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ACE News: ACE News Articles

Conservation Corner - March-April 2020

Wednesday, March 25, 2020   (2 Comments)
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Photo: Justin Garvanovic. View full-sized image.


Dreamland and Scenic Railway Celebrate 100 Years

While its name may perhaps not resonate quite so loudly across the Atlantic as does that of its larger, brasher, more northwesterly compatriot, Dreamland (Margate, United Kingdom) possesses a heritage that can be traced further back in time than even the earliest incarnations of Blackpool Pleasure Beach (Blackpool, United Kingdom). Way back in 1867, what would probably have been the closest to a bona fide trolley park ever to grace this side of the pond was ambitiously conceived for the Margate seafront. The projected railway connection from London, however, failed to materialize, and it was not until 1874 when the Italian and Zoological Gardens — Dreamland’s immediate antecedent — opened on the site. Today, Dreamland remains the oldest U.K. amusement park continuing to operate at its original location.


This photo of the Scenic Railway was captured during the European Coaster Odyssey in 2002.
Photo: Brian Peters. View full-sized image
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Note the brakeman’s special position in controlling the speed of the train.
Photo: Brian Peters. View full-sized image
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Dreamland’s fascinating and undulating history could without question occupy every page of a lengthy publication in its own right. However, as we roll inexorably into the third decade of the 21st century, it is only fitting to focus on the veritable jewel in its crown, Scenic Railway. Arising from the drawing board of the renowned John Henry Iles, and based on blueprints which industry folklore suggests had been purchased during a 1906 visit to New York City’s Coney Island, it debuted exactly a century ago in 1920, the same year in which the Dreamland with which we are familiar today first opened to the public. By way of a degree of perspective, Scenic Railway predates all four of Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s surviving wood coasters (although the more orthodox pedants among us may remain entrenched in the view that the 1909 Velvet Coaster’s lift hill continues to carry riders to the disturbingly gaudy summit of Nickelodeon Streak).


Photo: Martin Valt. View full-sized image.


This photo from 2005 shows the regal character of each of the Scenic Railway’s trains.
Photo: Martin Valt. View full-sized image
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Photo: Bobby Nagy. View full-sized image.


Scenic Railway’s gently thrilling, yet deceptively lengthy, double out-and-back choreography successfully mesmerized riders of all ages until the first closure of the park in 1938 owing to it passing into liquidation, an unfortunate development that may nevertheless have somewhat fortuitously coincided almost exactly with the outbreak in Europe of World War II. Dreamland reopened in 1946 under the ownership of Billy Butlin, an individual probably largely unheard of in North America but whose business acumen, along with an apparent capacity to see into the future, single-handedly shaped the manner in which the populace spent its newfound leisure hours and disposable income in post-war England every bit as much as did that of a certain Walt Disney in the United States. While other rides and attractions came and went as the decades passed, the majestic Scenic Railway continued to proudly serve as a baby boomer rite of passage, in particular for generations of residents of London and the southeast corner of the country, through a variety of park owners and incarnations. Indeed, its name and image were seemingly indelibly branded onto the very social fabric of the era. Almost every citizen of the United Kingdom, even those who had never felt even the slightest inclination to venture as dangerously close to France as the windswept Kent coastline, was somehow at least vaguely familiar with it, possibly largely because of its frequent appearances as a backdrop in television shows and movies.


Various coasters came and went over time, including Looping Star.
Photo: Marin Garvanovic. View full-sized image
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Blue Coaster was operating during ACE’s visit in 2002.
Photo: Tim Baldwin. View full-sized image
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This picture from the ACE UK! tour in 2015 shows Crazy Mouse, which ran only during the park’s reopening season.
Photo: Cheri Armstrong. View full-sized image
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Pinball X is the most recent addition to Dreamland.
Photo: Derek Perry. View full-sized image
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This is without question a time for celebration, and the occasion of Dreamland’s 100th anniversary is certainly not the moment to dwell in any depth on the heartbreaking stagnation and decline that subsequently befell this iconic park, although those of us who grew up in its shadow cannot fail but to view this period through anything other than the most woe-tinted of spectacles. The “dark age” of Dreamland probably set in sometime during the mid-1990s, during which it became increasingly evident that the park owner at the time (whose name the author has elected to omit from this retrospective) was seeking to sell the entire Dreamland site, owing to the commercial value of the underpinning real estate apparently being far greater than that of a mere amusement park. (Now where have we all heard that before?) As a consequence, investment in the park during this period was at best minimal. And it showed. The original version of the Scenic Railway last operated in the 2007 season, by which time that which remained of the park was little more than a bleak, downtrodden, empty shell of its former self, with the laughter and joy of its glory years long evaporated and ringing out only as hollow, ghostly recriminations from a bygone era. Obviously coincidentally, a series of mysterious nocturnal fires, the cause of which rested somewhere on a spectrum between vandalism and arson, began to arise in the park. The most tragic of these in 2008 destroyed not only a significant portion of the Scenic Railway, but also its station and workshop along with all the original distinctive and intricately hand-carved horse head trains. Standing on the then pitiful site in summer 2011, it seemed beyond inconceivable to anyone that the coaster would ever be rebuilt; Dreamland had simply slipped silently into the chasm of history.

