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INTERVIEW


NICK VARNEY


Legoland Florida opened last month signalling Merlin Entertainments’ arrival in Orlando. With 78 attractions and more in the pipeline, CEO Nick Varney tells Kathleen Whyman why he can’t envisage a time when the company will stop expanding


“O


ur aim is for Merlin Entertainments to be as big in North America and Asia Pacifi c in 10 years time, as it currently is in Europe,” says CEO Nick Varney. Given that Merlin


has more than 50 attractions in Europe, this is an ambitious plan, but Varney’s con- fi dent it can be achieved. He has good cause. This year alone,


Merlin, which is the world’s second largest visitor attraction operator, has acquired six of Australia/New Zealand’s top attractions;. opened seven other midway attractions around the world, with many more in devel- opment; and announced plans to build for the fi rst time in Japan and Korea. As if this wasn’t enough, Merlin is a partner in the regeneration of British seaside town Blackpool and has just opened its fi fth and largest Legoland Park – Legoland Florida – on the former Cypress Gardens site. Merlin’s entry into Florida is a huge


step for the company, and is intended to be closely followed in 2013 by three midway attractions on International Drive in the heart of Orlando – an Orlando Eye, Madame Tussauds and Sea Life aquarium


– all in an exciting new leisure retail devel- opment being built by Circle Entertainment. “We’re increasingly interested in cluster- ing our midway brands together wherever we can,” says Varney. “We recently put a Sea Life and a Legoland Discovery Centre next to each other in Dallas, for example, and we’re doing the same next year in Kansas City. Next year we’ll also be add- ing a Madame Tussauds to our other four Sydney attractions.” Merlin’s also working with Circle to


open other observation wheels around the world, including a proposed project in Las Vegas. “There are three wheel projects on the table there at the moment, but there’s only room for one,” says Varney. “It’s all subject to fi nancing and licensing, but we’re pretty confi dent with our project.”


LEGOLAND FLORIDA Varney knew when he fi rst saw the Cypress Gardens site, just a little more than two years ago, that it would be a success. “It’s such a beautifully landscaped park, with a lake and botanical gardens and the most fantastic entrance, winding down through colonial style houses. “We’ve used all this to our advantage,” he continues. “On the


edge of the lake, for example, we’ve taken the water ski shows that Cypress Gardens was famous for and incorporated them into our own signature pirate show with Lego characters on jet skis and water jumps. I think it will become one of the iconic shows in the Florida theme park belt.” The park also boasts the fi rst Legoland


wooden coaster and, thanks to the existing suspended coaster, guests can now attend a fl ying school as well as the traditional boating and driving schools. As with all the Legoland Parks, in the heart of Legoland Florida is Miniland – a has-to-be-seen- to-be-believed reconstruction of iconic US landmarks built with incredible detail entirely from Lego bricks. Prior to Merlin purchasing Cypress


Gardens, £100m (114m, US$156m) had already been spent on new rides and infrastructure, some of which have been adapted for the new park. “What the site needed was real focus and a recognised brand,” says Varney. The advantages of going into an existing theme park were also huge. “It took us a little more than two years from fi rst walking on the plot to opening Legoland Florida,” says Varney. “It cost much less than a new build would


MIDWAY ATTRACTIONS


Legoland Florida is Merlin’s biggest Legoland to date


■ 12 Madame Tussauds (Sydney to open in 2012) ■ 33 Sea Life attractions, with two more to open in 2012 ■ Seven Dungeons ■ Five Legoland Discovery Centres – 3 more to open in 2012 ■ Three Eyes – observation attractions with a 4D cinema experience – in London, Sydney and Blackpool


■ The Blackpool Tower, UK ■ Sydney Aquarium, Australia ■ Wild Life Sydney, wild life park, Australia ■ Manly Oceanworld, Sydney ■ Wild Life Hamilton Island, Queensland ■ Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater World, New Zealand ■ Earth Explorer, Belgium


22 Read Attractions Management online attractionsmanagement.com/digital AM 4 2011 ©cybertrek 2011


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