Theme Park Tourist's guide to the top 10 theme parks in the UK - which should be top of your list to visit?
After last week’s article, in which I compared Alton Towers and Thorpe Park, two of my personal favourite UK theme parks, this week I’m running the rule over the whole of the top 10.
Unlike the previous duel, this list will be primarily based on attendance - the most popular amongst the general public. However, these figures are often a little shaky; some parks elect not to publish full attendance figures, and many parks are free to enter, but operate a pay-per-ride scheme - so I'll factor some common sense in too.
10. Lightwater Valley
This last spot on the list was hard to pick; there are a number of theme parks in the UK which host some very good rides and attractions, such as Fantasy Island in Skegness, but I felt the Yorkshire’s Lightwater Valley deserved it most. The park has struggled just to remain open in the past decade but it must be credited for its resilience and determination to continue to add new rides. The most famous, of course, is The Ultimate, a bizarre steel hybrid coaster that stretches across the park on a 7 minute, 7,442-feet-long trip (it is the second longest coaster on the planet) through forests and over hills. More recently the park has focused on some stunning theming; the aging Rat Ride was rethemed to Raptor Attack in 2010, and has been met with rave reviews, and a new pirate area was installed in 2011.
9. Paultons Park
Paultons Park is punching well above its historic weight in this list, but there is no doubt it deserves a place based on recent performance. Until 2006 the park was unheard of apart from those living nearby, but Paultons took the brave decision to invest in a major ride as it constructed Cobra, the UK's first Gerstlauer Bobsled roller coaster. Rides of this type have been received very well over the world - they are not thrill rides by any means, but pack some pretty impressive speeds and forces into their small layouts. Cobra is no different and set a marker for the park.
The next step came when Peppa Pig World was installed in 2011, featuring seven small rides and a number of other attractions based on the children’s television show. Attendance has sky-rocketed during the past year and has let Paultons Park establish itself on a national basis.
8. Oakwood Theme Park
Many people won’t have heard of Oakwood simply because of its location: it’s hidden away in the south west corner of Wales. This, unfortunatelym means that it garners only a fraction of the customers it should, and as a result the park has struggled at times. All the more the reason to visit!
The incredible wooden roller coaster Megafobia is the fundamental key to the park’s success, being by far the most "airtime"-laden ride in the UK. Nearby, the huge Gerstlauer Eurofighter roller coaster Speed is one the biggest rides of its type in the world. Similarly, Drenched (formerly Hydro) stands out amongst all water rides considering its colossal 120 feet, near-vertical drop. Unlike many other parks in this list, Oakwood is a very pleasant place to be; the Welsh countryside is beautiful and the lack of marauding youths is always a plus.
7. Drayton Manor
Drayton Manor has the misfortune of being in the shadow of the nearby Alton Towers, athough this possibly helps rather than hinders its visitor numbers. In terms of roller coasters it should have a big advantage over Alton Towers in that there is no height limit imposed on it. However Shockwave, the stand up coaster, is rough and short, and G-Force, the high tech X-Car, is possibly the worst ride I have ever been on. But the bad points end there!
Drayton Manor uses the height advantage fantastically with Apocalypse, the 180-feet-tall drop tower, which is no doubt one of the finest in the world. Maelstrom, a Frisbee style ride is also full of thrills, as is Storm Force 10, an incredibly well themed water ride with three powerful drops. However, the recent rise in popularity has not been down to the addition thrill rides, but as with Paultons Park, due to the addition of major children’s attractions. Thomas Land (Thomas the Tank Engine, that is) was received very well in 2008 and last year Ben 10: Ultimate Mission was added too. It’s one area in which it can realistically surpass Alton Towers, and so far it’s doing it very well indeed.
6. Chessington World of Adventures
Chessington World of Adventures was once one of the biggest and most up-to-date theme parks in the country, but has since been eclipsed by the expansions of its sister parks, Thorpe Park and Alton Towers. However it remains a top quality theme park and recent additions show that it is really pushing to become a well-rounded attraction.
