Seaside fun in Blackpool

Venue: Blackpool
Date: 03 Mar 2012 - 04 Mar 2012

Rob Yandell joined readers on a two-day tour of Blackpool to see how millions of pounds of investment have been spent to give you a group trip full of fun.

Having collected the Best UK Resort award from Group Leisure readers for the fifth time in 2011, Blackpool has always delivered the goods for those looking for traditional seaside fun. Famous for its illuminations that have lit up the promenade every autumn since 1912, as well as the thrills of the Pleasure Beach, it now has even more to crow about as it continues its multi-million pound transformation.

Much has stayed the same, but so much has changed; there are still countless B&Bs seemingly stuck in a time warp, and plenty of shops to buy a silly hat and a stick a rock. What you perhaps don’t know is that Blackpool is now home to the only Madame Tussauds in the country outside of London, and millions have been spent by the Merlin Entertainments Group turning the famous Blackpool Tower into a venue that offers the iconic Ballroom alongside 21st century family fun.

The Pleasure Beach Blackpool has also continued to evolve and includes the recent addition of Nickelodeonland, which is celebrating its first birthday this month. Adding kid favourites, such as SpongeBob SquarePants alongside the established thrill rides and roller coasters, means both adults and young ones are catered for.

“I lived in Blackpool for a while so it’s embarrassing that I’ve never been up the Tower until now. We send countless groups to Blackpool all the time, but I didn’t realise how much had been invested in it and how new it all is. This trip’s been amazing and we’ve had a lovely time.” Ingrid Grimes, Met Set Travel

Having not visited Blackpool in over ten years the investment along the promenade was immediately evident upon arrival. You will now find long stretches of it have been resurfaced and paved, with the option of taking a relaxing stroll along the ‘golden mile’ (it’s really a bit longer but...), or hopping aboard a tram; be it one of the new state-of-the-art vehicles or a heritage tramcar.

We stayed at the large Hilton hotel, which is conveniently located across the road from the beach and promenade, a short stroll from the heart of the action, which I preferred, so you could retreat to some peace and quiet. That said, there was plenty of night-time entertainment provided in the main bar with cabaret acts on hand should you feel inclined. The Hilton has a large restaurant and for those in your group who enjoy exercise, there is a health/fitness club and indoor pool.

Our introductions to Blackpool and the Tower

The team at visitBlackpool is vastly experienced when it comes to assisting group travel organisers and a warm welcome was given to us all by Julie Holland, its leisure tourism manager. The travel trade in the town had been working together in the lead-up to our familiarisation and it showed, with a cohesive and enjoyable itinerary which started along the promenade. We were firstly introduced to the Comedy Carpet; a new ‘art installation’ that covers an area in front of the Blackpool Tower with jokes and one-liners from some of the most famous comedians of all time. It’s a fun way to spend a few moments before going inside the Tower. Just next to it, you can see the new Tower Festival Headland, which is an amazing entertainment space for events and concerts, with Elton John due to open it in July with his band.

Of course, a tower means views, but readers seemed particularly excited about seeing the Tower Ballroom. It’s always been an iconic venue, and the building itself is beautiful; but since the rise of the Strictly Come Dancing TV show and the increased interest in dancing, its popularity is at an all-time high. Not only can you look around, you can take afternoon tea in the ballroom itself for under £6 per person, watch the Wurlitzer rise and take to the dance floor if the mood takes you. A competition the day we visited meant we tucked into sandwiches and scones with views of the promenade instead; probably a good thing as I’ve never really got on with sequins.

Aside from the Ballroom, the Tower is very much geared towards families. The Blackpool Tower Dungeons follow a similar theme to the attractions in London, Edinburgh and Warwick Castle; it’s a trip through history’s more horrific moments. Expect nasty characters played by live actors, with plenty of blood and gore. But we opted for the Blackpool Tower Eye 4D film, which was great fun, before going to the very top for view of the town and the horizon across the seascape. You can enjoy sights inside and out and walk across the Skywalk if you don’t mind the thought of walking on a transparent platform, so you can see what’s below. Although our time was limited, the Tower offers plenty more to see and do, including its own circus and the Jungle Jim play area for the smaller ones.

