A short but successful season has created a sense of renewed optimism at the English theme park Camelot. Owen Ralph visits the park that avoided execution.
In spring 2009, when he should have been celebrating the start of a new season, Roy Page was sat in the manager’s office of an empty park. Two months earlier, the former boss of Prime Resorts (then Camelot’s owner) had watched his company go into liquidation after another stinking summer. Fortunately, a knight in shining in armour was waiting in the wings, ready to hand Page the key to the kingdom of Camelot one more time.
The medieval theme park was started on the site of a former equestrian centre in 1984 by local entrepreneur John Rigby and, after a few years under the ownership of Bass Leisure, bought back by its founder, who sold it again soon after to Granada Entertainment. Located outside the town of Chorley, about half an hour from Blackpool, it peaked during the mid ‘90s with annual attendances of around half-a-million.
Back in the Granada days, long before the likes of Merlin Entertainments had spread their wings, Camelot was part of a chain that also included the American Adventure in Derbyshire and Granada Studios Tour in Manchester (both now defunct). It was also one of the first parks in the UK to boast an on-site accommodation in the shape of Park Hall Hotel, developed by Rigby a few years earlier.
The park and the hotel were included in a management buyout in 1998, but soon after encountered problems: “It was kids in a sweet shop syndrome really,” recalls Page. “They think it’s their business, it’s not; the banks own it. The management spent the money in the wrong way, noting deliberate, it just didn’t work.”
Page was doing some consultancy work at the time, after a 30-year career with First Leisure, which used to run Blackpool’s Tower, Winter Gardens and three amusement piers, plus several other British piers. Asked by KPMG to take a look at the park on behalf of its anxious backers (Close Brothers), he ended up staying and formed Prime Resorts.
Aimed at families and young children, Camelot is split over three levels and features a number of tried and tested attractions spread across four lands, Knight’s Realm, Knight’s Valley, Merlin’s Playland and Land of the Brave. As they arrive, guests are greeted by King Arthur’s Castle. The medieval theme lends itself easily to many of the park’s rides and also underpins the live entertainment offering, highlighted by the Avalon Jousting Knights.
Little over a decade ago, Camelot competed with four other parks in the north west of England, but since the closure of Frontierland in Morecambe and Pleasureland in Southport (both Blackpool Pleasure Beach-owned properties), now there is only Blackpool and Gulliver’s in Warrington. You’d expect the three remaining venues to prosper as a result, yet it hasn’t quite worked out like that and Camelot, a theme park based around an ancient legend, almost became history itself.
“We had some great years as Prime Resorts from 1999 to 2003,” confesses Page. “Then, around 2004/2005, we started to see what I think was probably the early stages of the economic downturn. That coupled with a deteriation in the summer weather made it tough for us.”
Operators of outdoor attractions in Northern Europe shouldn’t be surprised if they see a little rain, but to give Page his dues, the summers of 2006/7 were particularly grim.
”You never would have thought we would have a wet July and August. You take around 60% of your cash in those two months, and if they’re rained off you cannot pick it up early or late season. I think for us the problems last year weren’t that significant, we didn’t need a lot of cash to continue, but we did drop in August. When we went to our bank [HBOS – a high profile fixture of the banking crisis] to see us through, they had just been taken over by Lloyds and there was a lot of indecision. Inevitably, in February of this year, we were forced to put the company into receivership.”
It was, adds Page, “a very traumatic winter. I chased every potential buyer I could think of.”
In April, just one week before Easter, the Story Group purchased the 138-acre site on which the park sits (occupying roughly a third of the land), while Park Hall was sold off to Lavender Hotels.
The Story Group plans eventually to build housing on the site, which had already been earmarked for such development prior to Prime Resorts’ collapse. However, after meeting the group’s CEO, Fred Story, Page convinced him to continue with the theme park. At least for the time being.
“I said, ‘look there’s a use, you’ve got all the assets,’ and I agreed to run it for him. Fred loves the park and put the capital in to reopen it; he’s our bank effectively.”
