Coaster Kingdom

Open Mic

Southport - An Inquest

Jamie Shoesmith

homeCurrentarchiveopen mic

Open Mic is a new feature that allows readers to contribute their own articles. Click here for more information and guidelines on adding your article to Coaster Kingdom.

This month's article is by Jamie Shoesmith

Perhaps it is the case we live in a country where information is, through the often-clichéd term ‘mass media’ more accessible, and that our continental counterparts can enjoy more unscrutinised climes, but Roller Coaster Database ( categorises that of the thirty-two defunct or closed parks across Europe, exactly half once operated on UK soil.

September saw Pleasureland Southport, the Merseyside-based park owned by the historical Blackpool Pleasure Beach fraternity, given its own headstone in the amusement industry graveyard after almost a century of operation.

Those with fond memories will recall how the park’s unique style was matched only by her big sister to the north, in managing to retain ol'factory miniature masterpieces like Big Apple and King Solomon's mines, not forgetting the ACE-classic woodie Cyclone, through to contemporary technology showcasing the S&S SkyShot and, of course, the modern showpiece TraumaTizer. It was, without wanting to be overly schmaltzy, a veritable museum of amusement rides and attractions.

The abruptness of Pleasureland’s closure was accompanied by the sketchy statement laid in to the poor workforce’s redundancy notice. The citing of a ‘lack of return in investments’ making the park ‘unviable’ seemed a pretty tame response in comparison to the same people who rallied to the crises of 2004 when a fire threatened the survival of the Pleasure Beach’s Grand National coaster, not to mention the tragic passing of their much loved commanders-in-chief Doris and Geoffrey Thompson.

Said leaders’ power has since passed over to daughter Amanda, who many in the enthusiast circuit have been quick to make scapegoat for Southport’s abrupt end.

Instead of jumping to conclusions, we really should examine all logical reasons behind such a massive blow to the UK amusement industry:

Argument A: The owners managed under given limitation and the park and is, genuinely, unprofitable

Fair enough, it is a distinctly good possibility that Pleasureland has fallen upon harsh times. One only has to take a moment, when reaching the top of the TraumaTizer lift hill, to look out past the iconic sand dunes. The unmistakeable first drop of the Pepsi Max Big One is very hard not to miss.

It was only then I realized on my visit there how uncomfortably close the park sits to its ‘friendly rival’. These two parks are essentially two businesses at loggerheads for the same target audience; this feels scarily similar to the saga of Chessington and Thorpe Park having to undergo a remodelling under The Tussauds Group ownership as a means to a profiteering end.

It is clear that Pleasureland cannot ever be rehashed as a ‘family’ amusement park in the same way Chessington did; and as for the Pleasure Beach, woe betide any management with surgical ideas in mind. No, both parks had to cater with the job lot they had. Under this argument, Pleasureland closed through faculty.

Argument B: Management failed to substantiate Southport’s upkeep and the park closed by a shortfall in investment and bad decision-making

It always humours me when many enthusiasts across many Internet forums (no names mentioned) are quick to roast theme park management without any viable alternative. Those critics that do offer solutions to park ‘mismanagement’ are generally quite wide of mark in terms of a reality check on budget, constraint, cost-effectiveness and whether what they are suggesting is for their sole benefit or for the non-enthusiast majority who visit the park in question; ie, the general public.  

On the flip side, it could be easily argued that Southport’s investments in recent years have been seriously lacking if – and I stress this point to compare in terms of budget – you contrast with investment at the Pleasure Beach.

Following the good effort to publicize TraumaTizer, Southport rested on their laurels. King Solomon’s Mines, an absolute riot of a wooden wild mouse, was bought in the following year, but you can only go so far to promote a second-hand miniature woodie that’s dwarfed under the inverter coaster’s shadow. After that a few minor refurbs for a few years and the park continued to operate with the same line-up year in, year out.

