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What were the UK Merlin parks actually like during the Tussauds era?

Matt N

Strata Poster
Hi guys. When talking about the ex-Tussauds UK parks (aka Alton, Thorpe & Chessington), many people like to hark back to the 1990s and 2000s, when Tussauds still owned the parks. As someone who wasn’t around when Tussauds owned these parks (as someone born in 2003, I’ve only experienced these parks under Merlin’s tenure), I often get the impression from some of those who were fortunate enough to experience these parks prior to Merlin’s ownership that Tussauds = perfect in every way and Merlin = evil conglomerate that can do no right, and the parks’ fortunes turned drastically south the instant that Merlin acquired the parks on 5th March 2007, but some others suggest that it may be a little more nuanced than that; there were some reviewers, such as Coaster Kingdom, who had a more cynical view of the Tussauds parks than most, and I’d say that The Magic Factory actually paints a surprisingly cynical picture of 1990s Alton Towers in parts of the program.

So my question to you is; what was actually different back in the UK parks of the 1990s & 2000s to now? And is the impression that Tussauds could do no wrong and Merlin can do no right a correct one in your view, or is it more nuanced?

I’d be very intrigued to hear your thoughts and hear some accounts of what the parks were actually like back then, if anyone wouldn’t mind sharing!
 

Pokemaniac

Mountain monkey
Staff member
Administrator
Moderator
I think it should be mentioned that the parks grew a lot during the Tussauds era, but under Merlin new additions have been few and far between. That's an immediately noticeable difference that may partially explain why people look fondly back at the Tussauds years. However, I think Tussauds would also have stopped building eventually. There is a limit to how many attractions a park can sustain. The change of management coincided with the end of the explosive growth, but it might not necessarily be related.

That being said, I don't think Merlin is doing that great of a job maintaining their lineup. Thorpe in particular is due a really expensive overhaul they just keep postponing.
 

Jamesss

Mega Poster
Maybe it's the nostalgia talking, but the parks were a lot better.

I used to make yearly visits to Chessington and Thorpe in the early 2000's.

Thorpe Park's best era was 2002-2006. A good balance of thrill and family rides and a family-friendly atmosphere. Seemed to be on the up.

Chessington was also good during that era and may have been even better during the 90's.

Sounds cheesy, but both parks seemed to have more "magic" in those days - closer to the feeling you get at somewhere like Efteling today.

I only visited Towers once during that era and can't remember it all that well, but I will say I miss the Black Hole and would prefer it to the Smiler any day.
 

spicy

Giga Poster
90's and early 2000's were peak Tussaud's era, particularly at CWoA and AT in 90's. To echo above the parks definitely felt to have a lot more 'magic' back then with overall cleanliness and general upkeep of the parks just seemed to be better with high quality attractions over quantity.

I would say that CWoA has suffered the most in regards to having the magic sucked out by Merlin.

Things like the talking figures that sucked in trash all removed, the animatronics everywhere (Laughing Pirate in Pirates cove, The Mexicans in the Rattlesnake queue line etc) the rockwork around the runaway train and dragon falls all removed. The Safari Skyway removed, there's more I'm sure but all these add up to be at detriment to the overall atmosphere and 'magic'.
(I must add, Merlin do seem to have recently started to take a bit more care of CWoA with the Vampire organ player animatronic recently getting refurbished and obviously Croc Drop and the rumoured B&M coaster in the pipeline things are looking brighter for the park.)

Tussaud's were also great at creating amazing dark rides in the 90's such as Terror Tomb, Toyland Tours and The haunted house, dark rides we could only dream of Merlin creating. I guarantee if a child today could ride Toyland Tours & Gangsta Granny not one child would choose Gangsta Granny as their favourite of the two.

(This Terror Tomb PoV shows how good it used to be:)

Tussaud's benefited from John Wardley pulling the strings creating amazing themed coasters such as Vampire, Nemesis, Oblivion & Air (Some may not say Air but I liked it).
Alton & CWoA had amazing new themed areas created by Wardley & Tussaud's - Katanga Canyon/Gloomy Wood/Forbidden Valley/X Sector/ Transylvania/ Forbidden Kingdom etc.
All Tussaud's coasters would open with an amazing marketing buzz, great logos soundtracks and overall theme, I just don't seem to find Merlin capture it the same way? (e.g. black coaster track destruction/horror theme Swarm/Saw/Th13teen) Could just be nostalgia on my behalf though.

