Rolling into this decade wasn’t necessarily the best time for our theme parks in Australia. The dollar was approaching an all time high thanks to the mining boom, which was great for folks like myself buying stuff on eBay, but it was forcing our overseas neighbours to visit somewhere much, much cheaper, leaving just the local, interstate tourists to look after the gap in tourism that was being faced around the country. Our theme parks responded to this almost overnight with the introduction of cheaper, and cheaper passes – a total win to the everyday visitor to the park. And it made sense too – sell a cheaper pass with the possibility of guests returning again and make more money on food and merchandise. Problem solved, right?
What ended up happening was a dog eat dog affair. A pricing war between the two big nomads of the Gold Coast (Village & Ardent) started price-gouging each other to the point where season passes where cheaper then daily passes. Not only this, both chains had already been trying to outdo each other with attractions alone for years by this point and showed no chance of stopping, despite the sudden decrease in revenue to make new attractions a reality. One park bought a waterslide, the other bought four. One put in an order for a roller-coaster, the other followed. It was a cat and mouse game that ultimately no-one won, and in the process all the parks aged quite terribly.
Let’s be clear. The amusement industry as a whole is long game. This is an important factor to consider when you’re the CEO of a large theme park dealing with shareholders. In fact, it’s alot like being prime minister in Australia in the sense that you have really two rather grim outlooks on your future – do you play the short term card, create budget cuts in the now and get a short term gain that everyone loves but eventually impacts the long term, or do you play the long game, potentially get booted out early for not delivering incredible results in the short term but leave the place with a great long term outlook? Well, if you’re anything like the current political climate, you go with the first option and cut, cut, cut. The only problem is that with the amusement industry, those cuts always come at the expense of guest satisfaction, and you can only hold your customers with so much contempt and in turn blame the lower visitor attendance on the weather for so long before the shareholders wise up to what’s really going on. The board might think you’re coolest cat to ever roll by, somehow magically slicing out operation costs and adding fat to where people thought there was no fat, but ultimately the end result is that with no true vision and no money, the flowers don’t grow, the employees don’t care, the food is at best bland and overpriced, the park looks like crap and in place of imagination of creativity you’re left with dreary rides and bitter guests who won’t return no matter how cheap the passes are. This wasn’t just an Australian affair either, it was happening right across the globe. Eisner attempted to do it with the Disney parks, Six Flags (a large international chain of parks) were well on their way to the same fate and the industry as a whole turned the idea of a fun escape into a a soul-less profit machine.
you can only hold your customers with so much contempt and in turn blame the lower visitor attendance on the weather for so long before the shareholders wise up to what’s really going on.
This isn’t to say I don’t think theme parks shouldn’t be allowed to make money. To the contrary, just like any business, I believe in the simplest of ideologies, that if you do a great job you’ll get great money for it. And I think that’s true for a lot of people, whether it’s tech, cars, food, whatever the case may be. If i’m at a theme park though, and you expect me to pay twenty bucks for a burger and fries without a drink, i’m going to walk out and drive to Maccas just on principle. But give me something innovative and premium that matches the price you’re charging and is easy to make? Then everyone’s a winner, right?
When all hope was lost, the perfect storm started to form back in Australia. Management from both sides of the war was shifted around, the commonwealth games were announced for 2018 and by sheer luck the Gold Coast was going to play host, and then finally the dollar tanked back to a pre mining boom rate. Suddenly, there was fresh ideas to create, new boats of tourists coming in and a date to do it by.
Towards the end of last year, I was walking through Dreamworld and what I had noticed really struck me. As I looked around, I noticed something that I hadn’t felt for a very, very long time. As I continued to walk, I kept noticing a myriad of lovely little details and touches, perhaps even insignificant to some but to others made all the difference. The flowers were in bloom, there was fresh paint in places I didn’t even think needed painting. Icons of the past, like the old firetruck that had been roped off and tucked away from the touch of the everyday guest had been placed back in full view. What had struck me was that for the first time in a very, very long time, there was nothing my over-analytically judgemental mind would critique or change. The park as a whole had looked the best it had for over a decade and showed no sign of holding back new ideas and incentives to make guests feel welcomed again.
