In this Skip the Queue podcast episode, I speak with Andy Hygate, Director of Operations at Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
“We are catering for a desire to have an adventure.“
Andy Hygate is the Director of Operations at the iconic UK amusement park Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Andy has worked in visitor attractions for over twenty years – including as a General Manager of Blue Planet Aquarium in Cheshire and also Oakwood Theme Park in Pembrokeshire.
In Blackpool Andy heads up a team of almost 200 staff who operate the rides and deliver the guest experience – including High Adventure Experiences – 2023 will be his eight season in Blackpool. Andy also claims to be a rollercoaster aficionado having ridden over 600+ coasters worldwide. His current favourite coaster (though it changes all the time) is Iron Gwazi at Busch Gardens in Tampa.
What will you learn from this podcast?
- Developing an exclusive experience
- What this brought the attraction in terms of revenue and audience
- Walking the Woody
- Andy’s advice for attractions looking to do more with what they already have
You can also read the full transcript below.
Your host, Kelly Molson
Our guest, Andy Hygate
Kelly Molson: Andy, welcome to Skip the Queue.
Andy Hygate: Hello. It’s nice to be here. Thanks for inviting me.
Kelly Molson: Well, it’s my pleasure. Just to let everyone know, we’re recording this today, as we do, on YouTube and I’ve got this halo-like effect over my head.
Andy Hygate: Okay. Ray lights.
Kelly Molson: I look quite angelic, don’t I, Andy? Quite festive. If you’re watching this on the YouTube channel, you will understand what we’re talking about, but this is not good podcast material. Sorry. Anyway, Andy, we’re starting with some icebreakers.
Andy Hygate: Okay.
Kelly Molson: I’ve got a good one for you. I know that you are a big old rollercoaster fan. So I want to know, and this might be a little bit like asking who’s your favourite child, or who’s your favourite dog. But I want to know, what’s your favourite rollercoaster?
Andy Hygate: Oh, wow. I mean, it changes all the time. I guess I have kind of a top three, but I’ve recently been lucky enough to go to Orlando and I went on a ride there called Iron Gwazi, which is a RMC rework of what was a classic wooden coaster into a steel coaster that’s got inversions and so on. And it’s one of those rides where if you’re a roller coaster fan, it’s everything that you want from a roller coaster, from an incredible, and I think it’s almost beyond vertical first drop. It’s got inversions on a wooden structure.
But it was one of those rides that just didn’t let up until it hits the brakes at the end. I mean, it blew me away. It was incredible. But then I say that,
I also went on the VelociCoaster and I was lucky to get in the front seats, which is the Islands of Adventure. I went on that at night. And again, I mean, that was an incredible ride. So at the moment it’s probably between those two. Maybe I can’t pick a favourite. But yeah, both incredible intense, fabulous long rides. Really, really good stuff.
Kelly Molson: Okay. Do you know what? The VelociCoaster, feel like I’ve been watching that happen for years on Twitter, because they’ve been really good at feeding little snippets of what’s been happening before it’s launched, like the design of it. I just feel like I’ve seen it. It’s just been happening for so long.
Andy Hygate: The weird thing is sometimes you watch these things on YouTube, particularly if you watch POVs of rides and you think what the ride is going to ride like. And we’ve got a double-launch coaster and effectively that’s what VelociCoaster is. But that last inversion, which is really low over the water, you have to go on it to experience what it’s like. I can’t describe it to you. It’s one of those you think you’re coming out, which is not good, but you are obviously not. But it is just, I mean, yeah, it just blew me away. Absolutely blew me away.
Kelly Molson: Amazing. Great recommendation, Andy. All right. Okay, next one. Who’s your idol and have you ever met them?
Andy Hygate: I don’t know. I mean, there’s a rollercoaster designer, a German guy called Stengel who is behind many, many of the designs of the world’s best coasters. I’m a coaster geek and I’m a big fan of B&M, and I guess I would love to meet them, but I haven’t. I don’t know because they always say don’t meet your heroes. And so I kind of think that I’m not really sure that I would want to.
Kelly Molson: Keeping a distance, probably safer. What’s the weirdest food you’ve ever eaten?
Andy Hygate: Weirdest food. Before I was five years old, I’d had more birthdays in America than I’d had in the UK. And I remember on my fifth birthday having an ice cream birthday cake. And the fact that I can still remember this, 30 whatever years later, I remember that being something that was very unusual at the time. I don’t know now. Yeah, I mean, that’s quite cool, actually. To be honest, I’ve got a big birthday coming up in a couple of years and I’d quite like an ice cream birthday cake for that now.
Kelly Molson: There you go.
Andy Hygate: I suppose that’s weird.
Kelly Molson: Putting it out there, just getting the hints in already for Andy’s birthday.
Andy Hygate: Pretty much. There you go.
Kelly Molson: Love it. All right, Andy, what is your unpopular opinion? What have you got to share with us?
