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An American Adventure

William Squires

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This month's article is by William Squires

When asked the tedious question that goes along the line of ‘What is your favourite park?’, it is common for one to hear responses of Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Drayton Manor, even the occasional plug goes to Oakwood (why?!). But one park few people care to mention of is The American Adventure Theme Park. In fact, most people, without ever visiting the park proclaim it to be rubbish. But why is this? How on earth did the park get such a terrible name for itself? Well, the troubles are nothing new for the site.

As far back as the late 1970s, Derbyshire County Council earmarked the site formerly occupied by a colliery for ‘private sector leisure development’. In 1979 an agreement was formed between the Kent-based “KLF Group” (no, nothing at all to do with ‘The KLF’!) and the then Conservative controlled Derbyshire County Council (DCC herein) to have an exhibition, somewhat ironically based around the best of all things British. The agreement supported the development of the park, without a timescale.

[From here-on is a lot of political too and froing, I have simplified this as best I can without leaving out important stuff.]

It was not long before residents of Shipley showed their opposition to the plans, and levied a writ against the agreement between KLF and DCC; their main concerns being traffic congestion and noise pollution from the ‘fun fair’ KLF had planned. Before this could be dealt with by the courts, DCC granted KLF a 100 year lease on the site with immediate effect. DCC had already by this point shelled out £¼ million in ‘reconstruction costs’. The courts eventually found DCC and KLF’s original agreement invalid on two accounts. DCC appealed against the court’s decision, but after Labour took control later in the year the appeal was withdrawn. KLF now took it upon them to charge DCC with violation of contract on nine accounts; they where cleared of all but two, for which KLF successfully claimed for a whopping £11.4million in losses.

[End of political nitty gritty.]

Britannia Park Concept Art (Copyright Britannia Park Ltd.)

With their 100 year lease intact, and with another £4million from commercial investors to finance the park, KLF now set about constructing their dream, Britannia Park. Entry was to be a very grand affair, with suitable cafés and shops for visitors to enjoy. There would be a ‘traditional village green’ where one could observe a Blacksmith at work. A Crafts Village would showcase a fine array of ‘British Crafts’ (that’s thimbles to you and me). A British Ingenious exhibit would have 8 pavilions that commercial investors could use to highlight the importance of their product in everyday British life. A ‘small world’ area would show landmarks from the English-speaking world in 1/25th scale, and an arena would be constructed, with an annual air tattoo planned. All-in-all, the plans were extremely impressive, especially with such a low investment.

So after successfully hacking off the residents of Shipley, and now every DCC taxpayer, what materialised had to be brilliant for the project to regain any integrity. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, it was not.

Far from completion, never mind something the country could be proud of, Britannia Park was opened to the general public on June 27th, 1985, marked by a flyover by Concorde and a speech by former heavyweight champion Henry Cooper (the thought of which makes me chuckle to this very day). Ready for 1985 were the grand entrance, five of the eight ‘British Genius’ pavilions (occupied by such fine examples of British Genious as beer and coal sponsored by Bass Brewery and whatever was left of National Coal Board by this time respectively) and half a mile of miniature railway line. The rest of the park could have been described politely as a mud bath.

Britannia Park Entrance (Copyright Derby Evening Telegraph)

KLF seemed to have managed to annoy Mother Nature somewhere along the line, as the 1985 season was a washout (rather than the knockout Henry Cooper promised in the advertising material for the park), which severely hindered further construction efforts as well as reduce visitor numbers further. Inevitably, KLF went into receivership and Britannia Park promptly closed on September 9th, just twelve weeks after opening.

With a further £3.7million lent, the receiver had hoped to have the park open for the 1986 season. Ultimately though, the park was just too much of a challenge, and DCC bailed them out buying back the lease for £2.5million.

