Origins (Part 1) – John Longhurst’s Dreamworld Stories
Dreamworld is one of the few things & places I hold dear to my heart. In fact, this entire piece is the result of almost two decades of personal interest into one of the country’s most visited landmarks. There’s no other way to put it – through the friends and opportunities i’ve gained over the years as a result of Dreamworld, it has helped play a direct role in forming the very man I am today. And also for many of my younger years, the Gold Coast theme park also played a part as my personal coping mechanism for dealing with the passing for my father.
I was only ten years old when he had lost a long battle with prostate cancer, and in the years that came after, my escape from the world as I knew it was to step into the many themed realms that existed inside Dreamworld. And for a few hours at a time, I left my worries, stress & indeed sadness at the front gates and instead, lived and breathed the joy that existed inside the iconic, Australian institution. This was admittedly still quite a few years before my interest in girls had truly peaked and thus, my subsequent interest in theme parks had all but vanished until my early 20’s. But when I personally needed the park the most, and when I was rediscovering the world as I came to know it, I was enamoured with everything Dreamworld.
“…founded on the very same principals, quality and fundamental design as Disneyland..”
Over that time when I had visited the park the most, my fascination had grown substantially, and by the time I was fourteen, during 2004 & 2005, i’d go there, at the bare minimum, at least once a month, sometimes more, all in an attempt to learn more about the past, the present and the future of Dreamworld and its attractions. What I had come to realise in the years that followed that beneath the corporate brand tie-ins and the monolithic thrill rides lied a much purer and simple identity, one that was founded on the very same principles, quality and fundamental design as Disneyland, in California. It is still known today as the happiest place on earth, and for a time, Dreamworld’s very ethos was to be the best possible Disney-esque “trip away from the everyday” for the relatively small amount of tourists (at least, by comparison to Disneyland) that came to the Gold Coast. As John Longhurst, the man that built Dreamworld with his bare hands had mentioned very early on in our conversations, he was quick to point out this fact, noting that “Nobody could build a Disneyland in Australia, we haven’t got the potential or the population.”
To be fair, today’s guests would be forgiven for not making the Disney/Dreamworld connection. Over the two decades that Ardent Leisure Group have owned Dreamworld, the many Disney-based attractions that existed, from the paddleboat to the steam trains or the animatronic show, to even entire areas like the Rivertown, Village Green and Gold Rush Country have all but vanished, leaving only remnants of facades and shops that were, for their time, truly a revelation for those who visited the park.
However in amongst all the former attractions, their history and the wave of nostalgia for what once was lies an even more intriguing mystery that starts and ends with John Longhurst himself.
Meeting John for the first time
To say John Longhurst’s story is anything less than inspirational would be an understatement – his vast fortune (worth in the hundreds of millions today) is owed to humble beginnings, determination, an un-wavering work ethic and relentless focus. His story, from doing up an old, bombed out Buick to owning and selling the Logan Hyperdome (a massive, local shopping centre) is a timely reminder that hard work and passion rules above all else.
They also say you should never meet your heroes, and to a certain extent, John for a time certainly was one of mine. Yet after many months of trying to find someone who knew him, upon finally meeting John in person at his house on the Gold Coast, I was taken back by his sense of humility and modesty. John doesn’t strike you as one of the most successful people in the country. On the contrary, he’s the kind of grandfather you’d want your kids to have someday – the kind that simply puts family (and his grandchildren’s happiness and well-being) above all else.
“…It was a “pinch yourself” moment to be sure, and one I left richer for the experience…”
When I finally met John for the first time, he was certainly keen to immediately suss out the stranger he had let into his home. What was my motive? Who was I working for? Am I just here to get some good quotes about the incident that happened at Dreamworld a few years ago? And for a man who’s fiercely private, not to mention in his early 80’s, I can’t blame him either – Dreamworld is a personal love of his, one that he hasn’t owned, or even regularly visited, in a very, very long time. So for someone claiming to know all things Dreamworld to rock up suddenly would surely seem odd, to say the least.
