When Disney isn’t buying media franchises or marketing its online streaming platforms, it’s the world’s largest operator of theme parks. Spread across six resorts around the world, its twelve attractions attracted a record 157 million visitors in 2018 – a figure that dropped only slightly to just under 156 million the following year.
Most other theme park operators are well below that, with Universal Parks and Resorts and Six Flags Inc enjoying only a third and a fifth of the number, respectively. Only one company comes close to matching Disney for annual guests across its many locations – and it’s based right here in Dorset.
Merlin Entertainments is the second most popular theme park operator in the world, as well as the largest in Europe. It was established in 1998, but its earliest attractions date back to the 1970s – and it now has more than 130 attractions in 25 countries around the world.
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Annabel Geddes opened the London Dungeon in 1974, describing it as “a new concept in education and entertainment for the whole family”. In 1979, David Mace founded the first Sea Life center in Oban, Scotland.
A second dungeon attraction was opened in York in 1986, while Sea Life expanded to encompass nine sites in 1992. By 1998 there were 23 Sea Life attractions across the UK, now in partnership with the London and York dungeons under the Vardon Attractions brand.
It was during this year that CEO Nick Varney led a management buyout of the company with investment from a private equity firm, renaming the deal as Merlin Entertainments – and launching a series of acquisitions that would see Merlin rival the Disney theme park titans.
Merlin Entertainments quickly acquired Ritz Bingo, caravan park operator Parkdean and Italian theme park Gardaland, before snapping up Legoland for £250million. In 2007 Merlin acquired the Tussauds Group and its properties including Madame Tussauds Waxworks, Wookey Hole Caves, Warwick Castle, Chessington World of Adventures, Alton Towers and more.
The takeover also gave Merlin responsibility for several other European properties, including the Spanish theme park Port Avenutura, making it the second most visited leisure operator in the world. It was around this time that Merlin also moved its headquarters from London to Poole, Dorset, where Tussauds Group had previously based its operations.
Its global operations are now overseen from Link House, a six-storey office building on the corner of West Street and New Orchard, a few minutes’ walk from Poole station.
In 2010, Merlin bought Cypress Gardens, a former Florida theme park which he reopened as the Legoland Florida theme park. Later that same year, Merlin acquired properties across Australasia including Sydney Aquarium, Sydney Wildlife World, Oceanworld Manly, Sydney Tower, Koala Gallery and Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World.
In 2011 it added UnderWater World, Melbourne Aquarium, Falls Creek Alpine Resort, Hotham Alpine Resort, Otway Fly, Illawarra Fly, Busan Aquarium and Siam Ocean World to its portfolio of parks, marking the company’s entry into the market asian leisure.
Its guest numbers peaked in 2018 at around 67 million visitors, with no drop in visitors in 2019. Its signature properties now include the London Eye, Blackpool Tower Circus and Peppa Pig World of Play.
In February, it was announced that Merlin would also take over Cadbury World under a 50-year contract. The Guardian reported that Merlin intends to invest in developing the attraction, which includes the world’s largest Cadbury store and an “unmissable 4D chocolate adventure”, ahead of Cadbury’s bicentenary in 2024.
In 2019, the company announced a global partnership with Entertainment One, which will see the opening of new attractions across all of its Sea Life locations, based on the popular children’s cartoon. PJ Masks.
Its latest expansion has been in South Asia – the company is investing £10m in opening several new Sea Life sites across India by 2025. It is also expected to open new Legoland sites in Korea (2022), Miami (2023), Shanghai (2023), Shenzhen (2024) and Belgium (2026), securing its place as the only theme park owner that can compete with Disney.
Such ambitious goals, following a pandemic which has seen the tourism and leisure industries face unprecedented pressure, prove that this Dorset-based company is no Mickey Mouse operation.
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