This year, Blackpool Pleasure Beach celebrates its 125th anniversary.
Britain’s most famous amusement park has entertained families for generations, long before the modern UK theme park era took hold in the 1980s.
In fact, it was almost a century prior to that when the Pleasure Beach was established by William George Bean in 1896.
The park has endured two World Wars, the emergence of mass foreign air travel, multiple recessions and today it is weathering the fallout from the COVID-19 epidemic.
Although attendances appear to be down, and the park is very different from its walk-on, pay-per-ride heyday, its century-and-quarter history have made it a bastion of resilience.
‘England’s Coney Island’
The land that would soon become home to the Pleasure Beach was a place for rollercoaster fans as early as 1891.
10 years before the death of Queen Victoria, the Switchback was entertaining families as one of the earliest examples of a rollercoaster in Britain.
But it was Bean’s takeover that established the park and also sealed its directional fate. He was inspired by the amusement parks of the United States, and by the early 1900s, American-influenced rides were being installed in earnest.
The Scenic Railway and Velvet Coaster – the latter now immortalised in the name of a nearby JD Wetherspoons pub – opened in 1907 and 1909 respectively.
The Flying Machines and River Caves were tamer additions, but still ground-breaking and wondrous at the time. They of course still operate to this day.
The Flying Machines are today a Grade II listed building due to their age and rarity, but it reported that their designer, Sir Hiram Maxim, felt at the time they were a “glorified merry-go-round”.
And the Spanish Flu pandemic of the late 1910s took its toll on the park as Blackpool’s beaches stood empty during what should have been a time for celebration after the First World War.
But the Pleasure Beach soon bounced back, calling itself ‘England’s Coney Island’ in light of Bean’s early inspiration from across the Atlantic.
In the 1920s, headline rollercoasters in the Virginia Reel and Big Dipper were up and running, with Bean’s lasting mark on the Pleasure Beach enshrined.
The Thompson family name took control of the park shortly after Bean’s death in 1929, and for decades the family has effectively continued his vision, with numerous wooden and American-inspired rides being added over the years.
But with Doris Thompson (born 1903) being a Bean by birth and a Thompson by marriage, it can be fairly said that the park has never truly changed family ownership in its history.
And from the mid 1970s, Doris’ influence was concurrent with that of her son Geoffrey’s, as they effectively led the park between them. Doris’ hands-on approach saw her testing the rides herself until the age of 99.
She led the park as its chairwoman for decades prior to Geoffrey taking over in 1976, but her appointment of him to managing director marked the start of a new era of steel rides for the Pleasure Beach.
In 1979, the park installed the first steel inverting rollercoaster in Europe, in the form of Revolution. Two-years previously the less white-knuckle, but equally distinctive, horse-themed Steeplechase had opened.
During the late 1980s, John Wardley – famous for his later work with Tussauds and Merlin Entertainments – briefly worked with the park as an ‘illusionist consultant’, and the Mystique magic show was shaped by his input.
Peak of powers
Back to rollercoasters, and The Avalanche (1988) and Big One (1994) continued to capture the British public’s imagination, and by the mid-1990s the park often remained open until the early hours during the peak season.
In today’s money, the Pleasure Beach was capable of taking almost a million pounds each day, and up to 85,000 people could sometimes, and somehow, be squeezed into the park’s 42 acres.
The park was at the peak of its powers during the 1990s, directly competing with major rollercoaster launches at Alton Towers and Drayton Manor and appearing on national TV in the form of a behind-the-scenes documentary.
It was during this period that the park also embraced the sponsoring – and later intellectual property (IP)-basing – of its rides.
Pepsi Max, Irn-Bru, PlayStation and the Daily Star all lent their names to ride associations.
Today, Nickelodeon, Wallace & Gromit and the RAF Red Arrows all have representation following their introduction during the 2010s.
But after the Big One and the heights of the 1990s, it would be 14 years before the park installed another custom-build rollercoaster.
Geoffrey and Doris’ final major ride launch was Valhalla in 2000, and it was arguably their most spectacular and celebrated before their deaths, both in 2004 at the ages of 67 and 101 respectively.
After jointly leading the Pleasure Beach for almost three decades, it seemed almost logical that they would depart together.
Infusion appeared in 2007, and was standard model rollercoaster relocated from Southport Pleasureland – previously part of the Thompson portfolio.
Under Geoffrey’s daughter Amanda’s artistic direction, the ride made a big impact with its striking blue paintwork and array of water features prompting that eternal question from guests: “do you get wet on it?”
Under Amanda, the park ended free walk-on admission. Paid entry and ride wristbands largely replaced ride tokens.
The ending of walk-on admission is still hotly debated today, but it has at least kept the park a relatively safe and secure environment.
The Pleasure Beach has continued to invest, often with help from the local council, who continue to understand how much a vital part the Pleasure Beach is to the town of Blackpool.
In 1922, the Manchester Guardian described how the park was “the earthly paradise of a shrewd, hard-working people”, and this has held true since.
Significant new additions came during the 2010s, which saw Nickelodeon Land, Wallace & Gromit’s Thrill-O-Matic and the RAF Red Arrows-sponsored Skyforce all added to the park.
The Icon rollercoaster arrived in 2018, and while the reaction among enthusiasts has been overall very positive, it does remain to be seen if this huge investment will pay off in the long run.
Still, the fact that the Pleasure Beach could finance such a ride is a testament to the park being the biggest independent that force to rival Merlin Entertainments in the UK.
The park would have been preparing to open this coming weekend had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic – arguably its biggest challenge to date.
Not even two World Wars managed to force the closures that came a result of coronavirus, but it seems certain that the park will once again prevail.
Past and present co-existing
Perhaps the best thing about the Pleasure Beach is that it maintains full respect of its past. The wooden rides are preserved and taken just as seriously as the later steel rollercoasters.
The park is both an interactive museum and a display of modern technology on the Lancashire coast.
As Historic England so finely puts it: There is no other park that still reflects so much of the history of this industry.
In 2017, the Wild Mouse became the first classic rollercoaster to be removed since the Virginia Reel in the early 1980s.
It was reluctantly demolished by the Thompsons, but it finally occurred only after several stays of execution for the much-loved wooden ride.
In wood and steel, the park has embraced major new technological innovations twice in its history, but it would be fair to say it has survived and thrived by following trends, rather than being a true pioneer itself.
That said, the park still topped the world with the launch of the Big One, and Valhalla remains almost universally lauded.
Following the successful eras of wood and steel, it seems that Blackpool Pleasure Beach stands waiting to embrace another major new innovation in ride design. We can only guess as to what that might be.
Special thanks to the UK Theme Park Hall of Fame for their contributions to this article.