During COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, Paultons Park took the chance to fine-tune its eagerly-awaited Tornado Springs expansion. Now open, the new land is looking fantastic, says the UK park’s owner and Managing Director, Richard Mancey.
Paultons, which was named the UK’s top theme park on TripAdvisor for the past five years, has invested a total of £12 million ($16.5m) into Tornado Springs. The US Midwest themed land features eight new rides and experiences and covers an area of 4 acres (1.6 hectares).
The expansion was originally set to open in May 2020. Instead, it’s become the biggest new area at a UK theme or amusement park this year.
Presenting Tornado Springs
Set in a desert resort town of the 1950s, Tornado Springs is teaming in Americana. From vintage vehicles and decorative registration plates to the US diner serving up burgers, breakfast pancakes and shakes.
“I think the whole area looks stunning,” says Mancey, a former BALPPA Chairman. “When you take somebody through it for the first time, their reaction is great to see. What’s even greater is finally putting guests through it.”
But why recreate the American Midwest in England’s New Forest national park?
“Theme parks are all about creating different environments,” says Mancey. “We went through all the usual themes: pirate, castles, Vikings, the Wild West. But we wanted something that’s going to be unique to us. What else is there? So we took the iconic Route 66 with Tornado Alley and just built on this theme.”
Welcome to Route 83, a fictional setting named after the year the park near Southampton was founded. The new land is sandwiched between Paultons’ main gate and Peppa Pig World, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this season.
New rides and upcycled tractors at Tornado Springs
One highlight at Tornado Springs is the UK’s first Mack Rides spinning coaster, Storm Chaser. This has a maximum height of over 20m. Its two trains each comprise four circular 4-seater cars, running over a total track length of almost half a kilometre (459m).
Guests can also experience a Zamperla Discovery called Cyclonator. Spinning up to 25 metres high, this swing ride is themed as a piece of giant agricultural machinery.
Paultons’ concept for the new land was brought to life by the Leisure Expert Group. In addition to developing a master plan for Tornado Springs, the Dutch firm created a brand identity including logos, signage designs and colour palettes.
Meanwhile, MK Themed Attractions from Denmark was brought on board to help with theming, including several custom-made props. Other scenic touches were provided by the park itself.
“We were bored stiff during the lockdown,” says Mancey. “So we’ve had lots of time to do extra bits of theming.
“We went to places and pulled stuff out of stinging nettle patches. We bought old tractors and bikes and sprayed them up to make them look abandoned. Everything looks a bit weather-worn and beaten. Our engineers made things like a sparking electric box that is hanging off the side of a wall.
“We also do all the planting in the park and have stuck props in the flower beds too. All these little things really add something to it.”
More attractions at Tornado Springs
In addition to Storm Chaser and Cyclonator, guests can ride a pair of family drop towers from Zierer called Windmill Towers. Plus, the Trekking Tractors by Metallbau Emmeln offer a leisurely trip around Farmer Flo’s farm. All manner of delicious fruit, veg and fauna can be seen along the way, along with a few cheeky groundhogs.
Al’s Auto Academy allows young guests to take to the wheel and head out along Route 83. The driving school attraction offers a total of 30 themed cars. Supplied by the UK’s own Formula K, each is based on the classic Hudson Hornet. A US-style driving licence is even available for purchase as a souvenir.
Two new play areas, Junkyard Junction and Parking Lot Tots, come courtesy of Eibe.
Meanwhile, two established Paultons attractions have been given a new lease at Tornado Springs. Buffalo Falls is a 4-lane slide from Metallbau Emmeln that slots nicely into the land with its new timber effect facade. Guests ride in rafts, but stay dry.
The park’s Rio Grande train ride now runs underneath Storm Chaser on a circular route that also passes by Peppa Pig World and Little Africa. Passengers will also notice the added onboard audio this season, which complements a wider soundtrack composed for Tornado Springs by IMAscore.
In addition, new retail ranges have been designed for the themed area; the Americana theme lending itself well to merchandise.
High hopes in a low key season
James Mancey, Paultons’ Operations Director (and elder son of Richard), has high hopes for the new land.
“I have no doubt that Tornado Springs will be the most popular and in-demand attraction at Paultons this year as parents look for exciting new adventures to share with their children,” he says.
Unfortunately, it could not be launched with the fanfare originally planned for 2020.
“There was no press day or anything like that,” continues Richard Mancey. “We’re obviously pretty fed up about that, but the Rule of 6 still applies and it just wasn’t feasible. It is what it is, we might as well just get on with it.”
