Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Chessington World of Adventures and the desperate search for audience

Chessington is my home park. I’ve been visiting since 1994 yearly at the very least and I have a soft spot for the place. It’s one of the UK’s major parks, and yet around the world not a lot is known about it. For a quick overview, this park started as a zoo and was developed by the Tussauds Group and John Wardley in the late 80’s with nice theming, a suspended Arrow, mine train, dark ride and some other bits and bobs.  The Chessington I grew up with was the only proper theme park in the south east, Legoland never appealed to me as a kid because it’s almost entirely interactives as opposed to rides. Chessington had small rides, big rides, great theming, landscaping and animals.  In ways, a very small and distinctly British version of Busch Gardens.

The Chessington of today hasn’t changed much… Except, everything I remember from the 90’s is falling apart, or in the case of their top spin Ramases’ Revenge, crying out in pain with every cycle. The park, quite simply, hasn’t done very much and what they have done lacks consistency and any sign of a master plan. Like the better-known example of Alton Towers, the park suffers from strict building regulations, except Chessington has it even worse. Their largest coaster is Dragon’s Fury, which is a fantastic and well received MS spinning coaster – probably the best of it’s kind. The ride is a temporary structure to avoid the strict building regulations.  The park cannot build above the tree line and because it’s the least successful of Merlin’s British parks, I suspect it’s not given anywhere near the funding it would need to build decent attractions by digging. Several of their existing rides from the golden years are below ground level; such as their very nicely Mexican themed MS wild mouse called Rattlesnake and the top scan Ramases Revenge. The cost of doing this now is out of the question, I suspect.

It all went wrong when Thorpe Park developed from a childish park to a thrill park. Legoland took the families with young kids market, and Thorpe took older kids away. Chessington was literally left with nothing as they even moved their most adult ride, a top scan called Samurai, to Thorpe Park. The idea was to get rid of the troublesome teens and make a family environment, which to this day is a fallacy the park and fans seem to believe.  If you look at successful family parks around the world, no-where do you see a rejection of teens and adults; these are your paying guests, you need to impress them. These are the guests that enjoy the big investment attractions that bring people to the park. These are the guests that make the decision to go to a park. None of this is in the hands of kids. Even if you’re making attractions specifically for kids, you have to entertain adults alongside in some way or else their experience will be negative and they won’t want to go back, no matter how much the kids enjoyed it… Even if that’s as simple as a coffee shop and seating next to it from where they can watch their kids. Thorpe’s incredibly successful development whilst Chessington refuses to evolve is mind boggling.

Chessington’s management clearly aren’t sure what to do with the place. They cannot see a viable gap in the market and don’t seem to have the funding or bravery to just try something… Anything. I understand that when adding a new attraction, you aren’t just thinking about who it will bring to the park, but also which existing guests it may potentially turn off. Chessington more than anyone is aware of this, as it’s what they did when they handed over the teen/adult market exclusively to Thorpe. In the case of the family audience, I’m not sure there is this concern as long as the creative design of the attraction works, because the family audience covers everyone, from toddlers to grandparents.

This is where the SeaWorld parks, specifically Busch Gardens, come in as an example again. As I explored with my last post, you can make anything appeal to any audience and the Busch Parks do it by a lead example everyone should take notice of. Chessington do not have the facility to build massive B&Ms, but they could easily introduce some more thrilling flat rides which would attract people, entertain older guests and be a spectacle for those too short who will then nag their parents to go back to ride it year after year until they are tall enough. When I was growing up, I could go back to Chessington every year and find something new to ride that previously I was too short or too scared to go on. Kids today are far braver than I was, so the need for more adult attractions at a family park is greater than ever – you just need to present them in a way that appeals to the family market. Chessington have clearly been taking inspiration from the Busch parks in all over areas, using fantastical yet believable continental themes and integrating the zoo park-wide. The integration of the zoo is, at the moment, Chessington’s most promising aspect. Their intentions to have something for every member of the family in each themed land is genius, allowing family members to stay together whilst they enjoy different things. Having animal exhibits near attractions prone to long queues allows those who are sitting out to watch and enjoy something. Spectacle attractions, as I mentioned before, do the same thing. Wild Asia began to put a lot of these ideas into practise and has done a good job of it, but the park has a long way to go yet. They need a proper thrill ride or two, desperately. If you visit the park on a busy day, it’s Dragon’s Fury and Vampire who have the biggest queues. Since they have such good throughput, that can only mean they are the most popular, so give the public more of what they want.

The focus the park is putting into the zoo appeals to me as a Merlin annual pass holder. I enjoy zoos, and the development of Chessington’s zoo discourages me from going to other zoos across the country more often. I feel like I get my zoo fix from visiting the park who are, at the moment, adding new animals pretty much constantly. But how does it entice average people in? The park costs almost £40 to get into. That’s a lot for a half-scale zoo and a couple of mediocre rides.  

Flamingo Land in Yorkshire is worth bringing up because, in ways, it’s doing what Chessington should be. I don’t particularly like the place, but the progress it made a few years back with a brilliantly themed African zoo area and rides is actually outstanding.  The park obviously takes inspiration from Busch Gardens also, even stealing their “Wild Animals, Wilder Rides” tagline. What concerns me is that the park’s most recent additions have departed from the high theming and animal exhibit focus, suggesting that it doesn’t draw the crowds.  But what have we seen instead? Mumbo Jumbo, an S&S El Loco, which despite my personal dislike for it, was a fantastic choice of ride to attract crowds to the park. It’s pretty big, intimidating and a spectacle to watch. The park has done well with adding an assortment of cheaper rides and set them up to look far more exciting than they actually are. It’s a lot like the Chessington of the 90’s, with a broad assortment of guests including ones you’d expect at Chessington, Legoland and Thorpe Park, all with something to do. Things like roller coasters bump gate figures by bringing in new people as they are easy to market, having nicely themed areas with stuff like animal exhibits, or dark rides or quirky smaller attractions means guests have a better time and want to go back. What Chessington has done with its safari animals section, having a raised platform that goes out into the main field, is very similar to Flamingoland’s. The only difference is the scale and the quality. Flamingoland’s is frankly exceptional quality for the UK. I really like raised viewing areas over animal exhibits, they provide an unobstructed view and that does a lot to change the perceived quality of the exhibit.

I get the impression that Chessington’s management don’t really know what to try and that they feel everything they do try isn’t hitting the targets for gate figures. A big investment into a medium-sized coaster is, in my opinion, the only thing that would draw in a wide variety of guests and allow people to stop thinking of the park as …well, lame. A launching coaster would be logical to keep the height low and I think it would be great to see an inversion or two; it would be a lot of kids’ first inverting coaster.  I even see enthusiasts saying that Chessington doesn’t need any thrill rides and that it’s a family park, but I really think this is missing the point and is the product of years of thinking too much and doing too little. If you’re going to base your model on a successful park like Busch Gardens Tampa, as is so obviously the case here, at the very least identify why it’s so successful and copy that. If Flamingo Land can do it, so can a park owned by the giant Merlin Entertainments.

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