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The Tussauds Group is more than just its famous Madame Tussaud's attraction. The Surrey-based company is Europe's leading owner and operator of theme park attractions, registering more than 15 million visitors per year. The company's Madame Tussaud's attraction remains its most international brand, with sites in London, New York, Las Vegas, Amsterdam, and Hong Kong. In the United Kingdom, Tussauds also owns the Alton Towers theme hotel and park complex, the number one theme park in the UK; Chessington World of Adventures and Thorpe Park, both located in the London region; Warwick Castle; and Germany's Heide Park, acquired in 2002. Tussauds also owns 33 percent of the London Eye, the United Kingdom's number one tourist attraction in terms of visitors; the company operates the attraction and has announced its interest in buying out the 33 percent stake held by partner British Airways. Tussauds has been owned by investment group Charterhouse Development Capital (CDC) since 1998. In 2003, CDC refuted rumors that it planned to sell Tussauds or bring the company public. In 2002, Tussauds Group posted sales of more than £178 million ($285 million).
Molding Amusement History from Wax in the 18th Century
Tussauds history dates back to the late 18th century. Physician Philippe Curtius, originally from Germany, had begun modeling wax figures, principally of internal organs and other structures of the human bodies, but later began preparing wax portraits of notables of the day, which he first placed on exhibition in Berne, Switzerland. Curtius's creations had caught the attention of the French royal family, and Curtius was invited to move his wax workshop to Paris in 1765.
By then, Curtius had hired on a housekeeper, a widow who brought with her a daughter, Marie Grosholtz, who had been born in Strasbourg in 1761, shortly after her father's death. Grosholtz quickly became Curtius's student, and soon became highly regarded for her skills in working with wax. In 1778, Grosholtz completed her first portrait, the subject being Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which was followed by a portrait of Voltaire. These earned Grosholtz an invitation to join the royal court at Versailles, where she was employed as a teacher. Called back to Paris during the French Revolution of 1789, Grosholtz was then given the task of modeling the death masks of her former employers. Meanwhile, Curtius had continued expanding his own waxworks exhibits, notably with a "Caverne des Grands Voleurs" (Cave of the Great Thieves), featuring criminals and torture devices.
Grosholtz was named Curitus's heir upon his death in 1794, and she took over the waxworks exhibit and workshop, as well as properties in Paris. The following year, Grosholtz married François Tussaud. The turmoil surrounding the French Revolution had cut interest in Madame Tussaud's exhibit, and in 1802 she made the decision to take the exhibit to England--bringing her eldest son, Joseph, but leaving behind her husband and younger son. In England, Tussaud organized a traveling exhibit of her waxworks. The outbreak of war between France and England prevented Tussaud from returning to France. Instead, She spent the next 33 years traveling throughout the British Isles.
Younger son Francis finally joined his mother in 1826 (Tussaud never saw her husband again, however). In 1835, the Tussaud family finally stopped touring and opened its first permanent exhibition, on London's Baker Street. By then, Tussaud's exhibits had long been one of the Britain's most popular attractions. The ample accommodations of the Baker Street venue permitted the family to expand beyond its traditional touring exhibit. One of the new features introduced during this period was the so-called "Separate Room," itself based on Curtius's "Caverne des Grands Voleurs," placed apart from the main exhibition so as not to offend customer sensibilities. Later known as the "Chamber of Horrors," the room featured portraits of noted murderers as well as instruments of torture and punishment. The exhibit was to remain one of the Tussaud exhibits' most popular attractions.
Madame Tussaud died in 1859. The business remained in the Tussaud family, and Marie Tussaud's grandsons moved it to new, larger quarters on London's Marylebone Road, which became its permanent home. In 1925, most of Madame Tussaud's was destroyed by fire. A number of key pieces, including Marie Tussauds' own death mask, as well as most of the Chamber of Horrors, were rescued and formed the cornerstone of the restored wax museum, which opened in 1928 and now boasted its own restaurant and movie theater. Madame Tussaud's had by then reincorporated as a limited company in 1926.
Diversifying in the 1970s
Much of Tussaud's, including the theater and restaurant, was again destroyed, now by bombing on the first night of the London Blitz of 1940. Yet the museum reopened by the end of that year. Instead of replacing the movie theater, Tussaud's instead sought a different attraction. In 1958, the company opened the London Planetarium, where its cinema had been. The planetarium, which was upgraded in the mid-1960s, was to remain a key attraction at the expanded Tussaud's.
Until the end of the 1960s, Tussauds had remained focused on its single London site. In 1970, however, the company moved beyond London--and the United Kingdom--for the first time, opening a second Madame Tussaud's in Amsterdam that featured a different array of figures from those at the original London location.
The company now sought to diversify beyond its wax figures. In 1973, Tussauds acquired Wookey Hole Caves and Mill, set in the caves of Somerset and featuring a paper mill, and in 1976 it purchased the Tolgus Tin plant in Cornwall, a former tin mine that had been converted into tourist attraction (the company sold the Tolgus site in 1980). Back at Madame Tussaud's, the company was completing a new upgrade to the London Planetarium, debuting a laser-light show, Laserium, in 1977.
