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John Longhurst’s Dreamworld Stories – Building The Impossible – Part 2

Continuing on from the first part of John Longhurst’s stories about Dreamworld (you can read part one here), it’s apparent to anyone who’s met John or read about his career that he’s not a man that’s left much up to chance. Instead, a laser focus for realising exactly what he envisions combined with fierce determination has kept John on a path of continued success over his lifetime. As we chatted, I had looked over my shoulder and noticed a sign which had an interesting saying that, judging by the cardboard’s age, had clearly been around for a long, long while. When I asked John about the sign, he slowly paced out the words that he’d clearly said a million times to himself before – “A man who makes up his mind to win, does not know the impossible.”

“All my life, mate.” John began. “When I started building lawn mowers I said, “What do you know about lawnmowers?” What am I supposed to know? I can build them. I didn’t know the first thing about them other than I knew enough about engineering, where to get parts made outside, and how I wanted them. And, I remember when Victa bought me out, the manager that was taking over came and said, “John, you haven’t given us a copy of all your plans.” And I looked at him a bit shocked and said, “What do you mean ‘plans’?” He said, “Where are your plans for your lawn mowers?” I said, “No. I haven’t gotten any.” He said, “But you must have plans, you know, your baseplates. And I said, “Oh no, when I get that made like that I just draw my finger in the dirt!” He went back to the board of directors and thought I was having a go at him. That’s all I used to do.”

Pictured above: two motivational sayings John has posted around his home office.

Carving out the dream (& Mr. Day)

After John had purchased the land from Mr. Day, his first objective was to start landscaping the riverways and roads that would comprise his vision. “The bull-dozer – I bought it in Sydney, it arrived within a few days and I said to the guy, after he took it off the truck, “You’d better show me how to drive it!” [Well,] I won’t say what he said…” John chuckled as he softly mumbles to me a variant of “f*cking figure it out!” He continued, “and he threw the key to me! I’ve never even started one before, and I got on it, and I put it into gear and I thought I was going straight across the highway! I thought this would be the end of my life. But, anyway, it was only a matter of a few weeks and I learned how to drive that thing and I think I guarantee I could drive as good as anyone today.”

I had asked John about the river that the now defunct Captain Sturt Paddlewheeler would navigate. “There was a creek that went through [the property], and that was the reason I loved the land so much because I visualized it all before I even bought the land – “Oh, I’m going to need a lot of water. I’m going to need an area where I can build this lake, so I can run this boat around; I’m going need an area that’s reasonably flat where I can run a steam train around; I want to have shops up here; I want to have the front of the entryway reasonably high that it can be seen from the highway, as you drive down the highway, it stands out… So here I am – I had a picture in my head, so I didn’t have to have plans. I could just go, “I’ve just got an image.” And then start to draw, knocking trees over. I remember my brother came up and he said, “You’re mad.” So, I would say, “You’re clueless.”

I pressed him about the vision that he had in his mind, and, admittedly, just like his brother, inevitably asked him just exactly how much he knew in advance. “First of all, I knew that Disney was just the most wonderful place, and the first thing you saw was the Disneyland station and it was always in my eyes, the most magnificent thing. And I thought “I’m going to make my entryway look like that station!” And that’s exactly what we did. If you’re going to do something, follow the best. So, that’s what I attempted with very little money, really. [My father] used to say, “If you’re going to do something, find out who does it best and do it as close as you can. Make it be a little bit different and a little bit better, if you can, and I always did that all through my life. And every business I’ve been into, I’ve endeavored to do a little bit different, a little bit better and I believe that’s how Dreamworld was.”

 

“…my brother came up and he said, “You’re mad.” So, I would say, “You’re clueless.”

 

Continuing on the topic of construction, I asked John about an old fable which is well known during the construction and early years of Dreamworld. This fable (that, funnily enough, is still on Dreamworld’s own website) prominently features that Mr & Mrs Williamson (whose names I still can’t place or even figure out as to how they replaced Mr. Day when it came to who was really living in Hollywood Cottage) had stayed in the old house on the property until Gold Rush Country opened in 1989 (some years after the park opened). John was eager to clarify the real story about Mr. Day, and the last time anyone ever saw him.

