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: 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.

Sydney’s long lost theme parks: part deux

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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

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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.