19/09/86 - WHY WONDERLAND IS RIDING THE J-CURVE

Author: ROBIN HILL
Date: 19/09/1986
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Page: 15
AUSTRALIA'S Wonderland has a sceptical Sydney on its hands. The fun park's second season has begun and like some of its heart-in-mouth rides, this next phase could be a roller coaster ride to near death or relieved survival.

Sydney, apart from the 1.5 million people of the western suburbs, is dubious of its merits because it hasn't been able to grasp what Wonderland is all about. At first, many thought the park was made in bits and pieces from America. There still aren't enough Mums, Dads and kids from Balmain going there.

One Sydney amusement park manager, who asked not to be identified, claims Wonderland must be in trouble because of its massive overheads. But if so, Wonderland isn't saying.

Wonderland's first season was primarily an evaluation period for its administrators. Lessons were learnt. The promoters questioned visitors leaving the park about their likes and dislikes; small random telephone surveys were made to people who had not visited.

So, how to get more people in? The park, painfully aware of the problem, had to do some constructive thinking.

Entrance prices have been cut to make the park appear better value. An aggressive and expensive marketing campaign - over $2 million has been spent since the park opened - aimed to lure young spenders from the heart of Sydney

The problem of long queues needs to be overcome. On one of the park's most popular rides, a three-minute water ride called "Snowy River Rampage", the waiting time is, on average, 40 minutes.

The 219-hectare theme park at Minchinbury near Blacktown is now open only on weekends. Park managers, in high spirits because of good attendance figures during May and August, are now gearing for the next onslaught: the summer school holidays. Talk is of installing new high-capacity rides; and there is discussion on how to lift sales during the traditionally worst month of December.

Australia's Wonderland is Sydney's first attempt at family entertainment on a large scale; it is potentially the biggest fun park of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. It employs 3,000 casual staff and about 300 permanents.

The "theme" park, welcomed by the local councils for its employment prospects, has not yet celebrated its first birthday. At this stage, it is arguably nothing more than a huge gamble. The up-front rhetoric is that the plight of the Australian economy isn't getting them down.

Historically, amusement parks in Australia have not found the roller-coaster heights. Since 1983, a number of fun parks have faced uncertain times, and some, financial difficulties. Waterworks at Mt Druitt, for instance, went into receivership but was promptly bought by new owners. Some have gone bust. In 1985, for example, two big fun parks in Queensland closed their doors. In NSW, Old Sydney Town at Gosford needed $230,000 from its major backer, the NSW Government, to stay in business.

Australia's Wonderland is managed on behalf of its partners by a large and well-respected American amusements firm, Kings Entertainment Company. Much of Australia's Wonderland concept is based on American hand-me-downs. For example, Hanna-Barbera Land, (one of the three areas in the park with a specific theme), is based on popular cartoon characters such as Fred Flintstone and Huckleberry Hound. Surprisingly perhaps, Australian children and adults like these rather dated American institutions.

The park has met with mixed reaction. Wonderland's first season, from its opening in December 1985 until the middle of August this year, ended on a low.

The $65 million theme park's projected attendance figures were wrong. They won't be getting the expected 1.6 million people through their gates in the first year. Now, with 600,000 visitors, they hope to have had one million through by the end of December.

There is also no talk of profits yet. The joint investors, the NSW State Superannuation Board, James Hardie Industries, Leighton Holdings, and an American company, Taft Broadcasting, are still waiting to see some returns. Wonderland's managing director, Mr Keith James, sees it as a long-term investment.

"I will have to answer any questions on profits rather obliquely. However, I can say that the investors were very happy with the first and second season results. We are right on target with out budgets," he said.

The group's largest investor, the NSW State Superannuation Board (it invested$24 million), is cautious in its comments on the park.

"The board believes the park is in its development stage and is therefore quite pleased with the performance growth," a spokesman said.

Probably its greatest rival is Luna Park. Although it is keen to change its image to attract overseas visitors, Luna Park does not feel threatened by Wonderland.

The managing director of the lessee company, Harbourside Amusement Park Pty Ltd (HAP), Mr Harold Drogo, says he feels "lethargic" about Wonderland. But Luna Park, which sees about 650,000 visitors per year, has lost a considerable number from the western suburbs. About 28 per cent came from the west; it is now down to about 12 per cent.

Some things are working in favour of Wonderland. Visitors responded favourably to the park's corporate image of friendly service, cleanliness, and safety. According to the park's own daily small-scale surveys, 40 per cent of visitors say they want nothing changed. Ninety-eight per cent say they will recommend the park to friends.

Says Ms Sarah Dougherty, Wonderland's public relations manager, "The reason we will survive where others haven't is because we offer a quality product. If you offer people quality and value for their money, they will keep coming back."