Arriving at the park formerly known as Tayto to find that the man with the black hat, shiny red coat and cheesy grin is nowhere to be seen is, at least initially, a bit like going to a Destiny’s Child reunion concert only to find that Beyoncé has cried off the tour.
Everything looks so familiar walking through the heavy wooden doors into the reception area but the star of the show for years and years is just gone.
Instead of Mr Tayto’s name over the door, there is an understated “Emerald Park” sitting on top of an abstract interpretation of a rollercoaster.
For more than a decade, Mr Tayto was cock of the walk at Ireland’s largest amusement park with everything from the slides and flying chairs to the toilets and gift shop merch carrying pictures of his grinning face.
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Today he only makes the most fleeting appearances. As The Irish Times is walked through the park ahead of its grand reopening under a new name this weekend, a forklift is seen carrying a decommissioned snack hut with poor Mr Tayto’s face covered in dirt sitting on the roof.
And builders have taken to using some no-longer needed plastic Mr Tayto signs as makeshift shovels to remove rubble from one of the new rides that will be debuting at the park as part of a multimillion-euro redevelopment.
They are signs of the times.
Charles Coyle is the managing director of the theme park and he greets us wearing a bright green jacket with the Emerald Park logo.
“One of the reasons we had to change the name was because we couldn’t advertise in Northern Ireland or Britain because a different company owns the Tayto brand there,” he says.
He felt the inability to boast about the attractions not far from the Border was hurting the operation’s prospects and its ability to grow. “Around 20 per cent of the people who visit the park come from Northern Ireland or Britain and we have never been able to market to them so they have visited because of word of mouth.”
Once the company decided it was time for Mr Tayto to sling his salty hook they had to come up with a new name. “For about an hour” Coyle and his team considered taking on the name of a different sponsor before deciding to take an alternate route.
“The name Emerald Park actually came up in our very first focus group with staff,” he says.
Dozens of other names were suggested over a period of several months before a final shortlist “of four or five names were shown to my dad, Ray”, Coyle says.
[ Tayto Park founder Ray Coyle dies, age 70 ]
Ray Coyle, whose brainchild the park was, liked the shortlist and said he would be happy enough with any of the names on it but advised that a little more time and research be spent getting the right name.
“He passed away before we settled on Emerald Park but I think he would be happy with it,” his son says.
“I suppose there will still be people calling it Tayto Park in 20 years, mind you, just like some people still say the Point Depot or Lansdowne Road. There isn’t much we can do about that. This is the last time we’ll do this though. We’re never going to go on another rebranding exercise. This one has been hard enough so we figured we would do it once and once only.”
“The signage was tricky,” he says. “Years ago I insisted that we had Mr Tayto’s face on all the rides and everywhere else. We had Mr Tayto everywhere and that really came back to bite me in the last few weeks because everything has had to go, I bet we have missed a few Mr Taytos despite all the hard work.”
The name isn’t the only thing that is different this season and two new rides for the smallies out there have been added to the mix.
There is the Crazy Bus and the Balloon Race.
The Crazy Bus features a bus that rises to an elevation of about 10m before going in gentle circles while the Balloon Race features some balloons that go in similarly gentle circles.
[ Win a family membership to Emerald Park ]
When we visit, the Crazy Bus ride still has builders climbing all over it. “When you look at that you might think that there is no chance it is going to be ready but it will be ready, I promise you,” Coyle says.
Millions of euro have also been spent upgrading some of the existing rides. “When you’re dealing with safety, everything is very expensive so the upgrade of the Viking Voyage with the addition of 10 new boats and new electrics and new mechanics cost around €1.5 million.”
Coyle has ambitious plans to make the park even bigger and will add a further six acres to its 120-acre footprint next year with the aim of having three times the number of rides in the summer of 2024 that they had in 2015.
“We don’t want people queueing for too long, people who are stuck in queues are not having a good time and they are not spending money,” he says.
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In pre-pandemic times they might have had 11,000 people coming through the doors on a busy day in high season but were forced to rethink the business model in recent years. “We cap it at around 7,000 now and when you pay in you can go on all the rides and all the experiences rather than buying tokens, that just makes it easier for people.”
Tickets cost €47 when booked on the day and €39 if booked online. Tickets for the junior zone range from €35 to €43.
Alongside the new rides and the rebranding, the park has also welcomed a new tiger to the wildlife park.
Coyle says about 60 per cent of the people who come through the doors visit that section of the park but admits it is the rides that are the big draw. “I think people really enjoy the variety on offer. Not everyone wants to go on the Cú Chulainn rollercoaster.”
[ Construction starts on two new rollercoasters at Tayto Park ]
He says that last year they had their best year with 750,000 visitors but he aims to get to 900,000 or even one million.
This weekend, there will be a “red carpet rolled out with stilt walkers and ribbon-cutting and all the rest”. What there won’t be is free bags of crisps.
“No, we won’t have any free crisps any more. I know that is going to make some children very sad and maybe make me a bit unpopular. And Mr Tayto won’t be allowed in.”