Emerald Park’s Charles Coyle has high hopes for the family amusement park and zoo with two major new rides on the way
When a farmer-turned-entrepreneur decided to turn 55 acres of fields in the Meath townland of Kilbrew into an adventure park housing exotic animals and rollercoaster rides he could hardly have foreseen the extent to which the family attraction would take off in the coming years. The €8.5 million Tayto Park opened in late November 2010 just weeks before the country’s big snow.
Ray Coyle started off in business growing potatoes and vegetables on 15 acres of land at Curraha, Co Meath, which was given to him by his father. A tireless entrepreneur, he soon expanded the farm to 800 acres. However, he encountered problems with bank repayments, so he decided to raffle the farm. He managed to raise €1.2 million, which was enough to pay off the banks.
In 1982, he launched Largo Foods, bought Perri, King and Sam Spudz crinkly crisps and rolled out Hunky Dorys with a series of irreverent ads and promotions. He bought the Tayto brand in 2006. His son, Charles Coyle, says the idea of the park was simple – to promote the Tayto brand. It was about developing a modest, Irish family enterprise along the lines of Butler’s Chocolate.
In 2011, things took off quickly at Tayto Park with 350,000 visitors passing through the turnstiles during the year. In 2007, Ray Coyle had initially sold a 15 per cent stake in his crisps business to German multinational Intersnack, before selling his remaining shares in 2015. In 2019, Ashbourne Visitor Centre Limited recorded a profit of €2m. Visitor numbers soared to 750,000.
Then Covid-19 hit and the business reported a loss of €2m for 2020. Last year, the business bounced back again with profits of over €10m. Sadly, Ray Coyle took ill and in June last year he died at the age of 70. In late September, it was announced that Tayto Park would be rebranded Emerald Park from the start of 2023. Ray Coyle had given his tacit approval to the new name.
The family attraction had to move in a new direction, with new partners. Charles Coyle says they were inundated with suggestions for a new name. When all was said and done, Emerald Park was a clear favourite. Ireland is often referred to as the Emerald Isle by international visitors. Meath is known throughout Ireland for its lush green landscape, giving the new name relevance.
Is Emerald Park modelled on other amusement parks? “No, it’s not,” Charles Coyle says. “Like anyone, we take ideas from elsewhere. We try to improve.”
Marketing manager Niamh Reynolds said they no longer required a brand title sponsor as the plan was to recruit a small number of commercial partners that would fit the bill. Brands that have come on board to date include Nissan, Coca-Cola’s Hellenic Bottling Company and Unilever with its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Coyle says there may be other possible partners in the pipeline.
Coyle says 95 per cent of Emerald Park visitors are from the island of Ireland, with one in three from north of the Border. The park is open from whenever the Easter holidays start to two days before Christmas. In the run up to the winter closure, the park is only open at weekends. Lengthy queues for rides seldom occur and when do they are generally no longer than 15-20 minutes.
The park has 18 attractions, four rollercoasters and a water ride. The park’s first mechanical ride opened in 2014. The park’s tallest ride, the Cú Chulainn wooden coaster, has a 32-metre drop and a 90-degree turn halfway through the ride. The Flight School steel coaster is gently paced but with enough thrills for those who shy away from the highest rides.
Other popular rides include The Rotator, a Max Dance Party 360 pendulum ride which swings back and forth as the seats rotate without turning upside down. The Air Race is only for the bravest – a two-person aeroplane seat where the rider is vigorously twisted 360 degrees in the air. It is a coaster ride not recommended for anyone susceptible to getting dizzy spells.
Adding Celtic mythology to park’s theme: Emerald Park was the vision of founder Raymond Coyle, who passed away last year. His son Charles continues his father’s legacy. The aim is to make the amusement park one of the best family attractions in Europe, up there with EuroDisney, Efteling in the Netherlands and Paultons Park in England, home to Peppa Pig World. Tír na nÓg arrives next year with one ride which is not for the faint-hearted.
