The Land of Imagination Blossoms
When first hearing the name Blackgang Chine, the uninitiated might ask, “What’s a chine?” It is a term unique to parts of England to describe a deep, narrow ravine running down to the sea. But it is also the unique geological formation that attracted Alexander Dabell to enter the attractions industry in 1843 on England’s Isle of Wight.
It was just a few years after Queen Victoria ascended to the throne and a newly emerging middle class was just discovering the concept of leisure time. Dabell, then working as a lacemaker, acquired control of the land around Blackgang Chine, a steep ravine situated 500 feet above the English Channel. Dabell built a café and a series of pathways down the ravine and installed gardens to appeal to visitors attracted by the spectacular views.
The Dabell family still owns the park, making it one of the oldest continuous family ownerships of an attraction in the world.
Today’s Blackgang Chine
Blackgang Chine calls itself the Land of Imagination, and visitors encounter a variety of fantasy experiences—a Wild West town, dinosaurs, pirates, nursery rhymes, and fairies. The emphasis is on participatory and role-playing activities as the park features just three mechanical rides.
“What we try to do is get creative juices flowing,” explains Alexander Dabell, managing director and fifth-generation family member who shares his name with the park’s founder. “We put people in different situations because we can.”
To keep things fresh, Blackgang Chine frequently rotates attractions. Since 2010, eight new attractions have debuted, while 10 have been removed. The park added its most recent major experience Underwater Kingdom, a simulated world beneath the sea, in 2017, complete with a musical walk-through of coral and marine life, animatronic sea creatures including a full-size whale, and a sunken shipwreck to explore. It replaced two older attractions.
This remaking of longstanding attractions is one way Blackgang Chine pursues its mission of creating memories crossing multiple generations. In 2014, the park’s popular 42-year-old Dinosaur Land, which had featured static dinosaur statues, was replaced by Restricted Area 5. While the attraction emphasizes contemporary animatronic dinosaurs, Blackgang Chine kept several of the originals, maintaining those memories across generations.
While the park’s core audience is young children, Dabell says it extends well beyond that to people of all ages. “Play and playing is not something restricted to children. We want people to stop being an adult,” he says. “You will feel younger, and when you feel younger, you are younger.”
Since its earliest years, Blackgang Chine has managed to survive numerous challenges including World War II, in which Luftwaffe bombers passed overhead to attack nearby radar stations.
But that wasn’t the most unique challenge the 40-acre park had to face. Its coastal location has meant the chine that gave birth to the park is continuously collapsing. In fact, the cliff the park sits on is retreating at a rate of around 3.5 meters each year. The most recent major landslip occurred in 1994, which cost the park two major attractions and the home of Dabell. This has required the park to occasionally move attractions to more stable ground. Many operators would see this as a liability, but Blackgang Chine has embraced this as part of its identity, even going as far as including a landslip simulator as one of its attractions. Despite this challenge, Dabell considers the location one of the top assets. “It was one of the marvels that Mother Nature has provided for us,” he says.
Another challenge has been the transition among generations. Dabell says the transition to his generation came “with a great deal of difficulty. One generation to the next, you are still a child. That is a challenge; it causes all sorts of rifts,” explaining that differing visions on the direction of the business with his father prompted him to leave for a decade. During that time, he got his MBA and worked as a management consultant at Cisco and numerous other companies, along with the European Space Agency.
When he returned around 2006, he brought with him a wealth of experience that he has been able to draw upon. He specifically cites the can-do attitude and culture at Cisco as something he sought to bring to the family business. “Changing culture isn’t something you do overnight,” he says.
The key point of disagreement that prompted Dabell to temporarily leave the business centered on how best to sustain the business. While he wanted to grow the company, his father sought to maintain the status quo.
This growth began prior to his departure when the family formed a holding company, Vectis Ventures, in 1993 and acquired Robin Hill Country Park, another attraction on the Isle of Wight. Like Blackgang Chine, it emphasized participatory attractions, with only a handful of mechanical rides. Dabell wanted to add another facility to provide additional reasons for guests to make the ferry trip to the island community. “Being an island is a challenge as you have to first bring people to the island, which comes with a cost. It’s not necessarily an easy day visit due to the ferry toll.”
When he had returned, he found Robin Hill still had not found its place. His challenge was figuring out where to take it. With nearly 100 acres, more than twice the size of Blackgang Chine, Robin Hill is particularly well suited for large events. Dabell looked to the 5-acre old growth forest on the property as a unique asset. He cleared the undergrowth and installed lighting, creating the Electric Woods, a venue where the park mounts a series of special events throughout the year.
Ensuring the Future
This year saw the debut of two shoulder season events— an event celebrating Lunar New Year in February and a Christmastime event called “Polar.” “It links up the months, creating a nearly year-round facility,” Dabell says. “Now we can look at building a full-time workforce.”
But increasing events are not unique to Robin Hill. In 2018, Blackgang Chine launched two events to grow its audience—“Big Night Out,” focused more on older guests with entertainment, a dance floor, and fireworks; and “Wicked Nights,” a Halloween event that leverages the history of the area. “Wicked Nights” was a hit and will be expanded from one to four horror mazes in 2019.
Growing the events schedule is a key part of Dabell’s strategy to ensure the success of the business well into the future as he is the last member of the family still involved. By developing a robust event lineup, he can drive traffic during times the parks are closed, extending the operating season.
“I hated the seasonality of the business,” says Dabell. “I had to say goodbye to so many great people, hoping they would return.” As a result, he is focusing on festivals to extend the season, making it more feasible to operate year-round. This is a key part of Dabell’s strategy to develop a sustainable business by creating an environment that will attract a workforce that will embrace the uniqueness of the two facilities. “We are looking for young people of all ages who have the right attitude,” he says. “What we do has to be fun.”
Vectis Ventures has also increased resources for training and development and runs a career development program. It’s aimed at identifying the company’s “stars” of the future among its approximately 200 staff members, encouraging them to take ownership of their own parts of the business.
But Dabell doesn’t plan to step away any time soon. Next on Dabell’s list is an indoor water park, The Springs at Robin Hill Country Park, that will further build the year-round business. The opening is still about four years off. “I have enough ideas for the next 25 years. I’m going to see through to the 200th anniversary,” says Dabell. “There will be hurdles, but what is the fun of life if there are no hurdles.”
Jim Futrell has been researching the industry for 40 years. He has written extensively on the topic and oversees IAAPA’s Oral History Project.