Park Ranking – Merlin Entertainments

Merlin Entertainments, the infamous chain that most enthusiasts in the UK love to hate for the current sorry state of our local theme park situation. The company acquired all of the existing Legoland parks in 2005, a major Italian park in 2006 and then the Tussauds group in 2007, which contained the other three key British players and a bonus German park. Their main efforts since those acquisitions have gone towards spreading the Legoland brand further across the globe and attempting to saturate the market with ‘Midway Attractions’ such as the almost inescapable Sea Life and Dungeons properties.

Aside from that there has been a varying degree of investment into the more thrill oriented parks since that time, with a particularly strong focus on B&Ms, doom and gloom themed attractions, becoming almost synonymous with the colour grey, the use of shipping containers and more recently wood on fire. Their time at the helm of the UK parks has coincided with my general decline in interest in visiting them, but to declare that this is entirely their fault would only be confirmation bias on my part – I’ve changed an awful lot myself since owning my first Merlin Annual Pass and we simply don’t know if things would have been done better by anyone else, though obviously they could have.

I’ve actually made the conscious decision to pass on a couple of Legoland parks (the horror) during my more recent travels simply due to a cost/time/benefit analysis. The brand of course comes at a high price with so much to offer to a local family and comparatively so little to offer me – 2 or 3 small creds. It just hasn’t been worth the detour. Those parks aside it took until the latter half of 2019 for me to finally visit all of the major European parks under the Merlin name, so now the list can begin.


#7 The other Legolands

As I alluded to in the introduction, I haven’t been visiting these parks as of late and it’s a shame. By nature, Legoland lends itself to being the quintessential theme park experience with imagination, theming and storytelling being inherent properties of their attractions. It’s not Legoland without looking like Lego or having Lego characters in it – the hand is forced.
But you can tell these parks are a business model and not a passion project simply by the fact that every single one has the Dragon coaster in a castle land, the Xtreme Racers coaster in a lazily decorated land, and all with the same appearance. It would have been nice for someone to have been tasked with imagining and creating a unique signature attraction for each and every park that was built but sadly that’s not the world we live in.
Where this creativity does come to life a bit more however is in the Miniland areas of each park. As evidenced by a recent documentary on British television about the Windsor property, each park has a team of dedicated model builders and creators that seemingly get to project their own imagination into at least a proportion of the designs that guests see. They usually contain a more regional showcase of landmarks and attractions so you can at least tell which part of the world you might be in by walking around one of these showcases of Lego wonder.

One other positive I have come across so far is in the water ride selection of the parks I have visited. Viking’s River Splash (Windsor), Jungle X-Pedition (Deutschland) and Dino Island (Malaysia) each happened to have a different piece of hardware with an alternative theme and they are above average for attractions of their nature, and that’s great. I just wish, as ever, it had translated to some of the coasters and dark rides.

#6 Legoland Billund

And it did just that for the exception to the rule. The original Legoland park built on the home of Lego itself contains a rollercoaster gem in the form of Polar X-plorer, a quality Zierer family coaster with a drop track section, showing that it is indeed possible to throw a little spice into the mix every now and then. This attraction combined with a strong showing of the now common other dark rides made this particular park feel a little more fleshed out and special amongst the brand for me.
I’m looking forward to visiting the Florida property one day to try their inherited little wooden coaster, hopefully that one can fall under this category too.

#5 Chessington World of Adventures Resort

I have such history with some of these parks now and it’s rather difficult to put things in perspective. Rather than the usual spiel about how I haven’t properly visited for 10 years nor have they invested in anything that interests me across that time period, I shall focus on the positives.
Dragon’s Fury is one of my favourite UK coasters and I actually miss it rather terribly. It’s one of the best examples of Maurer spinners in the world and Mega-Lite even worked on it for a year so I feel like I know it better than almost any other ride in the world.
Oh, and the animals are nice. That is all.

#4 Gardaland

This Italian property appears perfectly competent as a theme park, but it lacked a certain spark. There’s no denying that the two B&Ms contributed by Merlin have made the place vastly more attractive to coaster enthusiasts, though the following Fabbri spinning mouse was certainly more questionable.
The main issue we found with the place was that it just didn’t hold our interest. There’s a wide range of attractions and none of them a were standout, even the dark rides. Little niggles here and there like operational issues and queue jumpers wore us down before the day was out and though I appreciate Gardaland for what it is, there’s currently no desire to return.

#3 Thorpe Park

I do genuinely like a lot of the rides here and I’d still want to visit regularly just because it’s nearby and fun, but I haven’t had the motivation any more with latest changes in pricing, passes, operations (and investments).
It’s coming close to 10 years now since we’ve had a new rollercoaster, which you’d think would be somewhat of a focus for the ‘thrill capital of the UK’. Sadly Thorpe Park have been having a bit of an identity crisis as of late, one year focusing on becoming more family friendly, pushing them away again the very next and then overly relying on intellectual properties to attract guests as opposed to good, solid, tried and tested attractions.

#2 Alton Towers

On paper this should be the best by now, but Wicker Man was a personal blow to me and I’ve just grown so tired of the place. I’ve already praised the lineup on here for being so nice and varied and they have 2 of Merlin’s best (Nemesis, Hex), though I never really found anything joyously rerideable here even in its heyday. On quiet days now I get bored and leave early. On busy days I get annoyed and leave early. There’s a lot more of the latter now and very little balance.
Sure, this may well apply to all of these parks if you went enough times, but I don’t feel like I’ve overdone Alton to be honest. It just never feels worth the effort once I’m in it. First timers? Go nuts, but watch out for the hideously short operating hours. It has the potential to be a world class park, but it’ll try its hardest not to give you that experience.

#1 Heide Park

I think more so than any of the other parks in this list I found this one just a nice place to be. Being German it can’t help also being well operated and there’s a good selection of rides, many of which are stand outs for what they are.
The B&M combo here is by far the best investment from Merlin in my eyes – the presentation, the soundtracks and the hardware all surpass anything else they’ve done in the chain for me. In the same corner we have Scream, one of my favourite drop towers out there. I’d get excited just standing in the presence of one of these monsters and that’s a highly sought after trait in a park for me.
It’s a shame they’ve ruined Colossos, which is now by far the worst of it’s type, it has/had the potential to be the best single attraction across the entire company, but I suppose it’s still worth a few goes to flesh out the day. I hope that now the mess of cleaning it up is out of the way, the focus can shift to investing in something truly great again, but it’s anyone’s game at this point – one truly exceptional attraction at any of the top 4 parks in this list could potentially tip the scales for me. The question is, who and what will it be?

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