Page set up a new company, Knights Leisure, of which he became managing director, and reunited some of the old team, including operations director Mark Leader and sales and marketing manager Sandra Dempsey. Together they set about reopening Camelot for a 15-week season, beginning May 23.
“We did still get some people turn up at Easter,” remembers Dempsey, “even though we weren’t open.”
But many had already heard Camelot was closed. To counter the rumours, leaflets were hastily printed up, emblazoned with the slogan “The Legend Lives On.” Amid all the uncertainty, however, the park lost most of its group bookings.
Nevertheless, June got off to a good start, followed by a lacklustre July and then, despite the weather, a very positive August, which is when Park World called.
As we are chatting to Dempsey, a guests asks her for a map of the park. Discretely, she directs them to the front office. “We had to hide them away because we’re running out already,” she confides. “We should have printed more. It’s a nice problem to have I suppose.”
The season came to a close on September 6, and the knights of the round table are now planning for 2010. This time the park will reopen in time for the all-important Easter holidays, on April 2.
“I’ll meet with Fred [Story] at the end of this year,” reveals Page, “and say ‘I’ve proved to you it works. I borrowed some money, paid you pack, there’s a potential dividend there; you’re better off. It’s all about the numbers, but I’m confident we can go from on here and start looking at introducing new attractions again. And we’ll get the groups back too.”
Although the season will be longer next year, it will still be relatively short compared to some attractions: “We looked at what happens after September,” says Page. ”Generally we open for whatever the weekends may bring, but Blackpool illuminations are still a major attraction and that takes away a lot of the business from September onwards. To then stay open for that two-week school holiday in October incurs a lot of costs, in electricity, in wages, and the extra cost of insurance. The weekends can create too many losses if you are not careful.”
A separate winter event is not out of the question, however: “Because we have the castle and the courtyard at the front of the park, we could generate a great Christmas show, a jester show, you wouldn’t use most of the rides; but it would suit us really well.”
But how much longer has Camelot got before the developers move in? “I don’t think that will happen for four of five years,” concludes Page, “and I think it will be a mixed use development with housing, retail and leisure, whether that’s a big FEC or whatever. I have already done some plans for an indoor entertainment centre, so hopefully that’s something that will come in future. And it will be called Camelot.”
Rides of the Round Table
The newest addition to Camelot’s collection of rides and attractions is Knightmare, a Schwarzkopf coaster that formerly operated as BMRX at Portopialand in Japan. It arrived in England three years ago in a deal brokered by IE Park. Close-by in Land of the Brave are two other large attractions, Whirlwind, a Maurer Söhne spinning coaster once travelled in Germany, and Excalibur 2, a Fabbri Evolution. Together, the trio of rides give the park good visibility from the nearby M6 motorway.
Most of the other attractions at Camelot have been there for many years, including the Dragon Flyer, a unique diesel-powered coaster that circles Knight’s Valley, a Junior Dragon Coaster, Caterpillar Capers (Pinfari family coaster), Log Flume (by Zamperla), The Rack (Vekoma Canyon Raft), Galleon (by Zamperla), Falcon’s Flight (Zamperla Balloon Race), Kingdom in the Clouds (Zamperla Ferris Wheel), Sir Lancelot’s Chargers (double-deck Bertazzon Carousel), Dungeon’s of Doom dark ride (with a Modern Products ride system), Formula-K go-karts and Pendragon’s Plunge, a wet/dry slide by Modern Products.
Children’s rides are grouped together in Merlin’s Playland. Inside King Arthur’s Castle and the Knight’s Realm, guests will find an undercover entertainment centre including the Jousting Knights Dodgems (IE Park bumper cars), soft play, arcade games, food & beverage. Games are operated throughout the park by HB Leisure.
Camelot’s live entertainment offering includes the signature Avalon Jousting Knights, produced by Richard Timpson, plus Merlin’s Magic Shows and the School of Wizadry.