There’s no doubt that Britain is theme park crazy. Despite the country’s limited size and the fact that it’s impossible to operate outdoor attractions for much of the year, almost 30 parks consistently manage to attract enough visitors to stay afloat. Even that number isn’t enough to satisfy thrill-seeking Brits: millions of them jet off every year to the Disneyland Resort Paris and Orlando, Florida in search of another fix.
Most Anglophiles will be familiar with the country’s most popular theme parks. The big four (Alton Towers, Chessington World of Adventures, Legoland Windsor and Thorpe Park) welcome millions of guests every year, and are operated by the fast-growing Merlin Entertainments Group. Other large parks, such as Drayton Manor and Flamingo Land, are evolving into multi-day destinations. Even some of the smaller parks have their claims to fame: Lightwater Valley is home to Europe’s longest roller coaster, for example.
But what about the rest of Britain’s extensive theme park line-up? Are any of the lesser-known parks worth a visit? The answer is an unequivocal “yes”, and 5 of the best are highlighted below.
1. Paultons Park (Hampshire, England)
Until recently, few people outside of the immediate vicinity of Paultons Park had ever heard of the family-owned attraction. That all changed in 2011 with the opening of Peppa Pig World, the world’s first ever theme park land to be based on the adventures of the playful pig and her band of friends. Peppa is big business in the UK, and for the first time the park has been able to pull in visitors from all over the country.
It’s typical of Paultons Park that it wasn’t content to rest on its laurels and let the Peppa Pig brand do all the work. Instead, it made its biggest-ever investment (£6 million) to ensure that visitors to Peppa Pig World feel as though they’ve really stepped into the world of the cartoon. Though the rides are all variations on well-known favourites, they cleverly reflect the storylines of episodes in the series, such as Peppa’s Big Balloon Ride and Grandpa Pig’s Boat Trip. There’s also a chance to explore Peppa’s house and to meet-and-greet characters throughout the day.
There’s plenty more to see at Paultons Park, as well. Spanning 140 acres, it is home to several thrill rides such as the twisting, turning Cobra roller coaster and rapidly-spinning Edge. It’s squarely aimed at families, though, and a range of kids’ rides, playgrounds and a well-maintained bird garden make for a relaxing day out.
2. Pleasurewood Hills (Suffolk, England)
First opened in 1982, Pleasurewood Hills has been hamstrung ever since by its out-of-the-way coastal location. Having declined badly since its 1980s heyday, the park passed through the hands of a number of owners in the proceeding decades but is now enjoying something of a revival.
The most unique aspect of the park is its animal shows, which are some of the best in the UK. The Sea Lion Show has remained largely unchanged for decades, but the well-trained mammals consistently attract large crowds. Pleasurewood Hills’ parrots are a cheekier, less predictable bunch but are just as popular.
Fans of white-knuckle scares will find the park’s line-up a little sparse, with the boomerang-style Wipeout roller coaster one of few thrill rides on offer. However, Pleasurewood Hills’ new owners have promised to invest millions to remedy the situation, with a 196 feet tall drop tower set to open in 2012.
3. Oakwood (Pembrokeshire, Wales)
The largest theme park in Wales, Oakwood has been steadily growing its reputation over the past decade and more than 400,000 guests now visit the park each year. Most are there to experience the park’s roster of major thrill rides, which are some of the most unique in the UK.
The big draw for coaster enthusiasts is Megafobia, one of few wooden roller coasters to have opened this side of the Atlantic in recent years. Something of a bargain buy (manufacturer CCI wanted to showcase its capabilities to other European theme parks), the ride has proven to have enduring appeal and frequently features in “top 10” coaster lists all over the world.
Despite the rainy climate, Brits are addicted to getting soaking wet at theme parks. They are well served at Oakwood, which is home to Europe’s tallest water ride. Featuring a near-vertical 100 feet drop into a million-gallon pool, Drenched features water cannons along the shore just in case riders are not thoroughly saturated.
4. Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach (Suffolk, England)
Overshadowed by its more famous namesake in Blackpool, Great Yarmouth Pleasure Beach is part-amusement park, part-living museum. Although it has evolved significantly since its 1909 opening, it remains the Suffolk resort’s biggest attraction and still feels like a throwback to a bygone era of seaside fun.
The highlight of any visit to Pleasure Beach is a ride on Roller Coaster, Britain’s only operational scenic railway (another has been awaiting refurbishment at Margate’s Dreamland for a number of years). Installed in 1929, the coaster still offers a surprisingly smooth and exciting ride. Its most unique feature is the brakeman that rides with guests: the track itself doesn’t feature any brakes, so he’s responsible for stopping the train!
5. Camelot (Lancashire, England)
Few tourist attractions can claim to have been saved by the global economic downturn, but Camelot is among them. Declining attendances saw it collapse into bankruptcy in 2009, before being by snapped up by a group that planned to demolish it and build a residential development. Ironically, the collapse in the housing market bought the park a stay of execution, and it is still operating today.
As its name suggests, Camelot is themed around the legend of King Arthur. A number of its attractions play on this theme, including daily jousting shows and a fascinating birds of prey display that debuted in 2011. Merlin is also on hand to host a wizardly magic show.
The park’s current operators are aiming to appeal primarily to families, due to the close proximity of thrill-packed Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Alton Towers. However, a number of roller coasters are in still in operation, including the spinning Whirlwind and thrilling Knightmare.
The UK’s theme parks are constantly evolving, changing hands and going through periods of decline and growth. Quality can vary dramatically, but don’t be afraid to look beyond the major parks – you’ll often find that great service and a family-friendly atmosphere are a hallmark of parks that are located off the beaten track.
Nick Sim is unashamedly among the legions of British amusement park fanatics. He can found covering the latest news and reviews from UK theme parks over on his website, Theme Park Tourist.