Pictured above: Dreamworld’s Main Street in the late 1970’s. If you look closely, you’ll spot Hollywood Cottage where Gold Rush Country existed.

“There was the old Mr. Day, who was the only one that had ever lived there; [he] had still been living in the cottage when I first took over the property and I said he could stay there until I wanted him to get out. So, he used to stay there and I never bothered him, and he never bothered me. And I was bulldozing the road from the entryway down to where the rollercoaster eventually ended up, a straight road, and I was going backwards and forwards pushing the trees over and so on. He would only come out to go to the out-house (for the millennials, an out-house is a pre-sewerage era building you would go to the toilet in) [which] was about, probably, a couple of hundred feet at the back of the cottage, right? But I had to go quite close to it, [the outhouse] and this day he came out, I’d asked him “You’re going to have to move because I want to be able to move the house and I want to be able to move the toilet because I’m going to put this road in and so on.” And the next morning, I’d seen him again and I said, “You haven’t moved and I’m going to put this road in!” He said, “I’m not going to move!” I said, “Yes, you are! You have no right to even be on the property other than out of my kindness that I’ve let you stay in the house.” And he gave me the finger and off he went back into the cottage.”

“So, I’m going backwards and forwards, and he came out of his cottage, and he’s got a roll of newspaper or something tucked under the right arm and a radio under the other, going to the out-house. He went into the toilet and I’d called out to him on the way. I said, “You’ve got to get out!” And he gave me the finger! I got quite annoyed about that, and so, next time, I came back to go past the outhouse where he was, I put the bucket of my machine (bull-dozer) underneath and shook the out-house! He let out a scream – he’d come flying out the door, his pants down at his knees! That afternoon, he was gone. So, that was Mr. Day.”

Pictured above: The very rough location where Mr. Day’s out-house was located.

IMAX & Spy helicopters

After having a good chuckle about Mr. Day, conversation turned back to building Dreamworld. One of the park’s biggest opening day attractions (and John’s pride and joy) was the famous IMAX theatre. “I personally dealt with the IMAX people in Canada in Toronto and, as far as I’m concerned, we had a guy who was excellent and he operated the IMAX equipment. He was brilliant at what he did. We never had one moment’s trouble with it, it just operated perfectly. I used to probably go maybe once a week or maybe twice a week and just sit and watch it. And that was a bit boring, you might think, but it wasn’t. I used to sit right at the back by myself. There was a seat right against the back wall, and I used to sit there and watch that film, and it was interesting to watch all the heads of the people in there, and there was one area [of the film] when a steam train would come along a track and all of a sudden, it turned and it was coming straight at you and [people would] duck! I couldn’t help but laugh. It was good stuff.”

“…everybody loved the IMAX theatre. It helped make Dreamworld what it was…”

 

Perhaps just as interesting as the films themselves was the story behind the deal that made it all possible. “You had to buy it from IMAX in Canada and I had an agreement with them. I was the only one that could operate an IMAX theatre in Queensland. There were others that tried to get it and were told, “Go away. Dreamworld have it and we can’t do anything about it. We’ve given it to them.” I had that for quite a number of years and everybody came, everybody loved the IMAX theatre. It helped make Dreamworld what it was [but] I’ll never forget the deal that I struck with them. Initially they wanted me to pay so much per person who came into the park. I said, “I can’t do that! I don’t know how many people are going to come in. I’m not going to sign an agreement with you, but I will pay you a certain amount of money!” Which they accepted and they were so upset because we did three times the number of people we thought we would and they thought they were cheated out of thousands of dollars! That wasn’t the case. It was a risk they took, and I even took the risk too because I had seen an IMAX film in America. Somebody had told me about it. Somebody from one of the television stations had told me they’d heard about this thing and I purposely went there to have a look at it and I said, “That’s what I want.” Because, again in Disneyland I had been there and one of the things I’d always enjoyed was they had what they called Circle-Vision, and it was a big theater with this big screen and it went all the way around and no matter where you looked, you could see it. And I thought, “I got to have something. I can’t do that. What can I do?” When I heard about this, I said, “Wow. That’s exactly for me.” And I was the first in Australia to have it. It was a good deal.”