Andy Hygate: You know what? I think camping should be banned. And particularly, level above that, glamping. I guess, again, for me, if you go on holiday, you want to stay somewhere nice, I think. My experiences of camping are always being freezing cold, in soaking wet, and being covered in mud. When you wake up in the morning and you’ve been like you’ve slept outside effectively, and it’s just a different level of cold. And I don’t get the whole thing about… People say, oh, I don’t know, “I’m connecting to nature, or the great outdoors.”
And I actually do like the outdoors, but if I go anywhere, I want to at least stay… Well, if you come to Blackpool, you don’t want to be in a tent. You want to be in a nice hotel, which you can obviously do here. But I don’t understand the appeal of it. I haven’t done it for probably 30 years, but my whole recollection of camping is being freezing cold, soaking wet, and it being thoroughly unpleasant. So yeah, I would ban the tents.
Kelly Molson: Oh, Andy. That’s a really strong opinion and I like it. Have you ever been glamping? Have you ever done the one level up?
Andy Hygate: I’ve seen it because it appears. I mean, a lot of places and particularly there seems to be a thing with safari parks. I can’t think of anything worse than being asleep in a safari park. It’s always a beautiful white tent, isn’t it, when it’s glamping? But ultimately, you’re sleeping next to a lion enclosure. And in the middle of the night, you get picked off by one of the animals. I obviously sound very passionate about this, but glamping is supposed to be a luxury, but it’s not a… I don’t know. Having plastic champagne glasses in a canvas tent, to me is not luxury. Sorry. That sounds awful.
Kelly Molson: No. Do you know what? I think it’s my favourite opinion of the year. Listeners, let me know what you think over on our Twitter account if you agree with Andy. It’s very strong, very strong unpopular opinion today. Oh, I love that. All right. Well, Andy, I’m going to guess that your background isn’t in camping or nature, but tell us a little bit about your background.
Andy Hygate: Okay, well, I’m the Operations Director for Blackpool Pleasure Beach and I’ve been here for eight seasons. But I’ve worked in attractions for over 20 years. I actually used to work at a famous aquarium in Cheshire for many, many years. I basically had the opportunity to go and run a theme park, a small theme park in Pembrokeshire down in Wales, beautiful park in the country, a theme park called Oakwood. And I went and worked there.
And one of the reasons I went and worked there is because I’ve always liked roller coasters. And so from as young as I can remember, I grew up in Kent and we used to go on day trips to Margate. Not camping trips. And I used to go on the rides at Dreamland there. And I was hooked, I was obsessed with it. And so obviously when I got the chance to come work at Oakwood, it was a no-brainer because they had big rides. And I learned about rides, how to operate rides, the maintenance involved and all of that kind of stuff.
And then that kind of opened the door, really, for me to work in other parks, and that’s ultimately why I work here. But I think I’m very, very lucky to work in an industry that I’m passionate about. And the fact that I love roller coasters, we’ve got 10 roller coasters at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. And so for me to work with those every day is a real privilege and really good fun. And part of my job is literally to go and ride rides. And if you told me that when I was 10 years old, I just never would’ve believed that that was a possibility.
Kelly Molson: That’s very lovely. This comes up quite a lot with our guests, actually, because it is an industry that people tend to work in from a young age and then work their way up. And they love it, they really love it. And it’s really nice listening to people where they’re like, “I get to do this for my job, but this is fun.” And it’s really nice to hear. I’m going to guess, Andy, only because you mentioned that you got a big birthday coming up, but I’m going to guess that you are maybe a similar age to me and you would remember Dreamland as Bembom Brothers.
Andy Hygate: I do, yeah. Bembom Brothers Amusement Park.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, because I can remember, because I’m from Essex and then I can remember my granddad taking me to Bembom Brothers when I was really little and riding the wooden rollercoaster that they had there.
Andy Hygate: Railway, yeah. It’s still there.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, good times. Good times. All right. So Andy, today, I’m really interested in this. I think this is such a great topic for our listeners. What we’re going to talk about is how you’ve developed an exclusive experience from an everyday safety procedure, which sounds crazy, but tell us a little bit about how this idea came about.
Andy Hygate: Well, it’s a strange one. But we’re talking about an experience called Walk the Big One. And for those of you that don’t know, Blackpool Pleasure Beach has a very large roller coaster, which is still, some 25 years later, the tallest rollercoaster in the UK, a rollercoaster called The Big One. It’s 235 feet tall, and basically guests can pay to come and walk up the ride after the park closes, up the main pull up, which is the main lift and the sort of slow part at the start of the ride.
And we’re obviously located right next to the beach, so you get an absolutely spectacular view. And when I say spectacular, it’s a really difficult one to describe. But if you don’t know Blackpool and saw the sunset. So something else, I mean, I said I’ve just been to Florida and I think I would say our sunsets are comparable with theirs. Maybe the temperature’s not quite the same. But what we were ultimately able to achieve is roller coasters generally have steps running up the lift hill and that’s no different to our coaster.
They’re there for safety reasons so that ultimately if there’s a stoppage or you have to clear a train of guests or whatever, that you can walk people down. But by using those we were able to give people this very unique experience in a controlled and safe way, where they get this unbelievably photogenic and unique experience, which only really, and certainly compared to the number of people that ride the ride, only a handful of people get.
