The last days of the family-owned fun parks
It’s an overcast Friday morning on South Australia’s Fleurieu Peninsula and Greenhills Adventure Park, one of the state’s last outdoor fun parks, is being quite literally carved up for sale.
Since opening its doors to the public in 1982, this once inconspicuous patch of rolling grassland has provided generations of children with peeling sunburn, countless rounds of mini-golf and that brief flood of endorphins as you head into the final dip of a waterslide.
But time has not been kind to Greenhills, or its business model.
The land is set to be turned into a housing estate as part of the growing, retiree-friendly sprawl of coastal satellite town Victor Harbor. It’s been in the works for years, but at a slow rate that hasn’t affected the immediate day-to-day running of the park. And yet while the looming spectre of money-hungry developers is a tempting and convenient villain in this piece, the reality is more complex. The park is still run by the same family, and it’s this latest generation that has set the end date.
“It was my parents who started Greenhills originally, 33 years ago,” manager Meg Whibley explained back in January when the closure was announced. “It sold six years ago to developers, and we were lucky enough to lease it back. At the time we thought it may only go for two to three years, but we’ve managed to keep it going for six.”
Rather than the developers, it was Whibley and her family’s decision to finally lock in an end date that brought about some closure. Even without the burden of ownership, keeping the park afloat was a struggle. Rising costs included the need to pay penalty rates on Sundays and public holidays – basically the only periods where you can make a decent buck off the family daytrip, fun-park trade. And that was just one factor that made continuing difficult.
“Whether it’s electricity, water, staffing costs – we got an award that’s hit us up for time-and-a-half on public holidays and double time on Sundays,” Whibley said. “That’s when we’re at our busiest, so it’s so difficult to make ends meet on those days.”
A gnawing cycle sets in: costs rise and so do admission fees. Soon those fees make cost-of-living conscious families less willing to splash out on a luxury that’s made less compelling as the equipment is left to wither. It’s a sentiment echoed across various review sites as dissatisfied parents lament the high cost and past-its-prime experience.
Even reinvestment can pose its own problems. In Adelaide’s northern outskirts, the council-owned St Kilda Adventure Playground was the beneficiary of a multimillion-dollar redevelopment in 2015, only to have its new, $600,000 “volcano” attraction partially shut down months later after reports of minor injuries. You could perhaps forgive smaller, family-owned operations for thinking twice about taking such costly gambles.
Further north, just off the freeway, past Murray Bridge, another telltale blue slide breaks up the otherwise flat skyline as the now-defunct Puzzle Park sits derelict. Like Greenhills, the park was a summertime rite of passage for decades. Now, its sole attraction is a lone groundskeeper who can be seen lapping the rusted out amusements on a ride-on lawnmower, keeping trespassing teenagers and thieves at bay.
Brushing us off through the cyclone fencing that surrounds the park, he explains that every time some urban explorers or photographers find a way in and share photos online, thieves follow. At any rate, it doesn’t seem like there’s really anything left to pilfer.
Soon he’ll be gone as well, with plans for a housing project signalling that the park’s long-awaited demolition date may finally be in sight. But it wasn’t the appetite of hungry developers that initially prompted its closure nearly a decade ago. While attempts have been made to develop the site since 2007, including a proposal for a 234-home retirement village in 2010, all but these latest rumblings have ultimately stalled. Rather, it was the spiralling cost of public liability insurance that is generally blamed for the winding up.
But who can blame parents in 2016 for deciding to pass on an expensive, potentially underwhelming daytrip? Especially when an endless supply of streaming Pixar films and hand-held devices stuffed with learning activities and free games can keep their kids entertained without risk of slide burn or a go-kart pile-up.
All of these factors mean the rickety wood-and-fibreglass fun parks of yesteryear just weren’t made for these times, and now the only option is to put them out of their misery.
Which leads us to today. Auction house staff wander the grounds in hi-vis, debating the practicalities of chopping up giant waterslides and climbing walls for transportation. A fleet of faded paddleboats and water bikes lay marooned across the park’s lawns. The man-made lake looks a toxic shade of blue, and the maze is earmarked for sale as firewood for anyone game enough to disassemble its hundreds of panels – its auction site listing includes the caveat “Good luck!”
Curious locals poke around the premises, while a couple in their late 20s walk their young son around the grounds. Given all the attractions are fenced off and thoroughly out of commission, it’s quite clear this trip down memory lane is mainly for his parents’ enjoyment. This is an amusement park where nostalgia is the only viable attraction. Until tomorrow, at least.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 5, 2016 as "Out of time". Subscribe here.