1998 Tussaud's purchased Thorpe and the early 2000's was incredibly exciting for Thorpe and to be an enthusiast. Tidal Wave, Vortex, Detonator, Zodiac Colossus and Nemesis Inferno all in the space of 4 years, the first MTDP was released and the forums were buzzing with plans and speculation of what was to come next, it was really exciting, I don't believe we will ever see anything like this at a UK park again.

Then Tussaud's unfortunately just prepared the parks for a quick sale and we got filler attractions Spinball and Rita plonked in Alton with not much thought.

So in short I believe some of the Tussaud's era may be fuelled by nostalgia and the excitement of all the quick growth each park experienced with highly themed dark rides, areas and coasters being added pretty often at each park, coupled with the fact the parks did have more 'magic' in general back then means the Tussaud's era is looked back on more fondly than the current Merlin era.
 

Heth

Mega Poster
Tussauds were not perfect. However, what they did do was oversee the growth of many parks into major destinations we know today.

Chessington grew from a zoo into a theme park under them. The park arguably peaked in 2000, and I'd argue that Tussauds also let the park decline beyond that. Merlin, however, let it get much much worse beyond that, and have added very few rides since taking over.

Thorpe absolutely boomed in the 2000s under Tussauds. It had big rides and also a healthy mix of family rides too, and was a pleasant park. Whilst Merlin have added 2 coasters under their ownership, the park as a whole has declined.

I would strongly argue to Alton Towers has suffered the least under Merlin. Tussauds developed the park under their ownership, however Merlin have actually added quite a lot since taking over too. I don't agree with many investments, but they have also added a lot.

My general comment would be that whilst Merlin have added coasters to parks, this has been at the cost of being more well-rounded parks. Thorpe in 2006 had Stealth, XNWO, Nemesis Inferno and Colossus (before it hurt) along with a mix of fresh new flat rides and family rides including Loggers Leap. Since then only 2 coasters have been added, the park has fewer flat rides, no Loggers Leap and a rubbish dark ride. The park is run down and borderline abandoned in places. For me the addition of the Swarm and Saw does not offset this.
 
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JoshC.

Giga Poster
I often get the impression from some of those who were fortunate enough to experience these parks prior to Merlin’s ownership that Tussauds = perfect in every way and Merlin = evil conglomerate that can do no right, and the parks’ fortunes turned drastically south the instant that Merlin acquired the parks on 5th March 2007, but some others suggest that it may be a little more nuanced than that; there were some reviewers,

So my question to you is; what was actually different back in the UK parks of the 1990s & 2000s to now? And is the impression that Tussauds could do no wrong and Merlin can do no right a correct one in your view, or is it more nuanced?

The Merlin takeover isn't necessarily as big as is sometimes made out. It effectively added on another layer on senior management (which don't get me wrong, is big), but it's not like there was some huge shake up. Merlin changed philosophy a bit (in particular, a bigger focus on overall experience and unique rides), but not too much more.

It's hard for me to give a good answer to what the Tussauds parks were like. I only visited Towers once under their ownership, so can hardly comment there. I was 12 when the takeover happened, so my views and memories will be very different.
But ultimately, the parks were run well and earned a profit. They received suitable investments and were looked after.

Thorpe was purchased and they accelerated the development of the park.
Towers was always the key park, but things were fizzling away towards the end as they became unsure what developments to make next.
Chessington received necessary investments (Vampire work and Dragon's Fury in particular)

They weren't perfect (because no company is). They were one of the first theme park companies to bring in a paid Fastrack system, I think. They didn't focus on theming with their projects (not a bad thing per see, but even in the early 2000s, you could see that was something that would be needed). We could go on.
But they also did good in advancing the parks with (at the time) modern trends. Halloween events being a prime example.