When people go on roller coasters, one of the things that you don’t want, it’s a very modern problem, is trying to stop people from taking photographs or filming on rides, because inevitably they drop their phone, and you don’t want things falling and all of that kind of stuff.
Andy Hygate: But by doing a controlled walking experience like this, it means that people can get those amazing pictures and so on. And people love putting that on social media and all of that kind of stuff. So how it actually started, though, well, again, there’s two versions of this depending on who you speak to. And I can say that because it started before I started working here, so I don’t know which one is true.
But one of them is that we had a corporate inquiry from a group that had hired out a room and were having an event at the Pleasure Beach. And they wanted to do something different with the boss of the company. And again about taking a crazy photo or whatever and they asked if they could take them to the top of The Big One.
And so they looked into it and the safety aspects and so on and were able to achieve that. So that’s one possibility. And then the other one is that a member of staff went on a trip to Australia and walked up the Sydney Harbor Bridge and came back and said, “That was an amazing experience.
Wouldn’t that be really cool if we could replicate something like that in the park?” And so depending on who you believe, depends on where this started from. But all I know is that when I started here, we were running on Friday evenings throughout the year, we were running three walks a night taking groups of six people up the structure for an hour.
And an hour is the whole thing. So you come and you do a little safety briefing, we kit people up. You’ll be pleased to know people are connected with a safety line whilst they’re doing this and we show them how to use it and so on. And then we walked them up the structure to the top. We do it in stages, because, as I said, it’s over 70 meters high, so it’s 420 steps to the top. We do it three times in an evening, so our leg muscles are quite…
Kelly Molson: Nice. Good workouts.
Andy Hygate: Quite good. But you basically walk people up and you stop at 50 foot intervals. We tell them a little bit about the history of the ride and some facts about the ride and so on. And also, what you notice is as you get higher up you get to see more and more at the park and also beyond the park as well.
And you get that different sort of vantage point. And so by the time you get to the summit, which is the bit that everyone’s looking forward to, if it’s a nice clear day, you can look one way and you can see across the estuary, and you can see as far as Southport. And then you look the other way and you can literally see the Lake District. And you’ve got the Blackpool Tower and you can see the whole of the town set out below you.
And it’s an incredible experience, and even though I’ve walked up the structure loads of times, for me, I still get a thrill out of doing it and I’m still always impressed by the view. So for the first-time guest that’s coming to do it for whatever reason, because we get loads of people doing this for… We get rollercoaster enthusiasts, which obviously you can understand why they would want to do it.
But we also get people that are doing it for charity events and we get people that have had it as a surprise present and they’ve turned up at evening and didn’t know really anything about what they were going to do. And so there’s that whole mix of different people doing it and for different reasons and whatever. And again, once you get to the top, again, other people are getting different things out of it.
We get the people that are serious photographers that want the sunset walk and so on. And then you get the people that are Facebook crazy and want to do Facebook Live at the top so all their mates can see it and so on. And it caters, really, for all of those people. What’s quite cool is you can start with six people that don’t even necessarily know each other. Sometimes you do get a group where it’s six people that do, but we’ve had it where you’ve got six people haven’t met before and then by the time they get to the end of it and they’re back down on the ground, there’s this kind of camaraderie that’s been built up by having this experience.
And they’re always towards the staff because it’s us that do it, it’s the rides team that walk up. They’re always so appreciative. And I think finding out stuff that you wouldn’t find out normally when you visit, little tips and facts about the ride and little interesting oddities about how roller coasters work and so on makes it a really good experience. So yeah, I mean, I know that was a very long answer to-
Kelly Molson: That was a great answer. It’s a great answer and it leads me on to some of the questions that I’ve got about what’s it brought, the attraction? Because you talked there about a lot, so there was a lot to take in there. And some of the things you talked about were when people go up, you’ve got these incredible views and people want to take photos of that, they want to do Facebook Live. I guess you’ve got so many different audiences that that appeals to as well, like the rollercoaster nuts or just people that just want that Instagram moment. What has it brought, the attraction?
Andy Hygate: For us, it’s brought us into the experience market in a way which is something that we wouldn’t have necessarily… I mean, the rollercoaster was never built with that in mind. It was obviously built as a thrill ride and the fact that are stairs there, and I’m sure we’ll talk a little bit about Walk the Woodie later on.
But the stairs are there for a functional reason and so you can do track inspections, and so in the event there’s a stoppage there’s a way for people to get down and a safe way and so on. And I think it’s been able to make use of something that’s already there or existing in a different way that’s also such a memorable way.
And invariably, I said, for all those people doing those different things, whether it’s taking photos and posting them on social media or whether it’s Instagram or whether it’s Facebook or whatever it is that they’re doing it for. And we have seen, particularly over the last five years doing it, there is, I think, this explosion in experiences and experience culture and people wanting, instead of… You are buying an experience, ultimately, and then you are showing other people that you’ve done that experience.
So that’s a big part of what social media is and a big motivator for doing it. But I think it’s great that you can have that mix of people. And you even get the people that quietly… We’ve had people that live in Blackpool that can see the structure from their house because it’s a tall structure I have always just been curious about it and just want to come and walk up it. And that’s what’s great, that you get that mix, really.
