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?

Advertisements
Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:03  Leave a Comment  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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.

joust

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.

dragon_flight_sunway1

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)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

The Wonderland Years: Bounty’s Revenge

This column was originally published in The Central Western Daily on Tuesday 18th January 2014.

Bounty’s Revenge, known to Australia’s Wonderland staff as “360”, was a looping starship ride with a pirate ship shell. One of the original attractions when the park opened in 1985, it seated fifty passengers at the time, swinging backwards and forwards until it eventually went right over the top to a height of twenty four metres. It was also one of my favourite rides to work on because it required 3 staff. With the ride queue really close to the operator’s booth, plus the extra colleagues, it was great fun to operate if you liked to socialise and interact with the crowd, which I certainly did.

Microphone in hand, I’d give my safety spiel every ride cycle and then begin my banter with the riders. One of my favourite things to do was tell the passengers that they would receive a free set of steak knives if they kept their hands up throughout the ride. Of course, I had absolutely no control over the ship whatsoever. Besides the lap bar controls, the start button and the big red emergency stop button, the ride operator had no influence on how long the ride went and how many revolutions it made.

I was also certain that no-one believed a word I said, until I was called in to see my manager. Unable to control his laughter, he proceeded to give me a “serious” warning. It seems that a rider indeed visited the guest relations office to claim his complimentary steak knives and after a fairly lengthy period of confusion on behalf of the poor employee behind the counter, became quite irate when told he had been duped. I didn’t play that prank again, much.

The problem with pirate ships that go upside down is that riders tend not to listen to warnings about loose objects. Fortunately, in the early nineties, no one really had mobile phones, so the staff would take shelter under canopies or umbrellas from frequent showers of coins, cigarette lighters, sunglasses and once, an SLR camera. At best, the object landed in the ride pit and would remain there until I called a maintenance crew member to fetch it, but usually it would stay where it landed for weeks until a scheduled clean out. At worst, it landed in the lake and was never seen again.

Whoever got the job to drain the lake in 2004 when the park closed for good would have made a fortune in coins. My friend and former colleague Craig claims to have found $80 in change when rostered to clean the outskirts of the ride.

Occasionally we would have a rider who was a little too, well, rotund for the seatbelt. The solution was pretty simple: seatbelt extensions. The tricky thing for staff was to retrieve these extensions when the ride cycle finished. Being almost identical to the standard seatbelts, they were pretty hard to find. Of course, when they plummeted from a height of  twenty four metres and slammed into the platform, they were much easier to locate.

The worst thing about Bounty’s Revenge was cleaning up after a guest was sick on the ride. Affectionately known as a “protein spill”, it was not possible to toss kitty litter over the mess and call park services to sweep it up. Instead, we’d throw soapy water over the seats, tell all of the guests to move under the queue canopy and run the ride. Not many attractions have their own spin dry cycle!

Bounty’s Revenge is now known as Pirate’s Revenge and is located at the Sunway Lagoon theme park in Kuala Lumpur.

Published in: Uncategorized on February 18, 2014 at 23:04  Comments (1)  
Tags: , , , , , , ,

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.

entrance25_

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.

TakeThat276

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.

Sydney’s long lost theme parks: part deux

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 5th April 2011.

Last week I revisited some of the much missed theme parks from Sydney’s past. They now sit abandoned and unloved, occasionally being revived as a filming location or a Samsung factory. I also revealed that I formally worked at Australia’s Wonderland as a roller coaster operator and had nothing to do with its demise on Anzac Day 2004. Well there are still more long gone parks to dredge up and I also worked at two of them. And no, I wasn’t responsible for their untimely passing either.

Magic Kingdom (mid 1970’s – early 1990’s) was located in Lansvale. To get there, you need to drive through an industrial and residential zone. Not so magic, eh? Some of the rides were sourced from Luna Park after it temporarily closed after the Ghost Train disaster in 1979. My favourite was the centrifuge ride that pinned you to the wall of the circular wall as it spun. I met a girl there in the eighties on the water slides. Her name was Candy and she was my girlfriend for at least an hour. I wonder where she is now. All that remains of Magic Kingdom are a giant shoe, the big slide and my broken twelve year old heart.

The Mount Druitt Waterworks (1981 – late 1980’s) is now sadly a derelict Garden Centre. It was the centre of an urban legend during its heyday. The legend goes that some naughty westies were placing razor blades in the joins on the waterslides. The flaw in the story is that the joins in the slides run perpendicular to the direction of the water so it would have been pretty difficult to lacerate anyone. A smooth bottom shave was more likely. I remember putting Freedom by Wham! on the jukebox there four times in a row. I’m surprised I wasn’t kicked out for that.

There is still a Waterworks in operation in Manly. It was featured in the 1983 movie BMX Bandits where a stuntman in a red curly wig pretending to be Nicole Kidman escaped from the bad guys by riding the slide, bike and all.

El Caballo Blanco (early 1980’s to early 1990’s) means boring horse shows in Spanish. Located in Catherine Field, the park featured Andalusian dancing stallions, a miniature railroad, water slides and a horsedrawn Omnibus. I went there on a primary school excursion and fell off a wooden fence. I still have the scar on my chin.

So now for my final two. I have skipped Australian Pioneer Village (1970-1991) at Wilberforce and the Smokey Dawson Range (early 1970’s – mid 1980’s) at Ingleside. Both were similar to Old Sydney Town in terms of theme and neither featured any rides. The Fox Studios Backlot park (1998 – 2001) was a blink and you’ll miss it attraction so I won’t give it anymore than this mention.

Intencity (1995 – present) were originally planned as mini theme parks to be located within Westfield stores. I worked briefly at the Parramatta location which featured video games and several high tech rides, including a fantastic centrifuge style attraction which spun cabins around to create real G forces on riders as they played a video game inside. Unfortunately, the rides didn’t last long as the owners discovered that people surprisingly only wanted to shop in shopping malls. Intencity still exist in several malls but as video game arcades only.

Sega World Sydney (1997 – 2000) was located in a purpose built blue cone topped building in Darling Harbour. Planned to be a major attraction for the Sydney Olympics, the park featured an indoor roller coaster (Rail Chase), a shoot ‘em up ghost train (Ghost Hunters) and a 3D motion simulator (Aqua Nova). I worked there as a manager in the Rides Department during my final two years of university. I loved it. Who wouldn’t want to polish the dodgem tanks and clean roller coaster brakes every night after close? I also got to play Sonic the Hedgehog at all of the home games for the Sydney Kings at the nearly Entertainment Centre. I miss my Sonic costume but I certainly don’t miss how it smelled.

Unfortunately, locals and tourists did not want to visit an expensive indoor theme park when they could explore the outdoor attractions of Sydney instead and following several overhauls of the ticketing and pricing structures of the park, poor old Sonic was put out of his misery. About a year before it closed, I was offered a full time job there. Luckily I turned it down.

Sydney has a rich and varied history of amusement parks. It is sad that the population of Sydney is not really big enough to sustain more than just Luna Park. I suppose also that the majority of tourists coming here are from countries with bigger and better theme parks. For many people my age and older who grew up around Sydney, these theme parks were an important part of our young years and even though they generally weren’t much chop, as a kid, they were as good as Disneyland.

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

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.