Life at the American Adventure - much better than working for a living

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I was walking in Shipley Park a couple of weeks ago on a dingy Sunday afternoon and happened to glance down on the former site of the old American Adventure Theme Park from the top of the hill.

There’s hardly anything left of it now - its rides long-ago stripped out and sold for scrap, its buildings demolished and its former army of teenage workers dispersed long ago.

For a good few years after its closure, the once-popular Missile ride stood dormant and rusting on the skyline, while a forest of weeds slowly grew through the park’s once pristine walkways.

When my son was younger, I’d take him to the top of the hill and show him the giant Native American faces on the distant buildings, the spookily-abandoned cowboy town and the static and forgotten pirate ship.

I had taken him inside the park when he was really young, when they were selling season tickets as part of a last-ditch bid to keep the punters coming - but it was on its last legs by then, and would close shortly afterwards.

I didn’t buy a season ticket, but occasionally borrowed a neighbours.

The American Adventure had offered a bit of a lifeline for me years earlier when, in my late teens, I dropped out of university and needed gainful employment for a time.

It ticked a few boxes for a loafing 18-year-old - it looked like a good laugh and didn’t involve working for a living.

At first I was employed as a ride operator and spent most of my early days at the park, probably in early 1988, operating the Tennessee Tentacles ride on Snake Island.

I soon bagged myself a transfer to the entertainments department, where I spent the next six months shovelling horse manure out of the stables at the Alamo arena. But that’s showbiz.

But eventually I earned my spurs and was set to work in the Wild West Show proper - after I’d been taught to drive a cart and stay on the back of a horse.

I would also make four daily trips down to Silver City, where I would get unconvincingly shot by a bunch of children, before scuttling off to try and bag a ‘free’ chilli dog from the little kiosk at the back of Lazy Lil’s saloon.

The following year should really have shown what was coming, when they closed down the big arena show as a ‘cost-cutting measure’ and my life in the saddle took a tumble.

But I was saved from a summer of frying burgers or back on the rides, when I was offered the role of Fred Bear, one of the park’s two costume characters.

This involved wandering around in the summer heat in a costume that would have served you well in the Arctic winds, losing half my body weight in sweat, and regularly getting battered by packs of unruly children.

After one particularly severe kicking at the hands of a gang of vicious seven year olds, it was decided that Fred Bear needed a minder - largely because it was judged poor form for him to swear at younger visitors.

His partner in crime - Mickey the Moose - also received personal security shortly afterwards, when he was thrown in the lake by a bunch of older visitors who had spent too long in the site’s lakeside pub.

It was great and for a while the American Adventure really took off - there was one particular July 4 when they opened their doors to thousands of US military, then stationed in the UK.

I was there the day that Buzz Aldrin paid a visit, and the day that Barbara Windsor unveiled her own tomb stone on Boot Hill.

I was hired as an extra to appear in a TV show that was shot at the site and met Harry Enfield who was starring in it.

I shared a communal dressing room with Rex Roper, and whip-cracking sheriff, and the dancing girls from the saloon show.

It really was better than working for a living - although after my second season I did the sensible thing and went back to university.

Perhaps it was just that bit too close to Alton Towers, and eventually the rival park won out by the never-ending addition of new rides and attractions.

The American Adventure stood still, and then slowly declined until its rides were old and dilapidated, and its few remaining entertainers playing shows to nonexistent audiences.

The people who lived near it hated it with a vengeance, but it did put Amber Valley on the map, and provided regular employment for young people from miles around.

I’d add my name to the petition to get the place re-opened, although sadly I think we’ve seen the last of it.

Yee-haa . . . and all that.

PICTURED: Andy Done-Johnson (third from the right) with some of the cowboys at the American Adventure, and the former entrance to the theme park, located between Ilkeston and Heanor.


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