The Sinking Ship: (Un)Love Letters to Merlin

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by AstroDan, 20th Nov 2016.

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  1. AstroDan

    AstroDan TS Forum Team Team Member

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    As some of you who know me will be familiar with, I have never been one to shirk away from communicating feelings of despair, worry or frustration with any of the Merlin theme parks, nor head office itself. I think I have, in the past, written directly to senior leaders in Poole on a couple of occasions - once following the Fantagate episode with Oblivion - and once following a previous cutting spree, when Alton Towers closed selected rides on selected days many years ago. Back then, whilst I wouldn't ever take the blame for halting these decisions, through the power of the internet, online web forums and others taking similar action, things were often righted.

    We came to 2016, and it was fair play that it was always going to be a difficult year. Not only were visitor figures plummeting to all-time-lows in 2015, but other Merlin parks were also suffering for one reason or another. Whether it was Chessington's world-beating queue times (not in a good sense, of course), Thorpe Park's appalling ride reliability, Heide-Park's obvious cuts across the board or indeed those at Alton Towers, which we have all come to know so well.

    So, to summarise - I wrote to Merlin in mid-September with the following key points:

    • Entertainment in the parks is almost non-existant compared to large non-Merlin parks in Europe, and has slowly been cut back since Merlin took charge. There is none whatsoever in some cases
    • Ride quantity at a number of Merlin parks has been reduced, in some cases significantly, whilst the admission prices have risen.
    • Presentation and maintenance at some of the parks is entirely inadequate. Alton Towers have made an effort to address this with their TLC programme but, in truth, this sort of attitude is needed across all parks and the money available for such projects massively increasing to make the parks first rate
    • In most cases, special events at parks outside of the Halloween period is almost nil and has slowly reduced since Merlin acquired them in 2007
    • Park opening hours at the Resort Theme Parks are poor compared to other major theme parks in Europe – and this was the case prior to The Smiler effect and has continued to be the case after it
    • Food and beverage choice is limited and, on the whole, uninspired in many of the Merlin theme parks compared to competitors
    • Ticket prices are so erratic, that guests pay £20 but think they are due a £50 product. Cutting the headline price, offering a small discount online and using the brand to get people in rather than the price would be a sure fire way of sorting this, and predicting guest flow to boot
    I waited 2 months for a reply, but finally had one. I will summarise the key points:
    • They were sorry to hear I felt the parks had deteriorated
    • They know they are 'not perfect' but [...] continually strive to improve the guest experience
    • TripAdvisor and other KPIs have improved in 2016
    • Alton Towers and Heide-Park have achieved 'excellence' awards in 2016
    • They 'will not always meet the expectations of all theme park enthusiasts'
    • Merlin believe 'they are moving in the right direction' with their theme parks
    • They told me that my comments are useful (in spite of previously saying that enthusiasts' POV are not possible to be met)

    Therefore, I think it is safe to infer that:

    • Merlin believe they have, and continue to, improve the parks. This, i entirely disagree with. In fact, I believe it is delusional for the company to even make these suggestions.
    • The parks are 'better than ever' - hence improved KPIs and online scores. This is quite clearly a load of cobblers.
    • Theme park enthusiasts have too high expectations and are an irrelevance. Their experience of visiting many theme parks is unhelpful. Other theme parks clearly are not part of the picture and Merlin seem to not care about them.
    • The direction of travel (e.g. closing rides, cutting entertainment, cutting food) is dressed a positive. How this is the right direction I have no idea.
    Delusional is the name of the game. It is a race to the bottom.

    As a result of the response from Merlin, I have replied again to discuss the points they made and refuted many of them.

    Due to the fact that they failed to re-assure me that they would be seeking to buck the trend of closures and reductions, I do not, as it stands, plan to purchase a Merlin Annual Pass in 2017.

    My own view is that Nick Varney has presided over a complete collapse in quality at most of the resort theme parks. It would be entirely unfair to blame The Smiler crash for all of it, too - because a lot of this was already beginning to trickle through beforehand.

    - Chessington has suffered a complete lack of investment
    - Alton Towers is being downsized, with massive cuts to all departments
    - Thorpe Park continues to be one of the worst parks I have ever seen for ride availability
    - Heide-Park is starkly poorer in all but rollercoaster quality to all other major German theme parks

    I would be keen to know your thoughts.
     
    Inferno, Sauron97, Matt N and 36 others like this.
    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  2. WillPS

    WillPS TowersStreet Member

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    I don't think it's delusion. It's a conscious race to the bottom - make the very most by doing the very least.