Here stem two stories, the misfortune of Peter Kellard and the KLF Group, which ended up with the longest trial in UK history (at a further cost to the taxpayer of £1.8million). Without going into too much detail, Peter Kellard was several years later found guilty fraud on numerous accounts, for which he was imprisoned for 4 years. The other story, well…

In steps John Rigby of Park Hall Leisure, usually associated with Camelot Theme Park, Chorley. In August 1986 Rigby negotiated a fresh 100 year lease, similar to KLF’s one but without all the strings which meant DCC could be held liable for their own wrong-doings. Not contempt with his work at Camelot, John Rigby had big plans for his next project. Far from the ‘all things British’ theme unsuccessfully executed in Britannia Park, John Rigby believed there was room in the market for a fully-fledged Cowboy vs. Native themed park. This was the first incarnation of The American Adventure.

With a good infrastructure already in place, all that needed to be done was cover over the remnants of Britannia Park and apply his own ideas. Rigby’s plan was to split the park into two, with the Native Americans occupying one side, and the Cowboys doing their thing in the other. Looking at the park map for their first season, it’s clear to see this in action.

Britannia Park’s entrance was given a lick of paint and with its new stars and stripes livery, the area was now a very bold, welcoming place. The British Genius pavilion, which was now just an empty warehouse, was covered in fibreglass moulded into faces, as you might find at Mount Rushmore, and within a huge play area for under 8’s to enjoy; Pioneer Playland. Down the hill, and visitors would find a convincing replica of the Alamo structure, and behind it could be found a large arena, in which horseback stunt shows would be held every day. By the lake was a Zamperla Buffalo powered coaster similar to the one that can be found at Drayton Manor.

1987 Park Map (Ventureworld Ltd.)

Further on there was a petting zoo, featuring many species associated with the Americas, and an adventure playground. Along the lakeside were several shops, and a large restaurant, followed by a pirate ship and a wagon-themed Ferris Wheel, both from Zamperla. Further still and you’ve reached Silver City, a cowboy tow, looking like something lifted straight from a Western. Twice daily would be a shootout, and next door in Lazy Lil’s the girls would put on a show for the winner.

At the end of the park was a gigantic fibreglass mountain, with a Log Flume and Powered Mine Train coaster emerging from either side, both purchased from Interlink (but likely to have been manufactured by either WGH or Mimafab). Running the length of the park was an adapted version of the miniature railway track built for Britannia Park, with a new train. And what’s more, this was all ready for opening, on time, in June 1987. Without having visited the park, or actually being alive at this point, I can tell you with much certainty that this was an exciting time. John Rigby’s no-expense-spared attitude towards theming was certainly apparent.

The following year saw the opening of a new area, Fort St. Lawrence, with its single ride; The Great Niagara Falls Rapids. With an impressive set of features, and its queue-crunching 12-seater boats, this Rapids ride is widely considered to this day by many to be the best of its kind within the UK (having said this, the title is hardly contended). It is with much regret that I have to tell you that it was about now that John Rigby left the American Adventure and, funnily enough, The Great Niagara Falls Rapids was the last ride, in my opinion, to be properly themed at all.

Okay, so the theming was not up to a standard found today at say, Islands of Adventure, no, but all the same it was far beyond the level  marked ‘acceptable’, especially considering that the only other true theme parks in the UK at the time were sister-park Camelot, and the freshly themed Chessington Zoo. At this point it’s worth baring in mind that it will be four years before Alton Towers will open its first truly themed attractions.

I think it’s fair to say that during its first two seasons, The American Adventure had probably not been the roaring success John Rigby, Park Hall Leisure and Granada (who by this time had a strong interest in Park Hall Leisure) had hoped for. Whilst advertising efforts were in place, they could be considered as being somewhat drowned out by the ongoing media attention the Britannia Park calamity was still attracting. The 1989 season, it was hoped, would increase acceleration of guest numbers. And what would lead to this?

The Missile (Image: Kevin Ellis-Baxter)

Why, a Vekoma Boomerang of course! Yes, the new signature attraction for the park would be ‘The Missile’, a second hand Vekoma Boomerang from the Glasgow Garden Festival of 1988 (it’s not known whether it was a done deal that the ride would pass over to the American Adventure the following season). The ride was plonked at the end of the park, in a new area, inspiringly themed as a Space Port.

