Could this be the UK's answer to Disneyland?

By Mary-Ann Russon
Business reporter, BBC News

Image caption,
Will this industrial estate in north Kent one day become a key destination?

If you head to Swanscombe Peninsula in north Kent, you will see what can be best described as a rather unattractive industrial estate.

Only accessible by car, rows of corrugated metal warehouses containing garages and car body repair workshops sit amidst long grass and bushes.

Swanscombe Peninsula has been designated as the site of the long-proposed London Resort, but at the moment it doesn't look like much fun. Could this really be the UK's answer to Disneyland?

A troubled beginning

In 2012, plans were announced to build a large entertainment complex in Swanscombe, near Dartford. By this year, it was meant to include a huge indoor water park, attractions, rides, theatres, event space, hotels, restaurants and even a science and education centre.

But the past seven years have brought significant challenges for the resort's backers. Aardman Animations withdrew from a partnership deal with the park. Meanwhile, expected costs have spiralled.

Paramount Pictures was originally tied to the project, but in 2017 it abruptly pulled out of the deal, and the developers renamed themselves "London Resort".

Image source, London Resort
Image caption,
New concept art for the London Resort, set to open in Swanscombe in 2024

At the time, London Resort said it would develop the park on its own.

But London Resort has now hired a new chief executive - PY Gerbeau - and brought Paramount back on board.

It claims the theme park will now open in 2024, and says it will apply for planning permission early next year.

"It's happening," Mr Gerbeau told Radio Four's Today Programme, adding: "It's been a troubled project - it's been on and off." But, he said: "Failure is not an option."

Mr Gerbeau was formerly vice president of operations at Euro Disney, and is credited with turning around the struggling Millennium Dome, as well as co-founding X-Leisure, which owns the Xscape indoor ski slopes and Brighton Marina.

The London Resort is to be set over an area of over 535 acres - the equivalent of 136 Wembley Stadiums - which would make it three times bigger than other UK parks.

Image caption,
Taxi driver Fozlu Miah has lived in Gravesend for 25 years

'Nothing to do'

The area is so large that it will border three towns in Kent - Northfleet, Swanscombe, Gravesend and the area under development that will become Ebbsfleet Garden City.

"We've been waiting for a long, long time for something like this to happen," taxi driver Fozlu Miah, 43, who has lived in Gravesend for 25 years, tells the BBC.

He says that crime has gone up and young people are increasingly getting into trouble with the law, "because people are bored".

Image caption,
Students Sienna Sooknanan and Kashaa Srikanthan say there isn't much to do in the Gravesend / Ebbsfleet area

Transport links are not great and there isn't much of a bus service, so you mostly need a car to get around.

Students Sienna Sooknanan, 16, and Kashaa Srikanthan, 15, agree.

"There was bowling, but that got shut down. We just go out to eat or go to Bluewater, but there's nothing to do other than that," says Ms Sooknanan.

Both teenagers are enthusiastic about a theme park coming to town, because it would save a longer trip to Thorpe Park in Surrey.

Ms Srikanthan says: "Around here you can go to escape rooms, fun fairs sometimes, or walk around town.

"Kids here are bored. Most of the time they go and stand outside the McDonald's in town and hang out."

Safia Chalid, 48, has been running Safia's Beauty Bar on Gravesend High Street for six years, and she has become concerned about the future of the town.

Image caption,
Safia Chalid says a theme park would help regenerate the area

"Gravesend is a really lovely town, it's just a shame there's not much left here," she tells the BBC.

"Gravesend has gone downhill - I've noticed a big drop in both terms of footfall and customers, and shops are closing down.

"With the difficult retail environment, services are the only things doing well right now, so a theme park would really help to regenerate the area."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
PY Gerbeau when he took over as chief exec of the Millennium Dome

But Professor Richard Scase of the University of Kent thinks Mr Gerbeau faces some significant challenges.

He says "there's been so much doubt and uncertainty and rumours and speculation about this particular development" that some are "sceptical" and "cynical" that it will go ahead at all.

The academic notes that even Disneyland Paris struggled when it first opened in 1992. The park was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy in the early years and has been bailed out by its American parent on a number of occasions.

If London Resort does go ahead, Professor Scase warns the Paramount brand may not be strong enough to attract customers.

He also has doubts about the location, which could compare unfavourably with international destinations like Disney's parks in Paris and Orlando, Florida. It would also compete with more local resorts like Chessington World of Adventures, Thorpe Park and Legoland, which are all close to the M25, the motorway that circles London.

Image source, London Resort
Image caption,
The Swanscombe Peninsular, where the London Resort will be built

Further, Professor Scase suspects consumer tastes might be changing, adding that families may be put off by the prospect of potentially sitting in traffic to reach a park, where they will have to pay an entrance fee only to then queue for attractions.

However, Mr Gerbeau says his vision for the London Resort will be much more than just attractions for people to go on.

"It's a fully integrated entertainment destination. Today, the kids and younger generations like e-sports, gaming, interaction through technology. The kids who are 12 today will be our key target base in 2024."

Image source, London Resort
Image caption,
New concept art for the London Resort, set to open in Swanscombe in 2024

Everything the park contains will have to prove its economic sustainability, so he doesn't want to make specific promises about what London Resort will do for the local economy, even though there will be benefits.

He says: "We want people to understand that there will be phases in the projects, we're not going to suddenly create 30,000 jobs. It might be possible in 10 years, but not from day one."

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