Selling the dream (Part 3) – John Longhurst’s Dreamworld Stories
After chatting to John for a long while and reminiscing about his own history, his successes and the path that lead him to building Dreamworld, conversation naturally turned to the park’s opening day. (This article continues on from the previous article “Building The Impossible”.)
I asked if John was nervous about the opening day of Dreamworld, now dating all the way back to December, 1981. “I don’t think I could’ve been more nervous! Everything that could’ve happened, happened.” I asked if it was like Disneyland’s first day of opening, where Walt Disney had remarked that the park’s finishing touches were so fresh that even the tar on the pavements was still sticky. John nodded. “Our roads were sticky because we could [only] afford to do it a few days before opening and on a hot day that’s what happened up here in Queensland!” John continued to reminisce about how the other opening day attractions faired in the heat. “We had a steam train running around and some of the tracks were a little bit slippery still (or too steep) and the poor thing couldn’t get up the hill and he had to drop back! All sorts of things [like that happened.] We had the paddle boat that ran aground a few times – there are lots of little things that we just hadn’t had time to run to make sure everything was perfect. Also, when you get a lot of people on a paddle boat or on a train – it’s different altogether to just running it around [with a light load], but you know, as far as I’m concerned it was just all wonderful. It was really exciting. The best time of my life, and it was a big day for me but I never, never thought that it wouldn’t work. At school I was a little idiot and I remember thinking about those teachers and visualising them – I thought “I wish you could be here!”
“…Our roads were sticky because we could [only] afford to do it a few days before opening…”
Premiers & Premieres
To help open Dreamworld, Queensland’s premier at the time, Sir Joe Bjelke-Petersen was on hand to officially commence opening procedures. “I can remember the helicopter landing and Joh got out and walked up to the entryway. He was introduced to me (I had met him before but he was really introduced to me). Also, Lady Flo (Joh’s wife) was with him and I had a golf buggy there. Well, they got on the golf buggy with me and I’d drive them all around the park to let them look at it and so on. It was possibly one of the most exciting days of my life. I was so proud of Dreamworld and showing them what I’m doing in Queensland and how it’s going to go and so on.”
I asked what Joh’s impression was about the park. “Oh, he used to come and visit the park about three times a year! He used to have lunch with me and he was very impressed with it. I think he loved it and that was good for me. Joh just loved the Imax theatre and he would bring his staff down so that they could see it too. I used to have lunch with him and I liked him, I respected him.”
John was immensely proud of the IMAX Theatre – it’s location meant it was one of the first things you’d see as you entered Dreamworld – John in many instanced had chalked the park’s success up to the uniqueness of the IMAX Theatre. “It made Dreamworld what it was. In those days not many people had even heard of an IMAX theatre and it had one of the best films that i’ve ever seen in an IMAX theatre, which was called The History of Flight. It started off with an old plane and slowly went through flying [history] with different planes and it ended up with jets flying four or five of them at a time! It was just an exciting film and everybody just absolutely loved it. We used to seat several hundred people in the theatre at any one time and we would guide them into the front door (because they didn’t know what was there because the theatre’s height was actually buried in the ground and hidden by the facades) and we’d lead them into the theatre, and seventeen minutes later, the film finished, the girl in charge would guide them to go to the right to exit. And when half of them had gone across and moved out, then the next would start to come in straight away. That’s how it used to operate and so you could say almost every half hour there was a new full crowd of people and that theater looking at that film.”
The Disney Touch (or lack thereof)
On the topic of opening day attractions, one simply can’t miss the continuing Disney connection – from the trains, to paddleboat, to the Main Street design, everything felt like a mini-Disney. However, despite what is reported by Dreamworld, John had refused help from Disney or folks from competing theme parks. I had even asked John specifically about the facades in Main Street, a lot of which are mirror clones of those in Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, but John’s answer was the same. “Never [did Disney help with design or construction.] They did send somebody out to have a look at Dreamworld though, because they had heard about our animated show. They had a show over there [The Tiki Room at Disneyland] which their analyst said had cost [Disney] about five million dollars – ours was five hundred thousand and they reckoned ours was bigger. It made me very proud.”
When thinking back to Disney’s influence, John remarked, “we had glass makers & lots of little things like that. They were interesting to look at, they were good times.” John had later remarked that many of those things like the glass makers made next to no money, but were integral parts of the Dreamworld experience, a true testiment to why Disney continues to have glass-blowers, steam trains, quartets and other nostalgic touches still in their parks today.
