A short lived attraction (operating for just 20 weeks) had operated on the former mining site two years prior to the opening of the theme park. Britannia Park celebrated all things British but closed amid a financial crisis that would ultimately lead to court cases and imprisonment.
The American Adventure opened in 1987 near Ilkeston, Derbyshire. Opening day attractions included Cherokee Falls a twin drop log flume, Wagon Wheels’ Mine Train runaway mine ride and the Buffalo Coaster.
At the helm was John Rigby of Park Hall Leisure who was also responsible during the early days at Camelot Theme Park. The newly opened park was financed by the Granada group who at the time were also involved in the Camelot operation and Granada Studios.
The American Adventure was important for many reasons – but one stands out way above all the others. It was a theme park – not an amusement park. This was a new concept to the UK with only a couple of other examples in existence – including ‘sister’ park Camelot. The parks that were thriving at the time were essentially amusement parks but American Adventure sought to immerse visitors into the early days of America. On one side of the lake you would find the natives, on the opposite shores you would be taken into the wild west.
The park flourished in the early days, adding new attractions such as The Rocky Mountain Rapids in 1988. The Missile roller coaster that would become the park’s signature ride was added in 1989. The new ride was installed in a new area called Space Port which was the beginning of the end for the original cowboys and indians themed concept.
In 1993 the park sought to regain the ‘highest log flume in the UK’ record (which had been taken by Logger’s Leap at Thorpe Park). Cherokee Falls became Nightmare Niagra when a third drop was added to the original course. The ‘new’ log flume eclipsed the record set by Thorpe Park and American Adventure once again had the tallest in the country.
The next part of the story takes place 30 miles down the road, in a little village called Alton. 1994 was the year that Alton Towers built Nemesis – a ride that would help shape the UK theme park industry.
Not to be defeated by the Alton Towers juggernaut that would eventually become the staple of the UK industry – the park installed a 4D cinema and go kart track.
In 1995 the park opened Iron Wolf - a double looping coaster from Lightwater Valley who themselves were feeling the financial pinch at the time. The ride’s name would change frequently until it ultimately closed along with the park.
In 1997, Granada left the theme park industry and leased, then subsequently sold the park as well as their Camelot operation. It was sold to Ventureworld Ltd – ironically headed up by John Broome who had overseen the opening and development of Alton Towers as a theme park.
Ventureworld first made their mark by moving the park’s entrance. If for a moment you imagine walking into a Disney park, walking down Main Street you’ll notice the castle directly ahead. It’s a great feeling! When you walked into the original American Adventure entrance the whole park unfolded beneath your eyes, you would first notice the tip of the Missile coaster and then the entire park appeared as if by magic. That experience, although lacking some of the Disney splendour, was a marvellous one.
To their credit Ventureworld did immediately start adding to the park’s ride inventory with the installation of the Flying Island. Unfortunately the ride was in situ for just two years before it left the park.
Great plans were afoot for the park under John Broome with talks of huge wood and steel coasters adorning the lakeside, but ultimately these plans were only that.
The later years saw minimal investment with only upcharge attractions being added including the ill-conceived JCB World.
In 2005 changes were finally afoot – yet these were to the horror of every thrill seeker. American Adventure was to change its target audience and become a park serving only the family market. The park promised to provide a fun filled day for children 4 – 12. Missile was history, the iconic Nightmare Niagra was demolished and after only one season the park closed for good. Other attractions were relocated or demolished as relocation would have been prohibitively expensive.
The plan probably had good intentions but was flawed from the start. The removal of so many attractions in one off season prompted a visitor backlash.
I have fond memories of my days at American Adventure. It must be said that the criticism the park attracted in later years was sometimes unwarranted. I would attribute a lot of the negativity to the hugely successful first decade. Investment in new rides and infrastructure was rife yet from a period in the late 1990s everything seemed to change.
Theme parks continue to captivate people because, on the whole, they never stop evolving. American Adventure spent the last five or six years frozen in time – that is the single most defining factor in the park’s downfall.
The park is gone, but not forgotten. American Adventure has a vast following on Facebook and a number of tribute web sites, yet during visits in the early 2000s it would not be uncommon to feel as if there were more staff than visitors in the park.
Former ride operator Matt Wagg remembers “I used to love working there”. A certain incident in 1990 sticks in his mind twenty years on – “I remember one time in 1990 when I worked there. I had just transferred from the Alamo rides dept to the Boats that drove across the lake. This particular day was throwing it down and these poor people on the Buffalo ride kept going round and round because the rain had soaked the brakes. They couldn’t get it to stop.
I used to pretty much run that ride every day until I transferred so I got a call that I needed to go over to the Buffalo. At the time I had no idea that three of the supervisors and two of the maintenance staff had failed to stop it in the station.
So I come along and I find out that in the pouring rain the 36 people on the train had gone round 12 times.
I didn’t know what I’d be able to do but as I’d worked this ride pretty much all year I’d gotten used to its foibles. So I got into the booth and coaxed the ride into the station. It took a lot of doing seeing as there were really only two modes, on and off!
But I killed the power just as it was coming round the final bend and the momentum just about carried it into the station where we all managed to then grab it and haul it the rest of the way in. Needless to say it had to be shut down for the rest of the day. I still wonder sometimes about those poor people being soaked to the skin.”
During the Six Flags building spree of the 1990s and their purchase of several European properties – you do have to wonder what they could have done with the park. The site is free of many planning issues hitting a lot of UK parks, with good infrastructure and a great collection of rides just itching to complemented with more. Despite being a park that originally set out to celebrate everything British, you have to wonder if Six Flags could have made the park the ultimate American-owned adventure.
Please share your memories of the park by leaving comments below.
Photo Submissions: Amber Williamson, Chris Holloway, Martin Batho, Claire Radford, Rik Engelen.