Woodlands - one of South Devon’s most famous attractions - is a clear success story, built on a strong sense of family.
Pat Bendall, one of the park’s directors, and its marketing director, sits in her office looking over crowds of children gathered, ready to go into the adventure park she has created from scratch with her family. Their squeals of excitement make her smile.
‘When you see a child so happy, so excited by the rides and attractions we’ve created it really is wonderful,’ she says. At the age of 76, most people would be putting their feet up and enjoying retirement, especially if they had helped create a business empire which encompasses three massive theme parks, getting hundreds of thousands visitors a year.
But Pat keeps going because she loves ‘being creative: innovation is the key to our success.’
Woodlands started life as a dairy farm, owned and run by Pat and her husband Graham. In the late 80s, things were looking bad for the dairy industry and they decided they needed to change their business.
‘We often had visitors to the farmhouse but we knew very little about tourism,’ Pat muses when I ask her how daunting it must have been starting from scratch. ‘At the time there weren’t many attractions for people in this area, the landscape was beautiful, but there was little for families to actually do. With seven children of my own, I think I understood what families and especially children wanted. That is the key to our success I think, listening to what people want and trying to provide it.’
So in the summer of 1989, a little park, with some animal enclosures, an ‘action track’ and a few other attractions opened.
The family were not sure what to expect – what they got was 60,000 visitors.
From then on the family including Pat’s three sons Chris, Mike and Phil came in and made a big difference to the running of the park and helping to create new attractions too.
In the second year a caravan park was added but again, the family was determined to base their facilities around what people wanted.
‘I had never used a touring caravan myself, so we visited some and asked people who did what they wanted,’ Pat said. ‘They all said they looked to ‘grab a corner’ wherever they went to give them a sense of privacy. So we terraced our caravan site so everyone who visits feels that. We now have five-star caravan accommodation. We want to keep standards high.’
New attractions, improvements, landscaping- the family got on with innovating and developing the park to make it the best it could be, year after year.
‘Our strength is in our strong family and our determination to give our visitors what they want,’ Pat said. ‘Mike designed all the play areas here and we have never stopped listening to what children and their guardians say.
‘We love to welcome those with special needs too and to see their families so proud of them when they have fun and achieve so much in our different zones makes it all worthwhile! Families get less and less time together these days, and it’s wonderful to provide a place they are happy to be together.’
The park now has 11 separate ‘zones’ spread over 90 acres with rides, slides and play areas for all ages.
400,000 people visit each year, 42 permanent staff and up to 120 seasonal staff work there – it’s a very big enterprise, and one which continues to be successful. There are massive indoor play areas, a well-regarded zoo breeding many rare animals and the caravan site has more than 300 pitches.
The family now also own two other parks: in 2003 they opened Twinlakes Park in Leicestershire, and then bought a park in Nottinghamshire in 2007 – re-branded as Wheelgate Park. At both these places, the family have put their minds to creating another massive success, using their knowledge of families and innovation to create somewhere anyone would happily take their children.
With seven children, 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, Pat feels, quite justifiably, she knows what kids want today.
‘It has changed massively over the last few decades,’ she says, as she walks with me around some of the many attractions on offer – including the amazing Ninja Zone. ‘Life is changing and so are people’s needs – we know they want things more quickly and they want things that allow their imaginations to soar. We try and fulfil that!’
Pat is still very much at the heart of the park, Graham now concentrates on environmental projects, planting new trees around their land, adding to the beautiful landscaping. She keeps being creative: designing new areas and zones and helping with marketing the park.
‘We’ve put a lot of work into promoting the South West as a destination as well as the park itself,’ she said. ‘Tourism is so important to this whole region. We keep striving to be better all the time, with new rides, zones and attractions. This park is a testament to our family and the hard work, Graham and I and our children have put in. We are all very proud of it.’
First Published August 2012 By The Dart