    They just can't admit that publicly.
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  3. Benzin

    Benzin TowersStreet Member

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    The irony is of course that I'm sure enthusiasts in general expect very little in terms of actual difficult park aspects:
    • Ride availability at a good level
    • Park is clean and run down areas are tarted up on a regular basis
    • Rides are run at suitable levels for attendance
    • Staff work to good levels and efficient
    • Some alternatives to rides available (this is dependent on person though)
    • Be inspired by what other parks do, as with any industry, other companies can show you how to do certain things differently in a positive manner

    Simple stuff really... Sad to see them pretty much putting fingers in their ears and going "LALALALA" loudly...
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  4. rob666

    rob666 TowersStreet Member

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    Well done Dan, this is the kind of thing I often intend on doing but never get round to.
    This seasons Merlin pass was intended to be a one off "away year" from BPB but I thought that if I had an excellent year I might stay with Merlin for longer, and just do occasional trips to BPB off peak.
    However, there were constant niggly issues that frustrated me at Alton, that I had never really noticed as an occasional visitor... regular repeated downtime on certain coasters, Dark Forest especially, poor food choices due to cuts, and neglect of the gardens generally... it's my job and hobby, I wanted to get my lawnmower and secateurs out on most of my visits this year. The paths through the valley were an overgrown disgrace, if I maintained my customers gardens like that I would be sacked. I have never seen them so bad in 35 years of visiting the place.
    Other things, occasional closure of express parking on low season days, the suspension testing drive to express parking, and rides not opening early for passholders from the first days of the season, made me realise that Merlin run their parks no better than Blackpool.
    I think I will like the park more when I go back to being an occasional visitor.
     
    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  5. Funcone

    Funcone TowersStreet Member

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    Trip Advisor reviews are publicly available so you theoretically you could fact check whether it's true that Trip Advisor reviews improved in 2016. I doubt anyone's got the time or inclination to do it manually. Are there any tools that can track average Trip Advisor ratings over time without having to work it out manually? I.e. a tool that could calculate the average rating in 2015 compared to 2016? Or compared to when Merlin first took over. Is there a tool that can plot a graph of Trip Advisor ratings over time?

    Alton Tower's has generally done reasonably well on Trip Advisor (although not as well as some of the 'top' European theme parks). However, Legoland in particular seems to get quite poor reviews on Trip Advisor, but somehow manages to be the UK's most visited theme park.

    In terms of KPIs we'll probably never know. I guess their KPIs are giving them enough confidence to invest in more accommodation, but not enough to stop them from laying off 20% of their permanent staff. Not too sure what to make of that.

    If KPI's have improved, it probably means their parks have had a fall in visitors this year, as when you read poor reviews of Merlin's attractions on Trip Advisor, the length of the queues is probably the single biggest culprit. Aside from shorter queues because visitor numbers have fallen, it's hard to think why else feedback would have improved this year. Although I will admit to being impressed with Derren Brown's Ghost Train when I rode it with all the effects working.
     
    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  6. CoasterCrazyChris

    CoasterCrazyChris TowersStreet Member

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    I wrote a post in the 2017 wishlist topic that would have been more appropriate here ...but basically there is no indication that the park is ever going to improve anytime in the future let alone 2017.

    Things were pretty bad even as far back as 2011 (after a gradual decline during the previous decade) but the incident last year has pretty much sealed Alton Towers fate to long-term mediocrity.

    I still enjoy these forums but gave up with the park almost entirely in 2013 after the shambolic mess The Smiler turned out to be and that was a whole two years before the accident.

    Alton Towers and the other UK parks need to really crash and burn over the coming years to force Merlin to sell their theme parks division. As highly unlikely as this is likely to be it is the only long-term hope for Alton Towers, Chessington and Thorpe Park.
     
    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  7. AT86

    AT86 TowersStreet Member

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    The sooner Merlin sell off the Resort Theme Park division the better. I don't see any other way they will improve.

    Sad times.
     
    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  8. Funcone

    Funcone TowersStreet Member

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    The sad thing is, people used to say that the Merlin parks won't improve unless people vote with their feet and stop visiting them. A lot people have voted with their feet, and the decline's accelerated. The other sad thing is that most of these people who've stopped visiting aren't visiting other theme parks instead. They've stopped visiting theme parks all together.