Merlin get a lot of stick, much of it justified, but some of it not. They have kept up with industry trends (and arguably revitalised the idea of non-Universal/Disney parks really using IPs). They have invested frequently in their parks (even if that has slowed down lately). There's been a lot of problems which have overshadowed the good.

I don't really know what the overall point I'm making here is. I guess both companies run the parks well and in a suitable fashion for the eras they were/are operating in, but there's certainly a lot more they could have done.

The main difference is that Merlin will compromise on quality to cut minimal costs. Tussauds were not perfect but took pride in their work and would regularly maintain theming and effects.
hmmm, I don't think it's quite so straightforward. Tussauds certainly cut costs and corners, and usually the first thing to go would be theming and effects. Merlin are by no means perfect, especially when it comes to maintaining special effects, but they do actually introduce them.

And as much as I hate to bring up this example, it's hard for me to agree that Tussauds would take pride in their work and yet build, and leave, the Air station and tunnel in the state it has been ever since.
 

FistedColossus

Hyper Poster
@JoshC. Air is an exception tbf.

Tussauds opened not just quality coasters but world class themed areas over the years. And their track record with maintaining these areas to a consistently high standard was a lot better than Merlin's.

Nemesis blood waterfalls ran like clockwork for 15 years and a lot of pride was taken in keeping Forbidden Valley an immersive experience.

Tidal Wave at Thorpe too. The fire burst effect didn't always run regularly but it was never completely switched off to save money AFAIK. Also the various other water effects throughout the queue line. Again Amity Cove was a world class themed area and now it's just a confusing mess.

I just don't think Merlin value the overall themed experience like Tussauds did. Granted Tussauds were not Disney but the day out felt a lot more well rounded than the current enter park > ride coasters > go home experience.

Merlin are the masters of turd polishing. Wicker Man looks the part but it's just been plonked there in the pirate area... I think?!
 

furie

SBOPD
Staff member
Administrator
Moderator
I think that most things have been said already to be honest. I can add a little.

I believe that (probably with John Wardley pushing), Tussauds wanted to be the British Disney. The investments were high quality and consistently presented through around a 10-year period (1992/3 - 2002/3?). It all just came together really well. For people who never saw Forbiden Valley with the "Nemices" stall and battle wagon double decker - you've really missed out.

It always felt like there was a plan. Each area (in each park) was lovingly pulled together with a backstory and theming to match.

I only had brief visits to the other parks - but Alton I knew well. The park went from a complete chore - massive queues for everything - open tarmac and concrete with temporary fairground attractions essentially plonked down. Please, nobody mistake pre-Tussauds Alton Towers for a "Theme Park". Well, if you class Six Flags parks as Theme Parks, you could I suppose... It rose to be a well oiled and well presented machine. Yeah, there were queues, but you didn't mind because all the queue lines were well themed and interacted with the rides.

It was never Disney (or Busch), but it was in the same ballpark.

The "rot" set in as Tussauds looked to sell. It became clear in 2003 or so that investments were to increase visitor numbers to increase the sale value. No point in spending money on theming or upkeep - it will never pay itself back in the two/three year sale window.

Once the parks were bought, they became in investment which needed to pay back dividends. I think this is where Tussauds always played the long game. Heavy investment, increase head count, sell for profit. I don't know if the parks were hugely profitable under Tussauds, but it didn't matter as long as their ten-year plan worked, and they made their money in the sale.

Merlin then inherited parks that needed to turn big profits and quickly. They inherited parks where investment had been recently poor - but they could see that poor investment still saw rises in head-count. Yes, they needed to keep a certain level of quality, but they never saw the real need for it. "Build it, and they will come!" Seemed to be the new philosophy... That and pretty much having the monopoly on the theme park market in the UK.

So, two very different approaches to business. One benefitted us in the past, the other keeps the parks open and filled with new(ish) attractions.

The problem is, I just don't think either works. Long term, you lose business. If your investments are poor and cheap, people stop returning, and you hit "the downward spiral". If your investments are expensive and immersive, you don't make any money.

