The Great British Icon
On a sunny morning along England’s Irish Sea, Amanda Thompson OBE (Order of the British Empire, a British order of chivalry) is on a mission. Seated in a chair she designed herself in the lobby of the new BLVD Hotel, the managing director of Blackpool Pleasure Beach is on her ever-present iPad, scouring through e-mails and delivery confirmations. She’s determined to solve a mystery. Sitting across from Thompson is a coffee table holding a teapot that’s on its way to becoming cold and her personal assistant, Alexa Robinson. Armed with an iPhone, Robinson and Thompson scroll through electronic receipts. The pair appears to be in a good-natured competition to be the first to discover the location of several missing throw rugs.
Her wit and sense of humor are not lost, while the same can’t be said for the rugs. They are a few of the last remaining elements to be installed in guest rooms before Thompson—the fourth-generation caretaker of Blackpool Pleasure Beach—is confident the stylish BLVD (pronounced “boulevard”) Hotel overlooking the park will be complete and fit for visitors. The hunt is personal, as the 2020 IAAPA Chairman of the Board has spent the past 18 months overseeing every last construction detail at the modern hotel.
“It’s been an extraordinary build, this hotel. Alexa and I did everything,” Thompson proudly says of the labor of love that cost £12 million. That included repositioning walls, selecting fabric for custom-made sofas, pillows, and curtains, along with hanging wall art and selecting every last piece of furniture—which she and Robinson moved into place themselves.
“I think it’s very easy when you do jobs for other people you can walk away—you complete it and leave it,” she says. “The worse thing about this is we can never walk away. We’re living with it. So it has to be really good.”
And, it is really good. With 120 rooms—several of them with fireplaces, walk-in closets, and mirrored televisions installed above bathtubs—the BLVD Hotel represents a bright beacon in the future of Blackpool Pleasure Beach and will play a role in the comeback story for a resort town struggling to remain relevant to a new generation.
“Every day it’s very tough to understand how we can bring more and more people to our business. Blackpool is not the resort it was in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s,” Thompson says. “When we decided to build this hotel, we were not having Brexit (the tentative withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union).”
Characteristically honest, Thompson admits the resort of Blackpool was unsuccessful in securing a Las Vegas-style casino license for Blackpool—however, recent investments like Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s “Icon” roller coaster are a positive start.
“I think Blackpool has a chance to turn itself around,” Thompson believes.
A new convention center located in the heart of town slated to open next year will lure more professionals to Blackpool, with the BLVD Hotel well-positioned to serve the needs of business travelers, as the top two floors cater to adults only.
“We’re always working for a better future—and that is what we’re doing together,” she says of the reinvestment in her community. After all, Blackpool Pleasure Beach not only withstood the ravages of both World Wars, but remained open—a testament to how the Thompson family continued to provide a respite from the realities outside their park gates.
A Family Affair
Amanda Thompson’s great grandfather, Alderman William George Bean, purchased land covered in sand dunes along the Fylde coast located in northwest England in 1896. Rides like “Flying Machines,” with its whirling blimp-like vehicles, and the “River Caves,” mill chute dark ride quickly defined the park. Now more than 100 years old, both rides are still operating today.
“We’ve kept them and will maintain them in their original way for as long as we possibly can,” Thompson says.
In 1923, Bean contracted with legendary wooden roller coaster designer John Miller to build the “Big Dipper,” now the oldest of 10 roller coasters at the park. Following his death, Bean’s daughter Lilian Doris Thompson and her husband Leonard Thompson moved from London to continue the family business in Blackpool. Investments in new rides continued, capturing the attention of Walt Disney. He became friends with Leonard Thompson during on-site visits while conducting research for his planned Disneyland in Anaheim, California.
“My grandfather was the very first international member—he put the I in IAAPA,” Amanda Thompson says with a laugh. Today, Leonard Thompson’s membership certificate from the National Association of Amusement Parks, Pools, and Beaches (an earlier name of IAAPA) in 1935 is proudly displayed behind Amanda’s desk as a lasting tribute for the 47 years that he guided the park.
Lilian Doris Thompson OBE appointed her only son, Geoffrey Thompson OBE, as the park’s new managing director upon Leonard Thompson’s passing in 1976. During his tenure, Amanda Thompson’s father Geoffrey gained a reputation for promoting tourism throughout the United Kingdom and abroad. In May 1994, he achieved worldwide attention and forever changed the skyline of Blackpool with the opening of Arrow Dynamics’ “The Big One.” The 235-foot-tall coaster quickly became the park’s signature ride of stature, similar to Geoffrey Thompson himself.
“He was a larger-than-life character,” recalls Amanda Thompson of her father.