    If TEA figures are accurate, then following the Smiler accident Alton Towers and Thorpe Park between them had a drop of about 900,000 visitors. The number of people visiting smaller UK parks has probably declined considerably over the years with several notable ones closing (American Adventure, Camelot, Loudon Castle, Pleasure Island etc), while the number of Brits visiting theme parks on the continent is also likely to have fallen. The two main resorts Brits went to in Europe are Disneyland Paris and Port Aventura, and neither of them seem to be getting the number of UK guests that they have done in the past. Aside from Legoland and Paultons Park it's hard to think of UK theme parks that have had a sustained period of growth in recent years. The truth of the matter is that Brits simply aren't visiting theme parks in the numbers that they have done in the past, and this is despite a rising population.

    I don't think next year's going to be a particularly interesting year for the industry, so let's hope that SW8 and the double launched coaster in Blackpool can rekindle an interest in our parks and create some positive publicity.
     
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    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  9. bluesonichd

    bluesonichd TowersStreet Member

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    Things will never change while they have a monopoly on parks in the UK. They just don't have the drive to better themselves.
    A small chance now Blackpool are upping their game, Merlin may respond to it, but I very much doubt it.
    From the response given to Dan, They just seem very apathetic to the whole theme park business.
    Very sad but what can you do..
    1 - Don't go, park revenues drop they close more rides make more cuts.
    2 - Carry on going, park revenues increase, they are happy with the profits and do nothing, as nothing is wrong
     
    jon81uk likes this.
    Posted 20th Nov 2016
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  10. andeyhart

    andeyhart TowersStreet Member

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    How, before the crash, was The Smiler a "shambolic mess"? Yes, it had issues, we're all well aware of that. But it was hugely popular with the general public the year it opened, and that's easily the most important thing. Hell, even now it's probably the most popular ride there. For many, it was the only ride Alton installed that came close to Nemesis and Oblivion. Before the crash, I don't possibly see how you can refer to Smiler as a "shambolic mess", regardless of what your own personal opinions of the ride are.
     
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  11. CoasterCrazyChris

    CoasterCrazyChris TowersStreet Member

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    Construction was a farce.

    Opening and first season was farcical.

    Quality of finished product in terms of theming, non-rider interaction, queue line, landscaping was/is farcical.

    Throughput is poor.

    Even before the crash sections of the track split, bits fell off the ride and at least one of the footers developed cracks.

    It is a fantastic ride if the only consideration is the adrenaline rush from riding. Frankly what they have achieved with the hardware and track design could easily be replicated by any park with sufficient funds.

    Despite his involvement, The Smiler is many of the things Wardley claimed were bad about coaster design - inversions for the sake of them and completely fenced off from those who don't ride.

    Its success with the general public does not excuse the rest of the park's many failures and in light of what has happened you can almost guarantee Merlin wish that the Black Hole tent was still stood there..
     
    Last edited: 20th Nov 2016
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  12. andeyhart

    andeyhart TowersStreet Member

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    I think, sometimes, people are guilty of slightly underestimating the devastating effect The Smiler crash had on Towers. Yes, there have been problems with Merlin before, including at other Merlin theme parks, but I think some (and this is not an attack on anyone in particular, just a general observation) were naive regarding the closures. The park, I believe, came closer than we realise to total disaster in 2015. Future ride and food closures, in retrospect, were an absolute certainty after that incident.

    Towers reputation has taken a colossal knock, and no big new ride is going to change that. If every single ride had been open this year, and all Food/Beverage outlets too, it would have made very little, if any, difference, attendance numbers would still have been worryingly low. People weren't not visiting Towers this year because Hex and so on were closed; people were not visiting because many still consider the place unsafe. This hasn't been helped by the fact the crash is still referenced constantly, keeping it fresh in people's minds. Towers, sadly, is a far smaller deal than it once was due their broken reputation, and it will remain so until public opinion drastically improves. Until that moment, Merlin won't see the need to plow that much money into a park they don't expect to be busy often. Therefore, Towers have no choice but to make sacrifices. It's business.

    I've been visiting Towers longer than I care to remember. It's an unpopular opinion on here, but I don't share the belief that the park has declined hugely. It is still, by far, my favourite park to visit. This is a tough time for the park, and I want them to see it out. I firmly believe they will, it will just take time. Years probably.
     
  13. andeyhart

    andeyhart TowersStreet Member

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    You're glossing over the most important point by far - it was hugely popular. The general public who rode it in their millions couldn't have cared less that its construction was troubled. They queued hours for it and the overall resonse was hugely positive. Towers is a business, and its success is based on guest satisfaction. Smiler gave them that. Even now, despite everything, it still gives them that. A ride with a troubled construction but hugely positive guest feedback is far more successful, from a business perspective, than a ride with an incident free construction but poor guest feedback. The adrenaline rush from riding a rollercoaster isn't the only consideration but it is, by and large, the most important one.

