About John Wardley
Responsible for some of the most iconic rides in the world, including Nemesis, The Smiler, Colossus and Dragon Khan, John Wardley is internationally recognised as a leading figure in the theme park industry.
Inspired by his great uncle and aunt, who were stage illusionists, John began his career in the theatre industry. As a young boy, John was fascinated by the big illusions and uses to make small scale versions out of cardboard as a child. His father however expected him to take over the family printing firm so, when John was a teenager, in a bid to ‘knock this show business nonsense out of his head once and for all, his father sent him to work for a family friend who owned a chain of theatres, cinemas and bingo halls. The plan in fact had the opposite effect! John loved the business and made the decision to go to drama school as a stage manager.
The first job John had was at the Theatre Royal in Windsor. However the pay was poor, so with both Pinewood Studios and Bray Studios (home of the Hammer Horror movies) both in close proximity, John moonlighted and worked on special effects at the studios, eventually moving to work on special effects full time. It was whilst working with special effects that John first began to consider how the techniques he was using for films could be used for a live audience, just like what was being created in the theme parks in America – utilising the techniques used in Hollywood film sets to entertain a live audience. His first foray into the amusement industry came via a line of fake skeletons! John created a set of moulds from which he created replicas which he could sell to anyone who required them. His biggest customers were owners of haunted houses and ghost trains at amusement parks and fairgrounds and this led to him not just supplying the product, but also installing the effects.
John realised that in order for British theme park industry to develop they needed to start slightly smaller by upgrading or converting an existing attraction. This opportunity was to come from the removal of the Scenic Railway at Barry Island. With the support of Barry Island’s owner, John developed three attractions: Uncle Frankenstein’s Scream Machine, The Wacky Goldmine and the Log Flume. It was this that gave him the experience to move forward in his career.
After visiting America to learn all he could about who makes all the various different types of rides, from dark rides to roller-coasters, John felt there was one key ingredient missing – animated figures. As a result, he created his own animation system and developed Charlie Plucket – a life sized country and western singer who appeared on the TV show, Tomorrow’s World. It was as a direct result of this that John became involved with the Tussauds group who asked him to work with them to help develop and refine the animations for their wax exhibitions around the world.
At the same time as working as a consultant for Tussauds, John was also manufacturing illusions for magicians. Whilst discussing the Viva shows (which ran at Blackpool Pleasure Beach) with Geoffrey Thompson, he suggested trying a magic and illusion show as a way of reviving a format that was beginning to look a little tired. The result was Mystique, a spectacular show which ran for an incredible 20 years.
After this John was asked by Tussauds to help devise a ‘masterplan’ to help develop and transform Chessington Zoo. It was this plan which saw the Zoo transformed into Chessington World of Adventures and resulted in a huge increase in visitors. John went on to create Vampire and Professor Burp’s Bubbleworks, and was made a non-executive director of three Tussauds companies.
Tussauds went on to acquire Alton Towers, (previously owned by John Broome who had already transformed the park through the addition of Corkscrew and the introduction of a pay-one-price admission policy), and with John’s help, set about quickly putting their stamp on it. The Rapids were transformed, Runaway Mine Train installed, and the Hauted House was built on the route between the rapids and Thunder Looper. However there was a problem. Tunder Looper only had temporary permission and was going to have to be removed. In order to gain planning permission for a replacement, any ride would need to remain below the tree line. John realised that something unique was required. So began the design for ‘Secret Weapon 1’ – an Arrow Pipeline coaster. Ultimately though, it was decided that this type of coaster was too slow and boring, so the design process went back to the beginning. Eventually Nemesis was born (under the code name SW3), a European first Bolliger and Mabillard inverted coaster which has gone on to become one of the most famous roller-coaters in the world.
Since creating Nemesis, John has gone on to develop rides for a range of parks including, Dragon Khan and Stampida at Port Aventura; Nemesis Inferno and Colossus at Thorpe Park; and of course Oblivion and Air at Alton Towers. Alongside his work designing world class attractions, John has also worked with Frontier developments to help devise the video game RollerCoaster Tycoon 3.
Between 2000 and 2007 he went into semi-retirement. Upon their take-over of the Tussauds group in 2007, Merlin Entertainments asked John to once more become actively involved in the development of the group’s parks as a ride consultant. Although he no longer designed his own rides, he still had a significant input in the decisions made. In this role John helped develop Saw: The Ride at Thorpe Park, and Th13teen at Alton Towers.
John announced his retirement from the industry on 22nd January 2013 which meant that his final project would be The Smiler for Alton Towers.
First Drop Magazine issue 72