It’s not all luxe resorts, fine dining and top wines for me. There is so much more out there to discover. We are living in an age where experiential travel is a priority for most, and I’m completely on board with it. The less time spent lolling in your hotel room the better. Unless of course, you’ve scored a Presidential Suite you just wouldn’t in your right mind tear yourself away from.
True travelers follow their passions and the trips they take only enhance this. Recently I was wandering past a bookstore in a Melbourne suburb and I spotted a hardcover tome titled The Amusement Park by Stephen M Silverman. Within its pages lie a 900 year history of the often strange, interesting world of fun fairs and theme parks. Buying the book, I was immediately flooded with memories of my times in such places.
Some of my earliest joyful memories involved amusement parks. Growing up in Sydney we had one that was considered one of the best of the old-school fun parks, Luna Park, spectacularly located on the foreshores of Sydney Harbour. To me it was the most magical place in the world. As a child, my parents took my brother and I there often. I became obsessed with it, I was held in wonder at the colour and movement, the sounds and the smells, and the wonderful illumination by night. Once, we even stayed in the Travelodge in North Sydney, deliberately choosing a room overlooking Luna Park. I was glued to watching the rides begin, spin and end, and the rollercoaster plummeting down its tracks.
Luna Park, Sydney
The truth was that Luna Park was actually a bit of a dump. Being in continuous operation since 1935, many of the rides were never renovated. One attraction, The River Caves, was a gentle meandering boat ride through different lands of the world. In little wooden boats we would slowly pass by scenes of the world’s landscapes, through Toy Land and then Eskimo Land, where odd looking misshapen eskimos stared at you, and fans (often visible through the peeling walls) blew wind on riders to simulate the cold climate. There was an obligatory jungle scene where a mangy Tarzan was in residence, and some rather spindly looking flamingos, and an underwater scene with King Neptune and his bevy of mermaids.
River Caves, Luna Park, Sydney
With tacky backgrounds and papier mache mountains, there were animals placed on top of them, bears, antelope and tigers, with holes in their bodies and their heads falling off. By the time Luna Park closed after a tragic fire in The Ghost Train in 1979, the attraction was a bit of a joke. Essentially created as a “Tunnel of Love”, the River Caves had lost the romanticism of its early years (and the ensuing lovers who would pash from the beginning of the ride to the end) and had become something that was worth revisiting to see and laugh at the state of disrepair of its inhabitants.
Luna Park, Sydney, circa 1970
I was obsessed by roller coasters back then and still have a fascination for them today. Not so much about riding them, but I just love the scale and the mechanics of them. The old rattlers, the wooden coasters, were the ones that I did enjoy riding, from the tension of that first hill climb, then the letting loose from the top of that first giant hill, followed by the unmatched sheer physical sensation as your entire body is shaken to its core as you thunder down its massive hills, screaming like a girl at the top of your lungs.
It was my first ride on Luna Park’s original wooden coaster, The Big Dipper, that sealed my intrigue for the king of amusement park rides. In primary school, bored senseless as I was most days, I would draw the perfect roller coaster along the bottom of my note pads. I spent countless hours doing this. I would imagine the ride as I had drawn it, creating the perfect coaster, dreaming away my day, wishing I was somewhere else. I also used to draw boobs. Lots and lots of boobs. Perfect ones, big ones. I have no idea why. I thought they were fun. They made me laugh. It certainly isn’t an interest that has continued beyond those junior years. I just think I had a thing for curves when I was an immature child. Perhaps there was a correlation between coasters and boobs? Nah.
Then came the steel coasters, and everything changed. It was no longer about the up and down, it was about the upside down, the vertical loops, and even dangling underneath the tracks, with feet freely hanging to the air, hurtling at unheard of speeds. I am not a fan of these sleek beasts. I don’t believe it’s natural to be upside down. Unless it’s in the bedroom. That can be a lot of fun.
It wasn’t all joy at Luna Park for me. One ride I hated but was repeatedly forced to go on due to peer group pressure from my friends was the Rotor. An attraction popular at amusement parks since the late 1940’s, Rotor was a giant round barrel that span so fast that when the bottom floor falls away, the centrifugal force would glue terrified and giggling riders to the walls. It was actually a sickening ride. So much so that one time, a boy alongside me threw up. The velocity of the ride made that vomit leap right over and right on to my face. I never rode Rotor again.
Rotor, Luna Park, Sydney.
I used to build model amusement parks at home, from both Meccano and Lego. I could never explain why I had such a fascination with fun fair rides. When Walt Disney appeared nightly on our televisions with his Disneyland program, I was desperate to visit that ultimate theme park. My parents embraced my strange interest and, fueling the fire, took our family to Disneyland in California in the 1970’s and then Florida’s Walt Disney World in the early 1980’s.
It soon became apparent that I wasn’t the only one thrilled to be visiting Disneyland. I remember vividly the look of joy on my parents faces as we took that first step through the gates. My Mother became very emotional. Perhaps it was the Valium. All jokes aside, my family were struck with wonder at the amazing place. We had never seen anything quite like it. Those three days we spent that Summer of 1976 was one of the most joyous times of my life and a memory so clear I can recount almost every moment.
Walt Disney World, Florida
This was my first taste of “experiential” travel as we know it today. Disneyland was actually always more than that. It was, and still is, a destination in itself. The brilliant minds behind the Disney parks and so many other pleasure grounds around the world are to be applauded. They are designed around the desire to escape the real world and many of them succeed in that mission brilliantly. It’s a need we have now more than ever.
If I see an amusement park suddenly appear on my travels, the fascination is reignited. I guess this is why I bought the book. I find it riveting reading. The ability of some designers and engineers to bring a world of fantasy to life and create places of wonder will always be appealing, to all ages. For a unique look at history through the eyes of such inspirational people, I recommend the book highly.