September 2014 

Full Steam Ahead

Drayton Manor Park CEO Colin Bryan reveals the story behind Thomas Land and his plans to expand the themed area for Thomas’s 70th—and the park’s 65th—birthday in 2015

by Juliana Gilling

Funworld’s September 2014 cover story shows how Plopsa Group has transplanted classic children’s brands into parks. Here, Funworld Extra speaks with Drayton Manor Park CEO Colin Bryan in the UK about the park’s use of the Thomas the Tank Engine brand.  

                                              

How did Thomas Land come about?

After returning from a family holiday to Walt Disney World in Florida in 2006, I said to my sons [William and George], “We've got to have an IP based on a well-known character.” We ended up talking to Teri Ruffley, who was then with HIT Entertainment (she’s now at Forrec). Teri came up with Bob the Builder first, but ride manufacturers said, “It's almost impossible to do. It's difficult to create a roller coaster with a JCB-type digger.”

So we said, “Teri, it's not going to work—what else?” She came back with an amazing idea to put in Europe's first Thomas Land. We signed the document within about 20 seconds. We committed approximately £1 million (€1.26 million) straightaway. We are one of only three Thomas Lands in the world. There’s one being built in America and there’s one in Japan.

We tested out various rides and designs, and HIT Entertainment put forward ideas. There were some complications, like fitting faces on rides that didn't have faces normally. We had conversations and occasional arguments with HIT, over “Jeremy Jet” (Zamperla Telecombat), for instance.


HIT said: “Jeremy the jet doesn’t have a step.”

We said: “Yes, but how are you going to get the children in without one?”

It was hard work, but well worth it. We thought that younger children should be able to go on all the rides with their parents at Thomas Land. That’s been very important to Thomas Land’s success.

We sorted out our rides at the end of 2006 and we did all the programming in 2007. We shut down Children's Corner in August 2007 and within six months we'd got the whole of Thomas Land open. It was a huge investment of £7.7 million (€9.7 million).

We launched on March 20, 2008. It was an immediate success. The first year we had a 41 percent increase in business and a 31 percent increase in revenue. We expected to have 100,000 more visitors; we had around 320,000 more. We had the busiest August in our history: 300,000 people visited that month alone. The publicity was fantastic.

We're working with HIT Entertainment now on altering some of the rides and increasing the hourly ride capacity by 40 percent. We have the biggest collection of “Thomas & Friends” rides and we will expand from 14 to 17 attractions by 2015. We are moving rides around so that we can get more capacity in on the pathways. We're also developing Farmer McColl’s Farm with HIT Entertainment for 2016.

Why was Thomas the right fit?

We did a survey in 2006 that proved to us we had too much metal in our park. We had too many big rides for teenagers. We needed an intellectual property that would attract the whole family. Thomas brought the family back.

In the time I've been working at the park, with my father George, who passed away in September 2013, and my brother-in-law Richard, we haven’t always worked out whether something would be a good financial deal; we’ve always thought, “That would be good for the park.” When Thomas came along, we knew we wanted it instantly.

Prior to Thomas we’d tried to invent our own characters, but we didn't do it properly or successfully. So we were a bit shy of taking on Thomas because it was huge. It was going to make Drayton Manor into a world-renowned theme park.

                                                

What exactly have you created at Thomas Land?

Entertainment for the whole family. We have characters including Sir Topham Hatt, the Fat Controller, walking around throughout the day. Thomas Land is a separate area to the rest of the park, covering about 5.5 acres. Trains pass along a 660-meter-long track from Knapford Station to Farmer McColl’s Farm. Eight rides are from Zamperla including Winston’s monorail, “Jeremy Jet,” “Bulstrode the Rockin’ Tug,” “Bertie the Crazy Bus,” “Diesel’s Locomotion Mayhem” (Demolition Derby), “Harold's Heli Tours,” “Lady’s Carousel,” and “Cranky the Crane Drop Tower.”

We have a “Troublesome Trucks Coaster” from Gerstlauer, which is a big Junior Coaster. Metallbau Emmeln made two trains of five carriages each and three engines: Thomas, Rosie, and Percy. We’ve just ordered a new Thomas because the original has been on duty every day since Thomas Land opened. SPI Play built Emily’s Play Area. Without everyone’s outstanding work, including RMA’s and DF Beniston’s contributions, I wouldn’t have got the job done.

At Christmas we have snow coming down by the entrance porticos and Knapford Station. Original music is a big part of the experience, too. We believe we have the world’s largest “Thomas & Friends” toy shop, with more than 1,000 different lines.

What impact has Thomas Land had on Drayton Manor?

It’s brought us international fame. Visitors come from all over the world to see Thomas Land. Of course, we've got quite a lot of competition in the UK. There’s Blackpool with Nickelodeon Land, Alton Towers with CBeebies Land, Thorpe Park with Angry Birds, and Paultons with Peppa Pig. England is getting to be a character-full country. All of us will do well because we are all different.

Although 2008 was a record year, we suffered because the infrastructure couldn’t cope. We had to alter the internal roads and car-parking systems because of the crowds. That cost us £500,000-£750,000 (€626,000-€940,000). We put in new catering outlets and faster food units, producing more food at the time people wanted it. These days we achieve a high catering secondary spend in the region of £3.60-£4 (€4.51-€5.01) per head. We improved all of our infrastructure because of Thomas Land.

The success of Thomas Land with children and families also enabled us to build a 150-bedroom, 4-star hotel with 15 “Thomas & Friends” rooms. We're running 85-90 percent full [in July 2014]. The hotel is 3 years old on Aug. 15 and we will have had a quarter of a million sleeping customers since 2011. Plans are afoot for a second hotel.

                                            

What does the future hold?

Thomas will stay with us as long as the contract is viable. We've already spent £7.7 million (€9.7 million) on Thomas Land and we’re putting in another £2.5 million (€3 million) ready for Thomas' 70th birthday next year. I'm 66 and my sons and niece, Helen, who all want to carry on in the business, want to keep Thomas. Thomas will be here for as long as he can be.

Knowing what you do now, would you ever do it yourself, or would you always buy in an IP?

A known IP is a far better way of getting something quickly. We also have a “Ben 10” roller coaster, which is more for 10- to 12-year-olds, and a Cartoon Network Street. “Ben 10” is a good IP, but we are looking at other things and they will have to be named IPs.

What are the key ingredients for success when it comes to bringing in an IP?

Choose the right IP product for your market. We hit the nail on the head with Thomas because it was a family-orientated single character. Children under 4 counted for 12.7 percent of our figures during 2008, but they brought Mum, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa, and their siblings, too.

Today it's about 75 degrees here, it’s the start of the school holidays, and Thomas Land is as full as it was in 2008. People keep putting in the surveys, “It’s a lovely family day out,” and that’s wonderful.

www.draytonmanor.co.uk

Juliana Gilling is a contributing editor for IAAPA’s Funworld magazine, covering the European attractions industry. Contact her at julianagilling@gmail.com and www.julianagilling.com.