The wild ones
Norfolk outdoor park, Bewilderwood offers a unique play experience
Norfolk’s unique outdoor park Bewilderwood, offers families an enhanced play experience in a woodland setting, themed around a series of successful children’s books. Ronnie Dungan spoke to founder and author Tom Blofeld to find out more about his approach and plans to add similar parks…
Just as Disney World, the Epcot Centre, Six Flags or any of the great theme parks could only have come out of America, no other country than Britain could have produced a park like Bewliderwood.
You might even go further and say it is particularly English, possibly particularly Norfolk (certainly rural) and undeniably middle class in its approach with a curious (and curiouser) mix of Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Edward Lear, PG Wodehouse and Baden-Powell at the heart of its ethos.
Founder Tom Blofeld is the nephew of Henry Blofeld, cricket commentary aristocrat and Test Match Special broadcasting legend and apart from clotted cream and strawberry jam on a scone, that’s about as English as you can get.
The park is themed around the successful children’s books created by Tom Blofeld featuring woodland creatures called Boggles and Twiggles.
“I had played in the woods of Bewilderwood as a child and at first wanted to write children’s books about the marshes and all the funny things that went on there,” explains Blofeld. “Then it suddenly occurred to me that it would be even cooler to BUILD the book. Which we did.
“It was created in-house by myself and the team around me; it is very much an internal vision which belongs to all of us. The whole concept was about knowing the landscape backwards, sharing it with as many people as possible and giving them some excitement along the way.”
The environment is central to the park’s offering, giving children what is essentially an enhanced outdoor play experience and encouraging them to enjoy what generations of children have always loved doing – playing in the woods.
“We’ve huge slides, mazes, tremendous tree-houses, zip wires (including baby zips for little folk) and traditional den building to name a few bits and bobs, all wrapped up in a unique story, set in the wonderful Norfolk Broads.”
What it does not try to be is like any other family attraction. The unique stories that Blofeld has created ensure an original theme, which is carefully brought to life by the in-house team within a set of parameters.
It suddenly occurred to me that it would be even cooler to BUILD the book. Which we did.
Tom Blofeld, Bewilderwood founder
“It has integrity and unique values,” says Blofeld. “Bewilderwood looks and feels completely of its own kind. We welcome lots of people to our world and our aim is for them to have the best day out – that always comes first.
“We don’t try to be all things to all men but identify the customers we’re best suited for – we’re aimed at 2-14yr olds and don’t add in extras that may draw away from the BeWILDerwood experience our customers know and have come to love.
“Most importantly though, once at BeWILDerwood, we consider everybody is a child and our park is designed to allow the whole family to play together in a healthy and safe environment.
“With all modesty, I believe we are the best in the world for what we do – it’s not a big category but we are the best.”
But the experience is constantly updated and added to with new rides and events, which are a crucial part of the Bewilderwood experience.
“In the last two years, our storytelling and events have reached another level – it’s really important to interpret our world to the people who come to play in the woods. The Sky Maze is also fairly recent and our exciting new concept of The Giant Flower Garden is coming early Summer 2018.”
“No one ride is so much better than the others, all features are of a similar quality. However, the Sky Maze has over half a kilometre of walkway – and is very unique to us. Our slides are made of super slippery materials and they really work! Finally, the high quality of the storytelling, events and crafts are also fully integrated into our world.”
While it may not be necessary for the park to invest in expensive coasters or electronic features, start-up costs, while low in comparison with many major parks, were not insignificant. More in line with the sort of investment level required to create a farm attraction.
“[it cost] over three million quid to get it going and we reinvest substantially annually,” explains Blofeld. “We are happy to invest as much as needs be to keep the quality, excitement and adventure where it needs to be and at the forefront of outdoor play.”
A crucial part of the park’s ‘story’ and it should be said, also an important additional revenue stream, are the books, which also help create the look and feel of the park and are increasingly, through story-telling events, a big part of what goes on.
“The books, which are set in Bewilderwood and were developed at the same time as the park, came out of my head and were heavily contributed by the illustrator Steve Pearce who was a significant player.
“Throughout the park you’ll see hints of the characters (Boggles and Twiggles) that live in the wood and of course, head to the storytelling stage to learn more!”
Expansion is also on the cards. There are plans for a second Bewliderwood at Tatton Park in Cheshire, although it seems it has been a complicated process to finally getting planning approval, and Blofeld is also speaking to developers about opening a Bewilderwood in Germany and eyeing several other UK sites.
What Bewilderwood has done brilliantly is to tap into notions of a more organic, guilt-free, childhood day out for parents. It is outdoors, in nature, with a wholesome story to tell and not an electronic screen in site. It makes for very powerful branding but one that needs to maintain that integrity at its centre if it is to continue it success.
Blofeld says his team, and its understanding of what the park is about, is crucial to this.
“We have a passionate team, including in house designers who work collaboratively and creatively with me – which is why the park has such integrity and the team feel a real sense of ownership.
“[The key is] always delivering more than is expected, the quality of what we offer and of course staff friendliness is critical. We invest heavily in training our team and we have sensational reviews for that – every customer is special and we treat them that way.
“I think customers look for value – which isn’t necessarily about money – it’s about the quality of the experience. They want something different, a unique day to make it unlike other days, which is why they will come back. If the kids are asleep in the car on the way home, with a smile on their faces, we know we’ve done our job.”
Despite its quaint, rural, image, the park is actually marketed in a slick, modern fashion, with emphasis on social media, creating word of mouth demand based on parental approval. For any kind of leisure attraction, positive online reviews are now absolutely vital in attracting new visitors.
“Social Media is fast becoming the most important, particularly our customers telling their friends how great we are, which we cherish – you can’t beat a positive, personal review.”
Many parks lay claim to offering a unique experience but being based on original story titles, with a quintessentially English appeal, Bewliderwood is the genuine article.
But, with plans for a second park well advanced and more plans in the pipeline, it’s unlikely to stay that way for much longer.