The Wonderland Years: Odd Jobs

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 25th March 2014.

Imagine arriving for a morning shift as a ride operator at Australia’s Wonderland to be given the task of searching for a missing crocodile. Named Maniac, the giant saltwater reptile had absconded from the wildlife park during the week and was somewhere in the park. To this day, I have no idea how he escaped. I guess someone slipped in a file baked into a birthday cake.

Moments later, I appeared at my assigned ride and dutifully began to search for my friend. Was he in the control booth? No. How about in the bins? No. Is he on the ride? Nope. How about the bushes at the side of the ride? For $7 an hour, there’s no way I’m going over there.

The park opened a little later with no sign of Maniac. He was found a few days later having a jolly good holiday in the lake by Bounty’s Revenge. Good thing the pirate stunt show finished up the week before.

Typing of the lake, I was once asked to clean the lake stage in preparation for a show. At the time, the park only operated on weekends and school holidays. During the week, the park was the domain of rats, cockroaches, crocodiles (sometimes) and lots and lots of ducks. And where did these birds live? On the lake stage of course.

Armed with just a broom and bucket, I can’t say that I removed much of the copious amounts of bird droppings from the stage. I guess I just spread it more evenly. Late apologies to the dance school performing that day. I hope your costumes were washable.

On the subject of washing clothes, imagine what happens to a garbage bin full of half consumed cups of soft drink over five days in the hot sun. The answer my friends is bin juice. Add to this equation the thinest plastic bin liners ever manufactured and what do you get? Stinky wet trousers and shoes every other shift when the bin liner disintegrates just when you are about to throw it into the dumpster.

For some extra money, my mate Craig and I picked up some shifts coming in during the week when the park was closed to dig dinosaur trenches. Over a couple of the hottest summer days ever, we attempted to smash our way through the hard ground around the Snowy River Rampage with picks and shovels in order to hide the cables for the animatronic dinosaurs that were being installed as a special attraction.

To this day, I can still hear the looping soundtrack of dinosaur noises that played for every minute of those shifts. Up close, the dinosaurs were, well, hydraulics and latex. Not particularly frightening. For real thrills, they should have let Maniac take his vacation there instead.

Despite the “interesting” jobs, terrible pay and the harsh conditions, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. It’s such a shame that Australia’s Wonderland is no more. Where will we now train the dinosaur trench diggers, bin juice connoisseurs, crocodile wranglers and duck poo cleaners of the future?

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:03  Leave a Comment  
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The Wonderland Years: Wizard’s Fury

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 18th March 2014.

The final ride under my area’s responsibility at Australia’s Wonderland was the Wizard’s Fury, manufactured as the Bayern Kurve in 1973. A toboggan style train, riders would be sent round and round a circular track at 50km/h, passing through a house, presumably the aforementioned wizard’s crib. Part of the original 1985 ride lineup, it was also inherited from Kings Island Amusement Park, Ohio, owned at the time by Wonderland’s parent company, Premier Parks.

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The neat thing about the attraction was that the sixteen toboggans tipped towards the centre during the cycle, giving riders the false perception that they’d be decapitated by the entranceway of the house. Fun, huh?

As an operator, the biggest challenge operating Wizard’s Fury was the noise. It was a really loud ride. Being trapped for hours at a time behind the operating console which was located inside a three sided glass windowed booth usually resulted in headaches and some degree of hearing loss. Ear muff style hearing protection was supplied but I rarely wore them because I couldn’t hear the phone ringing, and it would mess up my hair. Hey,I was a single, reasonable looking guy wearing a disgusting green and white striped uniform for $7 an hour. I needed all the help I could get.

Come to think of it, I must have industrial hearing loss. I am quite partial to the music of Phil Collins. I better call my lawyer.

Despite the attempts to theme the ride as a magical journey through a mysterious dwelling, I always thought that the experience was diminished somewhat by the fact that the house doubled as the ride maintenance workshop. Instead of vials of dry ice bubbling in coloured water and the like, riders instead enjoyed the feast for the eyes which was oily rags, containers of degreaser and spare ride tyres. Mmm, magical.

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Wizard’s Fury was not rainproof either. As soon as the park received a light sprinkling, the slippery ride motor wheels would squeal as they attempted in vain to push the train up the track. Oh dear, time to empty the queue line and call in a 61 Delta, Wonderland code for a ride down due to inclement weather, and my code for kicking back in the booth with my feet up.

Closing the ride at the end of the day was a little tricky too. We were under instruction to finish on time. If the park closed at 5pm, we were required to cut off the queue so that the final riders would go through at 5pm. Unfortunately, with the queue behind me, it was pretty hard to know if crafty guests had snuck onto the line, usually resulting in a late finish with no overtime. Wonderful Wonderland indeed.

Wizard’s Fury was closed in 2002 when the track and carriages succumbed to rust (I did say that the ride wasn’t rainproof). The wizard’s mechanical workshop didn’t go to waste. The site and theming were utilised as the new home for the Galleons Graveyard attraction which was relocated from the defunct Hanna Barbera Land.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 22:59  Leave a Comment  
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The Wonderland Years: The Zodiac

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 11th March 2014.

