The Lifestyle Magazine of Kent, Surrey & Sussex

Can Dreamland deliver?

Can Dreamland deliver?

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With plenty of fanfare, Dreamland in margate has finally re-opened its doors after a decade of uncertainty – but can this once popular seaside attraction really deliver?

This place will make Margate massive again and put it back on the map

A decade after its much-lamented closure, few would have dared to imagine Dreamland’s phoenix-like return as a fully-fledged theme park. It had been seemingly destined to follow the all-too familiar pattern of prime seafront sites being sold off for luxury housing – which would have done precious little to revive the area’s wider economic fortunes.

But after an epic legal tussle that saw Thanet District Council win in a High Court judgement in favour of a compulsory purchase of the site, the attraction that became a symbol of Margate and a nostalgic vision of seaside Britain, has finally fought its way back from the brink.

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While the site’s peak may well have been in the 1950s and 1960s before the boom in overseas holidays, the resurgence of staycationing for those seeking a classic UK holiday is at the heart of Dreamland’s revival.

There’s no doubting the emotional ties to the site, which many have continued to hold, which led to a fiercely-supported campaign to save it from extinction from Kent’s popular consciousness.

Clearly, countless friendships, holiday romances and priceless family memories have been formed there since its rides were first opened under the original ownership of Lord Sanger in 1880.

Its evolution had been a gradual one over the decades, which saw the installation of a number of new attractions including a roller-skating rink, cinema and ballroom, which added to its heady mix of entertainment.

19450300060_7680bc64ce_oQuestions have inevitably been raised as to whether today’s tech-savvy generation of youngsters could possibly engage with rides that recalled those boom years of the park?

Well, from its launch day in June and our own visit just a couple of weeks later, the answer is a resounding yes.
As leading designer Wayne Hemingway, who was drafted in as a consultant on Dreamland’s redevelopment, explained it was clearly a case of avoiding trying to offer a cliched piece of retro-chic.

“We didn’t want to do a heritage theme park for the 1950s or 1960s. It doesn’t feel 50s. It feels timelessly like the seaside, like a dream.”
It has been said by some that Margate “now has its heartbeat back” with Dreamland, which is a sentiment that’s hard to disagree with. While there’s an unmistakable air of nostalgia as you walk through its gates, you are left with a sense this is a place that has achieved that rare balance of being aware of its heritage, yet somehow managing to seem like it is very much a part of the 21st century.

19631503632_164aeec45a_oWe’re greeted by some genuinely cheerful staff, who have more than a nod to the park’s heyday in their 50s-style rock denims and bright elaborate skirts that would not look out of place in Grease.

From the loud and visually dramatic Wall of Death stunt rider shows and the unnerving Hall of Mirrors, to its stunning carousel, there’s much to admire.
While much has been made of the fact that its centrepiece Scenic Railway was not completed in time for the site’s launch along with a number of other rides, there’s still more than 15 attractions that are open and doing brisk business from excited families.

These include the centrepiece Ferris wheel offering great views of the area, a roller-skating rink and games arcade, through to a jet plane ride – which offers individual flight height control through its innovative pneumatic piston design.

19638678485_2b30f0ac45_oThere’s plenty more thrills besides, including some retro dodgems. It would be impossible not to mention its striking Helter Skelter – which I loved but you’ll have to be extremely careful to tuck your arms in to avoid a scrape or two as you twist at a dizzying rate back to earth.

As Dreamland’s Chief Executive Eddie Kemsley explains, there has been an outpouring of support for this much-cherished destination. She said: “The opening day was such an amazing time. It was an honour to be a part of something that had involved such hard work from campaigners who wanted to save Dreamland.

“I’ve been involved with it for 18 months now and you just can’t help but fall in love with the place. I remember coming here in the 80s and now I’ve brought my kids back – it’s just amazing that we’re now able to create some new memories for the next generation here. “There has been such a massive response to Dreamland, which will take it to the next level, with interest from around the world. I just heard that we got a full page in the Los Angeles Times.”

19451793119_f74547f9d4_oWhile admitting there has been a degree of frustration over delays to the opening of the Scenic Railway, she says the main concern was to just open as promised.

Though there is no set date for its eagerly anticipated arrival just yet, Eddie added that its wider plan of opening up the full range of facilities in a phased approach has now been finalised.

In her opinion, Dreamland will indeed have a lasting benefit on the regeneration of the area, which has had its fair share of being in the doldrums. But with the emergence of Turner Contemporary, there has been a growing optimism around the town that it is definitely on the up.

As far as Dreamland is concerned, there are ambitious plans afoot including opening a new music and entertainment venue on the site, which is capable of accommodating more than 1,000 people. Eddie added: “A total of 250 people have gained jobs here and there will be more to come.

“It would have been so easy for this place to have become another retail development – but the people of Margate have saved it. This place will make Margate massive again and put it back on the map.”

Dreamland Fact File

The seafront site that Dreamland occupies in Margate was originally salt marshland known as the Mere.

The London, Chatham and Dover Railway chose the site as a terminus station in 1863, and it later became the Hall By the Sea dance venue.

In 1870, its new owner Lord George Sanger, partnered with mayor of Margate Thomas Reeve to reclaim the former marshland and create landscaped gardens complete with an animal menagerie with zoo cages and sideshows.

The zoo element of the site was used for Sanger’s travelling circus and he introduced the first Land on Sea rides in 1880, followed by a roller-skating rink. Sanger himself was reportedly killed in a fight in 1911.

The site was sold to John Henry Iles in 1919 for £40,000, when its Dreamland name was adopted. Its owner modelled a number of the key rides on the US Coney Island theme park, including Dreamland’s famous Scenic Railway. It stayed in the family for several generations.

In the 1970s it was owned by Associated Leisure, which introduced rides including the 148ft big wheel, before being bought by the Dutch Bembom brothers in 1981. They in turn sold it on to Kent businessman Jimmy Godden, who ran several amusement facilities in the county. But in 2003, he announced it would be closing.

Words Neill Barston
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