So instead of trying to document everything from the moment I set foot inside his home office, I decided instead to put away the recording gear and for the first few hours we simply chatted about anything and everything, uncovering stories from his past businesses, right through to Dreamworld and beyond. This wasn’t a quick chat to be fair – our conversation carried right through lunch and into the afternoon, with both of us losing a sense of time as we went through a roller-coaster of John’s many memories.
By late afternoon we had started actually recording the transcribed stories that are soon to follow, and by the time we had wrapped for the day and thanked John for his time, I had left his home feeling a sense of personal accomplishment and excitement. From the perspective of a fourteen year old Ben, no way in my wildest dreams could I have ever considered the notion that i’d spend a whole day with John, let alone not boring him to tears with nerdy Dreamworld chatter. It was a “pinch yourself” moment to be sure, and one I left richer for the experience.
I also left with a series of stories that i’m humbled to share with you all, some of which i’m sure no-one outside of John’s friends & family have heard before, or perhaps, maybe, like me, haven’t quite heard the real story first-hand. In any case, like they did for John & myself, these stories will make you laugh, they’ll make you cry and, with any luck, will re-connect with your own memories of Australia’s most beloved theme park, Dreamworld.
(A quick foreword – some of John’s quotes and stories have had pieces removed from the original transcription. At a future date, the full audio interview will be made available.)
A fascination with Walt Disney
As a young adult, John Longhurst was fascinated with famed cartoonist (of course, amongst other things), Walt Disney. “I guess, as a young person, when I used to board with people in Sydney, the second lot of people I boarded with actually, the guy was an elderly gentleman – he was about seventy!” he chuckles as he continued, “he used to sit and watch Walt Disney while his wife was cooking, and there was a Walt Disney program on, and I used to sit and watch it with him. We were both like a couple of kids. We just loved this darn show, and when I went to America (John’s first trip was in 1957, barely a year after Disneyland first opened), I went to Los Angeles where I had friends, and I could not get to Disneyland quick enough! I absolutely loved it. I knew that if I were going to build anything in Australia, it had to be along those lines.”
All of this was at a time where John was still at Ford Motors, well before he had amassed critical success with his never-ending line of profitable business, from lawn mowers, fibre glass boats and even property development, to name a few of his endeavours. In fact, John’s illustrious career started at just sixteen, doing up a burnt out old Buick for re-sale. A panel beater recognised his incredible work, but less than desirable pay meant he had swiftly moved on to Ford, where he had learnt the finer points of engineering and manufacturing goods on a large production line.
To this day, John has almost every book you can think of on Walt Disney (something he was quite eager to point out). “Look here!” He pointed to the book shelf behind me. “I’ve read all those books over and over, because I wanted to try understand how he thought, what he did and why he did it. When you do that you almost become part of it and you almost know Walt Disney.”
John continued on about his first memories of Disneyland “It was something different to anything I’d ever seen. There was something romantic about it. I’ll never forget walking down the Main Street, and all the facades on the buildings, [it was] different to anything I’d seen. And right there at the end was this huge fairytale castle. To me, it was mind-boggling. I got emotional. It didn’t matter which way I looked, i’m in Disneyland. This is all about what Disney is and I loved it. I really did. I still get emotional today thinking about it. If you’re going to be in that sort of thing, why would you bother looking anywhere else? There was nowhere else. Disney was a genius at what he did.”
Back home, he had discovered that indeed, upon looking elsewhere, that the state of theme parks in Sydney were a far cry from what he saw in Los Angeles years prior. “Well, I took my children to a theme park,” John began. “It wasn’t a theme park as such, but a large acreage with animals roving on it and you would drive around and see all the different types of animals. And we stopped to get the kids a milkshake. And next to that, there was a number of little cages, and they all had little monkeys in them, and the kids were intrigued.” John pauses to collect his thoughts for the memory ahead. “There was a railing about a meter in front of those boxes, and that’s where you stood. The railing was to stop you getting too close to where the monkeys were. And so, I stood there looking at them, and my oldest son, who was only probably six or seven at the time, was standing between my legs looking at the monkeys and they [the monkeys] started to urinate. It was a stinking hot day, and the smell started to come up so high, and the kids started to go..” It’s at this point John makes a wretching sound towards me. Somewhat amusingly, one of his kids had been sick from the odour and the unkempt state of the monkey enclosure.
