Indiana Jones and the pounds 33m hot metal ride Steelworks ride again with pounds 33m facelift

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The Independent Online
Theme-park Britain is destined to get a new spectacular if the Millennium Commission coughs up pounds 15m to turn a redundant steel works in Rotherham into a white-knuckle ride in a giant ladle through water-walls, heat and laser lights to the heart of an exploding furnace.

Rotherham council maintains that the Ride of Steel will be about "education and heritage" but when the project's advisers include the Disney-MGM Indiana Jones Stunt Theater and Universal Studio's Ghostbusters Show, the high- mindedness is hard to swallow.

Only last week, Sir Nicholas Goodison, chairman of the National Art Collection Fund, had the luminaries of the museums and galleries world nodding sagely when he said "interpretative, theme-park, play-time displays" detracted from the unique character of collections.

There is also a big question mark over whether another industrial heritage project, however hi-tech, can succeed in an area where visitor centres are almost as thick on the ground as once were the pits and factories they have replaced.

High-profile projects are struggling. Transperience, an historic bus collection-turned-theme park in Bradford, started with visitor forecasts of 350,000 a year and never topped 80,000. It won pounds 8m of European and other public money yet is now in the hands of administrators. The Royal Armouries at Leeds forecast 1.3 million visitors but is reckoned to be doing well drawing nearly 500,000.

Rotherham council says the pounds 33m "Magna" centre could provide 500 full- time jobs and attract 400,000 visitors a year. Its bid for pounds 15m from the Millennium Commission has cleared the first hurdle and a decision is expected in September. The European Commission is being targeted for pounds 7m with the balance coming from other public and private sources.

Barbara Woroncow, director of the Yorkshire and Humberside Museums Council, is sceptical. "If public money is involved to any degree we need to have some honest and realistic business plans," she said.

Magna is one of at least four attractions in the area forecasting 400,000 visitors a year, including the National Centre for Popular Music under construction in Sheffield with Arts Council millions.

"It is just not possible to achieve this sort of a total increase in visitor numbers," Ms Woroncow said. There are already 170 mainline museums and other attractions in the area and people have a relatively fixed amount of time and money to spare. A standard ticket to Magna, including the Ride of Steel, is expected to be pounds 5.95.

Rotherham believes it can attract visitors from beyond Yorkshire. The council leader, Keith Billington, said Magna would be a "world-class" tourist attraction. "It is not about turning the steel industry into a Disney theme park. Its themes are education and heritage. But we are also taking a hard-headed business approach."

Magna poses a dilemma for Sir Nicholas. With visitors travelling in a steel ladle through a tube to emerge above the floor of the works, it is exactly the sort of "play-time" project he abhors. Transperience, the Royal Armouries and the Natural History Museum's Earth Galleries are among his pet hates.

But the 42-acre site by the river Don, and the vast green building, the size of four football pitches, which once housed the world's biggest electric arc melting shop, belongs to British Steel - whose deputy chairman is Sir Nicholas Goodison.

The top draws

The top "themed" museums and industry attractions, with annual attendance figures:

Granada Studio Tours - 750,000 *

Jorvik Museum, York - 692,000**

National Museum of Photography, Bradford - 610,000

Cadbury World, Birmingham - 533,000

Museum of the Moving Image, London - 393,093

Gatwick Skyview - 390,000

Royal Armouries,

Leeds - 382,000

Eureka! (Museum for Children), Halifax - 365,000

Beamish Open Air Museum, Co Durham - 364,000

Museum of Science

and Industry,

Manchester - 333,000

Ironbridge Gorge Museum, Shropshire - 276,000

1996 figures except *1995 and **1994. Source: British Tourist Authority, except **.