Following Dreamland's successful first summer season after reopening under the creative direction of fashion designer and retro enthusiast Wayne Hemingway, the winter season is now upon us. On top of rides and games, the park is hosting a series of events for adults and families – and it's all wrapped in the mismatched trappings of a variety of eras from the 20th Century that evoke nostalgia.
I was invited to the opening day of the winter season – dubbed Frosted Fairground – so packed up the family in the car and headed to the seaside at Margate.
Margate itself has been trying to reinvigorate itself for some years now as a hipster hotspot. While there's the occasional independent coffeeshop or dive bar, most of the town reminds you of that line from Morrissey's Every Day Is Like Sunday about "a seaside town that they forgot to close down". The Moz's following wish for Armageddon to come could hardly make the town look worse than the massive towerblock that looms over Dreamland – even dwarfing the huge Ferris Wheel.
Dreamland isn't going to let itself be dominated by its delapidated surroundings though. There's a sense of faded glory to the place, but this is a considered take on retroism – well-worn rather than worn out – that has a real charm and humanity to it.
Images: A gray winter’s day meant that we’ve used Dreamland’s photos like these as well as our own in this story.
The rides and architecture draw from the 1920s to the 1950s, with everything from the Gallopers carousel to the Hurricane Jets rockets ride (above) given the lacquered gloss of the archetypal funfair.
Photos: Marc Sethi
However, there’s also a general quirkiness to the rides’ designs – I can’t think of another park in the UK where you’d find yourself pedalling a car on a monorail suspended 30 feet off the ground.
There’s also an arcade of traditional machines like Zoltar here (best known for its appearance in 80’s body-swap movie Big) – and some rather odd modern ones like Flappy Bird.
The park’s iconic ride is the Scenic Railway, a rebuilt version of the UK's oldest rollercoaster that’s now a Grade II listed building. Originally opened in 1921, it was burned down in 1949 and 2008 – with the latest rebuilding debuting this summer. It’s more of a pleasure-ride than a thrill-ride, very much in keeping with Dreamland’s recreation of a mythical kinder, gentler age.
The Scenic Railway is also a prime example of the sense of humanity that’s imbued throughout Dreamland – that there are people behind what you're experiencing, in contrast to the robotic efficiency of the likes of Thorpe Park. The trains have a driver behind the first car with a handle, rather than a person in a cab watching a screen in a cabin. This extends across the park down to that the roving entertainers are clowns and other human characters – not hidden inside anthromorphoised animals.
Being an authentically British amusement park, not everything went to play. Cars got stuck on the Scenic Railway due to the cold and high winds caused by the periphery of Storm Desmond – with the best solution seeming to be for one of the staff to give it a push to get it on its way. This could have been annoying but in the context of the place again made the experience feel more real.
For Christmas, Dreamland has opened a grotto – sponsored by Hornby, another brand that indulges in authentic-feeling retroism. Your children spend time playing games with three hipster elves before having a story read to them all by Father Christmas – followed by the obligatory photo op.
This makes a refreshing change from the usual ‘queue up to sit on Santa’s knee to be asked the same question’, especially if you have or will end up doing it more than once. Plus the Hornby toy in the present is much better than the usual plastic tat.
The events in Dreamland’s ballroom include the ridiculously silly Club du Fromage to – on the day we went – the wonderful Big Fish Little Fish. Subtitled '2-4 Hour Party People', this is a rave for children that sits in the meeting point between a club night and a children’s birthday party. There are 90s rave tunes for everyone to dance to – DJed this time by The Orb's Alex Paterson (now take a minute to appreciate how monumentally cool the idea of a kids' rave with The Orb's Alex Paterson is). Throw in bubble machines, huge balloons, parachute dancing, craft tables where the kids can make things to dance in and a licensed bar (for us grown-ups obviously), then you’re going to have a pretty amazing time.
Despite an (at least) 40-year time difference. Big Fish Little Fish fits within Dreamland’s ethos. As with those early days of dance music, Dreamland itself feels like more of a feat of craft then engineering – something readers like you will likely appreciate.
Dreamland's winter season runs until Jan 3.