VARIATIONS ON A THEME

TRIED & TESTED Theme parks sound like a great day out for all the family. But do the attractions live up to expectations? Our panel visits six
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The Independent Culture
ONCE the classic family day out was a trip to the seaside, with sideshows, amusement arcades and donkey rides along the beach. Travelling fairs came to town or village only occasionally, and visitors paid for each ride separately. The opening of Disneyland in California in 1955 changed all that. The theme-based park, with its single entry fee, was born, and soon anyone in Britain with a few acres of unprofitable land and an ounce of entrepreneurial spirit was investing in the

new world of leisure.

In the early Eighties, the big-time developers moved in. Thorpe Park in Surrey, 600 acres of flooded gravel pit, had lain derelict until Ready Mixed Concrete (RMC) had the bright idea of making it into a waterskiing course - and later an adventure park with a maritime theme. Chessington, once a zoo, and Alton Towers, a stately home with small rides and woodland walks but rather too few visitors, were transformed by the theme-park wizards.

At most parks, the theme has become obscured (or replaced by a multitude of themes). The common factor now is adrenaline. You can float 13m above the ground on Alton Towers' Energizer, delight in a triple-arms twist at 30rpm on the Calgary Stampede at Thorpe Park, or endure the 65-degree drop of the tallest roller coaster in the world at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. But is the white-knuckle factor everything? Hours of queuing, piles of litter, grumpy attendants and huge expense can ruin a day out as much as too few thrills. We sent family groups to five home-grown theme parks, and the amusements at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, to find out which was best.

THE TEST

Each group gave its park marks for variety and quality of entertainment, the helpfulness of the attendants, dependence upon good weather, and value for money.

THE PANEL

The groups comprised at least one adult and children aged 212 to 15. Mike and Katherine Baker took their three children to Chessington World of Adventures in Surrey; Wendy and Jeff Berliner went with their son and his friend to Alton Towers in Staffordshire; Helen Chandler took two children to Blackpool Pleasure Beach, Lancashire; Reece and Donna Horncastle took their two children to Pleasurewood Hills near Lowestoft in Suffolk; Anna Nabarro went with her three children and two of their friends to Lightwater Valley Park near Ripon, North Yorkshire; and Jenny Mulhall and Sarah Hamilton took three children to Thorpe Park near Chertsey in Surrey.

***CHESSINGTON WORLD OF ADVENTURES, SURREY

Adults, pounds 13.25; under-14s, pounds 11.25; children under 1m in height, free; senior citizens and disabled, pounds 7 (entrance fee includes all rides and amusements)

Though none of the rides lasted much over two minutes, the Bakers found something for every age group here. As with most theme parks, children under a specified height were barred from certain rides. Queuing times for the main rides were about 25 minutes, but for Rameses' Revenge, the new "feature ride", Mike Baker judged there would be a two- to three-hour wait. He noticed there were no signs indicating queuing times at any of the rides. Katherine Baker said: "The attendants were helpful, with big smiles. Getting on the rides, they all gave us clear and concise instructions where necessary." She was less enthusiastic about cleanliness. The toilets "wouldn't have been so bad if I'd been wearing wellies", she said, and "a bit more effort wouldn't have gone amiss as far as litter was concerned". Mike concluded: "At the end of the day, it's a place for children, and knowing they enjoyed it so much makes it worthwhile for the occasional day out."

****ALTON TOWERS, STAFFORDSHIRE

Adults, pounds 16.50; children 4-13, pounds 12.50; OAPs and under-4s, free (entrance fee includes all rides and amusements)

The Berliner family admitted to their initial bias against British theme parks but were happily suprised by our winner, Alton Towers. Jeff Berliner said: "Alton Towers is the nearest thing to Disney in Britain." Jenny (9) who has younger siblings of 7, 4 and 3, enthused: "There are things that all my brothers and sisters would have liked here." Her friend Michael (9) said: "Even when I was sitting on the Runaway Train, thinking this can't be happening, I loved it!" And Michael's mother, Wendy, said the live shows at the park would prevent even bad weather from ruining the day, though her experience was marred by some unhelpful attendants and the litter which grew with the crowds. Wendy was also irritated that the park, which opened at 9am, left her family and hundreds of others "champing at the bit to get going" until the rides started at 10.

