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Blackpool still has 10 million visitors a year - about six million of them visit the family-run Pleasure Beach, Blackpool (PBB), an amusement park with its sprawling roller-coaster rides, which contributes to Blackpool's retaining its title as the UK's top seaside holiday destination. The Pleasure Beach is Britain's favourite free tourist attraction. But the resort that has been in decline for 30 years, losing two per cent of visitors each year, is in desperate need of resuscitation.

 

Partly to blame is Blackpool's image - drunken stag and hen parties, poor accommodation, and garish tat - but also increasing competition from other UK resorts and package holidays. Bad weather doesn't help.

 

Caught up in all this mess is the Queen of Blackpool, Amanda Thompson, 44, the upbeat and theatrical owner of Pleasure Beach, Blackpool. She stands on the balcony of her art deco office building, presiding over her empire in the drizzling rain, with her dog, Paris. Views of Flying Machines, the Pepsi Max Big One and Noah's Ark clutter the skyline. The sound of distant screaming since the park was founded by her great-grandfather, Alderman William George Bean, in 1896, is something that she has got used to.

 

At the 42-acre amusement park that is teeming with her 1,200 employees, she is known to rule the place with an iron rod. Waiting assistants give her freshly washed grapes and pomegranate green tea, when needed, as she takes on the qualities of a Roman empress. Ugly faces are weeded out of the Face of Pleasure Beach competition that she judges, for fear that she will be vile to them.

 

Although her reputation as being nasty had its heyday in her twenties, she says it was the only way to get to the top of the family business. "Nobody took a blind bit of notice of a woman then unless she shouted her head off."

 

It's not been easy growing up with My Little Fairground as the family home. Privately educated at Bristol's all-girls Badminton School, she spent the school holidays travelling around the world, following daddy to amusement parks. "I'd be like, oh God! Not another roller-coaster ride". In her wood-panelled office where generations of her family have sat at the same desk - there is a photograph of "Daddy and Mickey Mouse" taken at Euro Disney, now Disneyland, Paris, when it opened. Her grandfather Leonard Thompson had a "Golden Key" to Disneyland in Los Angeles - "which meant you could use it as a second home" - but when his close friend Walt Disney died, the corporation asked for it back. "He was really grumpy about that for ages."

 

Thompson took over the family business in 2004, when her charismatic 67-year-old father Geoffrey, known as "Mr Blackpool" died at her wedding reception. She was schooled in the business from birth. "Daddy never forced us into the business. He just reeled us in slowly so you felt like it was your choice." She had served as deputy managing director of the family company since 2000, and as a director for more than 15 years, but she had not expected to take over the position so young. Now she faces her biggest challenge - how to get Blackpool out of a big dipper? Outside the gates of her Blackpool empire - somewhat reminiscent of a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - the resort itself is shabby. While visitor numbers at the amusement park have fallen by 7.6 per cent since 2002, it is as nothing compared to the resort itself, which in the early 1970s had 17 million visitors a year. You couldn't see sand for people.

 

Thompson is passionate about Blackpool's future, not only because of her stake in it, but also for its nostalgic ties. Her rise to the top was not without ups and downs. "I was always taught the value of money. When I wanted a pony, my grandfather made me work in the summer holidays on the pony ride at the age of seven, until I proved I was responsible enough to look after one."

 

When Thompson was 19, she had a job at Florida's Walt Disney World Resort, near Orlando, running the British Pavilion at Epcot - "I was sacked after 48 hours" - she says. "I was a punk with bright red hair and it didn't fit with the nice English girl they thought was coming to run it. They tried to stick me in a buxom-wench barmaid outfit."

 

In 1982, she set up Stageworks Worldwide Productions, the entertainment division of Blackpool Pleasure Beach, to create big shows for the park and worldwide, such as Hot Ice, still an important source of revenue. She lives out in the sticks in the rural Fylde - naturally she can still see the Pleasure Beach - her only extra-curricular activity is skiing in the French resort of Courchevel. She feels most at home in Las Vegas, where the familiarity of the tacky bright lights makes her feel safe.

 

For Thompson her world is one big soap opera - full of fantasy and drama - but will Blackpool and her Pleasure Beach survive the next decade? Thompson has already rolled up her sleeves to muck in since she took over. She has invested £8m in the roller-coaster ride, Infusion, suspended over water and launched in June. She has installed an oyster bar and a fully refurbished award-winning White Tower restaurant.

 

Her boutique hotel, The Big Blue Hotel, with its original views of roller-coaster rides, aims to attract the short-break holiday market, as opposed to the Pleasure Beach's traditional day-trip clientele. She closed down the sister amusement park, Southport's Pleasureland, last year because it was draining the Pleasure Beach's resources. "The Pleasure Beach has kept up with the times - we have constantly reinvented ourselves and invested in the town and the park - but sadly for other parts of Blackpool this isn't the case."

