Avoiding the theme park struggles of the past

Swinging chair ride (Chair-O-Plane)

In the space of less than a decade, the UK lost four decent-size theme parks – the American Adventure (2007), Loudoun Castle (2010), Camelot (2012) and Pleasure Island (2016).

Today, with inflation at a 40-year high and family incomes squeezed, the UK theme park industry is battening down for a difficult 2023 as it rides out what has already been a challenging 2022.

Some parks have been affected more than others, with those in the North and West seemingly most affected by modest visitation.

Confusingly, this is against a backdrop of almost universal rises in attendances since the ending of COVID-19 lockdowns and social restrictions.

But it is a fact that many parks in the second half of 2022 have been much quieter than what would be expected for the summer and half-term holidays.

And it is the independent parks which are again likely to feel the pressure more than those operated by giants Merlin Entertainments.

Investment choices

Merlin has still realised that it needs to invest at a faster pace, which is why we have seen considerable planning activity from the company in 2022.

Many of its traditional staggered investment strategies have fallen by the wayside, as all of Merlin’s four UK theme parks are pursuing significant investment projects simultaneously.

The company has realised that it has some catching up to do, with most of its parks having not seen major rollercoaster investments for more than a decade.

The need to spend money wisely remains obvious but has been reinforced by the seemingly lukewarm effect of the Icon rollercoaster on Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s fortunes.

Big Dipper, Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s Big Dipper will close almost a month before the end of the park’s 2022 season

Concerningly, the Pleasure Beach has pushed back its 2023 opening date by more than a month.

With guest numbers seemingly down significantly this season (compared with the pre-COVID era), the park is displaying signs of responding to adversity.

Charging more to make up for lost revenue has rarely a successful tactic, despite its superficial appeal to some revenue calculators.

This leads to the other obvious option of reducing operating costs.

Some rides at the Pleasure Beach are failing to make it to the end of the season, with their maintenance windows being brought forward despite the absence of obvious breakdowns.

But any theme park’s decisions on what rides to close – be that early in a season, early in a day or even permanently – should be made with care.

Target market consolidation

Turning to the family and young children model has proven to be a risk for theme parks in the past.

The American Adventure closed in 2007 after 20 years of operation, but its 1990s peak was driven by a thrilling line-up of rides which drew people in.

As it looked it retreat into a lower-cost family model in the 2000s, the park soon collapsed. A few years later Camelot followed a similar fate.

Lightwater Valley has however seemingly demonstrated that a consolidation around younger guests can be successful, as indicated by earnings reports from new owners the Brighton Pier Group.

Lightwater Valley
Lightwater Valley is “trading above expectations” according to its owners

A complete absence of thrill rides does however raise questions over long-term viability of a theme park not based around a large Intellectual Property (IP).

The huge UK successes of targeting the younger market are notably Legoland Windsor and to a lesser degree Paultons Park, but the latter does have some more thrilling offerings.

Perhaps evidence of the model’s success could also be extended to the smaller vintage and heritage parks, where nostalgia seems to keep people coming in.

But the seemingly inevitable recession coming the UK’s way means that guests’ budgets will be stretched to their limits.

Nostalgia alone is unlikely to be sufficient draw as people look to maximise value for money.

Filling gaps

Chessington World of Adventures has openly stated that it is filling a gap with its forthcoming rollercoaster, which will have a 1.4-metre height restriction.

This is a family park that has some moderately thrilling rides but has made moves away from the more intense side over the years, removing several examples.

Chessington’s decision to invest in a more thrilling ride is reportedly due to direct guest feedback about what the park lacks.

While Merlin has both the funds and market research resources smaller independent parks could never compete with, the importance of diversity in offerings is still crucial.

German-inspired ‘Oktoberfest’ events have been growing in prominence in recent years

Teenagers and adults visiting without children often bring the highest guest spend per head. They are a slice of the market that is ignored at a park’s peril.

Events are also significant in today’s market, be that Halloween-themed in October and in September possibly German beer, food and music-based.

These previously quieter parts of the season have been successfully made more appealing by the bigger parks.

Most parks are on board with Halloween-themed events these days, but many have catching up to do with regards to the off-peak periods in Spring and Autumn.

Few people know how close the UK is to losing its next theme park, but there are certainly some tough times ahead given rising operating costs largely due to staffing and energy.

The parks that are to both survive and thrive are likely to be ones where there is a balance of the old, the new, the thrilling and the mundane.