Interview with John Wardley, published in Park World


1. How did you get involved in this business?

It was out of frustration. In the late 1960's and early 70's the permanent amusement park industry in Britain, with one notable exception, was losing touch with the word "permanent". It was refusing to put serious capital into the ground and develop unique purpose-built attractions. Instead, it was simply laying down tarmac and erecting travelling fairground rides. I asked myself "Why should people travel to an amusement park to ride the same rides that visited their own village green?"

The exception to which I refer was Blackpool Pleasure Beach, who had the guts and foresight to build such rides as the Logflume, the Goldmine and the Revolution when other parks were installing Dodgems, Twists and Waltzers.

I realised that an opportunity existed in developing spectacular attractions, and was inspired by the fledgling theme park industry in the States. I was already a successful film special effects designer, but I missed entertaining a live audience. My family roots were in the variety theatres, and the thought of combining my special effects skills with a live audience led me to investigate the theme park concept. The rest is history.


2. What was your first big break?

It was when the Tussaud's Group asked me to come up with a concept to revitalise the old Chessington Zoo. That was when things really started motoring for me. In "Chessington World of Adventures" we created Britain's first true "Theme" park.


3. Who or what has influenced/motivated you most in your career?

A man, sadly no longer with us, called Jack Jay. He was an entertainment entrepreneur in Great Yarmouth who took me under his wing when I was a teenager, and taught me the tricks of the popular entertainment trade.

He devised an apprenticeship for me (long before the days of "work experience") which, for two long and marvellous summers, threw me in at the deep end. I became a ring boy at the circus (Jack's son Peter Jay is a respected figure in the circus world today), a croupier in the casino, a bouncer at the nightclub, a brakeman on the roller coaster, a bingo-caller, an illusionist's assistant, a bill-poster, a cinema projectionist, and a stagehand backstage in the theatre. It was the finest apprenticeship anyone could receive in the business. And I emerged with a sound knowledge of what intrigues, amazes, amuses, baffles and titillates the Great British Public. And it is this knowledge which is the secret of my success. ( Jack, if you read Park World in heaven, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.)


4. What aspect of this business appeals to you most?

When it is well done, a theme park can absorb and entertain a broader spectrum of tastes than almost any other type of entertainment. In my special effects days I worked in many forms of elitist entertainment which excluded so many people. But nearly everyone can enjoy themselves at a theme park, regardless of intellect, age, race, affluence or ability. Anyone can turn up with a few quid in their pocket and have a bloody good time!


5. What theme parks do you particularly admire, if any?

I used to get very precious about the term "theme park". I maintained that a "theme" park had to absorb the visitors in a totally convincing theme. But to everyone else, a theme park was simply a clean-cut amusement park with a pay-one-price admission policy, usually not by the seaside. So I have given up hanging on to my definition. To answer the question ...... obviously Disney. But have you seen Universal's latest offering - "Islands of Adventure"? Now, that has broken a few moulds!


6. Which ride attraction has impressed you most, and why?

I used to say Disney's "Big Thunder Railroad", as it took the negative intimidation factor out of a roller coaster and replaced it with positive adventure. The four rides of this genre that they have built at their parks are probably responsible for converting more non-rollercoaster riders into coaster afficionados than any other. But if you'd asked me that question in 1999 when Universal's "Islands of Adventure" had opened,  I'd have to say that without doubt the most impressive ride in the world had to be the "Spiderman" ride. It is a dark ride/4D/simulator which is not just state of the art in terms of technology and money, it is pure illusionary entertainment par excellence! I admire people who are in touch with their audience. It is something which I have always striven for myself. And the team behind the "Spiderman" ride were masters of their craft. Some day I hope to have the opportunity to do something like it myself.


7. What has been your best management moment so far?

8. Do you adhere to a favourite business philosophy?

9. What management wisdom is most overrated?

10. Which business deal would you most like to have done?

11. What projects or goals are you currently working towards?

12. If you could change one aspect of this business what would it be?

13. What will be the major business issue of the next decade?

I can answer all these questions in the same way, which will no doubt disappoint your readers. I am an entertainer, not a manager or a businessman. Although over the years I have had many opportunities and offers to become an entrepreneur or a business executive within the theme park industry, I have resisted the temptation. My skills are in knowing what entertains the British public, and I have an imagination which can produce some good ideas for others to design and deliver

14. What makes you happiest in life?

Professionally, it has to be seeing people taken out of their mundane world for a few hours, and transported into a world of magic, adventure, fun and escapism. I love it when cynical journalists quiz me on whether this is a healthy ideal. I aggressively retort with total commitment in the belief that, provided it is only for a few hours, there is nothing wrong with escapism, and I am proud of the Theme Park industry and all it stands for.


15. How do you relax?

We have the perfect escapist environment ..... an acre of unspoilt woodland down in Devon with a log cabin, no mains electricity, no telephone, no neighbours, and lots of wood to chop for the stove.


16. What's your favourite city?

I don't like cities, but if you press me, it must be New York. From being a dirty, aggressive, threatening place in the 60's when I first visited it, it has been turned around into one of the most vibrant and civilised places on earth. Why can't more cities learn from their example?


17. What's your favourite book?

Although I get pleasure from reading, the effect it has on me is not normally profound. Rather than give you a clich├ęd answer such as "Captain Corelli's Mandolin", I have to say that the one book which has had the greatest effect on my professional thinking is a strange technical book entitled "A Pattern Language". After reading it, I realised that we, in the flamboyant and frivolous world of theme parks, are actually subconsciously working to formulae and patterns which societies have been applying to good working and living environments for centuries. But if that's a boring answer, I find the Argos catalogue makes compulsive reading.


18. Is there an event or experience that has changed your life? What was it?

Yes. Marriage.


19. Is there another profession you would enjoy?

I doubt it.


20. What has been your greatest regret?

I'm thinking real hard. No, I can honestly say I have no regrets. My life has been a happy one. I work for the best clients I could possibly ask for, and I have had the privilege to work with many talented, intelligent and generous people. I'm a very lucky man.


21. What was the best advice you've been given?

"There are two types of people. Those who divide people into two types, and those who don't." Get your mind round that one, and the whole world slots into place.

For more insight into John's background, why not read his autobiography