Behind the Scenes – Fairground Attraction
It’s the oldest surviving amusement park in Great Britain and in its heyday attracted 2.5 million visitors a year. HEATHER BISHOP pays a visit to Dreamland Margate to talk to those behind its reinvention
The site of Dreamland dates back to the 1870s when the then ‘Hall by the Sea’ was operated by ‘Lord’ George Sanger. The park was later bought by John Henry Iles, who renamed it Dreamland and created a pleasure garden and amusement park with the iconic Scenic Railway as the centrepiece.
Its popularity waned in the 70s and in 1981, it was sold to Dutch brothers and renamed Bembom Brothers Theme Park. In 2003, it was announced that the site was to close and be redeveloped, but locals launched a ‘Save Dreamland’ campaign, which was successful – £18 million of public funding was secured to restore Dreamland and work began in 2013.
The new-look Dreamland reopened in June 2015. There are now 26 rides, featuring old favourites such as Brooklands Speedway, the Gallopers, and the Waltzer alongside new adrenalin-pumping rides such as Dreamland Drop. But the centrepiece of the park is still the Scenic Railway – the oldest roller coaster in the UK, which is 100 years old next year.
The park is licensed to hold 12 outdoor evening music concerts a year, which this summer includes bands such as Happy Mondays and the BBC Big Band. Events and venues manager Jon Arden explains, “The food court becomes a concert bowl, so we can have an audience of 5,000 people. Today we’ve got a Baby Shark show for the children, so we’ve been working round the clock to get the big screens up and running. I’m backstage making sure everything goes smoothly.”
Experience manager Mark Lofthouse reckons he has the best role in the park. “It’s my job to make sure our visitors have the best day ever. I make sure staff are as upbeat as possible and look after the entertainment team.” He also looks after the Dreamland bears, Teddy and Betty, who interact with customers. “I spend the day checking that everyone is having fun,” he says.
Scream if you want to go faster
Morgan Seaman has been a ride operator at the park for two years. “My favourite job is brakeman on the Scenic Railway. It’s manually operated, so I ride on the train and control the speed and brake with a large lever. I love getting our customers to put their hands up in the air as we approach the hills.”
Preserving the past
Scott Butler, the rides and attractions operations supervisor, was born and brought up in Margate, and was involved in the ‘Save Dreamland’ campaign. “Dreamland means a lot to my family, as my uncle had the lease for the Scenic Railway for a season so I used to come here all the time. It’s such an important part of the town and we wanted it back. I started working here as a ride operator when it reopened in 2015 and I’ve worked my way up to supervisor. It’s been great being part of the team who have built it back up and seeing it restored to its former glory.”
Every ride has weather limitations, especially tall ones such as the Big Wheel, which is 34m (110ft) high. The park uses four anemometers to test wind speed plus a lightning-monitoring system to give early warnings of storms. “We keep a constant eye on the wind speed,” says Alina O’Reilly of the Big Wheel team. “If it reaches 16mph on the ground we know that it’s likely to be double that at the top of the wheel. The operations team decide whether or not the ride needs to close.”
Before the park opens, a team of engineers spend several hours checking all the rides. Junior mechanical engineer Andrew Stannard is greasing the bearings on the Big Wheel. “The Big Wheel is the most time-consuming to maintain because of its sheer size,” he says. “You have to check every single nut, bolt and bearing. To do this job I had to have rescue training and learn how to use a harness. There are ladders on the forks of the wheel that we use to climb up it. The height doesn’t bother me – you get
a great view when you’re at the top.”
Commercial manager Abby Wise looks after retail and memberships at the park. “We’ve introduced an annual membership so you get unlimited rides and discounts in the shop and on food and drinks and access to pre-sale tickets for events. We’ve refurbished the shop, too, and I had the fun job of buying bright, colourful and quirky things for it.”
Daisie Howell is food and beverages host in the Octopus’s Garden – an under-eights’ soft play area and cafe. “I used to come here as a child when it was called Wally’s World. I’ve been here three years and when I first started, a mum came in with her newborn twins. It’s been great to see them grow up – when they come in, they always give me a cuddle.”
Get your motor running
Operations director Andrew Gall is in charge of maintenance for all the rides. Today, he’s in the motor room of the Scenic Railway. “It takes three hours a day to do checks,” he says. “First, a carpenter assesses the wooden structure, then mechanical and electrical engineers inspect it. The motor room is the only original part of the railway left and it houses the mechanism that pulls the train.”
Looking to the future
Dreamland CEO Eddie Kemsley was here
for the reopening of the park in 2015. “Margate, like many British seaside towns, took a hit in the 70s and 80s when cheap airfares came in and everyone started going on holiday to Spain,” she explains. “But since the huge investment, Dreamland is back as a major tourist attraction. Our aim was to preserve its heritage and honour the past as well as look to the future, so we’ve got rides from the 20s right through to the modern day. My goal is to make visiting the park like going to a mini festival. This year, we’ve made it free to enter so you can just pop in for an ice cream or listen to some music. There are face painters, rides, music, food, performances, street theatre and characters.”
Do the floss
Ray Marino runs Naughty Floss with his partner, Alexandria. They’ve been
at Dreamland since 2016, serving natural vegan candyfloss from their refurbished vintage caravan, Betty. “We’re a small family business and we couldn’t have found a better spot to have a pitch. Over the two weeks of Easter, there were 100,000 visitors to the park and we had a long queue from lunchtime until the end of the day. On a busy day, we can squeeze four members of staff in here. It gets very cosy!”
On a roll
The retro Roller Room is one of the most frequently photographed spots in Dreamland. Guest experience assistant Luke McFarlane works in the boot room.
“It’s always busy and I love chatting to the customers. Last week, there was a gentleman who was 81 and his 74-year-old wife. They used to come to Dreamland and skate when they were young and it was lovely to hear them reminisce about the old days. They put on their roller boots and they were whizzing around the rink!”
Charlotte, John, Raffy and Sebastian Coleman have come to Dreamland on a day trip from Biddenden in Kent. “It’s our first visit to the park and it’s been brilliant,” says Charlotte. “The boys don’t like big, scary rides but there’s loads to do here, plus you’ve got the beach right outside.”
“Dreamland is a huge part of the town and we want locals to see it as a place for them, too,” says Victoria Barrow-Williams, who is the creative learning and participation manager. She encourages community groups and schools to use the space and runs workshops. “We run lots of different workshops, such as engineering and making slogan T-shirts.”
Harley Dyton works in guest safety and opens up the doors to the public each morning. “We may also sort out complaints about queue- jumpers or help people who drop their phones on rides. Though, it’s the engineers that retrieve them as they’re usually in restricted areas.”
Caught on camera
Carl Hill has worked at Dreamland since 2015, starting as a ride operator, then as rides team leader and PA to the chief engineer before becoming operations controller two years ago. “I used to come to Dreamland every summer as a child,” he recalls. “I’d stay with my Auntie Myra and Uncle Eddie for five weeks over the holidays and the highlight was our trips here. It was like a dream come true when I got a job here, as I had such happy memories. When I started, the park wasn’t finished, so I helped to rebuild it, putting up fences and learning all the rides before we opened. Now I’m based in the control room monitoring the 120 CCTV cameras around the park. Times have changed but Dreamland has retained its magic, especially for little ones.”