'When I told friends I was building a theme park, they would go very quiet...' - Meet the man behind Tayto Park
Few among us didn't chuckle when we first heard of a theme park in Co Meath, but creator Ray Coyle has had the last laugh with the wildly successful Tayto Park. Here, he tells our reporter his plans to make an even bigger splash this summer…
Everybody thought Ray Coyle was crazy. "When I told friends I was building a theme park, they would go very quiet," the businessman recalls. "Eventually they might mutter: 'Oh yeah, I can see something in this.' Two years afterwards, they would confess to me, 'We thought you were mad - but we didn't want to dampen your enthusiasm.'"
Tayto Park opened near Ashbourne in the winter of 2010 to deafening indifference. It consisted of a small zoo (Coyle's herd of bison were pride of place) and a modest playground. Coyle - already well known as the Hunky Dorys crisp magnate who'd swooped in to save rival brand Tayto - seemed to have outdone even the grandest follies of the Celtic Tiger. With the country on its knees, he'd put millions into a white elephant in deepest Meath. 'Crazy' was an understatement.
"We opened in November because we didn't know what we were doing. It was snowing; people couldn't get in," recalls Coyle, who had started as a potato farmer, losing a fortune when the market collapsed in the late 1970s. Now he faced ruin again. "I remember thinking, 'This place is finished - I won't even be able to afford to turn it into a nursing home.'"
Just as he was ready to throw in the towel, a miracle dropped from the clear blue sky. Easter 2011 was uncommonly balmy. One Saturday morning, Coyle arrived at Tayto Park and was confronted by a queue snaking down the hall. "Over Easter 2011, thousands of people walked in," says Coyle. "That's when I knew we had a chance."
He hasn't looked back. Today, Tayto Park is a phenomenon. It's among the most popular paid attractions in the country, incorporating wildlife displays (including monkeys and a tiger), a mini railway, one of Europe's largest rollercoasters and the country's only animatronic dinosaurs. There's a vortex tunnel, a sky walk, an Ice Age valley - and a tour through the factory to watch the golden crisps being made. When I took my kids recently, they could hardly contain themselves. There is nothing else like it in Ireland.
"Attendance will be at more than 800,000 this year," says Coyle, 65, demolishing an enormous cookie as we chat in a quiet corner of one of Tayto Park's several eateries. "Within five years, my ambition is to have 1.2 million visitors coming through, from both sides of the border."
This month, a new chapter begins for the park with the unveiling of the ambitious Viking Voyage water ride. A little bit of Florida transplanted into rural Leinster, it features an artificial mountain, dizzying drops, a giant Viking helmet and 10,000 tonnes of concrete, and is similar in scale to Disney World's Splash Mountain.
The new ride is a logical expansion for Tayto Park - but also a passion project for Coyle. As with the adjoining Cú Chulainn rollercoaster (a €12m Goliath, opened to great fanfare in 2015), it combines thrills 'n' spills with a history lesson. Giving me a tour of the Viking Voyage, Coyle points out the authenticity with which the village 'dwellings' have been re-created - fans of authentic Norse roofing will be in heaven - and proudly gestures towards a full-scale longboat.
The Viking Voyage cost close to $8 million to design and construct and features a looming manmade mountain, 1.7 million litres of water and lifesize ships crafted by the same experts who create props for the Vikings TV series.
What of the argument that, in a country where rain is never far away, a water ride is too much of a damp thing? "We want to tell a story," he says. "There's nothing like this anywhere in terms of the commitment to theme. We've gone to lengths to re-create the Viking world."
Coyle is no carnival barker. He is self-contained and, even when issuing orders, rarely raises his voice. Yet he undoubtedly has a showman's touch. Hunky Dorys, a brand Coyle created from thin air after acquiring Perri Crisps in the 1980s, was a tremendous success. And he revitalised Tayto, adding it to his Largo Foods group as it was buckling under the foreign challenge of Walkers crisps.
In both cases, Coyle's razzle dazzle proved crucial. Recall the cheeky Hunky Dorys campaign from 2010 in which pouting young ladies posed in skimpy rugby tops. There was an immediate controversy - Joe Duffy must have thought all his Christmases had arrived simultaneously - and sales of Hunky Dorys duly soared 22pc.
"The rugby was great - that was the best bit of craic ever. We got great talkability out of it," says Coyle. "Tayto Park is different. You can't take that approach. You have to do nice, straight fun: that is the name of the game here."
A similar derring-do rescued Tayto, which in the early 2000s faced an existential threat from Walkers. Having acquired the beloved snack from C&C, Coyle recognised the potential of the Mr Tayto character. In 2007, he unveiled the yellow-skinned mascot as a general election candidate and two years later published the official 'autobiography', Mr Tayto: The Man Inside the Jacket. It sold 90,000 copies within three months.
"When Walkers came in, they murdered Tayto for market share. I didn't know what to do with the brand. Then Bertie Ahern called an election and we ran Mr Tayto as a candidate. It was great fun - people loved it. We did another campaign in which Mr Tayto was looking for a wife. The brand started to turn. We didn't have the resources to go up against Walkers directly. We had to use guerrilla marketing."
The new Viking Village ride is just the beginning of Coyle's ambitions. He recently applied for planning permission for a 250-bed family hotel adjoining the park. "It will be made completely from wood. Everything we do here is wood-led," he explains, as he shows me the elaborate plans for the expansion.
His enthusiasm is infectious. So it's surprising to hear that he doesn't consider himself a true theme-park connoisseur. "I'm not addicted to rollercoasters," he says. "I think I know what the children like. There are guys here in the park who go on the rollercoaster every day. I don't do that. I was the first person on the Cú Chulainn at the launch - but that was a photo opportunity."
On a tour of the sprawling grounds, he introduces me to his son, Charles, a member of the management team, whose enthusiasm almost eclipses Ray's. The founder's daughter, Natalya, meanwhile, is an Olympian competing in the pentathlon event (last month she claimed gold in the mixed relay at the pentathlon World Cup in Poland). An amateur psychologist might see a parallel between his desire to build a theme park in rainy Meath and her drive to be the best at her sport.
"I'd like to think so but I don't want to boast," he says. "She is determined to go to the Olympics in Tokyo. She does 30 hours' training a week to that end. After that, we'll see what she wants to do."
He himself has known some adversity. As a young man, the collapse of the potato market almost ruined him. Yet the experience would in the long term prove invaluable. Had he not stared over the brink, it is doubtful he would have become the self-made entrepreneur he is today.
"I grew potatoes and made a lot of money," he says. "When I was 24/25, I had over 1,200 acres. I was making about a million-and-a-half a year. I had hot cars; I went nightclubbing… the whole thing. What I lost sight of is that potatoes are commodities - they go up as well as down. I stayed with them too long. The market turned. By 31, I was bankrupt. I had to start over."
He now has an estimated worth of €47 million according to the Sunday Independent Rich List. In March this year, it was announced that Coyle would be stepping down as company chair and a director of Largo Foods. Presumably that leaves him free to concentrate his business- and creative energies on Tayto Park.
Coyle makes a face when I put it to him that he's something of a modern PT Barnum - a natural-born showman living by the credo of 'build it and they will come'.
"I don't think you need to be a showman," he says. "A showman wants to indulge his egotistical side. You need to have nerves and you need to have determination. It is important to stay the course and apply your own ideas. If you listen to everyone else, you won't do it.
"Even now, after all we have achieved, this is a 'panicky' time of the year. You wonder will the weather be okay - will we get the numbers. Those are the things you worry about day to day."
The Viking Voyage at Tayto Park opens June 15; see taytopark.ie