Pioneer of the British theme park who oversaw Drayton Manor in Staffordshire for more than 60 years
Fun and games were in the blood of George Bryan, one of the pioneers of the British theme park, who has died aged 92. He oversaw Drayton Manor, Staffordshire, for more than 60 years, having built it up on a derelict estate and opened it in 1950 with a few boats, dodgems and pedal cars.
The park is today the fifth most popular of its type in the UK, with white-knuckle experiences including the standing-up rollercoaster Shockwave and a stomach-churning drop tower called Apocalypse. Bryan always placed emphasis on giving customers time and space for their fun, and Drayton Manor caps daily entry at 15,000, a measure also aimed at keeping traffic to a locally acceptable level.
Bryan was born into the royalty of British leisure entrepreneurs, son of William Bryan, a mechanical genius from Leicestershire, whose tiny levers and big ideas led to the invention of 48 highly original slot machines. George was brought up listening to the clicking and jangling of games such as Pot the Copper and Magic Spirals, with Nudist Colony and Live Peep Show – both featuring “naked” ants – adding a dash of sauce to the proceedings.
Unlike some heirs to family firms, who took up textiles or foundry work with a dutiful sigh, he went into the business with zest and his own engineering skills, honed by wartime service in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers. He also followed another favourite path of great dynasties by marrying into an equally inventive family from the leisure trade – the Cartilidges, who ran the California in England amusement park in Berkshire.
He and Vera celebrated their wartime wedding in 1942 with tinned ham and potatoes at the reception, but they had ambitious plans for when peace returned. After a three-day honeymoon in London, taking in James Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy, they were apart until 1946 while Bryan served overseas. Reunited, they set to work.
A search for somewhere to build on both families’ past achievements brought them to the derelict Peel estate near Tamworth, a sea of rubble and brambles surrounding the ruins of the former mansion of Victorian prime minister Sir Robert Peel and 17 large army huts. Bryan enjoyed describing in later life how local people thought his investment of £12,000 was “barmy”. Peel’s two ornamental lakes were choked with rubbish and austerity made improvement hard to find.
In Easter 1950, however, the Bryans started running a secondhand set of dodgems, six rowing boats, three hand-operated rides, a small fleet of pedal cars and a modest café. The public, ground down by rationing and postwar economic woes, loved it and flocked in. An alliance in 1954 with nearby Twycross Zoo raised the enterprise to a new level and it continued to grow steadily for the next 30 years.
The powerful sense of family was a notable strength. George and Vera made their lifelong home at Drayton Manor. One of their three children, Colin, succeeded his father as chief executive and has seen his own two sons and a niece join the firm, too. This ensured continuity and gave the firm confidence to expand in the late 1980s with ever bigger and faster rides. In the first decade of the 21st century, Thomas Land was set up within the 113 hectare (280 acre) complex, based on the tank engine stories of the Rev W Awdry.
Bryan was made an OBE in 2004 for his work for the NHS and medical charities as well as to the leisure industry. Last year, George and Vera celebrated their platinum (70th) wedding anniversary.
He is survived by Vera, their children, Colin, Andrew and Jane, and by grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
• George Bryan, theme park entrepreneur, born 9 April 1921; died 20 September 2013
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