Plagued by everything from mysterious fires and escaped lions and bears, to the more prosaic noise complaints, bankruptcies, and rise of public liability litigation—Sydney’s amusement parks have had rough ride. Now, with Wet'n'Wild Sydney set to open in December and a serious proposal for the re-launch of the much loved Wonderland Sydney in the works, it’s clear that many are hoping Sydney’s fun park fortunes are due for a change.
But because history strongly suggests otherwise, and also because there are few mental images in this world more compelling than a deserted fun park, here’s a brief rundown on the troubled past of big ticket Sydney attractions.
The Bondi Aquarium and Wonderland City
Perhaps it all started with the ill-fated Royal Aquarium and Pleasure Grounds, often referred to as the Bondi Aquarium, which became one of Australia’s first amusement parks when it opened in Tamarama in 1887. The most popular draw card was the switchback railway, a roller coaster that stretched from one end of the beach to the other. A fire destroyed parts of the park just four years after it opened and, while it was quickly rebuilt, its problems were far from over.
In 1906, theatrical entrepreneur William Anderson took over the lease and transformed the park into Wonderland City with new attractions including Australia’s first open-air ice-skating rink, an elephant called Alice and the Airem Scarem, an airship that ran from headland to headland over the bay.
The park drew impressive nightly crowds of around 2,000 people in its heyday but attendance began to falter amid growing local resentment about Anderson’s attempts to restrict access to the beach plus rumours of animal cruelty and close calls with the Airem Scarem. Anderson was said to have lost around £15,000 by the time Wonderland City shut down in 1911.
Luna Park became Sydney’s next major amusement park when it opened in 1935 and, although it remains open today, it has perhaps experienced more difficulties than any other. Most infamous was the ghost train fire, which tragically claimed the lives of six children and one adult in 1979. The fire has been blamed on electrical faults and arson but an initial inquiry failed to determine the cause of the fire and no new findings were made when the case was reopened in 1987.
Luna Park was shut down after the fire and remained closed until 1982, when new owners reopened it with a selection of new rides. Four years later, the park was closed again, this time “for renovations”, and another new leaseholder made an application to redevelop the site as “an adult entertainment centre with high rise towers”. After intense public lobbying to save Luna Park, it was refurbished again and reopened in 1995.
This time it only lasted 13 months before being shut down again, now because of noise complaints from nearby residents. The offending ride was the popular Big Dipper, which was removed as part of yet another major refurbishment before Luna Park’s most recent reopening in 2004.
The Magic Kingdom
When Luna Park was closed down after the ghost train tragedy, some of the rides were relocated to the Magic Kingdom Amusement Park, which opened in the suburb of Lansvale in the 1970s. Featuring more than 15 rides plus two water slides and a giant dry slide, Magic Kingdom was popular enough to survive until the early 1990s when—perhaps because it was built on a flood-prone swamp—attendance began to dwindle.
Abandoned now for more than 20 years but still containing the rusty giant dry slide and a big shoe, among a few other crumbling bits and pieces, the site has predictably become a graffiti covered haunt for local teenagers. It’s also the subject of numerous urban legends including an obligatory one about ghosts that haunt the site after dark.
African Lion Safari
The African Lion Safari, opened by circus proprietor Stafford Bullen in 1968, was one of several other parks that operated in Sydney’s outer suburbs around the same period as the Magic Kingdom. Attendance remained strong for more than 20 years when, faced with legislative changes that required a multimillion-dollar upgrade of the park’s facilities, it was eventually closed in 1991.
The closure came soon after the 1990 escape of a grizzly bear that was tracked by African Lion Safari staff and police for four hours before being shot dead amid fears that it could not be recaptured. Then, in 1995, three lions that had remained on the park after it was closed to visitors escaped and terrorised nearby residents. Two of the lions were recaptured and one was shot dead after it mauled and killed a neighbour’s dog.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that many of Sydney’s smaller amusement parks closed down in the years following the 1985 opening of Australia’s Wonderland. The park, which later became known as Wonderland Sydney, was at the time the largest amusement park in the Southern Hemisphere and it operated without any major deaths, fires, or maulings, until the Malaysian-based owner, Sunway City Berhad—which had purchased the park in 1997—shut it down in 2004, claiming it was no longer "commercially viable" due to falling patronage.
In explaining Wonderland’s dwindling attendance, Sunway cited everything from September 11 and the Bali bombings to the collapse of several of other major Australian institutions and the SARS and the Asian bird flu outbreaks. But Sunway was criticised by some for only acquiring one new attraction, the Skyrider, during its ownership of the park and, after the 58-hectacre property was sold for $52.5 million and transformed into an industrial estate, there was speculation that the company had always simply intended to cash in on the site’s land value.
Honourable mention – The Orphan Rocker
While the Orphan Rocker is not a theme park—or in Sydney—Australia’s first ever locally designed and built roller coaster deserves a mention for the fact that it’s remained closed to the public since its construction in 1982. Rumours of the ride returning from test runs with sandbag dummies missing have been denied by its owners, who say the ride is completely safe and that its opening has just been delayed for more than three decades because “other projects simply have more priority”.
Despite its sudden demise, Wonderland Sydney remains one of Australia’s most fondly remembered parks and property developer Ammar Khan recently announced plans to open a brand new amusement park called “Sydney’s Wonderland”. Khan, who has described his mission to revive the amusement park as a “dominating obsession”, says he has been seeking financial backing for the relaunch since 2009.
Citing a favourable economic backdrop, including the end of the global financial crises and lower interest rates, along with population growth and Sydney’s “severe lack of entertainment precincts”, Khan says now is an ideal time for a major new amusement park. However, in an open letter posted online, Khan acknowledges that a standalone amusement park would not work in Sydney.
“I concluded that if ever Wonderland or any theme park could come back, it had to be a very commercially viable proposition with multiple returns from places other than the park itself - and not from expensive tickets,” he writes. “The proposed ‘Western Sydney Theme Park’ is in fact a whole 'precinct' that will have a series of tourism and recreational facilities.”
Khan estimates that Sydney’s Wonderland will open three years after he has found sufficient funding and a suitable location for the $150 million project.
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