“…To me, it was mind-boggling. I got emotional. It didn’t matter which way I looked, i’m in Disneyland.”
To cheer up his now ill kids, John quickly thought to buy everyone a milkshake at the shop next door to the monkeys. “I went to buy them a milkshake, and i’m pretty fussy about where I bought my food from. I like to know that it’s clean, its hygienic in the preparation of it, etc. And these ladies were rather old at that stage, so probably about fifty-five or so. And so, they started to make the milkshakes that I’d ordered, and one turned around and put a hand right up her dress,” at this point, he can’t help but laugh at the thought. “She started scratching her backside and put the other hand with her finger in her ear, turning it around and said, “Is there anything else you’d like, love?!” I looked at her and I said, “No, thanks!” And, as soon as she turned around, I just said to my kids “Come on. Let’s run!” And we ran off because I didn’t feel that I wanted to drink or eat anything out of that shop. So we drove away, [and] it was at that time I said to myself, “Somebody’s got to do something about this.” That’s disgusting for families to come somewhere like this, you can’t even get a milkshake or something to eat that’s a bit decent. So, that was the start of it.”
Those curious about the history of Dreamworld will no doubt agree in that finding anything concrete about the park’s former years is no easy task. It was this very reason that motivated myself in finding John through an ex-employee of the park and interviewing him in the first place. Through what i’d consider a gigantic game of whispers, largely in part played by fans of the park online and somewhat corroborated through Dreamworld’s own website, there’s still really only a very rough understanding of the history we know today. However, as I came to discover after chatting to John, many of the names and indeed stories that helped shape the theme park we know & love today are anything but true.
I began to mention to John that the most well regarded story behind Dreamworld’s conception was one of him coming back to Australia on a plane from Hawaii and remarking “i’m going to build a Disneyland!” However the story, as he went on to describe, wasn’t quite that clear cut. “I decided I wanted something to do [after selling his lawn-mower business], and I had searched in Sydney for a property. And so I thought, “I’ll go to America and have another look around and try and make my mind up what I should do.” John had also mentioned that he wasn’t entirely out of the game of building lawn-mowers yet either, figuring that in his trip back to America he would also see if there was anything he could learn from manufacturers in the States, and that perhaps he would instead begin another business of making lawn-mowers, rather than building his dream theme park.
“So, on the way back on the plane, I stopped at Hawaii for a few days and got back on the plane (I had my son and a friend of mine who was an industrial designer). I put my head back on the backrest as the plane went up on a steep angle (Tony was looking out of the window), and my friend turned to me and said, “Do you really want to go back into making mowers?” But strange as that may seem, it had also come across my mind at about the same time. “You still want to build your own amusement park or theme park, don’t you?” And I said, “I think I do.” And so, with that thought, I just continued on. When I got back to Sydney where I was living at the time, I went looking around at properties which I had looked at before. For several years, I couldn’t find a site. This time, I’m walking around, and I wave my arms up in the air because the site I found was not suitable. I had a picture in my mind of what I wanted, and I looked up at the sky and I said, “Lord, where am I going to get this site to build my Dreamworld?” And something said, “ten miles out, on the Gold Coast.” And I said, “God, that’s a good idea. Why didn’t I remember that?” Because that had come across my mind once before. So I went and saw my accountant – he’d been my manager, at one stage, when I was younger. And I said to him “Tony – I’ve told you about this entertainment park I’d like to build. What do you think about building it on the Gold Coast?” He said, “I can’t think of anywhere better.” And I said, “Why?” He said, “People go for their holidays up there and they blow their money.” And so, I came up to Brisbane the following week and I searched around with agents for about four days [but] I couldn’t find the vision that I had in my mind.”
