What was the Tussauds era at Alton Towers and the other UK parks actually like?

Discussion in 'Talbot Street' started by Matt N, 14th Jul 2021.

  1. Matt N

    Matt N TowersStreet Member

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    Hi guys. When talking about Alton Towers and the other ex-Tussauds UK parks (aka Thorpe & Chessington), many people like to hark back to the 1990s and 2000s, when Tussauds still owned the parks. As someone who wasn’t around when Tussauds owned these parks (as someone born in 2003, I’ve only experienced these parks under Merlin’s tenure), I often get the impression from some of those who were fortunate enough to experience these parks prior to Merlin’s ownership that Tussauds = perfect in every way and Merlin = evil conglomerate that can do no right, and the parks’ fortunes turned drastically south the instant that Merlin acquired the parks on 5th March 2007, but some others suggest that it may be a little more nuanced than that; there were some reviewers, such as Coaster Kingdom, who had a more cynical view of the Tussauds parks than most, and I’d say that The Magic Factory actually paints a surprisingly cynical picture of 1990s Alton Towers in parts of the program.

    So my question to you is; what was actually different back in the UK parks of the 1990s & 2000s to now? And is the impression that Tussauds could do no wrong and Merlin can do no right a correct one in your view, or is it more nuanced?

    I’d be very intrigued to hear your thoughts and hear some accounts of what the parks were actually like back then, if anyone wouldn’t mind sharing!
     
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  2. jon81uk

    jon81uk TowersStreet Member

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    You can also split it into
    Pearson owned Tussauds 1978 - 1999
    Charterhouse owned Tussauds 1999 - 2005
    Dubai Investment Capital owned Tussauds 2005 - 2007
    Then the purchase by Blackstone and merged with Merlin.

    Its generally thought the DIC era was the worst, but it was also only two years or so.
    Most of the major positives at Alton Towers and Chessington obviously happened in the 90s.
    I think that in the early 2000s more focus was given to Thorpe park and less to AT and CWoA.
     
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  3. JAperson

    JAperson TowersStreet Member

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    To be honest I find the Pearson's era the most interesting as it was the true development of Alton Towers into what it is today. Pearson's of today would be the last company you would think to own Tussauds, they currently own Edexcel the exam board and publishers.

    I would love to know what the atmosphere of the towers was like then, its just so mystical.
     
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  4. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Thats nothing like Ive ever read or what I remember even from avid critics of Merlin

    I remember Merlin marked a notable positive difference when they took over. In fact I remember "Tussauds" being a pejoritive term among fans most the time because of the constant budget cuts and cutting corners. But Merlin soon turned up their own weird problems, it's just complex.

    Tussauds developed the parks in the first place remember. It's those good years people are on about, not Tussauds as a business necessarily. Like all businesses, they change as they grow and situations shift. There was a lot of big change in Tussauds.
    Well this is interesting because it captures a particularly interesting time period of change, just as Tussauds was becoming a lot more corporate in the mid 90s, and immediately before the sale to Charterhouse too which brought a lot of difference behind the scenes.

    Basically this topic is way to complex and full of speculation from people who werent actually there, to ever be answered fully on an online forum.
     
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  5. Rick

    Rick TowersStreet Member

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    Forums aren't about getting to a definitive answer, they're about people sharing their opinions about a topic, surely.
     
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  6. Matt.GC

    Matt.GC TowersStreet Member

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    Even if this thread was titled Pearson (the "Tussauds" I think you're referring to) Vs PLC Merlin it would be too broad a discussion. I don't think anyone is of the view that Merlin are only bad and Tussauds were always amazing, in fact this forum is stuffed with posts to the contrary. It's also too broad a subject in terms of are we talking about business or the parks themselves? Bearing in mind Pearson were building an estate to flog on and that's pretty much what they did. In laymen's terms this can be a bit like comparing the property developer who renovated a house against the person who bought the house and currently lives in it.

    If you're after a quick response as to what it was like in the 90's/early 2000's compared to now for anyone who lived through it? Well Alton was different every year, exciting development after exiting development. Never knew what new thing they would come up with next. Was quite incredible what was achieved in such a short space of time. Doesn't mean that would have continued forever though, in fact I'm sure it wouldn't have, the 98 documentary you're referring to shows that. Merlin? Well we all know the story. Slight spark back and some interesting developments when they took over before we got to slashed budgets, the cheapening, poor theming maintenance, 4pm closes, closed attractions, temporary flats blah blah etc etc. Was some debate a few years back about what the worst dark age was, I still maintain 2016 - 2020 (are we still in it? That's a question for another thread) was far worse than the DIC era but that's probably due to the fact that DIC had a more decent park to ruin and less time to ruin it rather than their operations and investments being any better (they weren't).
     