 

Blackpool needs a makeover to lure back crowds to its long sandy beaches. An action plan has been put together by the Blackpool Task Force to be reviewed by the Government in August, which has shown a keen willingness to help the dying seaside resort. There has been the £64mgovernment-funded sea-wall defence work, as well as Spanish steps down to the reshaped beach, to keep the tide at bay. An £18mgovernment fund has been set up to encourage enterprise in Blackpool.

 

Some emergency tram work has begun, which Gordon Brown mentioned in his first Prime Minister's Question Time, along with a conference centre and a theatre museum. A £1m-funded project is to make the Blackpool illuminations (31 August-3 November) far flashier this year. Charged with delivering the Blackpool Master Plan is ReBlackpool, an urban regeneration project.

 

A big chunk of that was the bid for the supercasino; it would have poured £2bn of investment into the region. What is left are plans for the central promenade, including the Lottery bid for a £25m People's Playground, as well as a new Debenhams department store and the regeneration of the area from Blackpool North station down to the sea front, which is called the Talbot Gateway.

 

The council has other ideas up its sleeve, such as bringing dance competitions and magicians to the resort, but whether any of these plans will draw hordes of tourists awayfrom the competition is quite another story.

 

"We really need to create a town here for the future," says Thompson. "I believed the transient population of the resort made Blackpool the right place for a supercasino, because the social effects of gambling are less likely to stick around. There is the energy in this town to reinvent itself but we need that chance."

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Very interesting read. It really does seem like the Pleasure Beach has become a product of it's surroundings. I am not 100% certain that Amanda is the best "man" for the job, but at least she realizes that some change needs to be instituted.

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That was interesting, I always wondered whether Amanda Thompson was either a cold-hard nazi, or if she was bluntly looking out for the best interest of Blackpool, seems like the latter.

 

To defend Blackpools current state I believe that sometimes the hen-parties and drunken stag (I think those were words the article used) may create a bit of nostalgia forsome, reminding them of a blackpool from the roaring twenties where the whole town was in the midst of a party year-round.

 

Then again, it is time for change, It seems as though there is little room for expansion and much room for renovation. I think that if they were to restore wearing buildings and streets, the city would look much nicer. That super-casino idea doesnt sound bad either. Hopefully it will all work out

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The problem I have with Amanda Thompson is not that she is looking towards the future but she's forgetting the past (or what's good about old Blackpool Pleasure Beach). In order to get a new marquee ride she shut down a great classic park in Pleasureland, took out the SLC and branded it as new at the Pleasure Beach. How does an recycled SLC help you draw anything more than the same old Blackpool resort crowd instead of, say, the type of person who now only goes to Alton Towers and rides brand new B&M and Intamin coasters?

 

I'll give credit where credit is due. Valhalla is an outstanding newer attraction that fits well into the park. Infusion looks great and is running well for the used SLC that it is. But it's still a recycled, second rate ride (a B&M inverted being an example of a first rate ride in my opinion) that doesn't compare to what Tussaud's offers at their parks.

 

On the down side, the Turtle Chase is gone and the Whip is rusting away. How much of a future does Noah's Ark have? Kennywood has proven that these type of rides can still work and have a great deal of appeal if they are maintained. Kennywood still looks to the future and adds innovative new rides within their budget but they don't forget about their roots.

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That article really does remind me of something out of harry potter, for some strnge reason. I think she is doing very well for herself at the moment although I also thing she has overhyped the SLC from pleasureland a little bit over the top. But still though, at least it does have a future.

 

Cheers,

BlackHole2005.

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The problem I have with Amanda Thompson is not that she is looking towards the future but she's forgetting the past (or what's good about old Blackpool Pleasure Beach). In order to get a new marquee ride she shut down a great classic park in Pleasureland, took out the SLC and branded it as new at the Pleasure Beach. How does an recycled SLC help you draw anything more than the same old Blackpool resort crowd instead of, say, the type of person who now only goes to Alton Towers and rides brand new B&M and Intamin coasters?

Amanda is fantastic. She's refurbished the Casino building, Derby Racer and Noah's Ark just this last year, and the wood coasters have seen more repair in the last two years than they'd seen in the previous ten. She's also brought a classy deco style back to the park that her grandfather let lapse in his later years and which her father took very little notice of, turning the place into a shabby mess - the same father who caused major problems for his once great signature park by wasting money buying out and refurbishing three other parks in a declining market, only to lose out on two in his lifetime, and with the potential to lose even more by expanding his company's last standing sister park (Pleasureland, ofcourse).

 

In a very sad way it's a benefit that he wasn't around quite long enough to realise his expansion of Pleasureland, as the market just wasn't there and the PB would suffer even more because of it. I won't mention sources, I won't mention figures. However, PB finances are in a bad way because of the late great Geoffrey Thompson and his whims - a man I met, a man whose private railway I visited and enjoyed for several years, a man who'd always have time to chat with likeminded people:- enthusiasts (he was one of the biggest himself, to his great misfortune). I was talking to him once when he felt genuinely annoyed that he had to leave to go to talk with the local mayor who'd just turned up, as he liked parks and rides (particularly old ones) on the same level as us and loved talking about them - and that was his great unfortunate flaw. His heart led him many times when his head should've taken the lead. Fantastic old-school showman; poor modern businessman - the reality like it or not.

