Ireland's first theme park opened its gates for the first time just under four years ago, and has grown rapidly into one of the most popular attractions in the country, welcoming just under half a million visitors last year. Until recently it has been geared primarily at families with young children, but change is underway; The Rotator was added in July, and next year will see the addition of a full size wooden roller coaster, an Air Race, and a dark ride.
Full price admission tickets cost €13, and include a packet of crisps, access to the Tayto Factory Tour, an open zoo, and a playground. Almost everything else requires an additional fee. Park management defended their pricing model last year by comparing it against major parks in the United Kingdom, and their point is not without merit, but the fact remains that one use of each of the dozen up-charge attractions today would have cost €37 on top of admission, a total cost slightly higher than that of a day trip to Oakwood Theme Park by ferry. A thrill-seeker in training could easily run up a significant bill.
The park currently offers family memberships for €130, covering up to four people for twelve months. This pricing is great value for families, given that it saves money from the third visit onwards, but it does leave individuals out in the cold. With the change in focus next year it'd be good to see additional options available, as a major coaster will certainly bring in more teenagers and young adults.
We began our visit with the Tayto Factory Tour, an attraction that to the best of my knowledge has no direct parallels anywhere in the world. Park management has constructed an enclosed walkway across the top floor of the actual Tayto Crisps plant instead of building a dark ride like Hersheypark, and the result is fascinating. The sight of freshly cooked crisps moving on a conveyor belt was enough to make my mouth water, and it was certainly neat to see the finished product dropping from the machine. The walls were lined with information boards detailing the history of the brand including several things I didn't know, not least the fact that the cheese and onion flavour was invented at Tayto. I'd personally have preferred if the whole experience hadn't been accompanied by Mr Tayto's Election Song on loop, but that's my inner curmudgeon speaking; I'm sure the children didn't mind it too much.
The exit of the plant led directly to a pair of Vortex Tunnels, similar to what one would expect to see in a fun house. The first was illuminated in bright shades of purple and looked great. My photograph of the second didn't come out, but the only difference was a more subdued lighting scheme.
Both the factory tour and tunnels are outside the boundaries of the park on the far side of a public road, albeit one with minimal traffic. There is a pedestrian crossing in place that was being monitored today by a staff member in a high visibility jacket, presumably both to aid safety and prevent any attempts to enter the park without a ticket inspection.
The Geronimo Thrill Zone appeared to be targeted at the youngest visitors, with the largest crowds surrounding the Air Jumpers. There were several sets of these in evidence, allowing capacity to be adjusted depending on demand. I'd have given these a try myself if there'd been less of an audience, as they looked like a lot of fun. One whole corner of the area was devoted to the Pony Rail, a permanently installed track ride with a custom layout to fit the available terrain that seemed to be doing a reasonable trade.
The more adult attractions were to be found in the Eagle Sky Adventure Zone on the far side of the park. The largest amount of space was taken up by Zip Line Extreme, a collection of eight zip lines anchored by large platforms on each end. One tower also held a small café, apparently for birthday party hire, as well as the boarding platform for the Tayto Twister. A vertical assault course named Skywalk stood over to one side, attended by several members of staff working to attach safety harnesses to guests.
The only major mechanical ride in the park was also to be found in this area. The Rotator is a permanently installed Maxi Dance Party 360 from SBF Visa, operating a generous programme with eleven over-the-top swings and a total ride time of around three minutes. It was a bit surprising to see such a large machine in what is fundamentally a family park, but my sense is that it will fit in far better once next year's attractions open up.
It was impossible to resist taking a quick look at the construction site for next year, an enormous space that will dramatically increase the size of the park. Those with plenty of time on their hands can read the full planning application, but in a nutshell, the three new rides will be joined by a large new entrance building and car park, the latter capable of holding almost two thousand cars.
Our next stop was at the zoo area of the park, home to a variety of more unusual animals. The park map lists Ocelot, Coati Mundi, Lynx, Fishing Cats, Corsac Fox, Aard Wolf, and much more. We found ourselves drawn to a pair of Sicilian Donkeys who were enjoying what could only be described as a wrestling match. There were some great photographs to be had, and indeed the enclosure was surrounded by people with camera phones and one poor unfortunate with an iPad.
We were on our way back to the entrance when I remembered about the House of Horrors, a temporary walkthrough set up for one week in a building that also houses the Tayto Shop and The Lodge Restaurant. I'd not expected much from this, given its temporary nature, but much to my surprise it was extremely well done, with animatronics and theming that were of international standard. Several live actors completed the package. While I'd hate to see it toned down, we did see several families with small children exiting out through the entrance, suggesting that the "scare factor" might have been pitched a little too high for the average park guest.