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Gold Coast theme parks have long been tourism’s top-dog — but can they survive 2020?

As the Gold Coast’s famous theme parks reopen their gates amid a pandemic, can the industry learn from some high-profile mistakes to survive and thrive in a post-2020 world?

When Howard Kodra arrived on the Gold Coast more than 50 years ago to begin a career in the nascent theme park industry, the game was full of ‘cowboys’.

“We were a bit lawless. We did what we had to do,” he said.

“It was just the way the industry started and that’s the way it grew very, very rapidly around the world.”

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Mr Kodra saw both success and failure — but what lies ahead for the theme parks that, prior to COVID-19, attracted millions of visitors a year, is anyone’s guess.

‘Thought they were just dumb fish’

Mr Kodra caught and trained wild dolphins, and was involved in orca performances across North America — a practice that became popular throughout from the 1960s.

An older man in a blue polo shirt talking at a kitchen table.
Howard Kodra used to train captive dolphins at theme parks in the 1970s.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

“I watched lots of animals kill themselves in captivity, dolphins and stuff,” he said.

“We didn’t know that back then. We thought they were just dumb fish.”

Mr Kodra consulted for Marineland on the Gold Coast, whose captive orca ‘Ramu’ died in 1970 “in this small concrete pool”.

“I told them, ‘It won’t work, he’ll die, he’ll commit suicide’,” Mr Kodra said.

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Ramu the killer whale at Marineland on the Gold Coast, 1970(ABC Gold Coast)

While he has mixed feelings about what happened, Mr Kodra said “if we hadn’t done it, we wouldn’t love them [dolphins] today”.

Theme parks ‘fundamental’ to economic recovery

Theme parks of 2020 have become a vastly different world to the one Howard Kodra worked in.

Village Roadshow Theme Parks, including Movie World and Sea World, progressively reopened from June at significantly reduced capacities, after losing up to $15 million a month through the pandemic shutdown.

empty car park at sunset
Movie World attracted more than 1.1 million visitors in 2014.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

The Queensland Government has loaned Dreamworld’s parent company $70 million ahead of its reopening on September 16.

“Theme parks have a lot of fixed costs — looking after animals, lots of equipment, large land space,” Deputy Director of the Griffith Institute for Tourism, Sarah Gardiner said.

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Flashback: Movie World opens on the Gold Coast, 1991(ABC Archives)

Dr Gardiner said 47 per cent of Gold Coast tourists visit a theme or wildlife park, making them “a fundamental part” of the city’s economic recovery.

“As we see the re-emergence of domestic tourism, the real competitive advantage for the Gold Coast is its theme-park offering,” she said.

Can Dreamworld survive?

Chief operating officer for Dreamworld and Whitewater World, Greg Yong said in the 35 weeks prior to its closure on March 23, its earnings before tax and other costs, had grown by 56 per cent.

dreamworld sign
Dreamworld will begin a staged reopening from September 16.(ABC Gold Coast: Jennifer Huxley)

“All of the decisions that we’ve been making, we think are good, measured, disciplined,” he said.

But the theme park’s parent company, Ardent Leisure, faced serious financial and reputational damage prior to COVID-19.

In July, the company pleaded guilty to three charges relating the deaths of four people on its Thunder River Rapids Ride in 2016.

On top of a potential maximum penalty of $4.5 million, Ardent Leisure also posted a $136-million loss this year.

Floral tributes at Dreamworld
Floral tributes at Dreamworld at Coomera for the four victims of a ride malfunction on October 25, 2016.(ABC News: Ashleigh Stevenson)

Their theme park revenue dropped 18.8 per cent to $51.4 million but Greg Yong said he’s “very confident” Dreamworld would survive.

“We’re a part of the fabric,” he said.

“Some of those experiences will be just as relevant then as they are today.”

Mr Yong said the State Government’s $70-million loan would not be spent on any legal costs associated with the 2016 tragedy.

Theme parks ‘should expand’

During the 1970s and 80s, Howard Kodra witnessed the growing popularity of Gold Coast theme parks, working at Grundy’s waterpark in Surfers Paradise, Sea World and Cade’s County Waterpark.

aerial view of waterslide
Grundy’s Entertainment Centre operated in Surfers Paradise throughout the 1980s.(ABC Archives)

While Grundy’s “would get thousands of people through a day”, Mr Kodra said it ultimately failed due to quiet off-seasons.

“There’s been a lot of people doing things on the Gold Coast and most of them are ideas but they’re not reality, they don’t work,” he said.

But Mr Kodra said his “baby” was Cade’s County — the precursor to Wet’n’Wild — where he “was expecting a few people to come, not 3,000 a bloody day”.

An older man in a blue polo shirt sits smiling at a kitchen table.
Howard Kodra says while some failed, theme parks have been vital to the Gold Coast’s tourism sector.(ABC Gold Coast: Dominic Cansdale)

While theme parks in 2020 are “hurting bad”, Mr Kodra said they have become central to the city’s tourism sector and identity.

Village Roadshow Theme Parks was contacted for comment.


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