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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Not-So-Wonderland: Sydney’s long lost theme parks

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This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 29th March 2011.

Growing up in the eighties, there seemed to be a plethora of “amusement parks” in and around Sydney, which in my head at the time, were the most exciting places ever. Nowadays, only Luna Park survives, albeit without a Big Dipper. Way back then, Sydneysiders were certainly spoilt with choice, although it could be argued, not quality.

If watching actors being placed in stockades and flogged was your idea of fun, Old Sydney Town (1975-2003) was the place for you. Without any rides, the park was a living outdoor museum where visitors explored the “authentic” building recreations which were populated with actors portraying the townsfolk of Sydney circa 1803. Despite an impressive recreation of Sydney Harbour, it was difficult to get over the bad acting, Coke machines, payphones and the fact that Old Sydney Town was actually just outside Gosford. The park is now available for hire as a location for film and television.

Some of the best days of my life so far were spent as a roller coaster operator at Australia’s Wonderland (1985-2004). The biggest park in the Southern Hemisphere at the time, Wonderland was home to the Bush Beast and Demon roller coasters, Space Probe 7, The Beach water park and Hanna-Barbera Land. My favourite memories of working there are helping to search for a crocodile that escaped from the wildlife park next door (we found it in the lake next to the Pirate Ship) and keeping my roller coaster open late so Robbie Williams and Take That could have a ride after their concert in the park earlier that evening. I should have grabbed an autograph. Sadly, Wonderland is now the Samsung warehouse beside the M4 and every night I watch my LCD TV, I think fondly of my days pressing buttons, checking seatbelts and cleaning up spew.

The Bullen family ran circuses in the seventies and eighties. They also operated three theme parks in what was then the outskirts of the outskirts of Sydney. Paradise Gardens (late sixties-mid eighties?) featured a boat ride which allowed visitors to see the many concrete dinosaurs dotted around a lake. There was also a black tubular water slide that dumped riders into a muddy dam. Sadly, Paradise Gardens is now Riverside Oaks golf course at Cattai. I’m unsure if the dinosaurs are counted as a water hazard.

Bullen’s Animal World (1969-1985) was located in Wallacia and its main attractions were a circus and a drive through animal petting zoo. That’s right, you drove around with your windows down feeding the wildlife. Of course, the hungry animals weren’t scared of people or cars and the screams of joy from children was often replaced with screams of terror as donkeys stuck their heads through windows snapping at anything resembling a carrot and slobbering everywhere.

African Lion Safari (1968-1991) also adopted the same drive through approach, however, this time with the windows very much up. Why go to Kenya when you can see the most bored giant cats in the Southern Hemisphere? As a child I remember going there with my parents and one of the lions bit off the bumper bar of our Valiant. When we sent a Ranger to retrieve it, he brought back a dozen, all stolen that day. The park also provided the local community with a disposal service for their unwanted livestock. Apparently classified ads for the free removal of sick or injured cows and horses ran frequently in the local papers.

The lyrics to the theme tune went, “It’s the African Lion Safari, it’s scary but nobody cares, cha cha cha.” I much prefer my lyrics, “It’s the African Lion Safari, it’s closed, that’s why nobody goes, cha cha cha.”

I’m really enjoying my little stroll, or drive through with the windows up, of abandoned theme park lane so for the first time ever, I’m going to continue with more defunct attractions next time, including another two that I worked for that have also closed. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t my fault.