It was hailed as the revival of a seaside mecca that would consolidate Margate’s regeneration, but the fanfare around the reopening of the town’s retro amusement park in 2015 soon fizzled out. Barely one year on, Dreamland was in administration. Now, following a £25m investment, and under a new management team, the attraction is preparing to reopen for a second time, promising a radically different experience.
Dreamland’s second relaunch, just in time for the May bank holiday weekend, will showcase new rides, new landscaping, modern art installations and a better food offering, all of which its management team hope will transform its fortunes.
Despite widespread press coverage, visitor numbers over the park’s first summer season were 50% lower than anticipated and in May 2016 administrators were called in, though the park remained open.
In June 2016, Dreamland became free to enter, with visitors paying per ride, but a more significant overhaul was deemed necessary, made possible thanks to a £25m cash injection from hedge fund Arrowgrass. After the park closed in January 2016 for the low season, construction work began. From now, Dreamland will remain an all-year round free-to-enter, pay-per-ride attraction, with a busy entertainment programme.
Speaking to the Guardian, Dreamland CEO Steven Mitchell said visitors to the park this summer can expect something “completely different”.
“It’s building on what we did before, but it’s a big build,” he said. “People who came last year will notice that it looks and feels dramatically different.”
Perhaps the most significant addition is a 15,000-capacity music venue that Dreamland hopes will entice crowds from London. This has already met with some success: this summer’s new Demon Dayz festival from Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz, is already sold out.
New rides include a restored 1930s Brooklands Speedway roundabout, and a waltzer, restored to its 1940s former glory. The big wheel has been renovated and repainted, and key rides such as the scenic railway have also been refurbished to ensure they can remain operational throughout the year.
Dreamland has also upped its catering game, with a new food court offering street food and a “tree top” bar on stilts. It is also revamping a large seafront pub, the Cinque Ports, adjacent to the park and a rooftop rum shack called Ziggy’s.
New landscaping includes an elevated walkway along the edge of the park with views of the rides as well as new green areas and over 1,000 newly planted trees.
Mitchell blamed a lack of financing for Dreamland’s difficult start. “We had a good selection of vintage rides but the overall look and feel of the park didn’t make it the kind of place that encouraged customers to spend lots of time there,” he said. “The lack of financing meant not all the rides were working all the time and the food and drink offering was fine but not really top quality, not enough to make it worth a trip for people outside the area or from London for the day or weekend.”
This was a challenge acknowledged by Hemingway Design, the team behind Dreamland’s original reimagining. Speaking to Creative Review in 2015, Wayne Hemingway said: “Two years of marketing budget for Blackpool and Alton Towers added together comes to the total amount spent on the whole of this, including marketing. It’s one hell of a challenge.”
For Mitchell, events like the Demon Dayz festival show there is still confidence in the attraction and what it represents. “There aren’t many places that have a great restored vintage theme park, but can also run events for up to 15,000 people. That is one of the reasons the Demon Dayz festival is coming here – they see the uniqueness in the venue.”
Abigail Blasi – writer for Lonely Planet, which tipped Margate as among its best destinations to visit in 2016 – agrees that collaborations like the Demon Dayz festival are a perfect fit for a place like Dreamland. “It’s a exciting new way to use the theme park,” she said. “There’s also something about Gorillaz and Dreamland that seems to fit – quirky kiss-me-quick seaside meets cartoon rock characters.”
Blasi has visited the park with her three children several times since its original relaunch in 2015 and loves its spruced-up nostalgia. “There have been a couple of problems for Dreamland since opening that have been fairly well covered by local media, including adverse weather and the need for repair work causing ride closures, particularly the Scenic Railway and Octopus Garden.”
For travel writer and Margate resident Rachel Mills, the £14.95 entry fee charged for the park’s opening year was a major flaw: “The single biggest thing that Dreamland has done for this reopening is to drop the prohibitive entry fee – many local people would have been unable to stump up the cash, and it made some feel unwelcome.”
Unreliable rides were another problem, which the park promises it has fixed: “One of the loudest moans was that the scenic railway always seemed to be broken; keeping that in working order will do a lot for the reputation of the park locally. As for Londoners, the HS1 [high-speed rail line] is brilliant, but it seems to be appealing mostly to thirtysomethings with disposable income. Ordinary families are likely to be put off by the cost of a return from the capital – Southeastern [which operates the high-speed route] is often three times the cost of Southern Rail to Brighton. And the cheaper trains to Margate run at a snail’s pace some weekends.
Mitchell hopes that the comprehensive work on Dreamland this year will “future-proof” it, and sustain its appeal across the south-east.
“I think Dreamland has a lower level of awareness across London,” he says. “In the local area, everyone knows Dreamland and the history of it. We want to attract local people to come in more frequently, bring visitors along with them, and to feel proud of it.”