For thrill seekers who enjoy water rides there’s the Viking Voyage with 1.7 million litres of water. A touch of Jurassic Park comes in the shape of Dino Dash, a gently-paced safari jeep coaster with small drops. It reaches speeds of 50 kilometres and travels up to a height of 11.7 metres.
The park’s Junior Zone for kids three years of age and over includes a 10-metre shot tower, a steam train and a Nissan car driving experience. The zone was expanded in 2023 for the first time in three years with two new rides, Balloon Chase and Crazy Bus. Other park draws include mazes, vortex tunnels, a 5D cinema, zip lining, arts and crafts, magic shows and face painting.
The park’s zoo is home to over 250 animals and several species in need of conservation, including two tigers and two leopards. Bira is an endangered Siberian tiger and Frey, a “critically endangered” Amur leopard. The big cats came to the zoo as part of the European wildlife conservation programme, which is known as EEP. A team of 20 vets and zookeepers is on call 24/7.
The zoo’s collection also comprises squirrel monkeys, birds of prey, bison and other rare breeds of farm animals. Coyle says the animals that prove most popular with visitors are the lemurs, the meerkats and the zoo’s soar of eagles. Kids can also enjoy visitor experiences like the petting farm, world of raptors, a free-flying bird of prey display and the lemur walk.
Emerald Park is among Ireland’s top six paid-for public attractions. It should come as no surprise that its biggest competitor is Dublin Zoo. Designed by Stewart & Sinnott architects, landscaper Anthony Ryan and designer Milo Fitzgerald, the park is a member of the British & Irish Association of Aquariums & Zoos (BIAZA) and the European Association of Zoos & Aquaria (EAZA).
Coyle says they have taken steps to minimise the park’s noise levels caused by over-excited rollercoaster riders. They had two objections after which they put in noise barriers. Overall, they have cordial relations with their close neighbours, some of which work in the park. The Institute of Acoustics gave its blessing by providing proof that the park’s noise levels would not increase.
Weather impacts on park attendances. Four or five days might be expected to be lost to rain and stormy weather conditions in an average month from Easter to Christmas. However, this summer, July was an outlier with cancellations and low bookings three or four days a week. About 45 per cent of bookings are made a week or more in advance, with the rest made 72 hours beforehand.
As might be expected with an amusement park, incidents do happen. In 2012, a former employee who was working as a tour guide broke her ankle after she went down a 60-foot slide. The slide was not open to the public at the time but the woman, along with other employees, were told to try it so that they could “get a feel of it”. She sued and the case was settled out of court.
In 2016, a wooden staircase in one of the park’s Halloween attractions, House of Horrors, suddenly collapsed, injuring nine people. Emerald Park was the vision of founder Raymond Coyle and his son Charles now continues his father’s legacy. The long-term ambition is to make the County Meath park one of the best family attractions in Europe.
Spring 2024 will see a new area of the park called Tír na nÓg, which will be based on Celtic mythology. Tír na nÓg will have two, as yet new unnamed rides – a suspended thrill coaster and a family boomerang. Construction started last year but the plans for the 6.5 acre land were in place since 2017. They were designed by Dutch manufacturer Vekoma, which supplies Walt Disney.
The thrill coaster will provide five upside down experiences over its track length of 750m. Its highest track point is 32m, just higher than the Cú Chulainn coaster, with speeds of 90kph. The second coaster, whose working title is the Family Boomerang, is not overly-boisterous with its hills, dives and turns. The total track length is 450m, with a highest track of 25m and speeds of 60kph.
Coyle is Ireland’s representative on the EMEA board of the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions (IAAPA). He stresses that the park continues as a family enterprise. His mother, Ros, oversees the park’s access control and landscaping. His sister, Natalya, a pentathlon athlete who represented Ireland at three Olympic Games, is also involved.
Dynamo was hired to create the new brand identity for Emerald Park. The agency had previously worked with Ray Coyle on Tayto and Hunky Dorys crisps brands. Core’s Spark Foundry looks after the park’s media buying and planning, while FCB Huskies handles advertising using the slogan they coined – ‘Treasure Awaits’. Joanne Byrne at Presence Communications agency is in charge of PR.
In an interview with Michael Cullen