Gulliver’s Valley: Meet the family behind Yorkshire’s newest theme park

Building and opening a multi-million pound theme park on a former Yorkshire pit site during a global pandemic has needed to be a family affair for Julie Dalton. Chris Burn reports. Pictures by Simon Hulme.

“I’m quite a positive person and it is lucky that I am,” says Julie Dalton as she surveys the largely silent Gulliver’s Valley theme park a few weeks before its belated opening date, which was pushed back by the coronavirus crisis.

“I have had a couple of days where I have gone ‘I can’t deal with this anymore’, which isn’t like me. I just couldn’t believe that after five years of planning and right when we are literally about to go over the top, you just have to stop.”

Dalton, managing director of Gulliver’s Theme Park Resorts, lived in a caravan on the site in South Yorkshire for three months as her team scrambled to prepare the park for opening in the face of lockdown restrictions.

Managing Director of Gulliver's Valley Julie Dalton. Picture by Simon Hulme

She says Boris Johnson’s announcement that theme parks would be among the many other industries reopening from July 4 – albeit under a raft of new restrictions designed to minimise the spread of the virus – had provided a “huge sense of relief”.

The park finally opened its doors to public on July 11, after initial plans to open the site in early June were scrapped as a result of the pandemic.

New protocols have been implemented at speed to allow customers to safely visit the family-friendly park which is aimed at children aged between two and 13.

“We were lucky we were relatively well ahead of schedule, which is unusual for a project of this size,” she says of how Covid-19 overturned the initial opening plans. “The writing was on the wall from February that something was coming.

Hilary and Ray Phillips at the original Gulliver's Kingdom in Matlock.

“All the PR was running, the ticket sales were happening and so were the pre-sales. We were pretty well there.”

Among the many challenges was getting rides to the site – including a couple that had been built in Italy.

An initial 40 members of staff had been recruited but with their training not yet under way, they could not be furloughed. Dalton says around 35 of them stayed on to start work at the park rather than finding other jobs.

The theme park includes a host of rides set in different zones, from a Lost Jurassic World area to a Western-themed section that includes an Apache Falls water ride. There is a hotel on site, as well as a series of lodges, while animals including chickens, ducks, llamas and alpacas are part of the attractions.
It represents the first phase of an intended ten-year £37m project that should see the eventual creation of a woodland adventure centre and an education and

A dinosaur zone is part of the attractions. Picture: Simon Hulme

ecology centre on the land.

Appropriately for a family-friendly theme park, Gulliver’s is very much a family business. Dalton’s parents Ray and Hilary Phillips first opened a model village called Gulliver’s Kingdom in Matlock Bath, Derbyshire, in 1978.

Forty-two years later, Gulliver’s Valley near Rotherham will become the company’s fourth park in addition to other sites in Warrington and Milton Keynes.

Dalton is the company’s managing director and her brother Nick is development director, while her teenage son Louis also spent time living on the Rotherham site to help out and as part of the new Covid safety measures takes our temperature as we arrive.

Visitors to the original Gulliver's Kingdom run by Julie Dalton's parents. The Matlock Bath site opened in 1978.

“Mum and Dad started the business as a model village in Matlock in 1978 – that is where the name Gulliver’s Kingdom came from,” Dalton explains.

“Dad was a housebuilder and had wanted to build five houses there but was refused permission so built 100 miniature houses instead. I was seven when it opened so from Day One it has been a part of my life. There were no staff so we did it all ourselves – washing the pots, collecting the money at the gates.

“We did it all as a family.”

The company’s other theme parks also had to be closed during lockdown – resulting in a major financial strain.

Their three existing parks can welcome up to 14,000 guests per day at peak times and Dalton says more than 450 staff were placed on furlough during lockdown.

A series of changes to normal operations have already been approved in line with Government guidance for the safe reopening of theme parks.

Julie's son Louis Dalton looks out onto the park. Picture by Simon Hulme

“The change from two metres to one metre on social distancing is massive for us. Everybody will take a temperature check when they come in and you have to pre-book – you won’t be able to turn up at the door and get in.

“There won’t be as many people inside as there would have been if we had opened last year. From a customer experience point of view, it is actually going to be a lot better. There will be fewer queues and more space.”

But Dalton admits it will be a financial challenge with fewer customers and more staff members such as cleaners.

She says she expects the safety measures - which include those aged three and above wearing masks on all rides and play attractions - to be in place throughout this year and that they will probably continue into 2021.

“We are in it for the long-term. We always look on the optimistic side.

“We want to make sure our visitors get a really great experience – it will just be slightly different from what you would have got before.”

It has taken five years for the Gulliver’s plans to become a reality, but they are just a small part of long-running attempts to develop the site of the former Brookhouse Colliery that sits close to Rother Valley country park.

The colliery closed more than three decades ago and in 2001, Rotherham Council purchased the land from the Coal Authority.

The Gulliver’s project represents third time lucky for the council after previous development attempts fell by the wayside.

Previous proposals for the 333-acre site that never came to fruition include the ill-fated £350m YES! project, which was intended to include a new 5,000-seater arena for the Sheffield Steelers ice hockey team as part of Europe’s largest undercover leisure complex that would have created 3,000 jobs.

After that idea was dropped in January 2011 due to a lack of progress, an alternative proposal was put forward for the site to become the home of a £100m Chinese theme park later that year.

Promised attractions at the Visions of China development were going to include Oriental lakes and gardens, as well as a Chinatown retail street, a Shaolin temple and cultural centre. Developers ambitiously claimed it would attract around 1.5 million visitors a year.

But that scheme was cancelled by Rotherham Council in August 2014 after a similar lack of progress in making the development a reality.

Dalton admits there was cynicism from some quarters as to whether the Gulliver’s scheme would ever happen when the family came forward with their plans to the council in 2015.

“We have a good track record – we have already built three of these things,” she says.

“When we started talking to them we said we are a family business, we are not going to be flying in a London architect and needing to raise money from the banks. Everything is bought and paid for by ourselves and we do it differently.”

She says the huge site was ideal for what Gulliver’s wanted – particularly in having a destination accessible to those living in North Yorkshire and the North-East.

“We had been looking in this area for a long time. This is an amazing site – it is two minutes from the motorway, 20 minutes from Sheffield city centre and within easy reach of the North-East area.

“But the big thing was probably the people. We had a real Yorkshire welcome and people were incredibly friendly.

“If you are going to give great service in a theme park, you need great people to be able to do that and that’s what we’ve got.”

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Gulliver's Valley opening day, Saturday July 11th. Apache Falls. Picture: Chris Etchells
Gulliver's Valley opening day, Saturday July 11th. Paragliders. Picture: Chris Etchells