A £38million Gulliver’s theme park is due to open near Rother Valley next year, bringing with it scores of attractions, hundreds of jobs – and more than a little magic as MD Julie Dalton tells unLTD’s Jill Theobald
A £38m venue, over a 250-acre site, with up to 70 rides and attractions, creating potentially 240 jobs – Gulliver’s will be a children’s theme park that means serious business for the Sheffield City Region when it opens in spring next year.
But it’s also set to bring with it fun, imagination, and magic, too – not least park mascots Gully and Gilly Mouse.
Oh, and 17 Father Christmases and half a dozen unicorns.
“It’s all about creating an amazing experience for children and their families,” MD Julie Dalton tells me as we take a tour of the current construction site near Rother Valley Country Park. “We’re creating magical moments for children aged between two and 13 to go out on adventures hunting for unicorn poo or looking for dinosaurs at night!”
Even in the early stages of construction, walking past a lake, a wild west cowboy saloon, a ‘Lost World’ dinosaur double water chute and a bunch of yellow and black JCB-style toy digger rides, that sense of fun is evident.
But it’s clear that Julie takes the business of child’s play very seriously.
Alongside brother Nick, she runs the Gulliver’s empire founded by their parents, Ray and Hillary Phillips, at Matlock Bath in the 1970s, before later theme parks were established in Warrington and Milton Keynes.
Gulliver’s Valley in Sheffield City Region will be ten times larger than the founding park – but despite such large-scale growth it is reassuring to hear the family and community theme feeds strongly into the development, with the team using local suppliers and contractors including Arnold Laver and striking up partnerships with organisations like Grimm and Co.
“We love Grimm and Co,” says Julie. “They are fully on board with the slightly weird world we inhabit. As we often say, what’s normal anyway?!
“The tarmac team are a South Yorkshire firm, and when the concrete trucks were driving from a couple of miles away off the M1, we could see them on their way down the road to us. Our plants and shrubs are from a local nursery and the rapids ride is being made in south Barnsley.
“We want to keep everything as local as possible – it’s lovely to be in a position to do that.”
That stretches to nearby attractions, too – with the Valley on the border of Rother Valley Country Park Julie and the team are working with the park as well as nearby venues and ‘great assets’ like Magna to ensure the arrival of Gulliver’s enhances and extends the area’s overall leisure and tourism offering.
And it’s a commitment to community which extends to employment, too. Job applications opened in February with Julie saying at the time: “It would be wonderful if we could recruit individuals who are already based in Rotherham. The new development is for the local community – it’s fitting that new job opportunities created should be offered to Rotherham people as a priority.”
For two duty manager roles Gulliver’s received 3,000 applications – and both successful candidates live within four miles of the site, while more than 90 per cent of the entire workforce live within five miles.
And they’re not just joining a team – they’re joining the family.
“My mum and dad are regularly on site,” says Julie, pointing out brother Nick on site manager duties as we walk along.
Working her way from pot washer to catering manager – and fitting in a First Class degree in Hospitality (“what else?!”) – the family business beckoned.
“I was 21 and a manager had left one of the sites – I got handed the keys and told ‘go and run that!’”
And run it she did.
“We’ve got staff aged 16 right up to people in their eighties. Our oldest employee is 84. We have people who retire and then come back and ask to do a day or a shift or two.”
Interestingly 52 per cent of the workforce is female, too and most of the senior team are women as well. But Julie insists that this is not down to ‘cherry-picking’.
“People are employed because they are the best candidates and most qualified for the job.
“It really is a family here – we care about the team, all our employees are considered part of our family. We’ve built the business on a great team of people who are passionate and committed to providing a great magical experience, whether they are running the company, engineers maintaining rides, cleaning staff …”
Across the sites Gulliver’s employ 700 people, including seasonal staff, and run a highly effective training programme where everyone who joins the company gets involved at every level. Regardless of job title or seniority, they will clean the toilets, learn how to run the rides and attractions and everything in between to ensure they get a real understanding of the site and the company.
It’s clearly an effective programme, with some starting as teenagers and working up to management roles, and plenty of long-serving members who have been part of the Gulliver’s team for years, if not decades.
It’s a commitment to skills and training that Julie is now keen to take beyond the Gulliver’s family.
“Jobs in the service and hospitality industry are often viewed as the roles you do before you get a ‘proper’ job,” says Julie, who’s on a mission to change the perception that the only jobs at a theme park are ‘chucking chips into a box or pressing a button on a ride’.
“We employ and train people in all sorts of roles right up to and including the management team – those rides are serviced by highly skilled engineers and electricians.
“That’s why we’re working with Sheffield City Region on a development programme to encourage more students to consider STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) subjects, as well as the variety of job opportunities available.
“I’m really passionate about getting the next generation excited about the service, leisure and tourism industry and that means starting at primary school level. We’ve already had a group of local school children come in to visit and that will continue with our partnership with skills charity work-wise which goes into schools to inspire inspire young people about jobs and careers. Our GullyFest Days, for example, challenge pupils to come up with theme park designs and business plans.”
Longer-term Julie has plans for a Skills Academy ‘because that’s how we’ll get away from the service industry being seen as having dirty, second rate jobs – that’s how we can become world class.’
Education isn’t her only passion though. One area of the new park Julie is particularly enthusiastic about is the accommodation. As well as hundreds of hotel bedrooms and lodges planned for the site, there are the 50 rooms making up Gully’s Dream Village.
“The Dream Village of specially adapted 50 rooms will mean terminally or seriously ill children and their families can enjoy cost-free respite in a magical environment,” says Julie. “We’re working with Bluebell Wood Children’s Hospice here and have worked with numerous charities over the years to run special days and events so we know the difference it can make to young children where they don’t feel ‘abnormal’ for being poorly or carrying an oxygen tank, for example.
“We’re always on the look-out for businesses who want to work with us, too – maybe by sponsoring the dream cottage for a year.
“It’s all about creating a magical environment full of priceless moments where everyone feels the same – that’s how we’re making a difference.”