The park aims to please families and younger children, and therefore doesn’t have a great number of big thrill rides, but this is perfectly justified. Dragon’s Fury, a fantastic Maurer spinner and Vampire, a classic Arrow suspended coaster still provide surprising thrills for their small statures. Chessington puts a big accent on nature; there is a fantastic zoo, the recently opened Wild Asia area of the park also holds a bird sanctuary, and plans have been revealed for a Rhino Rally style safari ride for 2013.
5. Flamingo Land
Like certain other parks on this list, Flamingo Land is a late bloomer. In the nineties it was more of a large funfair, akin to Margate's Dreamland or Blackpool Pleasure Beach, but of course without the coastal element. The rides were decent, but many of them only temporary. In 2002 a massive expansion began with the construction of Cliffhanger, the S&S combo drop tower. Since then five roller coasters have been added, including a pair of Vekomas ; Velocity, a booster bike, and Kumali, a suspended looping coaster, and Mumbo Jumbo, an S&S El Loco which briefly held the world record of steepest drop at an impressive 112 degrees. If recent rumours of a wooden roller coaster prove to be true we could certainly see an even greater rise for this Yorkshire park.
4. Thorpe Park
Thorpe Park is on the rise. The level of commitment to investment from owner Merlin, has been unbelievable and unprecedented in the UK. It is now firmly established as one of the top 5 UK theme parks and has the potential to be even further up the list. With LEGOLAND Windsor and Chessington nearby, Merlin have focused the park solely on the teen and young adult market. This means the large-scale additions always hit the news and create a lot of interest. The latest installation, The Swarm, is set to open next month, and will become the UK's first Bolliger & Mabillard Wing Rider coaster. The Surrey theme park has regularly been condemned for its lack of attention to detail when it comes to theming, but if the plans and construction are anything to go by then The Swarm will certainly right this.
3. LEGOLAND Windsor
LEGOLAND is an often-overlooked park, mainly because it doesn’t attempt to cater to the adrenaline-junkies amongst us. Despite its very specific target market, the pre-teens, it still boasts visitor numbers heading towards 2 million. The LEGO brand continues to be a major draw, and rightly so. One of the most incredible parts of the park is the famous Miniland, a recreation of the most famous sights around the world made from nearly 40 million bricks. LEGOLAND Windsor also doesn’t shy away from investment; you may not often hear of the additions it installs, but almost every year there will be a new attraction of some sort. The sheer number of shows, rides and attractions, as well as the recently built hotel, make LEGOLAND Windsor stand out.
2. Alton Towers
Alton Towers is a one-of-a-kind sort of place, and many would claim it deserves an even loftier finish on this list. The stats don’t lie, however, but still the Staffordshire resort pulls in a hefty 2.5 million visitors a year. The main reason for its continuing popularity is simply the fact that it caters to everyone. It boasts the best collection of thrill coasters in the UK, as well as a variety of fun family rides and a plethora of smaller shows and attractions for the little ones.
The primary reasons that Alton Towers doesn't quite top this list are its out-of-the-way location and relatively high entry price. Personally, I believe the range of attractions justifies this, but you can see why many people would go elsewhere when you have to dish out up to £42 per person just to get in through the gates (unless you're using Theme Park Tourist's Special Offer Watch, of course).
1. Blackpool Pleasure Beach
Surprised? This historic amusement park has really dropped off the radar in recent years (or decades?) and been overshadowed by its Merlin-owned rivals. However, clearly it remains hugely popular with the British public due to its long history and being part of the entertainment and holiday district that is the Blackpool coast (charging only £5 for entry doesn't hurt, either). It certainly needs a lick of paint here and there, and aside from the relocated Infusion, a Vekoma suspended looping coaster, there have been few additions of note in the past 12 years.
However, Blackpool Pleasure Beach still has one of the largest collections of coasters in the world, including a record 5 wooden coasters, and many cannot resist that nostalgic funfair, seaside atmosphere. The centrepiece attraction is The Big One, a colossal 213-feet-tall Arrow hypercoaster, which remains the UK’s tallest ride 18 years after its debut. Many criticise the Pleasure Beach, and even more hope for a serious revival, but there’s no doubt it’ll be at near the top of the pile for years to come.
Which is your favourite UK theme park? Let us in the comments section below!