TALK about bad luck.
After five years’ hard work, Gulliver’s Valley was a month from opening when lockdown struck.
The theme park is finished — staff recruited, rides installed and dinosaurs activated — pretty much all that’s left is to order the ice cream.
“We’ve been in the industry for 42 years,” said managing director Julie Dalton. “I’ve never known a year when every bank holiday, every school holiday, has been absolutely perfect weather.
“The kids haven’t even been in school but we’ve been closed. Everything is running, tested and ready to go.
“It was really saddening to walk around and see how close to opening we were. But I think this is the first time as a managing director that it’s all been out of my hands.
“The world changed. The park is finished, we’re just lacking customers and pennies in the piggy bank.
“It’s been a really horrible time,” added Julie. “We have 690 staff we have to make sure they’re fed and that we come out of this.”
Social distancing means an initial daily capacity of 1,600 visitors, rather than the 4,500 under normal circumstances.
Fifty attractions including 26 rides are in place. The carousel arrived from Holland just before lockdown but two more rides are stranded in Italy.
Temperature checks for visitors are in place at the main entrance, and sinks and sanitiser are placed around the park, which is nestled in countryside between Aston and Wales.
Julie has been living on site for three months — in one of the Lost World caravans — spending her nights making hanging baskets and upholstering furniture.
“I’m used to opening the curtains and seeing a dinosaur,” she said. “In fact, I’d be more worried if I didn’t see one!
“You just have to keep going. I’ve had bad days and shouted a bit. It’s been a real challenge. The cashflow stopped three months ago.
“Things stopped completely for three weeks and since then we’ve had six to eight people on site each day.
“My parents have been shielding, so they’ve not been able to help, but I’ve brought in my son and daughter.
“On Tuesday the main building’s music went on and I got a tear in my eye. This is the coming together of five years’ work.”
General manager Dave Brown said finishing the park under unprecedented circumstances had given staff a stronger connection with the place.
Dave, of Aston, said: “I can see the castle from my son’s bedroom. When I look in on him before I go to bed at night, I always have a look down here too. With the lights on at night, it looks stunning.”
Children won’t be able to hug Gully — the family firm’s mouse mascot — for now, so a small stage has been built to elevate him in the centre of the park.
Lost World has 40 dinosaurs, including T-rex Yorkie — 30ft from head to tail — who was named through an Advertiser competition.
This area added a fresh challenge this week, when one of the other animatronic prehistoric giants got a wasps’ nest in its eye.
Dave said: “You can see Yorkie from the Rother Valley side and the locals have been snapping him through the hedge.”
The farm is ready but the cows, sheep, goats, alpacas, guinea pigs, chickens and rabbits are still to arrive.
The Lilliput Diner seats 186 under social distancing and a big screen plays episodes of Gully’s animated series.
The Toy Story-style tales have characters and park features come to life at night — part of creating what Julie calls the “Gulliver’s magic”.
“It’s bringing the park to life,” said Julie, who built this one with brother Nick Phillips. “Years ago, when my kids were little, I came up with stories about what happened in the parks when they were asleep.”
One area designed for younger children has a colourful nod to where the Gulliver’s story began — the merry-go-round which became the first feature of the firm’s debut park, built by Julie’s father Ray Phillips in Matlock Bath.