And it was the same back over at Movie World, too. Driving home from Fright Nights, I was thinking about the night as a whole and initially it was tough to seperate good points from bad points because the only real negativity I had for the night wasn’t even the park’s fault, it came down to a few bogans doing what bogans do and being loud, obnoxious and briefly ruining the fun for everyone else. Removing that from the forefront, I was entertained so well that even I was surprised at points by just how good the show as a whole had become over the years. Rather talk in generalities, the most perfect example of this was the terror tour. Having expected a slightly more interactive version of the park’s half a dozen mazes, I walked in with level expectations. As we waited, they offered people free popcorn while the actors came out and started the show. And then it happened. My ears pricked as I heard the first curse words cast not by the crowd but by an actor as he smacked a bucket of popcorn out of an unsuspecting VIP’s hands. I turned to Michelle with my jaw-dropped to confirm what just happened. “Did he… just…” “Yes, he just swore… This is gonna be awesome.” And it was. Over the next few minutes, we saw fake blood being coughed onto people, a witch being hanged and then we jumped aboard a fog-filled merry-go-round essentially becoming all but trapped aboard with all the crazy, zaney characters we had the pleasure of meeting on the terror tour.
It was amazing. The amount of legitimate care given to the guest experience was amazing. The actors? Amazing. Earlier in the evening I had a chance to meet some of the team behind what was a well oiled machine and hearing the amount of passion and care that came from management, from the chefs, from the operations team and everyone in between filled me with a sense of deep respect for the team and what was possible for the future.
This is when I realised, we are in the golden age of Australian theme parks. Just a few short days ago, one of Dreamworld’s previously defunct steam trains roared through the park for Australia day. Now i’m not the biggest train fan on the planet, but I have enough respect not only for the sheer marvel that is a working, breathing steam machine but the amount of wonder, nostalgia and atmosphere a working relic of a bygone era like a steam train can create. Seeing that behemoth make a return, even just for a brief moment in time, something that could’ve been easily shrugged off by short-term management types (it costs too much, it doesn’t generate a tangible return on investment etc. etc.) was a clear indication that people behind the scenes are listening and responding in equal measure.
Take the food. Movie World opened up the Dirty Harry Bar & Grill and it. Is. Awesome. Sea World recently renovated their dockside tavern and the ability to continue to have a beer overlooking dolphin tanks is something so uniquely Australian it’s almost magical. Back at Dreamworld for a second, there’s a new Mexican food truck, Green Bean Cafe (where the baristas make the best coffees on the planet), a new fresh food truck in Main Street… the list goes on. Dough Bros, Rick’s Cafe, etc. etc. etc. etc.
Even looking at other old classics that have been almost forgotten like the Dive ‘n’ Movies at Wet ‘n Wild are making a humble return. I’m personally a fan of the Dive ‘n’ Movies and can’t wait to see more of these little nuggets of a bygone era comeback in spectacular, 2016 fashion.
Looking forward shows nothing but promise. For 2016 Village Roadshow have promised nothing but world class new attractions, and while Dreamworld have been typically tight-lipped, not only is there murmers of huge new attractions for both Dreamworld and WhiteWater World but even the potential for old, dead attractions like the Eureka Mine Ride to have life brought back to them marks a promising future in 2016.
And let’s not forget about Adventure World on the other side of the globe country. Who would’ve thought the world’s most isolated city was going to build one of the nation’s best coasters and then follow it up with a record smashing waterslide that peaked the park’s attendance records? I sure as hell didn’t, and i’m really glad that they’re getting the numbers they deserve too.
Looking ahead, there’s no doubt in my mind that the next few years are going to be the best. Our parks are filled to the brim with great people, they’ve never looked better, and they’re filled with promise to raise the stakes in the years ahead. This, my friends, is the start of the golden era for Australian theme parks, and i’m excited to see what’s around the corner.