Okay, let’s be perfectly honest, the theme extended to a couple of rockets placed around the place. I don’t think I’ll dwell on this ride for much longer, but it’s interesting to note that the ride was voted “Most intense ride in the UK” by the RCCGB, albeit being a clone copy of a ride installed at West Midlands Safari Park four years prior, which never received such a glamorous award.

Also new for 1989, a dark waltzer attraction, named G-Force that sat in a, well, a warehouse in Space Port. There were also changes to the infrastructure of the park; The Miniature Railway now did a complete circuit of the park, complete with an extra train, making the system somewhat useful.

The early nineties proved relatively quiet in terms of new rides. A Vekoma Canyon-Trip ride was installed in the Alamo area in 1991, which proved to be the most popular season for the park, although 625,000 visitors still left room for improvement. It’s worth noting that by now, Granada had completely taken over Park Hall, and John Rigby was now managing the ill-fated Windsor Safari Park (soon to become Legoland).

At some point c.1993, a spanner was thrown in the works, and the Cowboys vs. Native theme was officially thrown out of the window, although it’s arguable that the theme was not at all in practise after the installation of The Missile and Space Port in 1989… unless either party somehow inherited a time machine, zapped forward in time and stole rocket technology and then took it back with them… to Ilkeston.

So, out with the cowboys and in with stars and stripes, red and blue paint, lots of big stuff, red and blue paint, crazy critters… and did I mention red and blue paint? Well, the park covered over much of the previous theme with the aforementioned paint.

For 1993, however, the American Adventure unwittingly found its new signature ride. And unlike any other park I know of, this was not a roller coaster, or a large ‘flat ride’, but in fact a Log Flume. At the time of construction (1987), Cherokee Falls was the tallest flume ride in the UK, a title soon pinched by Thorpe Park’s Loggers Leap. American Adventure’s log flume was once again to regain the title, with the addition of a third drop to dwarf that of Loggers Leap. At 60ft high, with a rotating tunnel up the lift hill, ‘Nightmare Niagara’ as it was now known (to avoid confusion, the Great Niagara Rapids just up the way became the ‘Grand Canyon Rapids’ and eventually the ‘Rocky Mountain Rapids’) soon became the star of the park, a real asset for the park.

A pity then, that it was never advertised to any great extent. And with a major media company behind them, not to mention an ITV franchise holder, one has to wonder why on earth this was.

Anyway, 1994 was bound to be a not-so-brilliant year for the park from the offset. Blackpool Pleasure Beach had their marketing gimmick ‘The Big One’ lined up, closer to home, Drayton Manor had ‘Shockwave’ open mid-Season. Most importantly though, Alton Towers had the almighty ‘Nemesis’… and to be quite honest, American Adventure had little to contend it. So down came the shutters, and up went a big closed sign. Here ends my story. Oh wait…

Actually, American Adventure had a go at buying into successful franchises. Nineteen ninety-four saw the opening of the Motion Master Theatre in the Mount Rushmore themed area: a 4D experience (although the third dimension was inexplicably missing) featuring none-other than the bloody Terminator! Unfortunately though, this came at the price of the much-loved children’s play area Pioneer Playland. Also for 1994, a go-kart track was installed at the expense of the Horseback Stunt show in The Alamo. Never fear though, the show was merged into the Cowboy Shootout in Silver City with the result of the ‘Cowboy Shootout Show, now on Horses’, or was it the ‘Horseback Stunt Show, now with Guns’? I forget.

Unfortunately though, the Terminator, go-karts and horses with guns did not do much to stunt Alton Towers. As if to kick them up the backside a little more, I can vividly remember Alton Towers had a large billboard just 200 metres-or-so from the entrance to the park, advertising their new fangled Swiss beast.

So, the American Adventure now had something of a conundrum on their hands; if the Terminator, go-karts and armed horses did not steal punters from Alton Towers, then what would? The conclusion they came to was a roller coaster, a big one with lots of loops. It just so happened that Lightwater Valley, who were at the time in administration, looked to free up a bit of capital by selling their double-looping ‘Soopa Loopa’ back to its manufacturer Soquet.

