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
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,
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
11. What projects or goals are you currently
12. If you could change one aspect of this
business what would it be?
13. What will be the major business issue of the
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
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 clichéd 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?
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