Now, as I said before, this is fine if looking at the park on its own. All parks must balance their books and we must respect that rather than blithely demand a new ride to spring up from nowhere. However, if you look at Blackpool’s investment since they heyday of the Big One, it has managed to hold its own: Valhalla opened to a fanfare of the silly millions they’d thrown at the project. Space Invader got its desperately-needed refurbishment and, despite arriving as two very curious additions, Bling and Spin Doctor received decent reviews when added to the Plesh fold. All this, plus a speedy recovery operation to restore the Grand National to its former glory.

That’s a park with a steady investment. Plans for a rocket coaster to break the world record for height & speed were either idle hearsay or shelved for another time, but it cannot be ignored that the potential was always there – this is a park that we all want to see do well.

We are talking about the same owners here, however, and the most obvious conclusion to jump to is years of diverted investment have left Southport floundering while the Pleasure Beach flourished.

Argument C: It was quickly apparent Southport would not work in years to come, and closed in order to develop business at Pleasure Beach.

One of the joys of the wristband system employed at Southport was that the plethora of undesirables, who reckoned that ‘paying’ to enter a park was clearly below them, could no longer simply vault the fence and run amok, and those in the right frame of mind to pay can enter and leave as they wished, and can enjoy the park at their own leisure (merits discussed at length by CK in the September magazine main issue).

Unfortunately, free roam of the park is a double-edged sword. Pleasureland quickly became a hangout point for said teens and the park was forced to introduce a two pound entry fee on top of its wristband price in order to allow only the serious thrillseekers the privilege of the grounds. Sadly, this is now a vicious circle, as the aforementioned unwanted guests only have to resort back to Plan A of fence-jumping to infiltrate the grounds armed with their Benson & Hedges. Meanwhile, paying visitor numbers fell through the floor when this system was introduced. The two pound pay-on-entry fee is not a case of bad management, Southport were simply in a forced position.

This was one of the many mounting problems the park faced. While guests found an aura of majesty in visiting Pleasure Beach, it seemed Southport was simply a collection of amusements cobbled together in one place without any air of bygone panache to match its counterpart.

Perhaps it was a foregone conclusion a few years ago that Southport’s number was up. The speculation that TraumaTizer will be relocated to Pleasure Beach is perhaps an argument for the management, in that they’ve realised early on that investiture is always the wiser – and safer – option when spent on the Golden Mile, and the inverter coaster is the perfect complement to the Big One, falling conveniently into the footprint that the Log Flume previously occupied.

Now, it could be the case that one argument alone is not the sole reason, for example, argument A could be born out of B and C combined, or arguments A and B gave rise to C.  This study of scenarios was merely to establish open minds about Southport’s demise rather than the incessant desire to have the whole gory truth on demand, and when it’s not to hand it’s better to avoid creating a hyperbole of rhetoric instead.

However, if pushed for a summary, I have been optimistic that, through a century of service to the modern social hedonist, Southport’s closure was simply a result of the harsh climate in the postmodern era, in which business relies on a dog-eat-dog ethos that was not of the management’s original protocol – to simply provide entertainment for the masses. What used to be simply BPB is now also PLC, and such harsh business decisions have turned Pleasureland in to no more than a prime area of real estate.

Keeping the excellent Fun House open is a bittersweet endnote to a sudden and abrupt death of a much-loved park. Cyclone could now be no more than timber and sawdust had it not been for the intervention of a group of vocal enthusiasts; we can only hope the other attractions, especially the historical icons, can find loving new owners in the forthcoming exodus rather than the inevitable journey to the scrap heap.

© Jamie Shoesmith, September 2006.

Click here if you wish to contribute an article to Open Mic

Coaster Kingdom Magazine
Issue 23: Oct 2006

Issue 23
Volume 1
Behind the scenes of Asylum, Hellgate and Se7en at Thorpe Park

Open Mic - Jamie Shoesmith
Southport: an Inquest
Jamie Shoesmith explores just why Southport closed

In The Picture
In The Picture
Click to enlarge image