American Adventure’s creators reflect on building a fantasy land in Derbyshire 35 years on from ground-breaking theme park’s launch

White-knuckle rides such as the Runaway Mine Train, Buffalo rollercoaster and Cherokee Falls log flume thrilled families when the American Adventure theme park opened 35 years ago.

Friday, 27th May 2022, 12:14 pm

Cowboy shoot-outs and Red Indian dancers entertained the crowds, a Mississippi steamer sailed across the lake and real buffalo grazed on the hillside.

Curious to know what inspired the Wild West theme for the attraction between Ilkeston and Heanor, we reached out to the man who poured imagination, money and building expertise into creating the park and his right-hand man who helped turn the vision into reality.

John Rigby, the owner and developer, and John Ellis, operations director, had already scored a big hit with their first theme park, Camelot, in Lancashire. John Ellis said: “During the peak season at Camelot so many people wanted to get to that park that it used to block the M6 motorway. It was incredibly successful and a wonderful place to work.”

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A Wild West town was built as part of the American Adventure development (photo: Gary Murfin)

The opportunity to create the American Adventure came when its predecessor Britannia Park theme park went bankrupt.

After seeing an advert for the site, John Rigby wrote a letter to Derbyshire County Council and the two Johns were invited to meet the council leader David Bookbinder. John said: “He was a real go-getter and he sort of liked us. He said ‘can you put a presentation to us quickly’ so we cobbled out the idea."

John Ellis said: “John is the absolute master of creativity and his imagination created this amazing park.”

The two Johns lived on site during the construction of the American Adventure and were part of a 70-strong workforce mainly drawn from the local area.

Wild West shootouts with real cowboys were a popular attraction at the American Adventure (photo: Gary Murfin)

John Ellis said: “A lot of them had worked in mines and were looking for work. They had incredible skills such as welding and making stuff and that was important.”

John Rigby said: “It was a buzz. Every day we were up with the lark and it had to get black before we stopped work. I never acted like a big-time boss even though I was a multi-millionaire when I built it. We were all like friends and partners."

The ground-breaking Derbyshire development created one of the first indoor play centres in the UK and a full-size Alamo.

John Ellis said: “We were building a fantasy. American Adventure was one of the first true theme parks in the country. The buildings were all themed, the trash bins were copies of barrels and the lighting was old-fashioned candle lighting. Staff were dressed in the ideal uniforms, there were shows, events and all the rides and attractions were themed to go with the park decoration.

The log flume at the American Adventure

"People would take deep breaths because it was so authentic.”

Questioned about what inspired the theme, John Rigby said: “I used to go to America with my antiques side of the business. I knew the Red Indian Cherokees and I bought blankets and headdresses from them. I brought over half the tribe including the rain dancer and the hoop dancer, 16 real cowboys, covered wagons and the Mississippi steamer.

“The big theme for Derbyshire was the runaway train. Just as good as you’ll buy anywhere in the world, it was made by local guys who had made trains for the mines in Nottingham and was a fabulous feat of engineering. They also built the log flume and the rapid river ride.”

Manufacturers in Europe were tasked with matching the rides to the theme. John Ellis said: “The big wheel was chuck wagons. Some of the manufacturers still make those models today based on our original instructions like the big wheel and the rollercoaster shaped like a buffalo.”

Red Indian attracking Medicine Man in one of the shows at the American Adventure.

While John Ellis can’t recall any bad times during his days at the park, he did share one memorable incident. A resident buffalo managed to escape and charged into Ilkeston.

John said: “It ran through the market and they trapped it in a pub not far away from the entrance to the American Adventure. We captured it and took it back. The following day the pub landlord had a sign saying buffalo burgers!”

After nearly three years, both Johns severed their ties with the American Adventure. John Rigby had several businesses on the go elsewhere and was keen to take on more. He said: “I was looking all around the country including London docklands to build mega mega sites. I tried to buy Drayton Manor in Tamworth and Thorpe Park.

"I retired for three months in Spain, got itchy feet, met the guy who owned Windsor Safari Park and within three months we had bought it and I altered that into a theme park with rides and animals.”

Now 78 and showing no desire to retire, John Rigby is chief executive of Building Themes international which is currently building two leisure parks in Scotland. He said: “I’m on site and I’ve got people working for me.”

John Ellis, who hails from Sheffield, went on to build theme parks in Malaysia, Georgia and Dubai. He moved to Dubai 17 years ago to oversee the building of Dubailand, a giant complex of theme parks and shopping malls. John is now 67 and runs two companies, Leisure Consultants and the World Wheel Company.

John Ellis was operations director at American Adventure.

He said: “We were sad to hear that the American Adventure had closed down because a lot of blood, sweat and happy tears went into it. At the end of the day, we ran it well, did peak business and everybody had a great time.”

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John Rigby was the creator, original owner and developer of the American Adventure theme park.
Construction work on the American Adventure in the mid-1980s (photo: John Rigby)
Rides in place at the American Adventure site (photo: John Rigby)
A close-up of the big wheel with its chuck wagons (photo: John Rigby)
Test run on one of the white-knuckle attractions (photo: John Rigby)
The lake in the American Adventure theme park and the gateway to Snake Island (photo: John Rigby)