Canyon-Trip (Image: Kevin Ellis-Baxter)

The ride soon found its way to Shipley, where it was neatly plonked in the space previously occupied by Canyon-Trip (which subsequently moved to Camelot). Conveniently enough, Granada had just taken over LWT, giving them access to the Gladiators brand, so the Alamo would give way to the ‘Gladiator’s Arena’, and Lightwater Valley’s Soopa Loopa would be known as the ‘Iron Wolf’.

The ride was opened in April 1995 by the Wolf, who ironically enough had opened Nemesis just a year prior. The ride apparently ran with a Lightwater Valley bumper sticker on the operator’s booth for a year, and without a repaint, the outline of the badly etched out Lightwater Valley logo still showed clearly on the front of the trains, until eventually being painted over in American Adventure’s trademark blue and red. Also for 1995, Sooty (another Granada brand) was given his own ‘Wild-West Show’ and Aliens replaced the Terminator in the Motion Master.

Granada soon decided that they weren’t actually so good at the whole Theme Park malarkey after all, and in early 1997 the lease attached to the park along with ‘fixtures and fittings’ were sold on to a consortium by the name of ‘Ventureworld Ltd’, led by Alton Towers extraordinaire John Broome. By the end of the season, the park had a pay-extra Skycoaster installed, and all Granada branding had been hastily removed, leaving the Alamo blue, with silhouettes previously covered by cut outs of the Gladiators.

A Flying Island attraction from Vekoma was placed on Snake Island for the 1998 season, providing some fantastic views of the park. Unfortunately though, it had a bad habit of getting stuck, and fire crews had a job evacuating people at such heights and angles.

The biggest change for 1998 was the closedown of the grand entrance, originally constructed for Britannia Park. John Broome’s view was that the entire park should be on one level, and to achieve this, the park’s entrance must be at the bottom of the park. Unfortunately, this meant that the park would no longer unfold before guests eyes in a somewhat magical fashion. A new grand entrance was promised but never delivered, and since then a collection of Portoloos have greeted visitors.

John considered the ‘All American’ theme a bit of a non-starter, so he planned to rename the park ‘Adventure World’, with the name ‘American Adventure World’ in the interim of the changeover. John’s plans were certainly grand. Amongst other plans, an Inverted Coaster from B&M would become the park’s centrepiece, with a Wooden Rollercoaster from Custom Coasters running along the lakeside. Most of the park’s theme was to be over time eradicated, leaving Silver City and Fort St. Lawrence to represent the USA and Canada respectively. Unfortunately, none of this materialised, and John Broome was soon ousted.

The 2000 season saw the park’s name revert back to The American Adventure, along with the removal of the Flying Island, which I’ve recently been assured was “purely a commercial decision”.

Over the next few years a series of pay attractions were installed, and unfortunately little else. Included in these pay attractions is the infamous JCB World, in which punters could pay the bargain price of £4.95 to spend 5 minutes using a real, working (sort of), mini-JCB digger. I really don’t think more needs to be said about this, so I will refrain from doing so. The nearby Twin Looper (formerly Iron Wolf) was now the ‘JCB Twin Looper’, complete with JCB yellow loops and train.

It was increasingly obvious that over time, less and less attention had been paid to maintaining the existing rides. Amongst other things, Nightmare Niagara’s tunnel had long stopped turning (apparently the tunnel disorientated people, rendering them unable to brace themselves as necessary for the drop ahead), The Missile’s track had gone from deep grey, to sort of grey, to brown, The Rocky Mountain Rapids had lost all or most of its features, and everything on park could be described politely as needing a repaint. Things had to change, and change they did.

Nightmare Niagara (Image: Kevin Ellis-Baxter)

In March 2005, fans of the park were given a nasty surprise, a park map with the whole of Space Port, Fort St. Lawrence and perhaps most importantly Nightmare Niagara inexplicably missing. This was, however, no mistake by the artist; this was the way things were to be from now on. The park had hastily decided that the new target audience would not be ‘adrenaline junkies’, but families with children aged 4 – 14 (later amended to 4 – 12). And with this, unfortunately, came a sudden dependency on flat rides that had never previously been seen at the American Adventure. For 2005 three rides from Zamperla were purchased, a kids carousel (the only attraction to arrive in time for the beginning of the season), a ‘Rockin’ Tug’ and a ‘Fire Brigade’ ride, all cheap, pre-themed rides, the likes of which can be seen across Europe.

