Why theme parks are the future of Yorkshire's staycation industry

What do you do with 250 acres of spare land on the site of a former Yorkshire colliery? Build a theme park.

Flamingo Land want to build a new park on Scarborough's seafront
Flamingo Land want to build a new park on Scarborough's seafront

It took a year of preparation but the diggers are on site and the first few buildings of the new Gulliver’s Valley attraction near Rotherham are starting to emerge.

The £37m scheme, next to Rother Valley Country Park in Waleswood, will see one of the UK’s biggest theme parks being built in five phases over a 15-year period. The first phase is due to open in spring 2020.

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Watch drone footage of new Gulliver's Kingdom theme park siteThe development is the latest in a long history of ambitious proposals for the site and the first that has moved past the drawing board.

Pithouse West was the site of Brookhouse Colliery, which closed in 1985. In 2003 it was announced it would be the home of a £350m project called YES!, encompassing a 5,000-seat arena for the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey team, and the biggest undercover leisure complex in Europe.

The plan, which would have created 3,000 jobs, was dropped nearly six years ago in favour of a £100m theme park called Visions of China, which promised a Shaolin temple, a theatre, pagoda and hotel. The council cancelled the scheme two years ago, blaming a lack of progress.

Under the latest, more modest, proposals for Gulliver’s Valley, 125 full-time and 325 part-time jobs are expected to be created.

Boom time for theme parks

Theme parks are thriving, according to the IAAPA, the global association for the attractions industry.

According to its Global Theme and Amusement Park Outlook 2017-2021 report, the market continued to expand in 2016 with a 5.6 per cent increase resulting in an estimated $43.1bn in spending.

In the UK, the Brexit vote in 2016 helped contribute to a rebound in visitor numbers to amusement and theme parks in the UK after the fall in the pound made the UK less expensive for overseas visitors.

The report predicts that the UK and Spain are expected to be the fastest-growing countries in Europe for the next five years with increases of 6.4 per cent and 6.2 per cent, respectively.

Berenberg analyst Owen Shirley said: “2018 was a good year, helped by both the unusually warm and dry summer weather, combined with the weak pound, which drove an increase in ‘staycations’.

“2019 is likely to be more challenging assuming some regression to the mean in this summer’s weather – although the late and warm Easter weekend will certainly have helped so far.”

Yorkshire is a popular destination for visitors seeking a thrill with Flamingo Land, Lightwater Valley and Alpamare Water Park all located in the region.

Gulliver’s Valley is not the only new major new attraction earmarked for the county.

Future Park in Knaresborough

In March, plans for a new £250m food and leisure attraction near Knaresborough, North Yorkshire, were unveiled.

Future Park – a mix of restaurants, food outlets and a farm – would be operated by Eataly, the largest Italian food-hall chain in the UK, and be similar to Fico Eataly World, which opened near Bologna just over a year ago.

Plans are due to be submitted next month by Yorkshire developer Fallons, and those involved in the project said it will be one of the UK’s “most significant cultural and energy-efficient attractions to be built in the 21st century.”

Developers estimate it could bring 3.5 million visitors to the area a year, and create 1,000 jobs.

Among traditional theme parks, added features for an extra fee are a popular way to extend stays and boost per capita spending.

Flamingo Land enjoying fruits of success

A few years ago, Flamingo Land, in Malton, North Yorkshire, decided to develop its holiday village complex. It is now said to be reaping the rewards of this move.

Turnover has grown to almost £30m in the latest accounts for the family-owned company, boosted by investment in the park’s facilities.

The theme park and zoo is the most visited paid attraction in the region; the most recent figures from Welcome to Yorkshire report 1.7m visitors in 2017.

Accounts for Flamingo Land Resort show the company reported turnover of £29.1m for the year ending March 31, 2018, up from £27.8m in 2016/17.

Pre-tax profit also increased to £1.77m from £1.34m the year before.

In their report accompanying the accounts, the directors put the growth down to “further improvements in general park admissions and the success of the holiday village area”.

Troubled beginning for Alpamare

Meanwhile, the £14m Alpamare water park in Scarborough has opened a new wellness spa to get the attraction back on track after suffering financial worries earlier this year.

The operator Alpamare UK was issued with a winding-up petition in January over unpaid debts to British Gas.

The company reached a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) to meet its debt obligations on January 21 to allow it to continue to operate.

Filings show that it owed more than £700,000 to British Gas, £2.3m to Benchmark Leisure, its landlord, £114,000 to HMRC and £107,000 to Scarborough Borough Council, which provided a £9m loan for the attraction to be built.

Cautious expansion for Lightwater Valley

Meanwhile, Lightwater Valley, near Ripon, which was sold by Ball Investments to Livingstone Leisure in 2017, has planning permission to develop a holiday village within the 175-acre grounds, although owner Ian Livingstone has decided against it for now.

“Our core business is the theme park,” he said. “We are focusing on the consolidation of the customer experience, and the entertainment.”

Lightwater Valley – ranked the 11th most visited paid attraction, with 290,000 visitors in 2017 – includes the signature 1.5-mile Ultimate rollercoaster – the longest in Europe. There is also a falconry centre.

Figures show that the business made a loss of £68,672 after taxation for the period February 1, 2017, to February 28, 2018, which it put down to weather-related weakness in trading and also the impact of the acquisition and the resulting restructuring initiative.

It also saw a decrease in turnover of £487,000 to £5.6m compared to the year before due to a fall in visitor numbers to the theme park, mainly because of poor weather conditions in the key summer trading period.

Mr Livingstone added: “When we bought Lightwater Valley we felt it needed a bit of love and care. People’s perceptions and standards have increased.

“However, we’ve got a long-term business helped by people staying at home and that has revitalised the market.”