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  7. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Discussed in much true depth I mean. I could write my opinion, but it would be an enormous ambiguity essay that I dont know is worth it. The short answer is it's way more complicated than Tussauds good, Merlin bad.
     
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  8. Rick

    Rick TowersStreet Member

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    You should write a book about it ;)

    It's a circular conversation for sure, with nuance and the like that almost certainly won't be applied, with hazy nostalgia the main currency, but I don't really understand why it's any different to anything else we discuss on here.

    If it's not worth it, don't do it, I don't understand why you're trying to shut down a conversation that hasn't even started.
     
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  9. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Eh what, I'm not? Im just adding my opinion that its such a broad complex topic.

    What do you think the answer to the question is?
     
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  10. jon81uk

    jon81uk TowersStreet Member

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    If the Smiler incident hadn’t happened I don’t think we would have got 4pm closures etc anyway. I don’t think PLC Merlin would have invested as much as privately owned Merlin did, but much of the recent bad stuff has been due to the decrease in guest numbers following the incident.
     
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  11. Jb85

    Jb85 TowersStreet Member

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    For me
    Tussaud’s era
    Vast expansion / exciting developments which ran its course - they built it to sell
    Merlin - profiteering

    Let’s be honest - as much as we hate it these companies are in it to make profit. Tussauds had to build the park to gain value as there really was nothing when they came in. That’s where the excitement came from as there was constantly new innovative rides

    Merlin and tussauds aren’t any different - it’s just Merlin had a finished product to play with
     
    Last edited: 15th Jul 2021
  12. MaxPower

    MaxPower TowersStreet Member

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    Pearson's era Tussuads would never have built an SBF Visa drop tower as a new headline attraction at Chessington or a Garmendale transit ride as the main attraction at the new family area at Alton Towers.
     
  13. OilyWater

    OilyWater TowersStreet Member

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    Why should we hate a company making profit? We're the ones giving them the money. If they made good product, we would be happy to give them more of our money. Unfortunately the model of luring people in with monopoly, heavy advertising and underdelivering products, and poor value for money once you get a captive audience also makes money, in the short term.

    Wheras the most successful parks in the world make more money by delivering great product.

    Alton Towers was extremely popular and had so much of the groundwork already laid when Tussauds took over. They hugely redirected and developed the park, but there was plenty of value already there and a visitor base. It was just in a period of decline, not as much as under Merlin in 2012-2016 though.

    There is enormous difference in how the business has been run over time, just not a binary 'Tussauds / Merlin' change
     
  14. Kraken27

    Kraken27 TowersStreet Member

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    To me, the rot started to set in late in 2003 in the Charterhouse owned Tussauds time. The park was riding on the huge success of Air the previous year and started to slash investment - clearly because Charterhouse were readying the Tussauds RTP business as a whole for sale, so you need a good looking balance sheet for potential buyers.

    Ditto with DIC owned Tussauds. When the ultimate owner has words like "Investment Capital" or "Infrastructure Partners" in their name, it means one thing. Buy the business, pump in some - possibly significant - money over a few years then sell the business on for several times what you paid for it (but obviously still making a big profit even when deducting the money you put into it).

    So Towers was already on a nice downward slope before Merlin came on the scene. Things, of course, got worse when Merlin became a PLC, as shareholders - particularly the institutional ones - only want profits & dividends, so the cutback axe started to swing faster.

    Time will tell what the future holds. Non-PLC Merlin have clearly had their hands forced by Covid and have responded quite well. Vastly extended operating hours at Towers, more events, Retro Squad etc. Let's see what happens when Covid is just seen as a routine infection in future.
     
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  15. jon81uk

    jon81uk TowersStreet Member

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    Also in the early 2000s a lot of money was pumped into Thorpe Park. That park grew in the 2000s in the same way Alton Towers did in the 90s. The investment owners wanted to finish the group of parks off and park of doing that was getting Thorpe to the same standard as the other two parks.
     
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