Kelly Molson: It’s opened up the park to a different audience, I guess, because those people might not have come along and come on and taken a ride on the rollercoaster or spent the day at the park. But there they would come along in the evening and walk up it and be able to spot their house from the top of it, I guess.
Andy Hygate: Yeah, no, it’s definitely true. And also you get people that have driven up from London, which is quite a long way from us, and so on, to do an experience which is pretty unique. And it’s certainly unique in our location. And there are all those different reasons for doing it, makes it a really good thing.
And I also think we are catering for a desire to have an adventure. I mean, roller coasters ultimately are that as well. I mean, the great thing about roller coasters is that people are searching for a thrill and an experience. I mean, even me talking about those rides that I was talking about before, I was absolutely thrilled or blown away by them and so on.
But people want to go on a ride where you have the illusion of danger, that ultimately in reality is actually a very safe experience. And actually you could relate this to that as well, this experience, walking up something. You’re at a very high height, you’re on a slender gantry. And the structure moves, it’s designed to, it’s good that it moves in the wind and so on. You wouldn’t want it to be brittle and so on. That all adds to the adventure. So you’re getting that experience but in a way which is actually a really safe way of doing it.
Kelly Molson: Yeah. It’s brilliant. It’s still incredible to me that something that you would’ve done on a daily basis anyway you’ve been able to develop into this incredible experience. So it’s brought you a different audience. It’s obviously brought you more revenue, right? So you mentioned earlier you do three walks.
Andy Hygate: Yeah, so we take six people on each walk. And they pay obviously for that experience. And it’s a premium-priced experience because you’re getting something which is a small group of people, it’s after the park is closed and all of that side of it. And this is with the experience economy or people looking for those things. People are prepared to pay extra. For one, you’re getting that level of service and insight that you wouldn’t get necessarily normally, and talking directly to people that work on the ride and know about the ride and so on.
If you were here as a visitor, you’d probably just queue up and go on the ride, have a great experience, find it thrilling and then off you go, where people like to, I think, have a curiosity about the behind the scenes, how things work and so on. And Walk the Woodie, which is the version of this that we do on one of our wooden coasters, is the classic example of something where we’ve taken something that we have to do every day.
So this is the rollercoaster geek in me. There’s two different types of coasters. There’s steel coasters, which are the ones that you find where they invert, and most modern coasters are steel coasters. And then you get wooden coasters, and Blackpool Pleasure Beach, we are really lucky to have four, which is really unusual, classic wooden coasters, all built in the 1920s and ’30s.
I mean, these rides, rides like the Grand National and so on, which are iconic rides. When you think of our park, if you ask people about our park, they’ll mention those rides. But for me, the fact that people want to come and ride a wooden coaster. It’s 90 years it’s been thrilling people and they still find it a thrilling ride and still want to go on it and so on. I think that’s incredible that people want to do that, and what that says is those attractions, even if they were built in the 1930s, are still brilliant attractions and that people still want to come and ride them.
Andy Hygate: Now, part of looking after and the maintenance of a wooden coaster is that you do daily inspections of them, and you literally walk the entire track of the ride, which you can do on a wooden coaster because unlike on a steel coaster, you’ve got a walkway literally the entire length of the ride. And so we have an in-house structures team and construction team here, which is part of how we maintain the coasters and are able to keep them going and so on, have to walk the entire track every day.
And so every morning before the park opens, nice and early, doesn’t matter what the weather is, our team of structures people will come and walk alongside the entire track, carrying out an inspection and making sure there’s no problems, no issues, no rot, no nails where there shouldn’t be, all of those kind of things so that the ride’s ultimately safe to open.
And with this stuff I’m talking about with offering experiences, we suddenly thought, well, wouldn’t it be great if the general public had the opportunity to do something that this very selective group of people were having to do every single day of the year when we’re open? And that’s really how that experience came about. And I think The Big One gave us the confidence to look at other rides and other attractions that we’ve gotten and start to think, actually, what is it that we do that people would pay to come and do as well? And Walk the Woodie a hundred percent came out of that.
Kelly Molson: That’s absolutely brilliant. And I think when we spoke briefly before today, you mentioned that you’ve got special merchandise that people can buy. And do they get a piece of Woodie? Don’t worry, folks, it is structurally sound but they do get a piece of Woodie.
Andy Hygate: I have to say, with wooden coasters, people… And I can use this, I said this to some of my American friends and they have no clue what I was talking about. But wooden roller coasters, it’s like Trigger’s broom. And part of the maintenance of them is that you are constantly working on them and you are constantly replacing the wood. So actually how much of the structure, the original structure is still there a hundred years later or whatever. And anyway, so we’re always carrying out that work. And when we did Walk The Big One, we wanted people to take away something after the experience. And actually I’ve got one here, look, to hold up for you.
Kelly Molson: Oh, brilliant.
Andy Hygate: You get this medal at the end of it. And it’s for some people, particularly if you’re scared of heights, which we do get, it’s an achievement if you’ve made it to the top and all of that kind of stuff. And invariably, what actually happens with that as well is that when you get down and you give them a medal, they all immediately have their photo taken with it and so on.