Looking at John’s book-case filled with Walt Disney books, he continued, “look here – The Man Behind The Magic, The Walt Disney Touch, Walt Disney this, Walt Disney that. I’ve read all those books not once but over and over, because I wanted to try understand what he thought and why he thought that and why he did it. I guess when you do that you almost become part of it and you almost know Walt and his brother. What a thing that man did, came up with.”
The analyst that Disney sent wasn’t the only person to chat to John from Disney, as he continued, “I was approached by many people who would supposedly work for Disney and work from the theme parks and they wanted to come in and be involved but I felt that they’d know too much for me! I’d stick by myself, do my own thing and that’s exactly what I did. Somehow I feel I was guided – I’m meant to do what I did. It wasn’t something that just happened out of the blue and I think that we all have things that we can do but there’s not many of us will take on that challenge. I had taken on quite a few challenges in business and in my life and I love being creative and nothing could have been more creative than Dreamworld – it was just that’s something I can’t explain how wonderful it was.”
Uncle John’s Fried Chicken
Going through more books, I noticed a few books about Roy Kroc, the mastermind behind McDonald’s. “Oh well yeah, I can tell you a little bit about it – I was going to go into the fast food business at one point!” At this point John retrieves a small polaroid of a fibreglass building model. “This was going to be Uncle John’s Hamburgers! There’s a window, which was going to have a little John up in the top there and that building was made out of fibreglass. I wanted something different that people look at it, was quite funny. When I lived in Sydney before I came up here I was thinking of doing that. I was looking for sites but it was so hard to find sites that I believed were the right places. And I had a song called Uncle John’s Fried Chicken!” John, with razor-sharp timing, was able to sing every word of the jingle he had come up with for his fast food enterprise.
After hearing John pace out the jingle, I had wondered if he had also come up with the iconic “take a trip away / don’t say one day” jingle that Dreamworld was known for. “No! What happened there, I had a guy who used to come in, and he did some of the best jingles that I’ve ever heard. I said to my manager at the time, I said Wes, I want him to do my jingle for Dreamworld. I want people to come take a trip away and come to Dreamworld, and he said “that’s a good idea, you’d take a trip away from the everyday!” And he said that to the agent, and the agent just grabbed it, and that’s how we came up with it. I’ve never heard a better jingle than it.” I nodded in agreement.
“You know what, when we first started that jingle, when we first opened Dreamworld, you could go anywhere, to any group of kids in a home with a television set and they would be playing around on the floor doing whatever they’re doing and the jingle would come on and they’d all run to the TV and sing it! It was just so exciting you know? That’s the trouble. I get emotional about these things because they’re exciting! If you believe in it and you show that belief through the excitement you have for that product people can’t help themselves get excited too!”
“We never stopped. It was an ongoing thing that every year we would have kept continued to build and improve whatever we had.”
We continued to chat about the park and how it continued to evolve whilst John owned Dreamworld. “We never stopped. It was an ongoing thing that every year we would have kept continued to build and improve whatever we had.” After the park first opened, John had added Village Green, a quaint European-style town, Blue Lagoon, an elaborately themed waterpark and Gold Rush Country, home to Eureka Mountain Mine Ride and the now infamous Thunder River Rapids Ride, all of which have since been closed and demolished. “With Gold Rush Country, that was a massive earthmoving project and it was a quite a large area in itself with the River Rapids. The park was open and it was great and you thought, okay, what’s next? I had so many ideas to make that place so fantastic. One of the best rides at theme parks in my opinion are dark rides because people don’t know where they’re going and what they’re doing and you can do so much with the senses of a person. With the lighting you can make them appear to roll over or go up and down, faster or slower. With lighting & sound effects, with fogging machines and all the rest, I could have made some of the most magnificent rides in my mind and that was the future of Dreamworld that didn’t happen.”
I then mentioned the Mine Ride, a now defunct Australian institution that many rode that was in many senses one of Dreamworld’s main dark rides. Originally, the ride was bought from Coney Island back in the 70’s, then later made it’s way to Perth and then into the hands of Dreamworld. A few years later, it was retrofitted again by a local company known as HyFab with modern steel tubular tracks and cars. “Yeah it was called the Wild Mouse & I just put it in a mountain! [We] made it into a dark ride and it was good because when you fly around corners and you didn’t know where the hell you were going! It was scary.”
Why sell the dream?