Pictured above: Dreamworld’s Main Street, with the IMAX theatre facade off in the distance.

It also meant that as a result of John’s cunning deal with IMAX to ensure exclusivity for Dreamworld, Sea World (and subsequently its owner, Keith Williams) which became John’s biggest competitor, couldn’t buy into IMAX. “We didn’t have a relationship [with Sea World or Keith], rather, I just knew of the man because when I was in the boat business – we supplied his operation when he was on the Nerang River with the skiing thing that he had there. I think I used to supply about six or seven boats a year to him.”

I had posed to John another story that happened during the construction of Dreamworld that certainly (at least in my mind anyway) had questionable truth or accuracy. Apparently and somewhat hilariously, whilst building Dreamworld, an angry John had tried to shoot down a nosey Sea World helicopter with his shotgun!

As it turns out, when Keith Williams & John Menzies (his manager, who later went on to run Sea World, Movie World & Wet ‘n’ Wild) had tried to land their helicopter at Dreamworld, John came out running towards them with what was merely a broom in his hand. They however, were at that point, none the wiser as to what John really had in his hand. “They thought it was a shotgun! They all ran back in the helicopter and took off! That was funny.” I had asked John if hew knew if Keith & John were coming at all in the first place. “I think I did. One of them said that they were coming – it might have been from Brisbane office of the owners of the helicopter or something, I don’t know. And they said it was coming in, that it was going to land and that they were coming to see me and I said, “I’ve told them not to come down here in a helicopter or take pictures of Dreamworld [otherwise] I’ll shoot them down!” So I walked out with whatever it was, and they all ran back up the helicopter and took off. That’s a long time ago, you know, I don’t remember the full details.”

“I’ve told them not to come down here in a helicopter or take pictures of Dreamworld [otherwise] I’ll shoot them down!”

 

Intruiged, I asked if Keith had ever come back to the park after that faifthul day. “Yes. We had several people who were supervisors to make sure everything was right all the time. And they were all around the park watching our staff to make sure everybody was treated correctly, and if there was a problem anywhere, they were in touch with the head office immediately. They got in touch with me and said, “Mr. Keith Williams from Sea World has just come in and he’s entered the IMAX theatre!” And I said, “Well, keep an eye.” So, when he came out, they followed him and he went down to the roller coaster, the Thunderbolt, and so I went straight down, I walked up to him and said, “Hey, Keith! You can come have a ride with me!” He’s like, “Not on your life.” And that was the last time I spoke to him.”

Keith’s Corkscrew versus Kenny’s Thunderbolt

The story behind Dreamworld’s now demolished Thunderbolt roller-coaster started well before the park had even finished being built. During construction, Ken Lord, son of a famous Sydney furniture retailer, Keith Lord, had repeatedly asked John to let him invest into Dreamworld. “Well, he wanted to come into Dreamworld! He was a young person, younger than me, and he didn’t live far away from me when I lived in Sydney. I used to often come over and he’d come out on my boat and that’s how I’ve got to know him. I knew his dad very well. And he said to me one day, “If ever you want a partner in Dreamworld I’d love to be involved.” And I said, “Well, I don’t want a partner at this stage.” Later on, I decided that millions of dollars were just being swallowed so quickly, maybe it’d be good idea if I had a partner. And it was strange because I was in Sydney and I had stopped on the main highway, Parramatta Road, and I hadn’t called in to see them this time. And I’d stopped, and I was looking at some new cars, thinking, “Oh, I’m going to buy one of these.” And a car stopped that blew the horn and I thought, “Jeez. I’ve parked in front of someone’s driveway,” And it was Kenny Lord! And he said, “Why didn’t you come in to see me?”  ‘Cause his showroom was only down the way. And I said “You know, I’ve really got to get back. I’m in a hurry, but I saw all these BMWs are for sale, I was just having a look – I’d like to get one when I get enough money.” And again he said, “if you want a partner, I’d love to come in.” I said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” So, I gave him a call as soon as I got back home. I said, “Come up and see me.” So, he brought his accountant up to see me, and the accountant went and saw his mother, who was chairman of Keith Lord because Keith had died, and she was told that the accountant felt that it would be good for Kenny to get involved with me – that I would be honest and do the right thing by him. And so, that’s what happened. He came in as a minor shareholder, but he didn’t have any control in the business. He didn’t really have any say and this was all done in writing because I wanted to do my own thing. I didn’t want somebody telling me what to do because that would only hinder my thoughts and my plan that was in my head! He was happy to do all of that and so, he became a partner in Dreamworld and because he became a partner in Dreamworld, when I needed more money, we went to the bank and if we wanted a few more million dollars, might have been five million or something, the bank were prepared to give it to us now. If I hadn’t had that partner, they wouldn’t have done it. But because of Ken Lord, I had that opportunity so that it all worked out wonderful.”