Geoffrey Thompson also served the global attractions industry as 1996 IAAPA Chairman, thus giving Amanda Thompson the designation as the first person to be a second-generation chairman, a role she started preparing for early in life.
Amanda Thompson first went to work at Blackpool Pleasure Beach at age 7.
“When my grandfather asked, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ I said, ‘I want a pony!’ and he just laughed at me,” she remembers of the conversation.
Leonard Thompson used her wish as an opportunity to teach his granddaughter the value of hard work. He made her an offer: Come work at the park’s pony ride attraction. She accepted. Thus, Amanda Thompson began carpooling with her father to work at Blackpool Pleasure Beach, where she would feed the ponies, tack them prior to riding, clean their stables, and give them each a bath.
“I remember when it came to my birthday, my grandfather came to me and said, ‘You’ve done it! You managed to do what you were meant to do. You can choose any pony you want!’ So I chose one and brought it home,” Amanda Thompson says of her two-week stint on the job.
With no stable at the home of Geoffrey Thompson, the pony Amanda Thompson named Rambler lived on the family’s tennis court.
“My mother went mad. She thought this was ridiculous,” Amanda Thompson recalls.
That experience led to a love of animals and laid the foundation for the work ethic that serves Amanda Thompson today.
At age 17, she returned to work at the park after convincing her father to allow her to open a concession where she spray-painted guests’ hair.
After studying at Oxford, Thompson relocated to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, to fix an ice skating show receiving poor reviews at Magic Harbor, a park her father had purchased in the United States.
“I was thrown into the deep end at 19 years old,” Thompson says. “Because I got off my backside and did it, he thought, ‘She’s got an aptitude for this, so she can try it again.’ And that’s how I started doing shows.”
That experience led her to form Stageworks Worldwide Productions in 1982, a company specializing in live entertainment shows. By 1991, Thompson was producing a dozen shows worldwide for parks such as Efteling in Kaatsheuvel, Netherlands; Liseberg in Gothenburg, Sweden; Siam Park City in Bangkok; Boudewijn Park in Bruges, Belgium; and Europa-Park in Rust, Germany. In addition, she’s produced parades for the famed Harrods department stores and many showings of the “Royal Variety Performance,” a variety show televised annually to raise money for charity.
Her greatest success continues to this day with “Hot Ice,” Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s long-running ice skating show known for physically demanding choreography set to original music.
“It’s really hard-core skating,” Thompson says, adding some of the male skaters will perform 14 triple lutz elements before intermission. “It’s like running a marathon and a half every day.”
Also demanding is the time it takes to produce a new “Hot Ice” production, like this summer’s “Utopian.” Thompson would come into the park at 5 a.m. to work on the BLVD Hotel before turning her attention to “Utopian.” Park directors knew if they needed Thompson, they could find her at the ice arena.
“It’s how she works best—being busy,” says Robert Owen, the park’s director of marketing, sales, and public relations. He believes Thompson derives her energy from “her passion for the business, her attention to detail, her love of the park.”
After a long day, Robinson says Thompson arrives home, and “its straight into the bath, straight into bed, and then back in the next morning.”
When asked what keeps her up at night, Thompson answers immediately: “My imagination.” Next to her bed awaits a notebook, ready to collect ideas for her shows and the park, or she may elect to send an email at 3 a.m. from her tablet.
The pressures of show business serve her well, along with her resilience to weather life’s greatest storms.
Resilient Without Fail
Thompson was appointed managing director following her father’s untimely death. Soon after, she visited with Europa-
Park Managing Partner Roland Mack, 2012 IAAPA Chairman and IAAPA Hall of Fame member. With Mack’s help, Thompson was able to clearly chart a new path forward for Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Today, the Thompson and Mack families remain close friends.
In the 15 years since taking over as managing director of the park, she’s spearheaded a growth plan, investing £50 million on new attractions, facilities, and improvements. She is joined by her brother Nick Thompson, who serves as deputy managing director. Sister Fiona Gilje is also a director within the company, who designed the boarding station for “The Big One” roller coaster. Amanda’s mother Barbara Thompson sits on the board of directors and is a well-known figure within IAAPA. Amanda Thompson’s husband, Steve, is a fitness professional and sports injury therapist who also produces videos for the park. Steve also designed the gym at the BLVD Hotel.
“I believe we are just custodians in a position that the future generation—whether it be one of my sister’s children or my brother’s children—I want to make sure it has a solid base to grow and continue,” she says.
A Style All Her Own
As Thompson takes the chairman’s gavel at IAAPA Expo in Orlando, Florida, this month, she has selected a title that may surprise you.
“It’s ‘chairman.’ You don’t call me ‘chairwoman,’” Thompson says with bravado, adding the word “man” does not offend her. “I am the chairman. A woman can be the chairman of a company. It’s the same thing. I am just the chairman.”