So, to open the season, the American Adventure had a kids carousel with Italian wording all over it (except the somewhat strange addition of the word ‘NASA’, there for reasons best known to Zamperla), a rocket-themed kiddie drop tower (placed outside Aztec Kingdom) and more or less half the park standing but not operating. Needless to say, this was not the most popular season for the American Adventure at all.

In June 2005, England suffered the loss of the greatest non-coaster ride to grace its soil, as Nightmare Niagara met its rusty demise, reluctantly handing the title of ‘tallest’ back to Loggers Leap. And yet, nobody seemed to be bothered in the slightest. In fact, as I remember, Dynamo’s removal from Alton Towers in the beginning of 2004 received far more attention. How such a ride can go so long without being commended in the slightest will forever baffle me.

Missile Deconstruction (Image: William Squires)

With hindsight, it should probably have been no surprise that the park chose to close most of their ‘key rides’, including the iconic Missile, that had long loomed over the lake, and the record holding Nightmare Niagara, which was still the only attraction to ever receive queues of any length. Indeed, if any park regularly has numbers of staff outnumbering numbers of guests, they have serious problems. And perhaps, dare I say, the change in target audience was necessary, yes.

When I spoke with Roger Lloyd earlier this year, he seemed extremely proud of the progress the park was making. Things such as the mothers and toddlers group that ran throughout the closed season he described as a “huge success”, and they seem to be genuinely running off the feedback they’re getting from such trials.

Indeed, when I visited the park on opening day this year, there was a definite feeling that park was moving on. The Missile, which lay standing but not operating last season, now clearly had a new target (at the time of writing, deconstruction of the ride has just finished, with the last pieces of the ride waiting to be shipped off for a new life at Pleasurewood Hills, Suffolk), perhaps symbolic if nothing else of the passing of an era.

Fort St. Lawrence has been reopened along with the freshly refurbished Rocky Mountain Rapids, with more features than I can ever remember being operational than before. Yes, care is making a belated return to the American Adventure, although perhaps in not quite a potent form as in decades gone by. A Zamperla Mine Train (second hand from Gullivers Warrington) now parades around the site formerly occupied by Nightmare Niagara’s awesome third drop.

But perhaps the best part about the park is the signs left of the past: Nightmare Niagara’s station remains, as if a tribute to its own former purpose; all the buildings around Space Port still remain to be seen, as they were the day they closed in October 2004; buildings which have not been used in a decade still stand, as there is no need to demolish them. And the park make no effort to close off these now abandoned areas, so they lay there, for anyone feeling a little nostalgic to explore.

So, to answer my original question, how did the park get such a terrible name for itself? Well, I’d say by never actually selling itself properly, which was probably down to lack of funding, and poor management. The awesome Nightmare Niagara should have been regarded in the same way as Nemesis; a legend. Far from it, I seem to be within a select few that even remember the ride’s name. During its final season, I can distinctly remember somebody referring to it as “that tall thing with ‘oles”. When change finally happened at the American Adventure, it was too little, too late.

Oh, and did I mention, Henry Cooper never got his £10,000 fee for opening and promoting Britannia Park.

Guest Author: William Squires

Sources and copyright information

Text:© Copyright William Squires 2006, authorized for use on only.

Britannia Park Publicity: © Copyright Britannia Park Ltd. (in liquidation) 1985

American Adventure Publicity: © Copyright Park Hall Leisure (Derbyshire) Ltd., Ventureworld Ltd. 1987 – 2006.

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Coaster Kingdom Magazine
Issue 21: Aug 2006

Issue 21
Great Rides... That Weren't
Reliving the excitement of exciting new rides... only to realise they're not actually any good

Open Mic - William Squires
An American Adventure
William Squires defends much-mocked American Adventure

In The Picture
In The Picture
Click to enlarge image