HERE’S a pub quiz question for you. What are the names of the trains featured in the Rev W. Awdry’s classic children’s tale The Three Engines, which started a publishing phenomenon that has run for close on seventy-eight years?
OK, hands up all those who started your list with Thomas the Tank Engine. Well, I’m afraid you’re on the wrong track. The 1945 book that introduced the island railways of Sodor to the world featured only Edward, Gordon and Henry.
Based on stories told to his son Christopher while he suffered from measles, the good Reverend didn’t introduce Thomas for more than a year later, when he starred in four stories in his own book, Thomas The Tank Engine.
Since then, of course, the plucky blue engine who longs for greater things has stolen the show not only in the original run of 26 books but in subsequent outings in tales told by others; in cartoons and comics, toys and TV shows; in movies and merchandise.
Here in the UK, Thomas even has his very own theme park – the only official site of its kind in Europe – with more than 25 rides and attractions across a three-acre area of Drayton Manor Resort, on the outskirts of Staffordshire town Tamworth.
Flashback to opening day in March 2008
All this month, Thomas Land is celebrating its 15th birthday. Opened to the public on March 15, 2008 and expanded in April 2015, it has become one of the leading family fun destinations for young children in the UK.
As Drayton Manor’s new season opened yesterday, I was among the VIP media guests and celebrities to get first sight of the celebrations, which will run through until April 30. And I took along a family group including two-year-old Thomas fan Peri.
Peri drives Sodor Classic Cars
It was my grand-daughter’s first-ever visit to a theme park. I was keen to see the place through her eyes, and to road-test the park’s ambitious aim to offer “fun for everyone”.
First things first. If you’re unfamiliar with Thomas Land, you’ll find it to your left after you enter the park through the main gateway. If you’re au fait with the later books, just look out for Cranky the crane or the Sodor Airport control tower on the skyline.
Pass through the area’s own archway and you’re surrounded by rides, most of which are suitable for children taller than 0.9 metres. And even if they’re a tad smaller, they can still ride when accompanied by an adult.
In fact, you’re warned on many of the attractions in Thomas Land that adults can’t ride without kids!
Over a full morning, Peri rode trains and boats and planes – and, as any adventurous tot must, helicopters and cars too. Her favourite was gentle rise and fall attraction Harold’s Helicopter Tours, which prompted plea “Again! Again!” each time we landed.
She flew in the similar, but more interactive, Jeremy Jet’s Flying Academy, and rode the cleverly plotted Diesel’s Locomotive Mayhem – Oh no! surely they must crash! – drove Sodor Classic Cars and cruised high on the overhead Winston’s Whistle-Stop Tour.
Only a few rides were too old for her. She wasn’t quite tall enough for water-firing fun on Captain’s Sea Adventure, and both Cranky’s Drop Tower and the Troublesome Trucks Rollercoaster are aimed at slightly older primary school age children.
And, of course, she loved riding in carriages pulled by Thomas and pals on the highlight attraction – a proper narrow gauge train ride through the Drayton Manor Resort (pictured at the head of this post), meandering its way to the zoo, which boasts more than 100 species.
Attention to detail is key when it comes to iconic characters, and theming throughout is impressive. Every new addition, enhancement and lick of paint has to be approved by the Thomas brand owners before it can go public.
What’s new during the birthday bash is a range of celebratory entertainment. On the train track, Thomas wears a party hat; there’s a giant birthday cake; miles of themed bunting, and The Fat Controller (are we allowed to call him that anymore?) Sir Topham Hatt leads new party singalongs three times daily.
A word of warning here. Once the Thomas theme tune gets into your head, it’ll remain there stubbornly as if the rail workers in Sodor are taking strike action. You will, I promise you, be humming the TV tune, love it or loathe it, for days on end.
There are meet and greets with Matt, and with silly station staff Rusty and Dusty; a circus school twice a day; party games; Easter egg hunting and walkabouts not only by Thomas characters but also by park mascot Rory the Lion and assorted Vikings, from another area of the resort.
Thomas Land, it seems, will soon be getting a belated birthday present too. A new Sodor-styled water flume ride is due to open any day soon. It had been hoped that the attraction would be ready in time for the new season launch but finishing touch theming is still underway.
Admission to Drayton Manor Resort, of course, includes not just Thomas Land but also the many other attractions aimed at older kids and the young at heart. Stand-up coaster Shockwave and maniacal Maelstrom are the big hitter white knuckle rides.
And in the Vikings area opened last year, spin ride Thor serves up adrenaline action, while the complicated Loki (above) – the UK’s first Zamperla Nebulaz, thrill ride fans! – rotates riders in complicated patterns that at first look physically impossible.
Drayton Manor’s USP lies in its family-friendly offering. Few theme parks manage to entertain everyone from the very young to pensionable ride veterans. And where once drop ride Apocalypse stood, another new family rollercoaster will open in 2024.
A series of events this year further widens the audience. A Coronation Street Party – the king, not the soap! – from May 5 to 8 will boast Ed Sheeran, Queen and Elton John tribute acts, while Fiestaval, from May 27 to June 4, will be a samba spectacular.
Summer Nights, from July 1 to August 26, will offer after-dark thrill rides, live entertainment and a party atmosphere, and a Vikings Festival from September 15 to October 1 will boast street entertainers, fire breathers – and a beer festival.
Christmastime in Sodor
And that’s before the traditional Halloween haunts and Christmas celebrations – it always snows at that time of year in Thomas Land, whatever the weather! – roll around. To keep up to date see draytonmanor.co.uk.
Peri’s verdict? The same as after her helicopter hurrah: “Again, again! I want to come here again!”
* Day tickets to Drayton Manor Resort are from £29 when prebooked online. Under 2’s get in for free. Flexible tickets, short hotel breaks and a range of annual passes – Platinum level includes West Midlands Safari Park and other attractions – are also available.
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