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 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?

ring

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.

Dragons Flight 03

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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Jucy: Alternate means of distributing and promoting independent films

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 8th November 2011.

Fans and supporters of Australian cinema were given a treat on Friday night as Orange hosted a gala screening of the new film, Jucy. Although promotional tours are common in the film industry, Orange is rarely on the itinerary.  Brisbane based director Louise Alston, writer Stephen Vagg and stars Francesca Gasteen and Cindy Nelson are on a road trip to promote their low budget independent feature. With successful screenings in Canberra and Wagga Wagga under their belts so far, they were keen to interact with audience members during a Q & A session following the screening.

I was particularly intrigued by this grassroots approach to film distribution and promotion that is so far removed from the marketing of your typical robots fighting robots mainstream blockbuster, and had the pleasure of chatting to the filmmakers and actors before the screening.

Director Louise Alston says she was buoyed by the success of Bob Connolly’s independent film, Mrs Carey’s Concert, which utilised a similar marketing plan, and as a filmmaker, these screenings really brought her in touch with her potential audience. “We have more love (for Jucy) than somebody selling a whole lot of films. This is our baby so we put a lot of effort in.”

Writer Stephen Vagg explained that this was the second stage in the film’s promotional life and that Jucy had already been well received on the international film festival circuit, with successful screenings at festivals in Toronto, Seattle, London, Seoul and Tel Aviv. “For non-Hollywood films, festivals are very important and they have been for us, but now we’re doing a domestic release and we really want to push it as much as we can by doing personal appearances. We don’t want it (Jucy) to sit on the shelf. We want as many people to see it as possible.”

Vagg also revealed that Wagga Wagga was chosen for a screening because it is director Alston’s home town, and that some of her aunts and uncles hail from Orange.

Described as a “womantic” comedy (think “womance” instead of “bromance”), Jucy is loosely based on the lives of stars Gasteen and Nelson, best friends in real life and both stalwarts of the Brisbane theatre scene. Jackie (Nelson) and Lucy (Gasteen) are best friends, collectively known as Jucy, who do everything together, including amateur theatre. As outsiders, their attempts to fit into the cool crowd by becoming more mainstream create unforeseen pressures which may tear their friendship apart.

The cinematic success of Red Dog this year proves that there is a market for Australian fare that doesn’t involve horror, crime or depressing drug stories. It was great to see posters for a low budget home grown flick like Jucy sitting alongside promotional standees for box office behemoths such as Real Steel and The Smurfs.

The nature of cinema in general does not really allow for a personal connection between the filmmakers and the audience. I am sure that the audience on Friday enjoyed meeting the stars and creative team behind Jucy. Let’s hope this marketing approach is successful and more independent films (and filmmakers) can come to Orange.

Scratch Me Unhappy

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 26th July 2011.

Last week, NSW Lotteries released a new instant scratchie with a top prize of one million dollars, surpassing the previous maximum prize of $250,000. With a simple and stylish black design, these new cards have a buy-in price of $15. Wow. Imagine spending fifteen bucks and winning a million. What are the odds?

Well, that’s precisely my question. As of today, the NSW Lotteries website does not have any information about this new scratchie, but if the odds are similar to the $250,000 game, then it would be 1:500000. Now that give you more of a chance of winning the major prize than Lotto, but that’s not exactly saying much. Statistically, there’s not a great deal of difference in the chances of winning a major prize in Lotto between someone with a ticket and someone without a ticket.

Despite knowing all of this, I still enjoy buying a scratchie every now and then. Because I get to scratch and reveal the lucky numbers, cards, symbols or whatever, I feel that I have a little control over my own destiny. Of course, that is far from the truth. In fact, my chances of winning the major prize may already be zero before I bought the scratchie.

Let me explain. Scratchies are kind of like a normal lottery in reverse. Instead of selling all of the tickets and then drawing the winners, the prizes are allocated to tickets at the time of printing and then sold one by one. So if the very first scratchie sold of that particular promotion is the one with the major prize, then everyone who buys a gamecard after that has no chance of winning the big one. Wouldn’t you like to know that the major prize is still on offer before you plonk your hard earned $15 on the counter?

To be fair, the NSW Lotteries website does have a page that lists the major winners on scratchies but it is not predominantly displayed and doesn’t really give any indication of what prizes for each scratchie game are left to win.

The extended gameplay scratchies amuse me. They are usually the more expensive ones and involve a slightly greater complexity pattern of scratching, if that is actually possible. They are also quite often based on bingo, crossword puzzles or a licensed board game such as Monopoly, Scrabble or Twister.

The interesting thing about these cards is that the game itself is completely irrelevant. There is no game. You’re either a winner or more likely, a loser. You might dutifully follow the Monopoly card instructions and scratch your way around the board as instructed but the result is predetermined. You’ll only collect $200 as you pass go if the card was printed that way. Extended play cards really are the scenic route of scratchies.

For some reason, I am attracted to scratchies that are tied-in with movies. Gambling is so much more fun when the X-Men, Spider-man and Indiana Jones are involved, although I’m not quite sure what the friendly lottery folks are trying to achieve. Do they want more movie buffs to buy scratchies or more gamblers to go to the movies?

Lotteries have been labelled a tax on the stupid. I think that’s a little extreme but I believe people should see scratchies for what they are, a fun way to spend a few minutes with a moderate chance of winning your money back, a very slight chance of winning a bigger prize and a very good chance of getting the scratchie stuff stuck under your fingernails.

Published in: on August 14, 2011 at 08:58  Leave a Comment  
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