 

Now the chap's daughter is at the helm. She does not share her late father's enthusiasm for all things old and unique whatever their cost. What she DOES realise is the true value of her assets, she appears to be cleverer within the market. It's such a simple game:- attractions get built, they're popular; they grow old and popularity either stays the same or decreases. Derby Racer is very popular as is Noah's Ark, hence their continuation and recent refurbishment. Whip, Turtle Chase, Vikangar and even the Log Flume (which was irrepairable) lost popularity to the point where their operation ceased being profitable, even in her father's time - and if a ride stops paying for itself then you have some serious questions and a decision to make. Can you do anything to bring back its popularity (sadly, very rarely not)? Therefor does it stay or does it go? Only a rose-tinted fool choses 'stay'. It's the way of the world. And within our world, there's so much diversity - a ride that is popular in America may have lost all credibility for customers in Britain.

 

That's the clincher - we are enthusiasts. Parks generally like us, they welcome us with open arms. However, we earn very little revunue for them, and they often even give us freebies and discounts ontop. The regular, non enthusiast public are the big fish, and us enthusiasts aren't even mere tadpoles. So does it makes sense to keep rides running just for us, when the public don't care or pay for them anymore...?

 

I love Kennywood and Knoebels, most of my favourite rides are pre 1950s/60s. I loved the vintage rides that the Pleasure Beach has lost during my time. I loved the fated sister parks - Frontierland was my favourite as a kid and Pleasureland was a lovely place. But I also love the reality that life changes, progress happens and things stay fresh and new so therefor survive. We'd never have had the Big Dipper if the old Switchback hadn't made way for it on the beach (the Irish Sea lapped up against the Switchback, then with the Dipper came a vast reclaimed promenade in the 1920s - the Big One sits where the sea washed the sand less than a century ago), we'd never have had the fantastic Grand National if the Scenic Railway hadn't made way for it in the 30s. Grand Prix, Revolution and Avalanche would never have come if the ponies had carried on plying their trade up and down the vast sandy field that the south half of the park once was.

 

I could go on but I've got much more important things to be doing. Pleasure Beach is my favourite park tied with Liseberg, and I'm preparing for my weekend at the latter. The parks are both great, but Blackpool the town isn't a patch on the city of Gothenburg, and the people aren't a patch on the Swedes either. See what Amanda's up against? - the climate for amusement parks in the UK is very different to how it once was due to our society becoming very different. Different to the rest of Europe, different to the US, different to the rest of the world. Amanda and her team have to do what's necessary for the Pleasure Beach to survive today and tomorrow, not yesterday - and if that's doing things that upset enthusiasts then so well damn be it, if those same things make the public happy and bring the trade in - that's what counts.

 

Sadly, enthusiasts are largely blind to this. Which member of the normal general public is going to go to Alton Towers "to ride a new Intamin or B&M" when they have no idea where rides come from and that they differ technically in many ways? To them Infusion is 'a Nemesis in Blackpool'. That's what the public see, and that's why it's been a great investment as it's raking the punters in. Traumatizer should always have come straight to Blackpool, whether as that, Infusion, or some other guise. Instead it wasted vast resources being installed at a park that was already sucking life out of the Pleasure Beach because it could not earn its own keep. And to that end, I will leave this here after just one more remark:- give 'new Pleasureland' a couple of years and the place will be deserted once more, but that's nothing PB related and is another topic...

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You have some very good points but I don't totally agree with everything you said. Progess and changes are needed and they not always a bad thing. I love great, new rides. But I believe you have to do it right and find the right mix of new and old. Look at how many old attractions at the Disney parks are top attractions but they have just as many newer attractions that are fan favorites.

 

You mentioned the attractions that gave way for the Grand National and Big Dipper. I think if a ride survives for a long time, is still maintenance friendly and is a fan favorite it shouldn't be removed for another new ride. The flume may not have passed all of those tests so it was probably a better candidate for removal at the Pleasure Beach than a ride like the Big Dipper. But as far as Infusion being the "Nemisis of Blackpool" I'll give the GP more credit. They may get people to Blackpool once thinking Infusion=Nemesis but the GP will know that it's not the same and that Nemesis is clearly better. The GP doesn't know the names B&M and Intamin but they can tell what ride is better. If they didn't know this the Corkscrew at Alton Towers would be as popular as Nemesis, Air and Rita. Sure Infusion looks good for what it is but PBB will have to do better than this to impress a new crowd of visitors. Actually, The Big One is the type of ride that is impressive to people (though I find it a one trick ride with the first drop followed by a scenic railway rest of the ride - but I'm just an enthusiast and I realize that).

 

I think I understand where enthusiasts stand in the world (not that they all do). But I observe what the GP likes and it's no coincidence that many of my favorite rides are the GPs favorite rides too. Not 100% but it's probably over 75%. I wait in many of the same long lines they do and skip some of the same rides they skip.

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