Tussauds was itself acquired by S. Pearson & Son (later Pearson Publishing) in 1978. Pearson had also begun to diversify by building up its own attractions wing around the Chessington Zoo. Following its acquisition of Tussauds, control of the zoo was transferred to Tussauds, which then became Pearsons' attractions division. That division grew quickly and in 1978 purchased Warwick Castle. With a history dating back to 914, Warwick Castle was given a thorough facelift by the Tussauds Group, which converted the site into a family-oriented theme park. In 1982, Warwick Castle opened its first major attraction, "A Royal Weekend Party." This was followed in 1986 by the opening of a restored Victorian Rose Garden.
Difficulties in maintaining profits at the Chessington Zoo encouraged the company to transform that site into a theme park in the mid-1980s. The former zoo's animals were maintained as part of the new park, now called the Chessington World of Adventures, which opened in 1987 and quickly tripled the number of its visitors.
Two years later, Tussauds expanded again with the opening in the London Pavilion of the Rock Circus, which centered around a rock and roll theme. In that year, the company sold off the Wookey Hole site in a management buyout, turning its focus instead to larger, more upscale attractions.
The company's next acquisition came in 1990 with the £60 million purchase of the Alton Towers amusement park. Located on a site that dated back to the 12th century, Alton Towers had been redeveloped into one of the United Kingdom's first "American-style" amusement parks in 1980. The site continued to be expanded during the 1980s, yet by the end of the decade had begun to lose its luster. Under Tussauds, however, Alton Towers found new life as a theme park intended to rival the impending opening of Disneyland Paris.
In 1991, Tussauds shut down its Amsterdam site, reopening again in a modern and larger site on that city's main Dam Square. The following year, the Tussauds Group Studios, which had become responsible not only for the development of new attractions at Madame Tussaud's but also for developing attractions at the group's growing list of theme parks and sites, moved to larger facilities.
European Leader in the New Century
Tussauds continued expanding its theme parks in the mid-1990s. The Warwick Castle park added new attractions, such as 1995's "Kingmaker--A Preparation for Battle." Alton Towers also expanded considerably, particularly with the opening of the Alton Towers Hotel in 1996. The £12 million hotel, which featured 125 fully themed rooms, in addition other themed areas, was meant as a direct response to the opening of the Disneyland Paris complex.
By then, Tussauds had entered the European continent as well, taking a 40 percent stake in the new, £300 million theme park Port Aventura in Spain. Tussauds was not only primary shareholder but also operator of the site, which quickly attracted some 2.7 million visitors in its first year.
Meanwhile, the Madame Tussaud's flagship site in London was also undergoing development, notably with the opening of a newly renovated London Planetarium in 1995 and the 1996 debut of a new Chamber of Horrors at a cost of £1 million. Madame Tussaud's then went on the road again, launching a traveling, limited season exhibition beginning in Melbourne, Australia, in 1997.
Tussauds sold out its stake in Port Aventura in 1998, ending its management of the site as well. Instead, the company looked closer to home for growth, buying Thorpe Park that same year. Foreign expansion remained a company objective, however. In 1998, Madame Tussaud's Touring Attraction moved on to Sydney, while Tussauds began plans to bring its flagship brand to Las Vegas, with an agreement to open a new site in the Venetian hotel and casino complex.
Pearson had begun a streamlining effort in the mid-1990s, and Tussauds turn came in 1998, when the company was sold to investment group Charterhouse Development Capital (CDC). The new owners quickly brought in a new management team, which sought to boost profits while continuing the company's international growth.
Madame Tussaud's opened in Las Vegas in 1999; the success of that site led the company to begin scouting locations for a second U.S. site. In 2000, the company opened Madame Tussaud's New York on that city's 42nd Street. Meanwhile, the travelling exhibit had moved on to Singapore in 1999 before arriving in Hong Kong in 2000. That city's proximity to the vast Chinese mainland, as well as elsewhere in the Asian region, encouraged the company to put down roots. A permanent Madame Tussaud's was opened in Hong Kong's Peak Tower that year.
The year 2000 also marked the opening of the London Eye, operated and controlled at 33 percent by Tussauds in partnership with British Airways. The site quickly became the leading attraction in the United Kingdom. Tussauds shut down the Rock Circus site, which had been unable to reverse declining visitor numbers, in 2001.
Tussauds now began looking for its next acquisition, finding it in Germany when it purchased Heide Park, one of the country's largest, located on a nearly 1,100-acre site in Soltau. That purchase, finalized in 2002, helped boost Tussauds to the top position among Europe's attractions groups.
The company's investment of some £300 million over the previous five years under CDC had enabled it to boost its revenues to nearly £185 million by the end of 2002. By then, Tussauds was rumored to be slated for a sale or public listing by CDC. Although CDC denied the rumors, such a move was seen as fitting into CDC's pattern of investing heavily in order to expand its holdings before selling them again after a period of three to five years. Instead, Tussauds--and parent CDC--appeared prepared to continued its expansion drive, acknowledging its interest in acquiring British Airway's 33 percent stake in the London Eye. The company also announced a £100 million investment program that included the opening of a new £40 million theme hotel, Splash Landings, at Alton Towers in June 2003.
Principal Divisions: Alton Towers; Chessington World of Adventures; Heide Park (Germany); London Eye (33%); Thorpe Park; Warwick Castle.
Principal Competitors: Walt Disney Co.; Viacom Inc.; Busch Entertainment Corporation; Universal Studios Inc.; Euro Disney SCA.