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We were first treated to a guide of the park by CEO and owner Tom Blofeld (below, second from right). Tweed jacketed and charming, Tom is an Englishman straight from central casting and is as unique as his park. Whilst not a Theme Park in the traditional sense - "no machines" says Tom - BeWILDerwood is nonetheless highly themed.
Based in a wooded swamp, visitors are presented with a variety of wooden swings, zip wires, bridges and climbing frames which are dotted around the site, but these, whilst of impressive and worthy construction are not what makes the park tick. The USP is in The Boggles.
Blofeld has written a number of children's books which depict a fantastic world of talking hippos, handbag clutching crocodiles and swamp dwelling pixie-like creatures ("Boggles") which are set within the confines of the park. These literary creations are the key to the park's success. With the help of leading themed designer Nick Farmer of Farmer Attractions Development, they have been integrated into the theme park experience in an ingenious way and the Boggles appear to be living throughout the park. There are houses in the trees, cooking pots and walkways between the little villages and trees sport foot-high half open doors.
Though the wood seems alive with this community of magical creatures we never actually see them, they are "unseen characters". Whilst this is an ancient dramatic device (Greek tragedies relied heavily upon events taking place off stage , think also of Romeo and Juliet’s Rosaline and Frasier’s sister-in-law Maris) this is surely unique in the theme park business. The impression created by these unseen characters is so persuasive it is easy to imagine that the introduction of animatronic characters, however neatly done, might serve to shatter the delicate illusion.
BeWILDerwood was opened in 2007 by Tom with help of his old school friend Simon Egan, neither of whom had any previous experience in the attractions industry yet it has proved an idiosyncratic and popular attraction, succeeding both because of and despite its location. The site is swampland, part of the network of marsh and woodland making up the Norfolk Broads and makes an ideal location for the magical story-lead experience. On the other hand, no focus group or feasibility study would have supported the notion of a theme park in such a sparsely populated region of the country. Bart Dohmen (left) reckoned the nearest motorway to the park was in The Netherlands.
Squarely aimed at younger children and families, The park's visitors are A to Bs, there is very little litter and , interestingly, 70% find the theme park through word of mouth as opposed to 30% via the park's more traditional marketing efforts. This is the reverse of most theme parks and implies that the middle class mums of Norfolk have a secret they like to share.
We then heard from Bart from BRC Imagination Arts and Thinkwell Design’s Michael Finney (left), who explained why a number of their projects had been successfully nominated for the THEA Awards (the TEA’s annual awards for themed entertainment projects- BeWILDerwood is a notable past award winner). Bart gave an overview of Hollandarama and The Heineken Experience – “It was about the customer not the brand” – and Michael talked us through (oxymoronic) Ski Dubai and the more recent Grand Opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Phil Hartley (PHA Ltd.) discussed Alton Tower’s Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator Experience, the video for which, outside of the elevator ride and in 2D, looked like the LSD trips once described so vividly by John Lennon. It struck me that in this industry any one project demands the talents of many different people and companies and that this sense of collaboration is what lies at the heart of the TEA.
Phil and David Willrich from leading audiovisual specialist DJ Willrich Ltd. then detailed the process involved in getting European and Middle Eastern projects considered by the THEA awards committee and ways to maximise the chances of impressing the judges. A good video is vital as not all the entrants actually receive a visit from a member of the judging panel.
Finally, with the tea celebrating an important milestone, we were given handfuls of 20th anniversary TEA badges (soon to be kicking up a storm on eBay) and delighted in a couple of sultry models ( N. Farmer & P. Hartley) showcasing the new TEA branded designer jackets.
Thanks go to our generous hosts, Tom and Simon at BeWILDerwood and to the indefatigable Phil Hartley and David and Lynn Willrich for their hard work in organising the event.