***BLACKPOOL PLEASURE BEACH, LANCASHIRE

Pay as you ride; main attractions pounds 3 per person

Blackpool Pleasure Beach stood out from the other theme parks our families tested for two reasons. It is the only pay-as-you-ride park and is located in a town as opposed to a green-field site off a motorway. This explains the distinctiveness of the atmosphere at the Pleasure Beach. Helen Chandler commented that although car parking was a 20-minute walk away, she was "able to amuse the group along the promenade" where there are added attractions. Once at the Pleasure Beach, Helen found that there were "plenty of rides aimed at children, as well as big attractions for thrill-seeking teenagers and adults". There were also amusements and shows which seemed to attract older visitors. Overall, rides were judged to be of adequate length and queues were short, just 20 minutes for the main attractions. This was attributed to the weather, which was very dull and slightly drizzly. Services at Blackpool were rated very highly, with food

outlets, cleanliness and the helpfulness of attendants all complimented.

**PLEASUREWOOD HILLS, SUFFOLK

pounds 9.50 per person; children under 1m tall, free; family ticket - two adults, two children - pounds 32 (includes all rides and amusements)

Theme-park veterans Reece and Donna Horncastle felt Pleasurewood Hills neither manages nor tries to compete with the big parks. Nevertheless, they thoroughly enjoyed their day there and would certainly consider visiting it again. Donna thought there was a "good range of rides for all ages" but Amy (10) commented: "The rides were smallish in length, you went round only once on each ride before you had to queue again." Donna found very good variety in the food on offer, with "plenty of sandwiches and family packed lunches; there was fast food and a small restaurant in a railway carriage." She described the general cleanliness of the park as "no worse than BR". Russell (14) enjoyed the indoor entertainment, which included a bouncing adventure playground and a 3D cinema, but Reece complained that there was little for adults and children to do together.

**LIGHTWATER VALLEY, NORTH YORKSHIRE

Over 1.3m tall, pounds 8.95; under 1.3m and OAPs, pounds 6.95; under-4s, free (entrance fee includes all rides and amusements)

This park seemed to suffer from extremes, with a handful of very scary rides and a number of gentle ones but not very much in between. Anna thought there was almost too much for three- to four-year-olds and not enough for the daring teenager. Most rides were reported to be long enough but Flo (15) and Robin (12), who dared two water-based rides (Devil's Cascade and Falls of Terror), complained they were too short at a couple of minutes each; disappointing after an hour's wait in the afternoon. Anna, however, described the attendants at the park as "excellent on all sides" and thought that overall it was "great value for money, especially if you make a full day of it and bring a picnic". Flo found the surroundings pleasant, with lots of trees and wooden fences while Nat (7) commented on how well the park was signposted. However, Anna was less enchanted with the "crude and irritating ruses designed to try and make you spend; every exit goes through a shop or amusement arcade or past pictures for sale of you looking green at the top of a roller coaster."

**THORPE PARK, SURREY

Adults, pounds 13.25; under-14, pounds 11.25; children under 1m tall, free; senior citizens/disabled, pounds 7 (includes all rides and amusements)

Queuing times were short but Jenny Mulhall attributed this to the rainy weather. "Hot, wet weather would seem ideal! It meant that the queues were short. I would hate to queue for an hour for a four-minute ride". The group reported that there was plenty to do inside if the weather was too bad, including shows and amusements. Alexander and Chris-topher (both aged eight) were not put off by the weather, taking in 43 rides between them, making the day very good value for money. However, despite being one of the bigger and more expensive parks, Thorpe didn't seem to have much to excite older children. It did have a very good range for the four- to 10-year-olds. Sarah Hamilton, 24, was the most disappointed. She'd expected something more thrilling (having experienced theme parks in the US). Jenny commented that the attendants, when you could find them, all knew what was happening where, but she found some of them were "a bit harsh with the younger children". !

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