So again, it feeds into all the stuff I was saying about social media and so on. So anyway, with Walk the Woodie we thought, well, wouldn’t it be nice if we could do something like that? And we thought about a medal and so on. And then we thought, well, hang on a minute, we’ve got all this wood that we’ve removed from the ride as we’ve replaced and updated it. Why don’t we chop it up into little pieces and give people a piece of the ride to take?
Kelly Molson: It’s a genius idea. Not only is it a brilliant piece of memorabilia, it’s sustainable too.
Andy Hygate: Well, yeah, exactly. And actually what’s cool about it is the wood itself often has… You can see the rungs of the original growth in the tree and so on in it. And I’ll tell you a really nice piece. People always want the chunk that’s got the nails sticking out a bit or the bit with the flaky paint or whatever it is, just because it’s all… There’s a certain, again, this whole experience thing, people want authenticity. And I think that just plays into that. And also if you are going back afterwards and you’ve got home and you’re telling your friends or your family what you’ve done, if you’re producing a piece of wood from that very ride that’s a piece of history and all of that kind of stuff, it just adds to the thing.
So yeah, I mean, we always say to people that do it, look, we don’t do any hard sell or anything, at the end of it you get those things as part of the experience regardless. But then we do do some merch which is exclusive. I mean, I’m wearing one of The Big One pieces of clothing, which we only sell to people that have been on the walk that evening. So the guests in the park can obviously, when they come and visit they can buy Big One mugs and pin badges and Big One everything if that’s what they want, of course. But you can only get this stuff by participating in the experience. So it makes it quite special, really.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, it does. It’s brilliant. I mean, really, we are recording this episode in the run up to Christmas, listeners, but this will launch, this is obviously going out in the new year. And I think this is such a good message to start the year on. And it’s something that has been talked about at a number of the ALVA meetings that I’ve been to and it’s something the industry’s been talking about in the run up to Christmas season is about that level of experience and doing things that are different, because it is what people are absolutely craving for.
And they will be happy to pay the higher price point for doing something that’s really special and something that’s really unique, and just something that’s of real interest to them as well. You are hooking into people’s real desires with these unique experiences. I think this is such a brilliant story. Your dates sell out really quickly as well, don’t they?
Andy Hygate: Yeah, I mean, we’ve just put on our 2023 dates online. And what we find is that there’s a lot of… Well, because of the social media aspect of it, there’s a lot of word of mouth about it anyway. And also we got a lot of repetition. Again, I think it’s because it’s so unique, but in the case of Walk The Big One, the other thing that we find, because we do it from March but we also do it through until the autumn.
And you can come along in, I don’t know, in the spring and do it and it can be sunshine and lovely and bright and so on. But then you hear that actually you can come back and you can do it in September when the illuminations are on in Blackpool, when it’s dark, and the experience takes on a whole different thing altogether. And to walk up effectively in the darkness and just see the lights along the fragile miles along the coastline is a beautiful and very different experience.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, I bet that’s amazing. So do you get a lot of repeat visits for something like this?
Andy Hygate: Yes. What you do is you’ll find that those people that do it in the spring, we say, “Oh yeah, we do it in September.” And they say, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” And so that happened certainly early on with it, we were finding that people came back to it. And then obviously once it built up a bit of a reputation when we started thinking about these like Walk the Woodie with the wooden coasters, what you found is that people had done Walk the Big One and knew it was a really fun experience, had a great time.
Suddenly thought, oh, well, actually I want to try that as well. And I think it was emotive in a different way because with The Big One obviously it’s really tall, and there’s no getting away from that. And the thing is, the payoff on that one is that you’re going to get that amazing view right at the top and so on.
With Walk the Woodie because we’ve walked the track on them on the Big Dipper, you’re not going to go as high at all because the ride’s only like 60 feet tall and so on. It’s a different experience but in some ways it’s, I don’t want to say more fulfilling because they’re fulfilling for different reasons, but it’s certainly more challenging because you’re walking a lot more of the track than you would do on Walk the Big One. But also it’s that insight that you’re getting and that understanding of how the ride’s maintained, how it works.
Andy Hygate: And as much as I can describe to you what it’s like to walk along a rollercoaster track, when you actually do it, you suddenly get some kind of… The bit that always shocks people is that we start at the end of the ride and we actually walk backwards. And you walk from where the break run is and where the ride would normally end and you do the last little bunny hops, which are the last part of the ride when you’re on it, and you do them first. When you’re on the ride because the ride’s coming to an end, those little bunny hops don’t feel like the first drop.
You think, that’s the end of the ride, they’re not very big, and so on. When you have to walk them actually you realise that what you thought was small bunny hops are actually quite large and steep and so on. And it gives people a different appreciation for the ride.
And so we’ve had people that have done Walk the Woodie and then gone back on the Big Dipper when they’ve come back to the park as a regular visitor, and said that it has totally changed the way that they view the ride and they’ve got a totally different appreciation for it and how we maintain it, how we look after it, all the work that goes into it. But also an understanding of the scale of these things and so on. And you would never get that just by going on the ride itself, I suppose.
