Every year, the crowds return to Blackpool. Laura Vinha visits the resort's amusement park to find out what the drawcard is.

Everyone who hears his sneering cackle over the shouts, shrieks of laughter and whirring machinery never forgets him, and he lures them back again and again.

His cheeks gleam as he rocks back and forth. He rolls his huge eyes and seems to mock the sweaty throng of people milling around him.

Clad in bright sequins and creamy ruffles as he sits on a glass-encased pedestal, the life-sized automated clown is the epitome of everything that lies beyond the plastic, trinket-filled visitors' shop behind him.

He is the "Laughing Man" who, for nearly 70 years, has frightened and amazed the millions of children who have pushed their way through the gates that lead to Blackpool's Pleasure Beach amusement park, Britain's number one tourist attraction, according to the local council.


The grandparents who now push prams from one spinning ride to the next and wipe chocolate icecream off flushed young cheeks remember the laughing clown from their younger days.

Older children dash for the candy floss stand and plead to be allowed a vegetable-dye tattoo. They eat fish and chips by a fountain that bubbles with blood-red water as Europe's fastest roller-coaster thunders along, 72m above their heads.

They have seen the green turtle statues hundreds of times, but want to see them again. They have won a soft toy from the fishing game every summer since they were 4, but each time a school holiday rolls along, they insist on coming back. Just as their parents did, and their parents before them.

Although 96 per cent of the park's reported 7 million annual visitors are Britons, some adventurous foreigners are lured down the arcade and knick-knack filled seaside promenade that leads to Pleasure Beach.

Most who come to this resort in northwest England prefer to try more than one attraction, and the Pleasure Beach claims to have more rides than any other amusement park.

"I like all the fast and bumpy rides," says freckle-faced Jamie, 11, who has taken time off school to spend two weeks in Blackpool with his parents and two sisters.

"Some of them might give you a tingle in your tummy," he says, but he insists the wild rides are not scary. He has yet to try the park's most popular attraction, the Pepsi Max Big One. Its speed and height is topped only by a roller-coaster in Japan, Pleasure Beach says.

The Big One's cars climb about 20 storeys before shooting down at a speed of 137km/h. All that passengers see as they come rushing down at a 65 degree angle are the crashing waves of the coast below.

Holidays in Blackpool are a tradition dating back to the late-1700s, when Britons believed in the healthy properties of coastal breezes. Visitors bathed in the sea and drank the salty water.

The borough of some 145,000 people is now bombarded by 17 million visitors a year, tourist leaflets say. The sea air and donkey rides along the beach continue to be a major attraction, but without the copious amounts of kitsch that fill the main promenade, Blackpool would lose half its tacky charm, as would the Pleasure Beach.

The Laughing Man at the park entrance is a warning: once the visitor steps into this haven of flashing neon lights, glittery souvenir shops jam-packed with sweets and speakers blaring with boy-band pop music, everyone is in on the game.

Pleasure Beach managing director Geoffrey Thompson's office overlooks the park that was founded by his father's father-in-law in 1896.

Thompson, who took over as head of the park in 1976, twirls a silver top on his boardroom table. One key reason visitor numbers to Pleasure Beach have risen while tourism to British seaside resorts as a whole has fallen since the introduction of cheap package tours to Spain in the 1960s is his dedication to creating exciting rides. The old-timers who come to walk around and romanticise about family holidays back in the days when Pleasure Beach was set on soft white sand are not happy with the changes.

"It's totally different now," said Derek Miles, who first visited the park in 1945. "It was a little less-sophisticated, smaller, more family oriented, less brash."

Miles remembers the Fun House, which burned down in 1991 and almost took the Laughing Man with it, as the best attraction.

"It was a large palace where they put all the kids to get them out of the way. There were great big slides, funny mirrors. And it was nearly free for everyone."

Many parents say the park has become too commercial. Many of the big rides are sponsored by large beverage and confectionery companies.

Even those who complain of higher ticket and food prices agree Pleasure Beach is a national institution. People who come here have always come and would never imagine abandoning it for anything else.

Seven-year-old Jemima, in the park with her mother, grandmother and sister, wants to go nowhere else for her school holidays. Although she wrinkles her nose and swings her legs in embarrassment when asked, she reckons she will bring her children here as well.

Further information: See blackpooltourism.com.