One of the most interesting questions to me, one that I wanted to ask John perhaps more than any other question was in fact quite a simple question – why sell Dreamworld? Why sell his dream, his pride and his joy? When I asked John, he took a long pause this time before he began, as if to refocus himself away from his life’s passion and back to his family.
“…I don’t think it’s fair for two or three to come and do what dad did, while the other two go and do their own thing. I thought that it was better that they all go and do their own thing.”
“Dreamworld came out of my head, and it was for me. I had five children and I wasn’t expecting them all to come up [to Dreamworld]. The ideas didn’t come from people that worked for me, they came out of my head – I would give instructions to the people that worked for me, how I wanted things done and that’s the way it had to be. So I trusted myself in what I was doing. I was a little bit scared to leave it to my family to have to come up with new ideas and make sure things were done. The other thing was that I wanted my children to have their own challenge and do whatever they would like to do, not what their dad did, just because I liked theme parks and just because I wanted to do certain things. That’s what life’s about, you’ve got your own challenges that makes life exciting and interesting. If you’re just going to go along with what dad did, that can be okay, but if you’ve got four or five kids, they don’t want to all do the same thing, I don’t think it’s fair for two or three to come and do what dad did, while the other two go and do their own thing. I thought that it was better that they all go and do their own thing.”
As John continued, he noted his own beginnings to me, fetching out a pair of old steel leg braces that he wore as a child. “I always was the stupid kid from school who was never going to get anywhere. I just did my own thing, and I wanted my kids to do their own thing, Tony did that with his car racing and he’s running the boat works up there now, doing an excellent job. He’s a good little manager. Both Tony & Rodney – they helped me, I don’t know how I would’ve done Dreamworld without them. Because I would tell them what I wanted and I had all the architects and draftsmen there. And we would utilize him and he would push them and make sure it was done. And sure, I had a few rows with things, but eventually they understood if I wanted something a certain way, that was the way you did it. And I couldn’t have been happier with that. I would always think that anyone that has children, don’t necessarily push them in what you think they should do, but let them do whatever they decide themselves – their own thing. Be proud of whatever [they do], remember that they can do it if they want to do it. You think how many people, especially young people who are lost, and can’t get a job. They don’t know what they’re going to do and and how can they ever get a house – it’s so expensive! Well go buy scrap timber or something and build the damn thing! Work a weekend or do something to find a way to do it. Don’t say I can’t, you know, cross off the “t” and say I can – I’m going to find a way to do this thing to help myself make a better life, if it’s meant to be, it’s up to me.”
The dreams they are a changin’
In a subsequent chat with John after our first interview, we had spoken further about selling the park to Bruce Jenkins and his company, Dreamco, back in 1989. John at this point was already overflowing with ideas for the future, mentioning concepts to bring tigers to Australia in an environment similar to Busch Gardens’ exhibit. “We went to a park in Florida by one of the big breweries and they had Tigers! And I said, I’ve got to compete with dolphins and I think the Tigers can do it! And so that’s what I went there for and it was my intention to have them, but I came back and I just couldn’t get them.”
John also had plans for building a resort in part where the offices and entrance to WhiteWater World stand today, topped with a giant lake and yacht right out the front in hopes of dazzling highway drivers on their commute past. John had also detailed visions for world-class semi-submiserible dark ride attractions (much like Finding Nemo at Disneyland) for potential hotels and resorts up north, but sadly these never eventuated.
Bruce shared John’s passion for many of these concepts and had promised to continue John’s legacy, which was largely in part what helped John to feel at ease with the sale of Dreamworld at a time when business was booming. Much like Walt Disney’s opening day remarks about Disneyland never being complete, John Longhurst also quipped many times over that he hoped that “Dreamworld will never be completed during my life, and I hope beyond it.”
John felt Bruce was the right man to continue that vision. Sadly, Bruce’s promise was short lived, swapping grandiose ideas for what had become Australia’s #1 tourist destination for flashy cars and even flashier homes, and within months, Ernst & Young were appointed by the mortgagee of Jenkin’s Dreamco, IOOF Friendly Society, to undo his mess.
I had asked John about how he envisioned Dreamworld under Bruce’s leadership upon selling the park. “I never thought about Dreamworld in twenty or thirty years, but I felt that the way the guy that bought it (Bruce) had spoken to me that people that he had involved were going to pour millions of dollars into it – that was the part that was exciting for me. Because if you are going to pour millions of dollars into something, you need to know what you’re doing and I thought that that’s what they knew. And so I ran away and I bought a shopping center which I hated, and it’s all a long story now, sort of thing.”