We all know about "the downward spiral" - we've all seen it over the last couple of decades. Now, I'm not suggesting that Chessington will be the next "Camelot", or Alton the next "American Adventure" - but there's a danger still. Tussauds seemed to know that happy customers returned. They told others to go. There wasn't any customer churn, and you CAN get away with a few years of zero/low investment, if your current investment is strong.

I used to visit Alton pretty much every weekend in season (and quite often out of season) from 2002 - 2012 maybe? 2002 was the last "great year" I remember. Air was lacklustre at best. Spinball abysmal. From then on, year on year the quality of investments got worse and worse. Theming was spotty (or quite often clearly unfinished on opening) and slowly there was less at the park, yet prices and costs as a visitor kept rising. It just reached a point where every time I went, I felt like Merlin was just taking my wallet out for me and taking whatever it wanted. A day at the Towers became a budgeting exercise, not a day of fun.

Is that harsh? I think it is, because I'm not sure that the parks are actually that bad value for money, for guests doing an annual trip. This is their main customer base and their main source of income. However, I often talk to people, and it seems wrong that visitors should feel that it's "the norm" to have to buy fasttrack. "Parking isn't free in town, so I suppose it's okay to here too?" isn't something people should be saying as they leave. And it's a bad taste in people's mouths that cause "the downward spiral". I think they're okay at the moment, but how long they can keep it up, I really don't know.

BTW - I know that management largely stayed in place after the transition, but the same management with different budgeting and profit priorities will always make very different decisions. Tussauds seemed cash rich, Merlin cash poor. The focus is very different in business in those two scenarios.
 

chainedbanana

Mega Poster
Tussards especially in the early years of the 80s to mid 90s were DESIGN led - spearheaded by the likes of John Wardley, and often partnering with Sparks creative etc coming up with innovative and unique concepts.

Park management trusted them and said 'yes' much more to creative risks. Back then before social media - word of mouth and 'playground talk' was key marketing - so creating quality experiences that were unique and special in the UK was key so people would recommend to their friends and family and schoolmates about how they had an amazing day and about this 'quirky' attraction they'd been on.

Detail and quality was order or the day, landscaping, sight lines, extra details that not everyone would see were carefully thought about. Effects were kept working as it was important for a ride to give the same experience 5-10 years down the line whether it was weekday off-peak or a weekend on Summer holiday.s Theming seemed bold, clean, artful.

Real crafts people were used, sign painters, polystyrene sculptors, mural artists etc - not mass vinyl printed signage etc. Often parks had there own in-house craft or tech team/person who exclusively worked on the parks animatronics or fiber-glassing, who would keep on top of all the effects and sculptures.

There would be things in the queue-line or theming you'd not have spotted until your 3rd visit - or you'd discover some intermediary attraction like the 'weather house' or animatronic pirate at chessington - extra things that often wouldn't even be on the park map....which just added value to your day!

Things were kept fresh - things were improved and spruced up without having to 'market' something as a new attraction. maintance and painting of the whole park was kept on top of instead of simply the 'new attraction' that season.

BALANCE, was also well considered, A good formula of big coaster, medium coaster, spooky dark ride, bright dark ride, water rides, scary flat ride, fun flat ride, non-ride attraction, show....etc etc which created a balanced and satisfying day! Dark rides were important to that balance and gave parks their own unique 'flavour'. now the parks seem all off-kilter and out of balance and the themes miss-match and don't compliment! Grufflo in Transylvania??

if something decayed or broke - if would be replaced with something of similar standard or BETTER , instead or being torn out/concreted over in the hope that 'no-one will notice'.

Also I remember visiting during those days....and every single attraction would be open! maybe that was just luck, but there didn't seem to be quite so much down time on rides - and never seemed to be disappointed or spited by anything on a visit!

If You've been to family-run/small chain parks in Europe like Hansa, Tover, Europa, tripsdrill - there's an Atmosphere of 'care' of 'pride' of the staff enjoying themselves, of each year being better than the previous/more added, of something intangible - and thats what the parks were like! They felt like 'your park' something personal - as though this perfect day had been created for you, like the park was your buddy,.....and that synergy between park and guest! Now it feels like they couldn't give a sh*t... just pass over your cash!

'AND Hey.....have a super day'
 
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