Gulliver’s Theme Parks founder Ray Phillips looks back on a 35 year career in the industry.
Whilst some of the larger British park operators have stepped up their focus on young guests in recent years with the addition of new branded lands, a smaller family-owned chain of venues has been successfully catering to the children’s market for many years. Based loosely on the Gulliver’s Travels books by English author Jonathan Swift, each of the three Gulliver’s parks provide guests with a kid-sized world to explore. In recent years the group has expanded with the addition of a Dinosaur & Farm Park and Splash Zone water play centre at its site in Milton Keynes, a hotel and Splash Zone in Warrington and a Spy Zone at its original park in Matlock Bath, Derbyshire. Here is Ray’s story…
Before starting Gulliver’s I was involved for many years with construction and got very early into timber-framed houses; I would buy bits of land and put a couple of houses on them. An estate agent came along one day and offered me a big piece of land in Matlock Bath, but warned me that we might only get planning permission for one house.
We bought the land and I went to see the planners to explore our options. They said they wanted a visitor attraction on there, anything so long as it was an attraction. I’ve always enjoyed making models, so I said we’d do a model village, and we opened in 1978 as Gulliver’s Kingdom. After our first few years we observed that the kids were just walking around and throwing stones because there wasn’t much to do apart from looking at all the little houses. So we needed to give them something else to do. We started with a little train that just went backwards and forwards, then we bought a couple of second-hand rides and that’s how it all started.
The park quickly became a big hit with families in the Midlands but it offered us limited expansion opportunities because it was only 15 acres, so we started looking for a second site. The problems associated with planning meant that it was easier to look to places with “new town” status, which have more planning powers and things go through a lot easier. We looked at two or three places, but Warrington [about 60 miles north west of Matlock] was very keen to have us as part of a new town they were developing, which also included the UK’s first Ikea store. We committed to a 60-acre site and opened Gulliver’s World in 1989.
When it came to selecting our third site, we drew a 60-mile circle around Matlock and looked in the other direction. Eventually we decided on Milton Keynes, which is a little further away but also enjoyed new town status and brought us within reach of London for the first time. We opened as Gulliver’s Land in 1999, on a 30-acre site.
Although we still have the Gulliver’s Kingdom, World and Land names, Gulliver’s is the brand and we tend now just to refer to them in our advertising as Gulliver’s Matlock Bath, Warrington or Milton Keynes to avoid confusion. Each park is slightly different but they have the same sorts of rides, and in fact we move some of the rides between the parks every few years.
When we got ideas for new attractions, we used to ask ourselves if we should buy one or if we could make it ourselves. Unfortunately you can’t go out and buy a little round ride for the kiddies these days, because they want to go on the bigger rides. Over the years we have built several rides for the parks, the biggest of which would be The Antelope wooden coaster in Warrington. That side of things has taken a bit of a back seat in recent years due to various regulations and restraints, but we still do all our maintenance in-house. I’m also very proud to say that both the Splash Zones and every bit of the hotel in Warrington were built in our own workshops and I think we’ve achieved a phenomenal standard.
Our philosophy has not changed since Gulliver’s started in 1978, we are still looking after the youngsters, aged two to 13. That’s really why we needed the three parks – because families with young children won’t travel long distances. More recently Drayton Manor has come along with Thomas Land, then you’ve got Paulton’s down south with Peppa Pig World, and soon CBeebies Land at Alton Towers. These are all targeting our market directly, and the farm parks are now snapping at our heels too. It’s healthy competition though and we’ve always thrived on that.
We have lost some local competition in recent years, including the American Adventure and Camelot [20 miles from Matlock Bath and Warrington respectively], in fact we bought some rides out of Camelot last year after they closed and will be installing the water slide soon in Matlock, which will be quite interesting going down the hill. However, just because you’ve lost those parks, it doesn’t mean the people automatically come here. The big shopping centres are now open around the clock, including Sundays, which was always seen as a leisure day. So now more than ever we have still have to give people great reasons to come and spend their time and money with us.