The Mancey family chose to delay the opening of Tornado Springs by a full season soon after the park was forced to close for the first UK lockdown last spring. It proved to be a prudent decision. After delays to deliveries and the departure of European contractors due to the pandemic, the new land was finally signed off in September.
The park itself reopened last season, with reduced capacity, in early July. Trading continued until the next national lockdown in late October.
Teasing Tornado Springs
Although a fence was erected around Tornado Springs during construction, the park made no significant attempts to hide it.
“We’ve always been of the opinion that if people look over a fence or see it from another ride or attraction, it all adds to the interest,” says Mancey. “We’ve got a rubber dinghy ride that was called Wave Runner, which we’ve renamed Buffalo Falls. That has a staircase that gives you a really good view [of Tornado Springs]. People certainly enjoyed that. It was almost an attraction in itself.”
Paultons reopened for a few weeks in December, whilst other parts of the country were in partial lockdown under a ‘tier’ system across England. Another, much longer, national lockdown followed days later.
“The shoulder months were very good actually,” says Mancey. “We were surprised how popular the Christmas period was, people wanted to get out. We were lucky that we were in tier 2, so managed to stay open until 23 December.”
Route 83 and the roadmap out of lockdown
Paultons finally launched Tornado Springs at the start of this season on 12 April. This was in line with the government’s roadmap out of lockdown, but meant the park missed the all-important Easter holidays for a second successive year. Furthermore, indoor attractions, bars and restaurants must remain closed until 17 May.
“How frustrating is that?” says Mancey. “We’ve built a lovely new American diner. But we can’t use it for five weeks. So we ripped out all the chairs and tables, put them outside, and now it’s takeaway only.”
Nevertheless, the opening of Tornado Springs and Route 83 has gone well.
After months of lockdown, “There is plenty of demand for a day out it would appear!” says Mancey. On reflection, he’s happy to be open at all this spring; mindful that some of his European colleagues haven’t yet been so fortunate.
“They’re distraught. Their governments are not giving them any inkling about when they might be able to get back open. Many parks are saying if they can get a summer season out of it, that’s all they are pinning their hopes on. They are looking at us enviously, thinking we are very lucky to get open. And we are; we realise that.”
Making guests feel comfortable during the pandemic
If all goes according to plan, the UK government has suggested it could drop social distancing in England by 21 June.
Mancey isn’t so sure. “They keep telling us all restrictions are going to be removed. I don’t believe they will. But we will be able to put a few more people through the park because we’ve got another 4 acres of rides and attractions that we didn’t have last year.”
Opening Tornado Springs now, he says, gives Paultons a chance to trial it ahead of the main season. “To see what a difference it makes to the rest of the park in terms of spreading people about; what are our comfort levels?”
Paultons’ expansion plans
Mancey says the pandemic has postponed rather than prevented the park’s expansion plans.
“I guess no final plans will be made until we get through the summer season and know where we are. It’s all about adding capacity for that core age group, our family market. We are planning ahead, we’ve just had to push those plans on.”
Farmyard Flyer, a family coaster due to be added to Tornado Springs this season, will now open in 2022.
To make way for the new land, Paultons’ flamingos and pelicans were moved to a new waterside home elsewhere in the park in 2018.
The 140-acre (57-hectare) venue on the edge of the New Forest has certainly seen significant change since the launch of Peppa Pig World. The hit children’s area, the first of its kind in the world, was launched in 2011 and expanded in 2017.
In addition, previously unthemed areas have been given a fresh look, such as Critter Creek and Little Afrika. Next in line for a transformation will be some of the areas around the Lost Kingdom, the prehistoric themed land opened in 2016.
Weatherproofing and staycations
Given that the park now trades into the winter months, and the weather can be unpredictable even in summer, is there scope for more indoor or covered attractions?
“We are getting better at it,” says Mancey. “We put in a huge undercover area for our show stage in November. That can seat about 500 people. We’ve got much better covered areas for eating. A lot of the queue lines are now are covered too. So we are putting in a lot of effort to try and make ourselves a little bit more weatherproof.”
Even before the pandemic, there was evidence of increased demand for ‘staycations‘ within the UK.
This is a particularly positive trend for Paultons, which welcomes only a few overseas guests through its gates each season. “The European audience isn’t very important for us,” says Richard Mancey. “It may be if we were in the centre of London.
“I think staycations are here to stay,” he concludes. “Of course there’s a huge amount of demand this year, there’s bound to be. I think what will happen eventually is that people will still take their foreign holiday, but they’ll take more short breaks. They have discovered that sometimes three days away is just as beneficial as seven, and they can do it more often.”