Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Death of the West, or Once Upon a Time in Shipley, or Was The American Adventure Theme Park Doomed to Fail?

There are some things you probably don't know about me. For instance, you probably don't know that I spent a disproportionate amount of my childhood growing up at theme parks. Particularly The American Adventure theme park, a once-proud, now largely forgotten outpost on the Derbyshire frontier.

It wasn't as if my dad worked there and we got free tickets. No, he worked at a dairy farm that supplied milk to the Müller corporation, which is why I also spent a lot of my childhood on farms and consumed a disproportionate amount of Crunch Corners and Frijj milkshakes. Banana Chocolate Flakes were the best.

He just really liked theme parks, and of the several options available within a couple of hours' drive, The American Adventure offered better value and shorter queues than the over-commercialised Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach while still having the white-knuckle thrills that kid-centric Camelot and Gulliver's World lacked.

I don't know, maybe he liked the western shtick too. We did watch the Back to the Future films a lot, and it always tickled us when he booked our place on the Sky Coaster under the alias "Eastwood."

By my reckoning, based on several consecutive years of fortnightly visits during the open season plus assorted trips earlier in life, I must have visited that place something like 100 times, spending the equivalent of an entire sleepless month of my childhood and adolescence wandering around the lake, shooting back and forth on The Missile, getting soaked on the Rocky Mountain Rapids and Nightmare Niagara and spinning around and around on the Tennessee Testicles, I mean Tentacles.

This gave me the opportunity to observe first-hand, over the course of a decade or more, the park's decline from competitive bank holiday destination to dilapidated, depressing, literally rotting husk that couldn't compete with the Merlin Entertainments fat cats. It's sort of like how the real Wild West was trampled under the heels of American capitalism, isn't it? Don't worry, that's as far as I'm going to take that strand of analysis. Instead, I've used Bullfrog Productions' classic '90s simulator game Theme Park to explore where they went wrong.


Image: Heanor History

The site that would become The American Adventure was originally developed to house the hysterically unsuccessful Britannia Park, whose 10-week spiral to insolvency and a £9.5 million debt acts like a sarcastic parody of its successor. The Theme Park game only lets me borrow up to $150K and doesn't let me spend anything after that, so it's not possible to fail that spectacularly even if I wanted to.

Feel free to grasp at some parallel to the fallen British Empire making way for American dominance if you like. Hopefully they'll build China World on the same site next, that would be nice for your essay.


Image: Derelict Places

Yee-haw! Granada PLC bought the cursed land, developed it properly this time, and opened Britain's Major New Theme Park with an impressive roster of rides – including the Nightmare Niagara log flume, Runaway Train and Buffalo Stampede roller coasters, Yankee Clipper pirate ship, High Sierra Ferris wheel, Tennessee Testicles, Custer's Carousel, Starbase Slide and park-circling Santa Fe Railroad. Many of these stayed right until the end.

Over in the simulated world of Theme Park, things didn't get off to such a rosy start. I didn't end the year bankrupt, which is something at least (it's 42 more weeks than Britannia Park managed), but I've splurged most of my loan already and can only hope there'll be enough satisfied punters to keep me afloat during the next fallow year.

Admittedly, this is mainly because there wasn't a lake there already and that sucker costs $2000 per slab, so it's not an apples to apples comparison yet. But look, I built Silver City. Sort of.


Having blown their wad early, there wasn't much new at American Adventure this year apart from the twirly Balloon Ride.

Which is a relief, since I'm barely staying alive as it is. The natives are getting restless, there'd better be something pretty bloody spectacular coming next year.


Image: Derelict Places

A big year for the park, with iconic additions of The Missile roller coaster, Rocky Mountain Rapids and an extension to the log flume making it the tallest one in the UK. Yeah, it was only the UK, but that still showed up Alton Towers and their all-the-way-around-the-lake log flume queues. Things were on the up!

...But not in my simulated park. Wasting so many resources on a pointless lake was too much of a strain, and I Britannia Parked my way to insolvency in a little over two years. The real American Adventure would survive ten times that, its own struggles almost entirely non-lake-related, but I think I've still made my point.

If Peter Kellard had only run a simulation back in 1985, or just done any kind of basic research before prematurely opening his own disappointing cash toilet of an attraction, maybe Britannia Park would still be standing proud today and he wouldn't have been sentenced to four years at Her Maj's pleasure.


This is what the site looks like today. Local residents complained that the park was just too darn loud, and when it was no longer bringing in the funds that excused the council from ignoring these grievances, they relented and shut it down in 2007. Since then it's been a peaceful, overgrown, only slightly nightmarish wetland, though a project has apparently been approved to develop the area into housing, offices and leisure facilities.

Are the locals happy about that? Presumably. But what about the kids? They get to go to Alton Towers and ride Galactica, they're fine.

But some fans haven't given up on the American dream, and earlier this year started an optimistic petition to re-open the commercially untenable attraction – residents and green-lit developments be damned! Only 10 months in, and it's already over three quarters of the way to reaching the 7,500 signatures needed to be dismissed by various regional authorities.

Watch this space, cowpokes! Have we got the technology to build Westworld yet?

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