There was, however, one largely latent factor still very much at play. Any number of individuals and organizations (including both ACE and European Coaster Club) had supported what felt like endless initiatives to encourage someone, pretty much anyone really, to commit to investment in a new park on the site. In particular, the “Save Dreamland” campaign headed up by the indefatigable Nick Laister provided a platform to keep the rapidly fading memory of Dreamland and the Scenic Railway alive in the public consciousness. Displaying considerable clairvoyant aptitudes of his own, back in 2002 Laister had successfully applied for the then still-operational Scenic Railway to be accredited as what is known in the United Kingdom as a Grade II statutorily listed building, the first time such status had been bestowed on an amusement park ride. Briefly, this precluded the ride, irrespective of its operational status, from being demolished, even at the hands of its owner. While such a decree obviously did not afford any substantive protection from sudden demise by virtue of an “accidental” inferno, this listing proved instrumental in delaying an outcome that at the time seemed all but inevitable.


During the plaque presentation on ACE’s 2015 visit, Association Manager Jeffrey Seifert reminded attendees of the organization’s donations to Dreamland, which was followed by great applause.
Photo: Tim Baldwin. View full-sized image
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Beyond the scope of this all-too-brief review to relate in any detail are the monumental efforts, extending well in excess of a decade, of Laister and his colleagues to persuade Thanet Council (the regional government body responsible for the affairs of Margate and the surrounding district) that the so-called resort town’s commercial interests would be best served by ensuring that an amusement park, rather than yet another anonymous and utterly soulless shopping mall, remained operational on the Dreamland site. Somehow they succeeded in doing so, in the face of what for years on end appeared to be beyond insurmountable odds. For this they all deserve unreserved and unrelenting admiration and gratitude. As a result, Dreamland finally reopened for business on June 15, 2015. While the faithfully rebuilt Scenic Railway was not able to operate until the closing weeks of that season, an apparently impossible dream (pun intended) had nonetheless been realized. Today, while its longer-term future is still by no means absolutely secure, Dreamland is once again packed with rides, both old and new. It presents a thoroughly spectacular and highly professional Halloween event each year and hosts both indoor and outdoor concerts throughout the season. It is once again loud and bright and vibrant and shiny — and lovingly cared for. It serves a fabulous and diverse range of delicious street foods, way above and beyond the quality of typical amusement park fare. More than anything, it once more offers sheer undiluted fun and enjoyment, the fundamental raison d'être of any amusement park, at a reasonable cost. A generation of young people who very nearly missed out on its timeless charms has accordingly been afforded a much belated opportunity to experience them first-hand. And for the author, there’s finally a good reason to make that long drive back to Margate.


Dreamland reopened in 2015.
Photo: Justin Garvanovic. View full-sized image
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This view is from the European Coaster Odyssey in 2002.
Photo: Curt Schimmel. View full-sized image
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The refurbished woodie welcomes back riders in the fall of 2015.
Photo: Justin Garvanovic. View full-sized image
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As for the reimagined Scenic Railway, well, it’s simply terrific. It has been reviewed extensively elsewhere, including by the author in ACE News [December 2018] and little useful purpose would be served by reiterating those very same observations here. Suffice to confirm that it more than successfully places a contemporaneous spin on an iconic historic attraction and continues to be an unmitigated joy to ride. Whether it constitutes an entirely new coaster or remains a traditional scenic railway in the accepted sense of that term is a different discussion for a different day; for the time being we should just rejoice in its continued existence.


This photo from the 2019 season shows the loving detail to the trains is alive and well.
Photo: Derek Perry. View full-sized image
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Finally, while the world almost literally holds its breath and many nonessential businesses, including amusement parks, around the globe currently face up to a new and entirely unanticipated threat to their very existence, it falls to all of us as enthusiasts to show our support for parks like Dreamland more than ever before. Visit them as frequently as you can; ride the coasters and other attractions and purchase a souvenir (or two) and an ice cream and a hot dog before you leave. And, above all else, repeatedly tell your family and friends and neighbors and co-workers what a great time you had. Doing so may just make all the difference in the world.

— Martin Valt, ACE United Kingdom Regional Representative


Dreamland’s ride lineup is continuously changing.
Photo: Jeffrey Seifert. View full-sized image
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This view shows the midway in 1988.
Photo: Marin Garvanovic. View full-sized image
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This ride was on Dreamland’s midway in the 1980s.
Photo: Michael Horwood. View full-sized image
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Photo: Michael Horwood. View full-sized image.


Comments...

Tim Baldwin says...
Posted Wednesday, March 25, 2020
I'm glad I have been to this park three times. While a shame the refurbished Scenic Railway wasn't ready during the ACE UK! tour in 2015, it was fantastic to see the park come back alive. It was full of its special character already. I hope it continues to thrive.
Sue Tarapchak says...
Posted Wednesday, March 25, 2020
Thoroughly enjoyable read! Thank you!