Regrets, and the future
John had recently sold his share in a giant local shopping centre (Logan Hyperdome) for nearly $350 million in part it would seem, out of frustration, mentioning that despite his best intentions for the centre and it’s shops, people refused his support and ideas for success. John went as far to even design a new theme park at the shopping centre’s door-step and restart his passion for theme parks, but John grew frustrated and tired of being a land-lord and opted instead for a more tranquil lifestyle more akin to his age, spending more time with his much cherished grandkids.
In the nearly thirty years since Dreamworld has been sold, John Longhurst has only been back to this dream creation twice, once in the weeks after he sold the park, and only once more last year (2017) after an international friend begged him for weeks to change his mind on going back and visit the park with him. We spoke about his last visit in great detail, along with our collective thoughts on the recent tragedy surrounding the park. I asked him if he was at all worried about the Dreamworld’s future. “Not so much now, only a sadness that’s been allowed and I blame myself for that, because if you sell something it’s simply not your problem anymore. You sold it, got your money, you decided that someone else could do it either better or you wanted their money, and that’s what you did, so you have to try and accept that situation. If they if they don’t do it the way you dream, well unfortunately, maybe you shouldn’t have sold it!”
John & I both looked through some of his old photos as he continued on that earlier chain of thought. “Maybe you should have done all those things you dreamt about – you think about your life and go back over it and think about what part of it would you have done differently. What would have been the benefit to you if you had done it? Why would you do it? You question all of that stuff and I don’t think you can question it. History is history – it’s done. You did it. Now in the future, can you learn anything from what you did? For instance, if you built a business up and you sold it and didn’t want to sell it, you should say “now if ever I build another business I’m not going to sell it! I’m going to keep it!” You’ve got to be sure about that big word “why?”
At John’s wish, i’ve kept a large part of our discussions about present day Dreamworld between us for now, out of respect for the tragedy, those affected by it and those continuing to work at the park on its frontline. As for what I can share in regards to John’s thoughts on present day Dreamworld, he did note that Main Street had indeed continued to live up to his expectations. “When I came back I walked through the gate & thought “well it looks good!” I was thrilled. The gardens weren’t as nice as I would have liked but it still looked good.”
Sadly, since John visited, Dreamworld’s owner, Ardent Leisure Group, have demolished five more of John’s iconic Disney-inspired facades inside Main Street for a yet to be named attraction. As for the incident, I can only say that I left chatting to John feeling as though on a fundamental level it had left him devastated, heartbroken and yearning for answers.
Finally, I had jokingly asked if he would ever buy back Dreamworld, a question I assumed he would get a lot given how passionate he still is about theme parks. “I thought about trying to buy Dreamworld back, which I could do, but I sort of feel I’ve been there and done that. You know we were entertaining people – older people, younger people, interstate people, international people, and we wanted to give them one of the best days of their lives. But you have to remember to me it’s all history – I sold that place in 1989 – i’m 86 this year! So it’s going back a few years and I mean I’ve had a lot of other business in that time, properties and things. I think about all of that, and you tend to forget about stuff like the Dreamworld thing, but the best part [of owning it again] would be the excitement of doing it, because it was doing a beautiful thing.”
The last time I spoke to John was a few weeks before he passed. He was, as always, incredibly cheerful as I would sit with him for hours at a time and attempt to help him unearth memories that had faded greatly over time. At one point his assistant Tony (more over best mate and confidante) helped us find a box of treasures, including an opening day bottle of port and a business card, which was offered to me as a souvenir. I continue to cherish it to this day. We also uncovered what appeared to be a stack of John’s flight trip receipts from the 70’s, with a few receipts documenting flights to and from Hawaii. Were these the flights where Dreamworld became reality? We may never know.
Towards the end of the last time we spent together, I asked him about some future career ideas. I wanted to do an MBA but was on the fence. John’s advice, as always, was simple and clear. “If you believe in something, you should just do it. Simple as that.” I left John that day in a bit of a hurry – we had already gone over a few hours, getting lost in a sea of nostalgia, and I had left some friends hanging in the process. Having said that, had I known it was our last time together, I would’ve cherished our time all the more, and perhaps would’ve been brave enough to finally get a photo together. The fact that I didn’t is a stark reminder to cherish the moments we all have together. Fair to say that photo or no photo, the time I was able to spend with John will be cherished forever.
It’s a few years later now. I’ve completed the MBA and I’m looking towards the future. What will be my Dreamworld? And what will be my origin story? Only time will tell.