The designation in the title demonstrates how she follows a style that is all her own. Known for wearing a tiger print coat one day and a camouflaged military jacket the next, the strong leader maintains a stern persona to get things accomplished. Thompson believes when instructions come from a male leader, “people find that a lot easier to take,” adding more respect needs to be given to female leaders.
“I think it’s extraordinary in this day and age—we have a queen; we’ve had a female prime minister, two of them—I think it’s very odd that not everybody feels they can take instruction from a woman,” she says.
As someone who holds herself to very high standards, her management style is direct.
“She has a very instant approach,” says Robinson. “You ask her a question, and within five seconds, you generally have an answer that won’t falter.”
Nor does Thompson apologize for the nature of how she conducts business.
“If you like or don’t like it, it doesn’t really matter to me, because it is part of what I am and what I am doing,” she says, admitting she does know her limitations and when to let go.
However, Thompson is quick to praise and give credit for a job well done—sharing the success of the BLVD Hotel is just
as much Robinson’s as her own.
In addition, Thompson is also fiercely hospitable. After learning a visitor’s favorite kind of tea, she ensures a teapot with the same blend is delivered and served time and time again. Her attention to comfort can be felt in every guest room of the new hotel, where she selected oversized bath towels and demanded bed sheets be of a high thread count.
“I think you sleep better with nice sheets,” Thompson says with a smile. Providing finer things comes from a time in her life when Thompson went without. At 10 years old, she left home for boarding school, where she recalls, “there were too many girls in the school, and they didn’t have enough water to refill the baths,” thus bathing water was reused and the school matron only permitted students to wash their hair once a week.
Today, her care for others is evident. After one of her male skaters took a hard fall during a performance of “Hot Ice” this summer, Thompson quickly made her way backstage. Within moments, she held a bag of ice on his bruise herself in an attempt to control the swelling.
Threats to the Industry
Thompson is also keenly observant, with an eye toward safety.
“At the end of the day, we all respect the most important thing is the safety of every visitor that comes here,” she says.
Thompson believes the biggest threats to the global attractions industry all start with the letter s: safety, security, and sustainability.
That included dropping the park’s free admission policy in 2009 in favor of closing all pedestrian entrances around Blackpool Pleasure Beach. Today, a single entry gate asks visitors to pass through metal detectors, while the park’s security team inspects all bags. In addition, she feels ride safety is paramount.
“It would be really good if we could get a ride safety standard that worked all over the globe. How great would that be?” Thompson asks. “We’re constantly working toward it; we’re all sharing information.”
Another interest is concern for the environment.
“Kids are actually saying to us they don’t want to come to parks if we don’t use renewable energy. That is important to listen to,” Thompson says. “They want to be able to pick up a paper carton of water; they don’t want to use plastic bottles and straws.”
She’s implemented a sustainable task force at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The park created a group of employees known as Park Rangers, who separate recyclable items from rubbish headed to a landfill. The park also purchases green energy.
Before the park’s “Icon” double-launch roller coaster from Mack Rides opened in 2018, she considered installing solar arrays on the boarding station’s roof to aid in the energy used by the ride’s linear induction motor (LIM) system, but the cost was prohibitive. Looking back, she has mixed feelings for not moving forward with the install.
“We really need to buy into sustainability much faster than what we’re doing,” she says.
Hopes and Goals
After much searching, the missing rugs at the BLVD Hotel are located elsewhere at the park, misdelivered to a food and beverage area.
Her quest for perfection positions her well to serve as 2020 IAAPA Chairman.
At age 28, she became one of the youngest attractions professionals to take a seat on the IAAPA Board of Directors. Most recently, Thompson served as chairman of IAAPA’s Europe, Middle East, and Africa (EMEA) Advisory Committee.
“I think IAAPA is enormously valuable because it allows everybody to work closely together. You can pick up the phone and talk to someone in Thailand; you can pick up the phone and talk to someone in Australia,” she says. “Our industry is one of the few industries where people will share information and knowledge.”
Thompson often speaks affectionately of other properties—even her competition.
“I am very much for our members and being a member-driven association—be it manufacturer and supplier members, FECs (family entertainment centers), theme parks, aquariums, zoos, museums—we need to be reaching out to everyone and understanding their needs and making things better.”
She’s no stranger to IAAPA Expo, attending each in the United States since age 16. “I’ve never missed one. Not one,” Thompson boasts. “I think I have Pleasure Beach and IAAPA running through my veins, because I do not remember life before IAAPA,” she says.
What would her beloved ancestors say?
“I think they would be pleased and proud—and I think my father would say, ‘Beware IAAPA!’” she concludes with a hearty laugh.
Contact Funworld Managing Editor Scott Fais at [email protected].