessment.