GRAEME COUSINS pays a visit to Tayto Park and chats to the man who runs Ireland’s only theme park and zoo
Having experienced Tayto Park for the first time a couple of weekends ago it’s fair to say my family got a lot more than we bargained for.
While I knew to expect a theme park and a zoo, I had not banked on the two elements being so vast and so integrated.
In the space of a couple of hours we watched two Amur tiger devour hocks of raw meat, got whirled around inside a giant ladybird, met ‘the other’ Mr Tayto, had a Harris Hawk fly within an inch of our heads and got thoroughly drenched in a Viking themed roller coaster.
We stayed at the venue for around six hours having initially thought we might be get see everything there was to see at Co Meath attraction in a couple of hours and be back in Belfast for our tea.
Manager Charles Coyle commented: “A lot of people have the same reaction, they don’t know what to expect and don’t really appreciate how much we have here.”
Explaining how Tayto Park was born, he said: “About 20 years ago there was all these people coming out from all over Ireland to see these America bikes on these small country lanes.
“It came up in conversation a couple of times with my father Ray – if there’s people willing to travel all this way just to see some bikes, maybe we could develop a business idea and visitors centre around bikes.
“That idea went on the back burner. Ray saw other theme parks around the world that were linked to a brand – for example Cadbury Park – and how they’ve done quite well.
“Around the time when the Celtic Tiger was going well, there was a theme park around Drogheda that was mooted for a while, but it never happened.
“Those different things showed us that there was an appetite for it. It was a series of very different ideas that developed into one idea for Tayto Park.”
Ray grew up a stone’s throw from where the theme park in now situated, growing potatoes on a farm which supplied Tayto.
But the Meath man’s rise in the business world was not without its tribulations. In 1981 he owed the bank £1.2m and made the bold move to raffle his farm. Selling 4,000 tickets at £300 each, he was able to raise the £1.2m and clear his debts with the bank and have enough left over to start his own business – Largo Foods, which was in 2006 to take over Tayto crisps – the company he’d once supplied.
His son Charles said: “Before Tayto Park opened we were actually farming potatoes on this land for use in the factory and then for a while there was American bison grazing here.
“In about 2008 we did some landscaping for Tayto Park, and a bit more, and stop, and a bit more, and stop. By 2010 we thought, if we’re going to build it, we just have to do it.
“There was a wood that divided two fields which is kind of in the centre of the park, pretty much everywhere else in the park was planted by us and it’s 10 years of growth.
“That why people would be forgiven for thinking this has been there for decades and decades.”
He continued: “When we first opened the park (in 2010) Ray still owned Tayto crisps and Largo Foods, he has since sold his interests in that in order to focus almost exclusively on the park. This is his passion.
“We have a great working relationship with Largo Foods (now Tayto Snacks) who are now our business partners, they sponsor us effectively. You can tour the factory as part of your entry.”
Discussing the best bits of Tayto Park, Charles said: “The most popular attraction is the Cu Chulainn Coaster. It is our signature ride, you can’t miss it when you come in.”
Sadly we had to miss it as our two children didn’t meet the height requirement, a welcome relief for myself and my wife who weren’t relishing a 31 metre drop at a speed of 100 km/h.
Charles joked: “Maybe you’ll get on it next time.”
Much more our cup of tea was the Ladybird Loop, a fast but not furious rollercoaster in the Eagle’s Nest Adventure Zone.
Charles said: “Ladybird Loop is the newest attraction – it went in at the end of July last year. It’s a great one for parents and children to get on together and both come off laughing.”
World of Raptors is another key attraction in the park, with live bird shows taking place every day where the stars of the show swoop and mingle with the seated crowds.
In our case, the children – aged seven and six – were much more at ease with the birds than their parents, who sat trying to let on we weren’t afraid of the actual vultures circling above us.
Of future plans Charles said: “We’ve put in for planning permission for a new ride which will be the biggest investment the park has ever made – 15 million Euro from start to finish. Our plan for a hotel is still very much on the horizon and other new rides.
“If the numbers go in the right direction we’ll be able to build them. About 25% of our visitors each year come from Northern Ireland and it is growing every year.
“You can never stop. While there’s plenty in the park – I believe you need more than a day to see everything – you always need to give people incentives to return.”