The Zodiac was not originally part of my area of the rides department at Australia’s Wonderland. Sometime during my employment we inherited this twin arm gondola attraction, originally manufactured in 1974 under the name Star Wheel, from Hanna Barbera Land. Wonderland itself inherited The Zodiac. It was transplanted from its original home at Kings Island Amusement Park in Ohio in 1989. At the time, both Wonderland and Kings Island had the same parent company, Premier Parks. How such a huge ride is transported from one side of the planet to the other is beyond my comprehension. I presume it wasn’t in the overhead compartment.

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Whilst not the most exciting of attractions, it certainly produced its fair share of sick guests, mostly because riders had the ability to spin their gondola by turning a wheel located in the centre. Guests would emerge from their 5 minute captivity in the oversized birdcages and stumble towards the nearest garbage bin or garden bed. Most didn’t make it. As always, a little kitty litter would do the trick, followed by a phone call for some poor sucker from the park services department to attend with a dustpan and brush.

The legend amongst ride staff was that there was once a competition to see how long operators and loaders could hang onto the base legs of the gondolas as they ascended before they had to let go and fall to the ground below, landing safely I assume. Now as a proponent of workplace health and safety, I in no way condone this activity, however, I did try it, just the once. I got maybe 2 metres off the ground before I had to drop away, way too concerned for my ability to walk (and possibly talk) in the future. I hate heights and the idea of falling almost as much as I hate the idea of falling from a height onto concrete. And certainly not for $7 an hour.

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Operating The Zodiac was a boring affair. Stuck up in a raised booth, you had little contact with anyone. Wait for the loader to lock the twelve gondola doors and press two buttons when you received the thumbs up. My boredom was only broken by the occasional visit from my girlfriend at the time (she worked as a character escort) and one of my best mates, Anthony, in the disguise of Fred Flintstone or Captain Caveman. Normally silent when interacting with customers, it was always amusing for me to hear Fred complain about the heat, swear about the smell in the costume, give me a rude gesture and be on his way. Yabba-dabba-don’t-do-that-in-front-of-paying-guests.

From the booth, you had a bird’s eye view of the backstage area of the Hanna Barbera Stage. My favourite moment was catching Play School’s John Hamlin having a cheeky fag whilst only metres away sat hundreds of toddlers awaiting Big Ted and company.

The Zodiac closed with the park in 2004 and is now presumably rusting away in a scrap yard somewhere.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 22:56  Comments (1)  
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The Wonderland Years: The Jousting Ring

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 4th March 2014.

The Jousting Ring was located on a rise in International Village, overlooking the lake. Otherwise known as the dodgem cars, this was an extremely popular attraction that allowed everybody to have go at driving with no consequences, experience or not. As a ride operator or loader at Australia’s Wonderland, the major problem with this attraction is that it allowed everybody to have a go at driving with no consequences, experience or not.

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You see, our dodgem cars were a little difficult to drive for the uninitiated. Turn the steering wheel too far in one direction and it would lock, sending the car into reverse. An hour or two rotation through the ride as an operator or loader would be mostly spent yelling at clueless riders stuck against walls, barriers or each other. Occasionally, guests would become so frustrated that they’d get up and attempt to leave mid-cycle which would result in an emergency stop.

Management also required that the car safety harnesses be worn in a particular way. Simply a loop of seatbelt material, all you needed to do was place it over your head and one shoulder, just like a normal seatbelt. Everyone can do that, right? Nope. As a loader, I would’ve walked kilometres every shift checking each and every seatbelt before the ride started. My favourite incorrect seatbelt configurations were around the waist, around the neck, around your child’s neck and both belts worn backpack style.

At the rear of the ride was the staff area for my section of the park. Here we would congregate at the beginning of the day to collect our ride folders and keys. One day I found a pile of blank postage paid customer response forms, completed them with a bunch of ridiculous suggestions and sent them in. I was amused to pick up a staff newsletter sometime later with my ideas listed as genuine customer feedback.

Why not change the direction of the dodgem cars to clockwise to provide variety for returning customers?

Why isn’t there a yum cha restaurant located in the park?

Have you considered a large dome over the park so it can stay open in the rain?

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One of my fondest memories of working on the Jousting Ring was when the maintenance engineers would turn up the voltage on the ride after the park closed. Now super-charged, the cars would fly around the track. With just a little bit of effort, it was possible to drift around the corners. Great fun and a fantastic way to unwind after a stressful day dealing with seatbelt challenged guests and their offspring.

The dodgem cars were sold off to an amusement hire company when the park closed in 2004, and the Jousting Ring was demolished the following year.

The Wonderland Years: Dragon’s Flight

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 25 February 2014.

Dragon’s Flight, a wave swinger ride known commonly as the flying chairs, was my least favourite attractions to operate at Australia’s Wonderland. One of the original rides when the park opened in 1985, it was located in the Medieval Faire zone, later renamed International Village.