Madame Tussauds, the Winter Gardens and a night at the theatre

Madame Tussauds was our next stop and perhaps the highlight of the afternoon for some. A really top attraction with plenty of brilliant wax figures in innovative poses and displays. It’s real fun no matter your age and further proof that the Merlin magic is really adding a new dimension to the resort. I even got to meet Steven Gerrard; I honestly couldn’t muster any excitement for Peter Andre or Jeremy Kyle.

“I’ve not been to Blackpool for 17 years and it’s changed so much. The fam trip’s been fantastic because I wouldn’t have gone to the eateries and restaurants we’ve been to, but I’d definitely come back. The Comedy Carpet was great and it’s lovely along the front now.” Deana Bell, Land Registry Sports and Social Club

Our group had a real treat for dinner, with a meal at the Empress Grill in the stunning Winter Gardens, which is benefitting from an extensive restoration project. The Winter Gardens, which opened way back in 1878, is still a prominent venue and home to the Opera House which attracts top live acts throughout the year. But we weren’t planning a pop concert and spent the evening at the stunning Grand Theatre just around the corner. Worth the visit to marvel at the beautiful architecture, the theatre has a year-round programme and it’s incredibly varied. Having met the staff, they are passionate about providing something for everyone, and groups of 20 or more can make savings on theatre tickets, catering, tours and talks.

Blackpool Zoo, water slides and the Pleasure Beach

You have probably heard of ‘March winds’ and although I appreciated the sunshine on both days of our reader familiarisation weekend, it did get a little blowy. But it was nice to get plenty of fresh air as we visited Blackpool Zoo, a surprisingly large attraction with a brilliant team behind it. Talks are available and visiting off-peak meant we could stroll around in peaceful surroundings. Animal experiences are also possible for all age groups, which can tie nicely into feeding times. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in July, the zoo is open every day of the year apart from Christmas Day. Seeing the magnificent tigers, lions and giraffes, as well as the fun sealions and gorillas was a great start to the day for us all.

Blackpool has a really good mix of indoor and outdoor attraction; always useful with the unpredictable British weather. If you fancy water fun and the temperature of Irish Sea isn’t tempting, send your group to the Sandcastle Waterpark, where it’s always 84 degress. Promoted as the country’s largest indoor waterpark, we had a quick tour and saw the lazy river ride, a multitude of slides and pools and lots of children having the time of their lives. Fancy tackling the longest ‘water rollercoaster’ or one of 18 slides and attractions? Group rates are available and you’re welcome to take in your own food and drink to keep costs down.

Lunch at The Grill showed us that the Pleasure Beach is much more than fast food and went down a treat before we were shown around the famous amusement park. Boasting 125 rides and attractions, it’s all about fun and it continues to evolve. With Nickelodeonland introduced last year, younger children are catered for with 12 rides and attractions across six acres and opportunities to meet popular characters, such as SpongBob SquarePants and Dora The Explorer. There are plenty of bigger rides in the park, such as the 235 foot high Pepsi Max Big One and I joined readers on one or two of the rollercoasters, which certainly afforded great views with the added advantage of clearing any cobwebs.

“Seriously one of the best fam trips I’ve had for years. I’ve been coming here for years but now I’m looking totally differently at Blackpool. When you come as a group leader you look at things differently; when you come as a member of a fam trip you always see new things.” Hans-Dieter Wilke, Anglo Germany Association

In addition to the rides and attractions, the Pleasure Beach is home to the Hot Ice show in the Arena, which is celebrating its 75th season. With 30 performers, this year’s Entice skating show is offering group discounts and performing from the 4th July to the 8th September. Plenty of choice extends to the park’s 30 eating and drinking establishments, but I didn’t expect to see a champagne and oyster bar alongside pizza kitchens and Starbucks. It’s certainly moved on since my last trip there.

For families and children in particular, Blackpool offers a massive range of things to see and do, whatever the weather. It can also be used as a base to travel around Lancashire and the Ribble Valley. But what Blackpool does best is deliver for groups seeking fun and entertainment, and that hasn’t changed, it’s only got better.

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