Rise and fall of Rhyl Sun Centre and how Roland Rat made it famous

It was home to Europe’s first indoor surfing pool attracting thousands of families from across the UK, with its success credited to Roland Rat.

But many were left devastated when the sun finally set on one of North Wales' most iconic attractions in 2016 as bulldozers razed it to the ground. Opened in June 1980 by since disgraced It’s a Knockout presenter, Stuart Hall, the Rhyl Sun Centre was an 85 degree “tropical village” with a monorail, slides, surf and wave pools.

Rod Hull and Emu even spent time filming there for a 13-week BBC show, with guests including Robin Gibb, Hot Chocolate and Slade. 1985 was its busiest year ever with half a million visitors flocking to the seaside resort for the experience.

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But it very nearly didn’t happen with members of the then Rhuddlan Borough Council treating the concept of a new aqua centre with caution. Pioneering the idea was the late Ron Smith, director of tourism and amenities, and his deputy, Warren Ward – visionaries who helped secure the EU’s first ever industrial grant of £250,000.

The money went towards financing the Sun Centre, which ended up costing just over £4m and was two years behind schedule because of the builders’ strikes of the late 1970s. But it went on to be one of the biggest success stories of the 1980s for the town.

Speaking to North Wales Live in 2006, deputy director of tourism Warren Ward recalled: “At the time, there were very few attractions for families wanting a day out, especially when the weather was bad.

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“The Sun Centre was an 85 degree tropical village and was the first of its kind in Europe. It was in 1985, five years after opening, when I was watching GMTV and saw an advert for My Little Pony, I got to thinking this was the kind of audience we wanted to aim our advertising.

“When I enquired, I found out it was pretty cheap to broadcast an ad and soon afterwards, we had half a million people through the doors, the roads were blocked with families coming to visit."

He added: "We secured a slot in between the extremely successful Roland Rat show so really, it was thanks to him that we had our best year for visitors."

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In its early days, a pricing plan that was affordable for everyone saw children under three go free with adult entry costing £2.45 for before 6pm and £1.40 after, with the facility open until 11pm. Youngsters under the age of 14 and senior citizens were charged £1.40 before 6pm and 95p thereafter. Locals were also offered discounts.

A slogan branded the site “the original beach indoors,” boasting Europe’s first indoor surf pool, a tropical lagoon, rooftop monorail, splash pool, poolside sun tan beds, a dragon water slide, toddler’s jungle pool, bars and a restaurant and free night time entertainment.

The octopus and elephant slides were there since day one and were specially made as part of the concept design. Flumes and the dragon slide were added later on. When the memorable words, 'Waves in the lagoon pool' were called over the loudspeaker, many excited children came running to jostle for a position to experience the thrills of the wave machine.

For adults, there were coin operated sunbeds at the poolside and people were even allowed to smoke.

But the council always knew that the building materials being used, especially for the roof, only had a 15-year life span due to its exposure to the elements with being by the sea. Essential refurbishment works weren't carried out due to cuts in funding.

In 2001, the running of the Sun Centre was handed over to arms-length trust, Clwyd Leisure who later came under fire for its “ineffective management” and “sub-standard services.”

It was shut down suddenly in 2014 when the council pulled the plug on its £200k annual subsidy to the not-for-profit company.

Both bodies were heavily criticised for the failings that led to the demise of the attraction.

In 2016 locals waved goodbye to the much-loved water park during its demolition with the iconic slides thrown on the scrapheap.

A new water attraction SC2 (that doesn't stand for Sun Centre 2 apparently – although noone seems to know what it does stand for) was opened further up the promenade.

Meanwhile, Zip World's £2.5m Skyflyer attraction briefly loomed over the Sun Centre's grave promising unrivalled views from 400ft high when it was to open in 2022.

But the ill-fated blimp failed to get off the ground after a series of safety setbacks, with the remnants of Hurricane Lee putting an end to the giant inflatable.

Zip World say they are now "exploring other options" for the Rhyl site.

Rhyl resident, Glenn Mitchell, who watched the Sun Centre emerge and whose brother went on to be head electrician, said: “As a kid, I watched it being built.

"I couldn’t wait to get inside and see the wonders advertised.

"It was a fascinating place: the wave machine, the tropical look, it was warm, sunny full of life and fun, a haven away from the outside world come rain or shine.

“You didn’t need to go anywhere else as it was all contained in one place. Happy memories, now tinged with sadness that it’s gone.”

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