 

“…I was going to build a fairytale castle with a ride through it and I decided I’ll have a roller coaster that’ll bring the people in.”

 

Prior to his partnership with Ken, John had thought about building a Corkscrew roller-coaster for Dreamworld, long before the Thunderbolt had come to exist. “Well, I had been to see the people just out of San Francisco (now defunct Arrow Dynamics, known at the time as Arrow Development) where they manufactured the rollercoasters and they had given me the rights to build one of their roller coasters in Australia. When I got back, I decided I didn’t like that roller coaster very much and I really didn’t want to build it and I was talking to, not sure who it was but, it wasn’t Keith Williams, but it was one of his top people.  I think it might be a guy called John Menzies, at the time. I’m not sure. Anyway, he said, “Ah. We would be interested in having a roller coaster like that!” And I said, “Well, I’m not going to do it.” And without realizing what I had done, Keith Williams was on the plane the next day over there seeing them! But because I had the right to build their roller-coaster in Australia, he couldn’t necessarily do it and I said, “Well, you know if he wants to build that roller coaster in Australia, that’s okay by me because I thought that more of that type of thing in Australia was going to be good for both of us.” And so, that’s exactly what happened and that’s where his roller coaster came from.”

John & I continued back on to the topic of Ken & the Thunderbolt. “Well, what had happened – I didn’t have the money to do it and so, the Lord family said they would put the money in and that they would build it and then lease it from a finance company. It was a few million dollars and I didn’t have a few million dollars to spend on a roller coaster at the time, which was a lot of money back in 1979 (approximately), and so Lord said, “Would I rent them a piece of the property in the corner?” I was going to build a fairytale castle with a ride through it and I decided I’ll have a roller coaster that’ll bring the people in. So, I fenced a section off and I said, “That’ll cost you so much. I’ll rent that to you.” It wasn’t very much money. It was only, maybe, 40, 50, 100 dollars or something a year and it didn’t matter, I wanted that roller coaster. And so Kenny went overseas and he went to all the different companies that built roller coasters, and I had arranged for them to be able to buy one which was good from one company, I think it was one in America, I don’t think it was the, what’s the name, the one…” It was at this point where I mentioned the Thunderbolt’s manufacturer, Sanoyas Meisho, was a Japanese company. “That was Japanese, yes, I think. Anyway, Kenny went running around and I’d suggested two or three and I think Mrs. Lord thought I was getting money from the people and saying this is what you should build. So, she would go against everything I recommended. So, I said to myself, “Pull away and let him do his own thing.” And so, he didn’t have much of a clue about [building a roller-coaster] and he went to Japan and he got sucked in to building this thing. Now, it was estimated that he shouldn’t spend more than two million dollars, and so he came back and he said, “I’ve got this double-loop roller coaster which is going to be so fantastic.” And I said, “How much is it going to cost, Kenny?” And he said, “About two million dollars.” So, I said, “Well, it’s your business. You can do what you want.”