Matlock Bath is a historic day trip destination, where once you could “take to the waters”. In 1918 there were 3,000 beds for hire in the resort and while there are significantly less than that now, it’s still a beautiful destination that attracts all types of tourists. Thankfully, the Gulliver’s name is strong enough to keep the families coming too.
Last year we bought a piece of property on the corner of the park in Matlock, we couldn’t not buy it because it was right besides our entrance, and that’s where we’ve put the Spy Zone, which was all down to Nick [Ray and wife Hilary’s younger son, who runs Gulliver’s today alongside his sister, Julie]. It’s based very loosely on James Bond and is aimed at slightly older kids. The story involves a bomb going off and you have to try and stop it. Each room has different challenges with codes to crack, button to press, things like that.
Splash Zone in Warrington was a new challenge for us when it launched in 2009. As a mum of two, Julie [Dalton, daughter and group managing director] had the sense to insist on standing water only so children could enjoy it whether or not they could swim yet. They loved it and Milton Keynes Splash Zone followed the year after.
The Dinosaur & Farm Park opened as Gulliver’s Eco-Park in 2007. The concept was Duncan’s [elder son, who now runs his own attractions]. We’ve since changed the name to give people a better idea what to expect. It’s a bit like the food offering at the park – everyone may tell you they want healthy salads, and we do cater for different tastes and dietary needs, but what do they actually buy when they come here? Burgers and chips! They want a treat that they wouldn’t get every day. Dinosaurs are a tried and tested theme with kids so it seemed silly not to be more upfront about them or the farm park elements we have in there.
Gulliver’s Hotel opened last year, and it’s been encouraging to see the business market booking outside of the peak park season. Although they are aimed at kids, I think one or two of the older guests quite enjoy staying in our themed rooms!
The site in Warrington was once part of the Burtonwood US air base. The Burtonwood Historic Association had a huge hangar full of American vehicles and memorabilia, but couldn’t afford anywhere to display them so we offered them a building where they could show part of the collection. If you come to Gulliver’s you can go round that as well, and it’s also quite useful for attracting school groups. Although schools are doing fewer trips because of the economic squeeze, we’re confident that business will come back.
We’ve always tried to offer value for money at Gulliver’s, but it’s a state of mind. People are always ringing up and asking when our next offer is. We believe our price is right so there’s no need to discount like so many other attractions now seem to. Luckily we have a lot of families that buy our top of the range Gold Passport that allows unlimited access to all the different attractions at the three sites.
During the year we stage various seasonal events at the parks, and we were one of the first to get into Christmas. Now it seems like anyone with a public toilet is turning it into a Santa’s grotto! Halloween has really come on in recent years and we now host Trick & Treat Weeks at all three parks.
We also host one-off appearances from various costumed characters, and have held regular performances from CBeebies’ ZingZillas for the past two seasons. This allows us to dip our toes in the water with branded characters. We are one of the few parks that has stuck by our own mascot, Gully Mouse, and I’m pleased to note that we still sell a healthy number of Gully toys in our shops.
I am not involved with the day to day running of the parks anymore, but I’m there to act as a sounding board whenever Julie and Nick need me. One of the sad things that has happened as some of the bigger British parks have come under corporate ownership is that you’ve lost that family touch at a lot of places. I used to have an address book of all the park owners in the country and if you were driving past you could go in and have a coffee with them. I miss that.
I’m proud that Gulliver’s remains a family business. Everything is owned by us, and we don’t do it if we can’t afford it. It’s nice to see the children’s thought patterns are similar to mine now that they are grown up. Julie and Nick have really put their shoulder to the wheel the last few years, and with the opening of the Splash Zones, the hotel and all the other new things, it will certainly stand us in good stead for some time to come.
Ray Phillips was talking to Owen Ralph