“…my son built a brick wall for one of the buildings, not the way I’d told him. I walked down – I was pretty upset and I’d give it a kick and a push, and pushed it all over.”
At this point – it’s worthwhile mentioning just how precise and clear John Longhurst is when it comes to realising his ideas. He also had an exhaustively persevering work ethic (one that reportedly nearly caused an entire factory line of Ford workers to go on strike). In remembering working on Dreamworld with his son, he noted on one occasion where his want for precision, above all else, quickly came apparent to his contractors, and more importantly, his son. “I had my own artist working there, and we’d draw things up and I’d say, “This is the way I wanted it.” And, [i’d] never forget, one day, my son built a brick wall for one of the buildings, not the way I’d told him. I walked down – I was pretty upset and I’d give it a kick and a push, and pushed it all over.” John chuckled. “I’d never seen such a horrible look on his face in all my life but they realized if I wanted it done a certain way, that was the way it had to be done. I was pretty vicious about the way I wanted [it] – things had to be done a certain way, but he soon got to realize that’s the way it’s going to be done and that’s what he used to do, so I can’t really question that. It was the same way I said why I was going to build the park, where the roads were going to go, and the waterways. It was all there, up in the head. I meant to do it [laughs].”
John remarks that, at least in his mind, it was all for a good cause. “I knew that Disney was just the most wonderful place, and the first thing you saw was the Disneyland station and it was always in my eyes, the most magnificent thing as you walked up, there [it] was sitting up high, often the same train was in front of it. But this magnificent building, which was a railway station, sitting up there and I thought “I’m going to make my entryway look like that station!” And that’s exactly what we did.”
And just like the design & construction of the buildings inside Dreamworld, the land that it was built upon had to be perfect. He wasn’t looking for just any old piece of land – it needed to fit a very specific criteria: something that was ten miles out from a major city, had a slope towards the entrance (just like Disneyland’s rail-road station does) and eventually sloped down towards an area that would become a river (also like Disneyland’s river).
“I went into another agency [on Friday] afternoon, thinking, “I’ll give it one more try with another agent.” I went in and I told the guy I wanted a hundred-odd acres for a golf course – (’cause this is what I told him, of course) – and I wanted it, more or less, on a highway or somewhere for advertising purposes. And, this guy said, “Look, I haven’t got anything but I’ve got a friend in Nerang, he might know of something. Let’s go and see him.” So, over we went to see him, and he came out of his office (I sat in the car, it was a hot day) came out and he said, “Mate, the only thing I can think of that might suit you is some property we’ve got up at Coomera.” I said, “Coomera? Where the hell’s that? I’ve heard of Cooma in New South Wales, but where’s Coomera?” He said, “About ten miles out.” And this had happened to me on several occasions when I said, “Where am I going to get a site to build this thing?” [and] something said, “Ten miles out of the Gold Coast.” And I’d completely forgot about it. So, off we go, ten miles out of the Gold Coast, and here’s this little old Queenslander that we drive into. Before we actually went in there, we’d stopped outside and I’d run through the property to have a look at it. It was exactly what I had, in my mind, envisioned – the shape of it – there was a creek that went through where I could get plenty of water – I couldn’t believe it. So I went back and we started talking to the old guy that owned it, and he said he’s got to go to the bathroom and I said to the agent, I said, “If you want to get some money for selling this property, you’d better talk him into my price because I’m not paying anymore, but I do want to buy it.” So I went off around the front of the little cottage to look at it and the paint was all shriveled up because it was about a hundred years old, this little weatherboard cottage, and I looked at it and I thought, “Well, I’d have to keep this. It’s just such a good-looking little old building.” It was off the ground, about a meter, on poles. And I stood up on the veranda, and I looked at the doors, and then I looked at the front door. In those days, many people used to put the name of their home above the front door. And the name was there, ‘Hollywood Cottage’ [laughs]. I almost started to howl because I thought, “This is it.” And that was the beginning of the site for Dreamworld. Jeez, I get emotional thinking about it.”