Kelly Molson: That’s really cool, isn’t it? I mean, there must have been, with both of the rides, Walk the Big One and Walk the Woodie, there must have been some challenges that you had in terms of opening this up to general public. I’m sure health and safety was an absolute nightmare. What kind of challenges did you come across, and how did you overcome them? And what would be your advice for other attractions that were looking maybe to do similar or just looking at things that they already have that they could make more of?
Andy Hygate: As an idea, I mean, what I would say to people is don’t be afraid of an idea. And it was true, when we first came up with Walk the Woodie, and said, this is what we want to do, or we want to try and do it, before we’d even touched the ride or even looked at what the reality of doing of that, I do remember, I remember being told by several people, “You’re not going to be able to do that.
Not with the general public. It’s not going to work.” Then there’s this problem, this problem, this problem and all that. And we kind of chipped away at those things and thought, well, okay. Well, we know that we do this every day with our staff, and how do they do it safely? And so what do they know that we don’t?
So we spoke to them and we started doing risk assessments and all the sort of boring stuff, I guess, but the stuff that you really do need to do. And then we did some practices. And we literally walked the entire track with a team of the operations staff in conjunction with engineering and worked out a way to make it work. And some of the challenges were one, yeah, because whenever you do anything different you have to convince some people that it’s going to work.
So you’ve got to make it, whatever you’re doing, safe. But what I’ve found is that by actually physically having a go at stuff and getting input from other people and feedback and so on, in the case of Walk the Woodie, we were able to work out a route that we thought, yeah, actually we could do this with the general public.
Andy Hygate: There were bits of it where there’s some of the ride, you don’t walk the entire track, you walk probably about a third of it during the experience. There was some bits of it where I thought, actually, I’m not sure that this is going to work really well with the public. I’m not sure what they would get out of that. I’m not sure if this is too challenging, this bit, and so on. And we sort of just crafted it into something which also had to work in a certain amount of time and so on.
So I guess my advice would just be, don’t be afraid to think about doing something that you haven’t done before. We’ve got a great team of people that I work with in my department, and often it’s just by chatting to people, you can come up with these ideas, which at first might sound silly or whatever. But I remember us talking about it and someone saying, “Wouldn’t it be fun if we could walk in the footsteps of the engineers?”
And that sounded really exciting, before you’ve even heard what it is. It’s peeking behind the, I don’t know, the curtain to see how things work and so on. And there’s a natural sort of curiosity to do that. So I would say to any other attraction that they will have stuff which is unique to them, which people will be interested in having that experience.
And the trouble with, I think, one of the things that we always warn our staff about just generally is that in terms of guest service in an amusement park, there’s a massive difference between visiting an amusement park for one day as a guest maybe once or twice a year and going into an amusement park every single day because you work there.
You have to be really careful when you work there you don’t become complacent and you lose that air of magic that a guest will have when they go there just once or once a year or whatever. And so we do a lot of reinforcement with our own staff to make sure that they’re remembering that that’s the first time that the guests have seen that, when you might have seen it or experienced it 500 times. I think that aspect of it’s quite important as well.
Kelly Molson: That’s really good advice, actually, and that’s really interesting, isn’t it? Because we always talk about that it’s the people that make the experiences, but those people have to genuinely still be excited about it even though they’ve seen that thing 50 billion times. Because it’s the visitor’s first time they’ve seen it and they need to be equally as excited about it as that person that’s seeing it for the first time.
Andy Hygate: Absolutely. And then on these experiences, that aspect of it actually becomes easy and quite infectious. Because what you see, particularly with… We’ve involved some of our seasonal staff in delivering these events and they get massive amount out of it. And they learn a few facts or a few stories or whatever and they retell them. The reaction that they get from the people that are stood in front of them when they’re stood on the ride talking about it is always positive and that builds their confidence.
I’ve seen members of staff go from being shy and retiring to being stood 150 feet up The Big One, talking to the general public, answering questions, pointing out things on the horizon, all of that kind of stuff. And I’m quite proud of the fact that we’ve been able to achieve that, both for the guests and also for the staff as well.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, it’s brilliant. It’s really interesting as well, in a couple of weeks on from this episode we have an episode speaking to the London Transport Museum. And it’s all about innovation and fostering a culture of innovation. And what you said earlier about don’t be afraid to have those ideas and come up with those ideas with your team, I think that just goes to show that you have fostered a culture where people are comfortable to bring those kind of ideas to the front, regardless of how crazy they might seem at that point. But they’re encouraged to bring those ideas to you and to see where they can go.
Andy Hygate: Yeah. And we’ve been lucky that that also continues. I mean, Walk the Woodie, we are really excited about 2023 because the ride that you are basically walking, which is The Big Dipper rollercoaster, it’s a hundred years old next year. So it’s got a big birthday coming, a big centenary and so on. And so we were thinking about Walk the Woodie and thinking, well, actually, now that we’ve done it and we know how to do it and so on, what can we do differently?
