There is no handbook, says Julie Dalton, for opening a brand-new theme park in the middle of a pandemic.
“As far as I know, no-one else has ever done it,” she adds. “Perhaps no-one has been daft enough.”
On Saturday, she and the family firm she runs became the first.
As coronavirus continues to rage across the planet, they welcomed the first ever visitors to Gulliver’s Valley, a £37m, 60-acre visitor attraction in South Yorkshire, which has been six years in the planning, two years in the building and all scheduled to open at the start of summer – until Covid-19 happened.
Now, as the UK emerges tentatively out of lockdown, the park – think rides, slides and a gin bar for parents – has finally thrown wide its mock-castle doors. Albeit, only to visitors who pass a temperature gun check on arrival.
“We’ve had to change almost everything to get open,” Julie tells The Independent. “There’s nothing we haven’t had to rethink to make this work, from the way staff interact with visitors to how we operate and clean rides. Everything has had to be reviewed and reworked.”
She looks around and her eyes alight on a food stand. “People can’t even queue for doughnuts like they used to,” she says after a moment.
Among the innovations to keep people safe here are staff decked out in full facial PPE, a one-way system round parts of the site, a requirement to wear masks on rides and what may be the world’s first traffic light system for rating how virus-risky rides are.
If it’s green, fill your boots – there’s minimal threat to health. If it’s red, on the other hand…er?
“It’s still perfectly safe otherwise we wouldn’t run them,” she says. “But it might mean an operator has to come closer to you than a metre or there are higher speeds. It’s just letting people know there’s a very minor risk. It’s like if you drive down a busy motorway, it’s not quite as safe as driving down an empty one. We’re giving that information so people can make an informed choice.”
All the same, should a theme park be opening in the middle of a pandemic? “I’m a firm believer that it’s not good for children’s mental health to be at home all day every day so yes, we have followed all guidelines and I think we’re offering a safe day out.”
The park itself, on the outskirts of Rotherham, was already the most ambitious project yet for her family’s company, Gulliver’s Theme Parks and Resorts – a firm started by her father Ray Phillips in 1978 and which now runs three other sites in Matlock, Warrington and Milton Keynes.
Eventually, a proposed phase two and three should see it expand to 250 acres with two hotels.
Yet, in this new Covid-19 world, its initial opening on Saturday feels like an achievement of gargantuan proportions. “In March,” says Julie, “we had a theme park pretty much built and no idea when people would be allowed to visit. Given the amount of work and money we had put into this, it was frightening, we were in disbelief at what was happening.”
The first day was limited to only 500 prebooked customers. Although that number will eventually be pushed up to 1,000 people a day, it is still some way short of the once-envisaged 4,000 capacity. Not ideal for business, perhaps, but, as several people point out to The Independent, it did mean pretty much no queueing for rides.
“I’m all for that,” said Lee Hopewell. “You walk up and get straight on. It’s been great, to be fair.”
The 50-year-old refuse worker was there with wife Josie, 49, and their two son, Leo, nine, and eight-year-old Jay. Were they not worried about the potential health risks? Not really.
“This is pretty much our first time going anywhere since lockdown started,” said seamstress Josie. “I did warn the kids if we got here and there were big crowds we probably wouldn’t come in – we’d go for a McDonald’s instead or something – but it feels really safe.”
Among the park’s highlights are animatronic dinosaurs, a smugglers-themed area and a Wild West town. There are log flumes and a pirate ship and, for those fancying an overnighter, 24 cabins and a mini eight-room hotel.
On Saturday, a bloke on stilts was walking round doing magic trips. That was Julie’s 18-year-old son Louis. He wasn’t being paid but he has had free rides at the family’s other parks all his life so fair’s fair.
What isn’t at Gulliver’s Valley as yet are the planned flagship roller coaster and pendulum drop rides. They’re both still sat in a shed in Italy.
Europe’s lockdown has, it seems, created a logjam in getting rides delivered across the continent. Pertinently, too, it seems, the technical team needed to deliver it appear to be looking at the UK – 50,000 deaths and still rising – and not really fancying the trip. “They don’t necessarily feel it’s the best place to come at the moment,” says Julie.
All the same, it didn’t appear to be spoiling anyone’s day.
“Really loving it,” said electrician Shane Rollinson, 35, who was visiting with partner Holly Campbell and their two-year-old daughter Rio. “We live in Sheffield so it’s right on our doorstep. I reckon we’ll probably be spending a lot of time here over the next few years.”
Were they worried about the threat of coronavirus? Again, not really. “I think we’ve just got to accept this is the world now,” said Shane. “Take precautions but not be scared.”
Pointing at Rio: “She’s certainly not bothered – been bombing round.”
It is just the sort of response Julie has been dreaming of the last three months; indeed, the last six years.
She still remembers her dad opening that first park, in Matlock, 42 years ago. The first ever carousel he bought has, incidentally, now been installed here in Rotherham – part museum piece, part continuing toddler attraction.
“I remember riding it as a little girl and I still love seeing other children on it now,” she says. “That’s what makes all these challenges worthwhile, even in a pandemic. The looks on children’s faces, their happiness. This is what we’re about.”