“So, they signed an agreement with me and leased the land and started to build the roller coaster. When it got up to about two and a half million dollars, his brother came up, his older brother, who was the managing director of Keith Lord furniture and he threw a fit! And I said, “What are you going to do, Bill? It’s half built! You’ve got to finish it.” And they were worried it was going to cost them four million dollars! Anyway, that ended up costing them about three million. But, anyway, we got the first double-loop roller coaster in Australia, and it was being operated by Dreamworld and the cost, because we had a pay-only-one-price entry, they had to pay an additional fee to ride the roller coaster, which was at the time, three dollars a head. They thought they were going to build a new showroom every year from the money that they would make from the roller coaster, you know, if we were getting a million people in there a year. Instead of that, they got about, I think, four or five hundred [thousand] people riding the roller coaster. They were losing money on it because they had leased it and I think, if it was seven percent even on three million dollars, that’s over 200,000 a year! They were getting about five or six hundred thousand, they had to pay us to operate it – they were losing money eventually, and they were having a fit. They wanted to kill Kenny! And it ended up so bad. He was one of the major shareholders. Keith Lord Furniture were a public company, and when his father was ill, he’d said to Kenny, “Kenny, if any of the family or anyone want to sell their shares, you keep buying them.” And he’d given Kenny enough money to buy so many shares in Keith Lord Furniture that Kenny really had control, but he didn’t understand what he had. And so, they were going to try and toss him out because of him overspending on the roller-coaster and found out they couldn’t do that!”

Pictured above: Ken Lord’s iconic Thunderbolt, before John had bought it and repainted the loops red.

“It was quite sad, in a way, but Kenny had to pay them back the money which meant he had to sell his shares in Dreamworld. So for 12 months, he tried to sell his shares in Dreamworld to plenty of people including television stations, all sorts of people that I know had the money, but they wanted to buy 10% of my shares because Kenny had about 48% of the company whereas I had 52% or whatever it was. And because they were public companies, they had to have, at least, 50 to 51 per cent of the company. My shares weren’t for sale. So, poor Kenny was in deep trouble. And, one day, he came to me and he says, “They’re killing me,” he said, “John, what will you give me for my shares?” So I told him what I’d give him through shares, which was very fair. It was more than double what he paid from only a couple of years before, and also, the roller coaster, they decided they would have to sell that and they wanted me to buy it, “How much would I pay for it?” And I told them I would give them a fair price for it, they started to flip and said they’re going to pull it out and I said, “Okay, if you like! Though that’ll cost you more money than the original thing just to pull it out of the ground. All that steel has to come out of the concrete.” Afterwards, they realized that and so, I was able to buy Kenny’s shares and buy the roller coaster off them, which I did. That was the end of that. It was then up to me from there on, but it was good because I had no one to answer to or talk to. I just did whatever I wanted to do.”

Being, at times, an over-observant Dreamworld nut, I pointed out that in the early 80’s the Thunderbolt’s loops had been painted to an iconic shade of Red. “God you’ve got a good memory, you have, you’re a monster!” John laughed. “Because I said it’s red hot, those loops, do you follow me?” I nodded. “That’s why they were red on top! Yes, that’s funny, isn’t it? Jeez, when I look at these things, I forget about all this stuff and it just sort of gets to your heart.”

Later in our conversations, Ken’s name had popped up again, at which point I asked about if Kenny Koala, Dreamworld’s mascot, beared (pun intended) any correlation to Ken. John laughed. “Well, there was I suppose, in some way. I had the heads of another very large company assisting me with the opening of Dreamworld, and I said, “I want to have this koala!” They’ve got a Mickey Mouse in Disneyland and we were trying to think of a name for him (Dreamworld’s mascot) and this guy said to me, “Oh. Call the bloody thing Kenny! Kenny Lord will love it.” And so I was like, “Yes, okay. That’s what we’ll call it.” And there was the other one (the female Dreamworld Koala mascot) and one of the politician’s name was Brown. There’s a picture of him in there with me (John pointed to his archive room), and so we said, “What are we going to call Kenny’s girlfriend?” And, I don’t know [who], somebody said, “Call her Belinda Brown!” That’s funny how things used to happen like that sometimes.”

If you liked this, be sure to share it! Many hours of hard work have gone into making this possible, so your support means the world. Stay tuned for the next part in the series, which covers opening, running, selling & finally, after over two decades, finally revisiting Dreamworld.

 

Ben Roache
Australian Director, Photography & Vlogger. Ben has spent his life dedicated to the art of storytelling - today he spends his time crafting film, photo & digital ideas for brands, and in his spare time seeks out the very best adventures, theme parks and beers.

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