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Park People Nick Varney

Two decades after entering the theme park industry as marketing director of Alton Towers, Nick Varney sits as chief executive of one of the world’s top attraction operators, second only to Disney. After a

management buyout of Vardon Attractions in 1999, he and his team launched Merlin

Entertainments Group. Six years later, Varney secured private equity funding from Blackstone to mount an audacious bid for the Legoland parks business, followed by Gardaland in Italy and the Tussauds Group in 2006/7. Since then Merlin has grown via a sustained programme of new openings, acquisitions and partnerships and now boasting almost 80 attractions in 17 countries on four continents. Key to the company’s growth is the development of its theme park resorts, opening of new Legoland parks, and exploitation of its strong ‘Midway’ brands such as Sea Life, Madame Tussauds, Legoland Discovery Centre, the ‘Eye’ and The Dungeons – often ‘clustered’ together in one location. As Merlin celebrates the opening of its largest new theme park to date – Legoland Florida – Nick Varney speaks to Owen Ralph

Why did you decide to launch Legoland Florida on the former Cypress Gardens site in Winter Haven? Legoland is on a very good upwards trajectory in the US, as is our business generally, and we wanted to be in Florida – the biggest theme park market on the planet. Now, if we are honest, ideally you want to be slap bang in the middle of Orlando. The trouble is getting the site, getting permission to turn it into a theme park and, because you would be building from scratch, you would need to spend probably what is being spent in Malaysia, $300 million, to turn it into a top of the range Legoland park. What we were able to do in Winter Haven was buy a site with existing permissions and infrastructure, and reopen it just two years later as Legoland Florida. The previous owners had already invested millions in infrastructure but didn’t have a compelling brand; Cypress Gardens was just not strong enough to work in that market. Legoland on the other hand is a very established global brand with a unique positioning for families with young children. No one will visit Legoland Florida without thinking it is a top of the range international theme park, up there with Disneyland, SeaWorld and Universal. The addition of all the Legoland ingredients to what was already there, the infrastructure, botanical gardens and lakeside setting, has produced without question the most marvellous Legoland to date. I defy you not to walk around that park and think we’ve invested at least a half billion dollars.

When Blackstone acquired Busch Entertainment (now SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment) were there any discussions about merging it with Merlin?

There were discussions, but the truth is there were a whole variety of reasons why that would have been extremely difficult, and not necessarily desirable, to do.

A 4D experience now forms an integral part of all Eye- branded attractions, such as the Sydney Tower

I make no secret of the fact I am a big admirer of Busch Gardens in Tampa and Williamsburg, and in another life they would have fitted very nicely into Merlin. The SeaWorld brand too is successful and very well defined. But these attractions are now part of a separate company which has got a great team behind it, and [CEO] Jim Atchison is a good friend.

How important is it to have a good partner when pushing into markets like North America and Asia-Pacific?

When we talk about partners, there are different levels. In the US one of the most effective partnerships we have got is with the Simon Property Group. They get the benefit that our brands can bring to their malls. Sea Life when it opened literally rejuvenated the centre in Dallas/Fort Worth, to the delight of the other tenants. We on the other hand benefit from a supportive landlord with premier sites which are well established in high footfall locations. In short it’s a great partnership for us both. Partners like that are very important to the development of Midway in North America and elsewhere.

In the past we have also gone into new markets we were a bit unsure about, such as Scandinavia, as joint ventures. We have a 50/50 relationship for example with Linnanmäki at Sea Life Helsinki. That’s worked well, but generally once we’ve got the feel for a market we are often happier to go it alone. Australia is different again. The Sydney Attractions Group acquisition has also resulted in a strategic relationship with Village Roadshow that will see us potentially developing a Legoland Discovery Centre with them on the Gold Coast.

Sea Life remains a key Merlin brand 40

In China, where we already have Madame Tussauds in Hong Kong and Shanghai, we have seen big gains in spending power in the last few years. However it’s difficult to determine what the real tourism flows are. There is also already quite a significant local Chinese attractions industry – companies most of us have never heard of running are 10 theme parks! So it’s an interesting, fantastically high potential market, but one


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