Because it’s its birthday coming up and people are excited about it, enthusiasts know about it and they’re expecting us to do something and so on. And so we started looking at what we could do differently. And so anyway, we’ve come up with a product for one year only for next year, which is a version of Walk the Woodie but it’s called Walk the Woodie 100, for obvious reasons. And we’re going to do it differently.
And so again, it’s about not just resting on our laurels. We’ve come up with something which is we think guests are going to like. We went through a very similar process to how we came up with the original idea, but we went back to the idea and thought, well, actually, what can we do that we didn’t do last time, and what would be different? And we’ve now got the experience of we had people telling us what they liked about it and so on.
And so I’m not going to tell you exactly what we’re doing because we want it to be a bit of a surprise. But we are going to do something different with it next year. So people that have done it before can come and they will have a different experience, and people that don’t know anything about it or whatever and maybe they’re hearing about it on this, I don’t know, will come and have a hundredth birthday special version of the experience.
So it’s always about innovation and keeping things moving and trying to come up with other stuff. And in this particular instance, the fact that it’s a ride’s hundredth birthday, which is a big deal, really, for a ride, was the motivator, but it could be for any other reason as well.
Kelly Molson: Love it. Again, brilliant advice, Andy. It is about coming up with these unique ideas with things that you already have, generating that repeat interest from people that have been on it once but can come back and do it. And then you are expanding on that again by developing on the experience because there’s a big event or a big thing happening that year. I think it’s such good advice for attractions. So thank you for sharing today. What else have you got coming up? Is there anything else that’s coming next?
Andy Hygate: We’re always looking. I mean, obviously, Walk the Woodie 100 is the big thing. We’ve done Walk the Woodie, but we haven’t done it in the way that we’re going to do it. And I think making it unique just for one year, so we’re only going to do it like this for one year, it’s kind of a cool thing. But I haven’t mentioned our other experience, which is Walk the Big One XL, which I probably should because in a way that’s a similar kind of…
We only introduced that in 2022 and so that’s a relatively new version. But what we did with that, and so this will be the second year that we’ve offered this, basically was quite targeted. And it was targeted at enthusiasts, and I’ve said that I’m a ride enthusiast, and so we knew that there was this demand there for people to find out more. And Walk the Big One, it’s an amazing experience, but it’s done in an hour.
You’re here and gone in an hour, which is fine for a lot of people, but for enthusiasts they might want to know a little bit more and they might want to see some other locations around the ride. So again, we revisited Walk the Big One and thought, actually, what is it that we can do differently that would specifically target that group of people that want to see more or want to know more in depth information? And so again, we went and looked at the ride.
Again, we were careful not to get blinded by the fact that we see things like the break run every day. So for us that’s not a big deal. But actually for a guest to come and stand on the break run, learn about the station design, learn why it’s the way it is, how we put trains on and off the ride and so on, to them is actually really interesting because that’s not something that they get to see or hear about every day.
Andy Hygate: And so we worked out a way to take people to different locations on the ride, including a couple of locations that we’ve never been to really with guests before. Which we’ve got a platform, and because The Big One is a gravity driven ride, like a lot of rollercoasters. So what that means, in case you don’t know, is the train is taken up to its highest point, usually with the click click click noise.
It’s on a chain and that’s the anti-rollback because you don’t want to go backwards down the hill. And then when the train is released at the top, it’s free-rolling. And there’s no brakes on the train, it’s only when it goes to a block section, which is either partway round or near the end of the ride, that you can actually stop the train. So a rollercoaster, particularly in our case, which are built right next to the sea, can be affected by wind and so on.
And you have to make sure that in the event that a train dipped or didn’t make the course, maybe it was slowed down by the wind or whatever, although we do monitor that while we’re operating, obviously. But on the rare occasion that something like that could happen that you could get people off.
So what that means is you have platforms around the ride, where if the ride stopped for whatever reason, again, gravity would kick in, the train would stop at the lowest point, and you’ve got to be able to go and get to that train and take people off.
And so we thought, well, wouldn’t it be cool if you could take people to those locations and they can stand on them and get to go… Again, bits where you would never normally get to go anywhere near. So we take people on, we take them to the brakes first, as I said, then we take them out onto… There’s one that has a particularly good view of the beach and the sea and so on.
Andy Hygate: So we deliberately, because it’s the most photogenic, we take people there and they get to stand on the platform next to the track and they get some amazing photos that you would never, again, never normally be able to get. And then we take them to the block brake. And we were quite deliberate in this, in that we were increasing the height throughout the experience.
And so each location that you went to was higher up than the one before. So it effectively gets more exciting as the event goes on. And the block brake’s 110 feet off the ground or whatever. If you’ve been to the ride, you think that’s near the end of the ride. It’s not that exciting. And people, when you walk them up, are suddenly shocked at actually how tall it is and the view that you get across the whole park. You get, again, these wonderful photos. And the feedback that we get from guests when we do that is that it is just we couldn’t believe that they were able to be up in that location.
And then we end, effectively, with the regular Walk the Big One. So we take people right to the top of the ride. It’s a much longer experience. The whole thing lasts about 90 minutes. If you’re a coaster geek, then you’re going to love hearing all of this. And the fact that you get to go to all of these places. And we deliberately walk people through the staff route through the park rather than the guest route through the park.