    As for your final point, regarding the ride hardware and how it could be replicated easily making it of no particular achievement - the exact same thing could be said regarding Oblivion. Many bigger and more intense dive machines have come along since. Even Nemesis, which has the most unique layout of any coaster I know, is a ride type that's hardware has been replicated many times all around the globe. Towers doesn't need to have unique ride hardware in order to be effective.
     
  14. Towerslover

    Towerslover TowersStreet Member

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    The general public couldn't give a damn about theming, if it's there they will appreciate it but if it's not there the chances are they won't notice. Merlin could carry on sticking in big gimmicky coasters, turn the place into an amusment park and running it into the ground. Things will not change until new ownership and even then, they might carry on in Merlins way.

    It will be intresting to see what the place is like in 20 years.
     
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  15. CoasterCrazyChris

    CoasterCrazyChris TowersStreet Member

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    You are of course correct - it was hugely popular and gained fantastic guest satisfaction.

    And of course troubled construction is also irrelevant if the product is finished to a high standard. But it was not. The poor design and shoddy construction still plagues the ride - a messy unpleasant cattle-pen prone to serious flooding, a mass of dirty ugly concrete walls and flooring, creative-less and poor quality plastic/vinyl theming, poorly imagined and lazily designed entrance and station structures .....the list goes on.

    The point I am getting at is that the lack of attention to detail and overall aesthetics, consideration to the overall guest experience and the neglect to create a fully polished product attitude that started with Charterhouse/DIC in 2002/3 and continued by Merlin has ruined the coherence and professionalism of a park that strived for much better 20 years ago.

    There may be example of longer and more intense versions of Nemesis and Oblivion, but no other park has bettered the overall design package of those two rides (a few have come close).
     
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  16. andeyhart

    andeyhart TowersStreet Member

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    Fair points. The construction of Smiler was undeniably bad. I would still say, for overall experience, it's the best coaster at Towers after Nemesis and Oblivion. But I'd feel more at ease with a smoother, more trouble free construction where SW8 is concerned.
     
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  17. PuddoBearBoy

    PuddoBearBoy TowersStreet Member

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    Why the constant references to 'European equivalents'? Why should they strive to improve their product if there's no competitors challenging them? They're a business - they don't owe anyone anything. It has been a fact, that, for the most part, the RTP Division is just a big hold of capital, and in comparison to the Legoland Parks and Midways, doesn't generate half of the revenue:liquid capital (in the ratio). So, as such, would require less capital being introduced into that business every year!

    My advice, mate, would be to COMPLETELY boycott the company if you feel that way.

    Thank you.
     
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  18. Grand_Nash

    Grand_Nash TowersStreet Member

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    I
    I would disagree, the number of people who comment on swarms themeing shows the UK public do enjoy well executed projects. The problem alton have is most of the budget is spent hiding the coaster never really much theming is added, that goes back to toussauds.
     
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  19. AstroDan

    AstroDan TS Forum Team Team Member

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    It is only out of passion and loyalty that I feel this way.

    The comparison to parks around Europe is entirely valid - seen as that is all you can compare them to, as there are no other major parks in the UK that attract the sorts of guest numbers seen by Alton Towers, Thorpe Park and Legoland (although I was not concerned with Legoland, as I have not been recently and don't really know the park much at all). I was also writing to Merlin about their parks in general, Heide-Park included. This was no more about Alton Towers than it was Thorpe Park. Or no more about Chessington than it was about Heide-Park.

    Regarding a boycott - you don't know how much I would love to just say - no. I don't feel any of the parks particularly deserve my time. Especially Chessington and Thorpe Park. But - and this is the big but - I don't write to Merlin out of spite. I write to Merlin because I love theme parks, have grown up with Alton Towers and associate it with some of the best times of my life - whether with friends or working there 9 years ago. My loyalty will vastly go beyond Merlin's, and it is only out of wanting the park to blossom back to former glories that I actually care.

    Not visiting would remove my ability even to weigh up how it is doing, it would cut off a fantastic social circle which I have gained from these wonderful communities over the years and I wouldn't be able to ride some of the fantastic coasters at the park.

    :)
     
    Last edited: 20th Nov 2016
  20. PuddoBearBoy

    PuddoBearBoy TowersStreet Member

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    Fair enough. Do you believe the Merlin Management should invest more liquid capital into the RTP division given the current financial situation? Do you believe that more money into Entertainment/Rides would bring the masses back?

    I do, however, believe that the damage to Merlin's Reputation on the Balance Sheet (intangible asset of goodwill) will taken a massive hit - something I don't believe the Merlin Financial Team have properly accounted for.
     
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