A few weeks ago, I sent off an e-mail to the competition commission, inspired by a post by Astrodan where he theorized that the UK is lagging so far behind Germany in terms of new additions because every major German park is owned by a different company, and compete against each other. This is the e-mail I sent:
I would like to make an enquiry and complaint about the current state of the UK theme park industry. First, I would be grateful if you could supply me with any information regarding any current or past investigations into this industry. As a theme park enthusiast, as a group we have noticed and debated the reasons behind a gulf between a lack of investment in the UK industry compared to the thriving European and American industries.
We have recognised a common link. In nearly every other large country in the world with multiple major theme parks, there is a healthy diversity of ownership and no company dominates the market. This drives a huge amount of innovation, meaning many years of increasing quality additions and increasing visitor numbers. For example in Germany, the competition between Europa Park, Phantasialand and Heide Park has resulted in some of the greatest attractions and park improvements seen in the industry. In Holland, we have noticed that the country's major theme park Efteling were starting to stagnate in the 90's in terms of investment, similar to the way the UK parks have been stagnating recently. With the arrival of nearby Toverland as a serious competitor, installing major attractions, Efteling's monopoly was broken and they suddenly invested hugely in the park, creating some of the industries most admired new attractions.
In the United States, the competition between the Six Flags theme park chain, the Cedar Fair chain, the Disney chain and the Universal Chain, as well as a huge number of independent parks means there is a constant race for improvement between parks, adding in more exciting, innovative, taller and faster thrill rides more frequently to keep up with their rivals. In France, again every major theme park is owned separately, meaning a rivalry between Parc Asterix and Disneyland Paris has seen both parks race to add in immersive well-themed experiences in recent years.
The UK I believe is the only major country where the theme park market is completely dominated by one company, Merlin Entertainments. According to this* report, the 2009 report being the most recent available, from the industry association the Themed Entertainment Association, all four UK parks (Alton Towers, Thorpe Park, Legoland Windsor & Chessington World of Adventures) in Europe's top 20 most visited parks are operated or owned by Merlin. I don't have specific UK statistics for the rest of Merlin's UK portfolio and UK visitor attraction visitor numbers as a whole, but I'm sure you will have access to them.
I believe that the UK's 4 most visited theme parks all belonging to one company (they also own many more tourist attractions in the UK) is hugely stifling innovation. There is really only one UK park that can compete, Pleasure Beach Blackpool. Unfortunately, due to their location, Blackpool's general image, and their vast quantity of historical rides that prevent new development, they don't act as effective competition, as they are essentially aiming at different markets.
Many other UK parks are struggling such as Camelot, Lightwater Valley, Oakwood, Fantasy Island, Pleasurewood Hills, Pleasure Island and Drayton Manor adding in cheap, low-quality additions, below the standards of their European counterparts as it's all they can afford. This gives Merlin little incentive for producing high quality attractions of their own, with enthusiasts generally regarding Alton Towers' new "Th13teen" rollercoaster and Thorpe Park's "SAW: The Ride" as being vastly inferior in terms of scenery and theming, build quality and length to new rides being built in America, Europe and Asia's top theme parks. Meanwhile in London, one of the world's largest cities, theme park visitors have to travel hundreds of miles to get to a theme park not owned by Merlin, as Legoland Windsor, Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park are the only nearby major parks. This results in no competition for the lucrative London market, and since the purchase of Thorpe Park by Merlin's predecessor Tussauds in 1999, the investment in Chessington World of Adventures and Legoland Windsor has dropped dramatically.
Interestingly, Merlin's UK investments can be compared directly with those at Merlin's European parks. Compared to the two recent major rollercoaster additions to UK Merlin parks which have used cheap models designed for smaller parks, the addition of next years "Krake" and "X-Raptor" to Heide Park and Gardaland respectively show a complete difference to their UK counterparts - much larger and higher quality model from Swiss company Bolliger & Mabillard and also very well themed.
Gate prices have also been increasing rapidly. This makes Legoland one of the most expensive theme park days out in Europe, which is not matched by the level of quality of investment at the attraction in recent years. UK theme park visitors pay some of the highest prices in Europe, while getting some of the poorest service, and poorest investment.
I would ask that you please look into my complaint about this industry, and consider its implications for the UK's leisure industry. Thankyou for your time.
Yesterday I finally got a response. The response was that they interpreted my request for information on any previous investigations as a request under the Freedom of Information Act.
The act does contain some clauses that allows the Competition Commission to deny a FoI Act request. The e-mail reply contained a lot of waffle I didn't really understand, I think this is the main crux of the matter though:
"Competition Commission" wrote:
The disclosure of the type of information you have requested would be likely to cause harm to the affairs of individuals or the legitimate business of undertakings where that might not be warranted.
So, even if they have conducted investigations into UK theme parks in the past, they can't even tell me if they have or not, nevermind actually showing me the investigations. :roll:
Do Merlin have it sewed up? They're such a big company I wouldn't be surprised if the Competition Commission was scared of losing the revenue they must bring in.
The end of the letter stated they would keep my letter on file for use in any future investigations of this type. :)