Kelly Molson: That’s cool.
Andy Hygate: Again, they get to see bits that they would never normally get to walk and so on. And again, it’ll be our second year of doing it. If you are a rollercoaster enthusiast and you come on Walk the Big One XL, we’re hopefully going to deliver you a proper geeky in-depth look at how a rollercoaster is operated. And again, going right back to the start of it, it’s offering an experience that… You’re almost offering, although you do have to pay for it, it’s almost like a money can’t buy experience. Because to be able to do that is really rare.
Kelly Molson: Yeah, I guess as you were talking, when you were talking about taking guests through the operators’ way through and not the guests’ way through, I was like, it’s really an alignment to being a zookeeper for the day and being behind the scenes on that kind of thing, that kind of level.
Andy Hygate: Yes, absolutely. You go through a gate that to us is a gate that we go through every day and we are not bothered about it, but to a guest it’s somewhere in the park they’ve never set foot in before. It’s underneath the structure of another ride. They can get a photo of somewhere where they wouldn’t be able to go normally.
All of that stuff, all that which just adds to that feeling of, one, it makes the person feel special because they’re being given information and a look at stuff that they could never normally see. And two, they’re getting this experience that runs alongside it that’s just really, hopefully for them a really memorable experience. And then they get all this other stuff, optional stuff at the end of it as well.
And I think one of the big bits of feedback that we have about it, and it was interesting that you said about the people, and I do think that you can take people to all of these cool places. The bit that brings it alive is the staff talking about it. Particularly when it’s staff that work on the ride and have that knowledge of the ride and know the park and all of that kind of stuff. It’s those bits and pieces that when we get feedback about this, and they’re the bits that people really love and really latch onto. And yeah, I’m pleased that we’re able to deliver that for people.
Kelly Molson: Oh, it’s brilliant. I’ve loved talking to you, Andy. This has been so interesting to hear about. I love how passionately you talk about it. You genuinely love it and it really comes across when you talk.
Andy Hygate: Hopefully, I mean, roller coasters are fun ultimately, aren’t they? But to be able to do these kind of things with roller… I think back, I was saying when I was a kid going to Dreamland or whatever, if I could have walked up the roller coaster in Dreamland, I would’ve been the happiest kid in the world. So we are trying to offer that, I guess, now to-
Kelly Molson: Well, there you go. Andy, you’ve got your big birthday coming up. I hope you’re listening, Dreamland, because you know what will make Andy happy for his birthday. You should do a little hookup, maybe do a little trade with their team and your team.
Andy Hygate:: I’d love to.
Kelly Molson: Brilliant. Andy, what book have you got to share with us today? We always ask our guests to share a book with our listeners.
Andy Hygate: Yeah, I’ve picked a book by a director, a film director called Derek Jarman. And it’s a book called Modern Nature. And don’t worry, it’s got nothing to do with camping or anything like that. He’s sort of an inspirational person to me. But why it’s important to me is actually it’s based around… The guy lived effectively in a beach hut in Dungeness, which is down in Kent, which is where I’m from originally, in a situation which is considered by many to be… It’s somewhere that’s not that far from where my parents live. It’s probably about 20 minutes drive.
And to some people you would describe, particularly in the winter, you’d describe it as blink. And it’s a pebble beach and so on. And there’s something about the English coastline and beaches and so on that I really like. And I like the fact that we have seasons. I like Blackpool in the summer, but I actually like it in the winter as well.
This book is kind of like a diary, really, about how he’s built a pebble garden, because it is literally on the beach, in the shadow of a nuclear power station, which sounds horrible, but actually I think it’s a really inspirational thing. And I think you can see beauty in stuff which is unconventional and so on.
And the fact that he’s managed to build a pebble garden and have plants in an area which is a harsh environment that can be seen as bleak, but actually I think there’s great beauty in that. And that all comes across in that book and its very inspirational, conversational style makes it a really memorable book for me.
And it’s also somewhere where whenever I go back to Kent, I always go down there for fish and chips. And there’s something, it sounds really strange, but sitting in the car in the winter, having fish and chips and listening to the power station humming in the background, it’s actually really sort of reassuring. I don’t know.
Kelly Molson: It’s not an experience I’ve ever had, Andy. I feel like I’m going to have to add that one to my list.
Andy Hygate: No, I realise that sounds really odd, but I guess I’ve got an emotional connection to that place as well. And the fact that someone’s written a whole book about it and their connection to it is what connects with me. So yeah, that’s probably my choice.
Kelly Molson: I think that is a great book choice, Andy. I’ve never heard of that book, but I’m absolutely going to check it out. Listeners, if you want to win a copy of Andy’s book, you know what to do. Go over to our Twitter account, retweet this episode announcement, and you’ll be in with a chance of winning it. Andy, it’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you today. I think this is a wonderful podcast to start the new year off on. So thank you for coming on and sharing with us. And I look forward to joining you up in Blackpool at some point to Walk the Woodie.
Andy Hygate: Yeah, you must do. Looking forward to it. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you very much.
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