Despite being young of age, I still remember my first visit to Wonderland well. It was a warm summers day, January 15, 1987. I know it was so because it was my cousin's 7th birthday. We all headed down to Wonderland to celebrate.
My father had collected some coke cans which granted us $2 off the entry price, and thank god for that. It would have cost us $12.95 for me to get in as a child and in 1987, that was a lot of money. Of course before we even got to the point where it was time to hand over our sticky coke cans and money, there was the small matter of negotiating the photographers on the way down the hill from the carpark.
Nobody really knew what to expect when the girl wearing the frilly hat and big camera draped around her neck approached us and asked us if we would like our photo taken. Dad was not very keen and neither was my uncle, but on the urgings of my mother and aunty, we all stood there as a family. Our odd looking grins plastered across our faces for an awkward pose of family unity. She handed us a little ticket and informed us that we could see our photo later in the afternoon just inside the gates, on the left.
Of course, January 15, was slap bang in the middle of the school holidays, and it was a Saturday to boot. We knew it was going to be busy, (Wonderland had only been open for a little over 12 months) and dad was keen to get there early, I certainly wasn't going to argue with this direction. We casually strolled down the hill along with countless other families, the excitement etched on the faces of all of the children in tow by their mothers and fathers. We had successfully managed to negotiate our first interaction with Wonderland, (the photograph) and now it was time for the second. This one was to be a little more daunting, as it became apparent that there was quite a queue in order to buy tickets at the ticket booths at the front of the park.
My father took control, he pointed the family towards what he believed in his infinite wisdom, was the shortest and hopefully most efficient queue. I have absolutely no idea, if my father was proved right or not, as I was not paying much attention. I was too busy perusing the other families, looking at all the other kids in strollers and prams or standing holding their parents hands, and wondering if they had the same level of excitement built up inside them, that I had. I wondered if they also had smiled awkwardly for the camera on the way down the hill as if this little interaction was just a small taste of the excitement that lay beyond the hordes of people queued up at the ticket booths.
We slowly inched our way along the queue for about 15mins. Which to an excitable 6 year old and his newly 7 year old cousin, along with our respective smaller brothers in prams seemed like an absolute eternity. My cousin and I remarked to each other (like only 6 and 7 year olds can) about the respective merits of the rides that we had seen on the TV ads for Australia's Wonderland. My cousin was adamant that because it was his birthday today, that he should have first choice when it came to which ride we should go on first. Who was I to argue with this, it sounded perfectly logical. I did also point out that I should have second choice, as out of everyone there, it would be my birthday next (in only a matter of weeks) in February. To this he could not argue either and so it was settled, I informed our parents of the arrangement.
The adults had completed the transaction. In exchange for some coke cans and some money, we were now the proud owners of some tickets to Wonderland. I insisted (as did my cousin) that we would like to hold our own tickets and carry them through to the turnstiles where we can present them as gifts to the Wonderland gate keepers, in the hope that they will grant us access to the hidden wonders inside.
We got to the turnstiles and I proudly gave my ticket to the girl who was working there, she casually smiled at my cousin and I and we smiled back. I am not sure whether we were smiling because she smiled at us, or because my cousin thought he had caught a glimpse of Fred Flintstone just beyond. I would suggest it was the latter. We both scurried off away from our family, in search of Fred, but were saddened to discover that it was simply an advertising sign. Wandering back towards our family who were now making their way towards us, I saw my father map in hand, discussing with my uncle, the best plan of attack for the day. "I think we should go up to Hanna Barbera Land first", he said, my uncle nodding in agreement. "The kids will love that",he said. "Hey kids, you might get to have your photo taken with Fred Flintstone" said my father, excitedly and slightly condescendingly towards us. Not that I could really tell, or for that matter care, I was too busy thinking about Fred.
So we took our first few steps out into the park. I was in awe of the size, and of all the people. There seemed to be people everywhere. Everyone had a pram and a camera. Looking off in the distance straight ahead, I saw my first ride, it was the Bounty's Revenge. It was swinging its way majestically through the loops, much like a skillful trapeze artist would do at a circus. "Would you go on that?" I inquired of my cousin, "I dunno, would you?" He replied. I had to think long and hard about my response. I didn't want to seem like I was afraid, and that I was showing weakness infront of him. I dare say that from his response, he was feeling much the same. But at the same time, I knew there was no way in hell I was going to go on that devilish looking upside-down machine. "Looks pretty scary" I said, hoping to elicit a similarly negative response from my cousin, "Yeah" he replied, and I think at that point we both acknowledged our shared fear of the scary looking Bounty's Revenge.
We started the long trudge up the hill towards Hanna Barbera Land. The men took over control of the two prams, as my cousin and I ran off ahead of our party, on a reconnaissance mission, of what lay ahead of us. Rounding the corner in what later became the Wildlife Park, but was back then the main path up to Hanna Barbera Land, we were greeted by a most beautiful rainbow with a golden pot of rides thrown in for good measure. We looked at each other and smiled, and then ran back to our parents. My cousin had already spotted what he wanted to do first, going straight up to my uncle and demanding that we go on the Balloons ride that had spotted.
Like a genie, with a simple nod of the head of my uncle granted the wish, and our family passed under the lustrous rainbow and turned left walking along the lake and over to the Balloons ride, that was so strongly desired by my cousin. I looked over at the lake and my eyes were immediately drawn by the heads of the various cartoon characters poking out from above the seats. Walking further along towards the balloons, my eyes became transfixed on a grand wooden structure off in the distance up on the hill. I pointed to the big wooden skeleton that rose up over the hill behind the netting off the Silly Stix ride, and said to all "What's that". Dad, with map in hand opened it up and looked through the legend, hoping to answer my question, "It's called the Beastie" he replied, "Do you want to go on it next?" he asked, Without hesitation, or indeed even thinking, the words "Yes yes yes" came straight out of my mouth. I think I had to say it three times, just in case dad did not quite understand exactly what it was I desired the first two.
All of us wandered past the sign that said "Boo Boo's Balloon Race" and prams were parked on the side. The younger members of our party being forced to remove themselves from their chariots. This part of the park was still relatively empty for the day, so we did not have to wait long. I stood at the fence, staring into the ride, the flashes of the colours, as the balloons swung around darted across my face, a seemingly endless dance of colour and light.
"It's slowing down" exclaimed my cousin excitedly, as the ride rotation gently ground to a halt, and the balloons came to rest on the concrete. It was nearly our turn. The ride operator came to the gate and opened it, a couple of families infront of us made their way around the ride, and as soon as my cousin made it past the gate, he took off running to the nearest red balloon. I was a little more subdued, mainly because my mother had hold of me, and my family made our way to a blue balloon, right next to where my cousin and his family were already seated and ready to go in their red one.
I leant over and called out to my cousin, "You ready" I shouted, and he just gave me the thumbs up back. I looked at my mother who was looking after my little brother next to her, he seemed slightly anxious, but I could tell there was a degree of interest in his eyes. The operator came to our balloon and secured the door latch, it must be close I thought. In what seem like a split second later, the ride whirred into action and our ballloon, along with that of everyone else on the ride, took off up into the air and started to spin around almost immediately.
I turned around to see how my cousin was doing in the other balloon. He was having far too much of a good time to be interested in what I was doing. So I turned back to the rest of my family, who were obviously enjoying the experience, even my little brother looked pleased. As we rotated around, I kept trying to catch a glimpse of the giant wooden frame of the Beastie, and I could not help but think that despite the pleasure I was experiencing at the moment, there was something even greater just around the corner for me.
To be continued...