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Operating the ride was a challenge. Not only did you have to count forty eight riders at a time through the turnstile (we were supplied sporadically with cheap clicker counters which would literally fall apart in your hand after overuse), but you also had to control the ride brakes. There was a hydraulic foot pedal in the ride operator’s booth. As the chairs descended at the end of the cycle, I’d have to slow the ride so that the passengers would touch down exactly as the rotation stopped. I rarely got it right.

If I braked too early, the chairs would crash into each other in a uncontrolled seething mass of chains and legs. If I braked too late, the riders received the best foot exfoliation ever.

I was forever kicking guests off Dragon’s Flight. Mischievous riders would spin their chairs before the ride started and twist up the chains. They’d hang onto each other, or kick the chairs in front. I’d usually give one friendly warning on the mic, and if I was ignored, I’d cancel the ride cycle and bring everyone back down. I’d then kindly request that the idiots, er, naughty riders depart the attraction. Occasionally I’d cop some abuse from the evicted, but a quick call to security would usually result in the unruly guests escorted to the special attraction called the park exit.

Once, I answered a call from my manager informing me that a bomb threat had been received and asking that I casually check the bins and ride surrounds without the guests knowing. You can imagine exactly how obvious it was to the two hundred guests in the queue line when I brought the ride down, asked the passengers to depart, left the operator’s booth and proceeded to stick my head in every bin and shrub around the ride. One women asked me if I was looking for a bomb. I denied it, making up some pathetic explanation about a routine check for missing animals from the Wildlife Park.

Speaking of animals, every now and then in summer, I’d hear a shriek from the queue line and turn around to see people running in all directions. In the heat of the day, some of Wonderland’s residents snakes would come out of their holes to sunbake on the warm paths.

Dragon’s Flight was notorious for making riders sick. Known as a protein spill, there was a bucket of kitty litter ever present in the booth for a quick cleanup when a rider’s lunch came up for air, usually at least hourly on a hot day.

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My not-so-beloved flying chairs ride is now located at Sunway Park in Malaysia.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 22:44  Comments (1)  
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The Wonderland Years: The Celebrities of Australia’s Wonderland

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 4th February 2014.

I’d like to think that everyone has some sort of life changing experience as an adolescent that maps out your future and the way you see the world as an adult. It could be your first crush or kiss. Your first job. Your first car even. Your first car accident. For the kid in my favourite film of last year, The Way Way Back, it was getting a summer job at a water park. For Elliot, it was meeting E.T. For Justin Bieber, well, that is yet to be determined.

In my case, it was Australia’s Wonderland.  No, it wasn’t just going there, although I at least visited once a year during the late eighties (I had a Wonderpass long before I had a learners permit). I worked there as a ride operator. The majority of my lifelong friends came from that time and place. I met my first serious girlfriend there. My band, which coincidentally is celebrating twenty years together this year, played our first gig at a christmas party in the park. I have friends that are happily married with children who met working there.

With a few drinks in the system (water of course), it doesn’t take very long for my circle of friends to start retelling old stories from AWL. And now I’m telling them to you. Let’s start with celebrities…

One school holidays the park was graced with a few weeks of performances from The Flying Fruit Fly Circus, a youth circus from Albury-Wadonga. For some reason, let’s call it stupidity, I took to reminding the guests on the ride microphone to check out “The Flying Fruit Bat Circus” every time I had to do my safety spiel. That would be every 3 minutes or so. Of course, yours truly completely forgot that being a youth circus, the performers would be enjoying the park between shows. Let’s just say that having a group of twenty circus kids in the ride queue hear their ever popular show be besmirched is not going to generate a positive response. So my apologies, twenty years late, to The Flying Fruit Bat Circus.

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Remember Take That? Featuring a young Robbie Williams, the UK boyband was in the park to promote their latest single. After a night time performance in the Sundown Theatre, I was asked by my manager to stay back when the park closed as the band had requested to ride The Demon roller coaster and Bounty’s Revenge, the pirate ship that went the full 360 degrees. My experience with Take That was brief but they seemed to be having a ball. I got a handshake from each of them at the end, and had the “honour” of minding their hotel room keys during the ride cycle. If I had a time machine, I would go back and get their autographs and warn Robbie against recording his terrible swing albums.

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My band had debuted in 1994 with a staff concert at The Beach, the waterslide area of the park. One of our dubious covers was a version of Lee Kernaghan’s McBeefsteak jingle, which was on television at the time promoting the latest McDonalds atrocity. Shortly after, the park manager arranged for my band to meet Mr Kernaghan backstage at a Wonderland gig. He mistook us for real fans and asked us what was our favourite song from his repertoire. My response, “Ah, I really like all your stuff, especially the McBeefsteak song.”

Another night I was drafted to do some crowd control for a night event, most likely a dance party featuring a pop act with a name that consists of 3 letters (KLF, OMC, CDB). These events were traditionally hosted by a B grade celebrity, usually from Home and Away. Sure enough, I ran into an “actress” whom I had worked alongside for a year on a TV show. We had an awkward reunion. She was clearly embarrassed to be seen talking to a theme park employee in a green and white striped shirt. We swapped numbers. She never called me. I’m proud to say that my career as a roller coaster operator lasted longer than her fame.