The Fight For Fantasy Glades: Will Port Macquarie’s Forgotten Theme Park Be Reborn Again? | Tourism (Australia)
IIt is like something of the darkest fantasies of the Brothers Grimm. Snow White’s cottage, gutted and barricaded. The House of the Three Bears, covered in graffiti and cobwebs. At the end of a dark, winding path, the house of an abandoned witch looms from the trees.
For almost 20 years, the site of the former Fantasy Glades children’s amusement park in Port Macquarie has been left to nature. Set amid the lush rainforest of the NSW North Coast, the bush had no trouble reclaiming the storybook castles and cottages that attracted families for school vacations and countless birthdays .
The crooked house and its hall of mirrors have disappeared. The red-eyed dragon in his cave. Dinosaurs. The Seven Dwarfs, working in their mine. The miniature monorail, operated by an old-fashioned crank. The child-sized “train” that crisscrossed the park on wheels.
Thanks to a new owner, what’s left is slowly and painstakingly brought back to life. There are plans to transform the site into an upscale holiday park, with many old buildings and facilities preserved and renovated.
But not everyone in town is happy with it. After being abandoned for so long, the koalas have moved in. And as Port Macquarie becomes one of the fastest growing towns in NSW, the once iconic park has become a touchstone for local concerns about the decline of koalas – and may never be reopened at all.
For almost 35 years, Fantasy Glades has been one of the best-loved and beloved mid-size family theme parks that once dotted the coast between Sydney and Brisbane. With a half-storybook, half-nursery-Disney theme that would never escape trial today, it has drawn more than three million visitors from its opening in 1968 to its closing in 2002.
Unlike many of its counterparts – think the old Big Banana theme park in Coffs Harbor, or the hapless Leyland Brothers fibro Uluru outside of Port Stephens – Fantasy Glades didn’t close because it didn’t. more money. In 2002, the owners, George and Pat Spry, who bought the business in the 1980s, retired for family reasons. The vague plans for a new park never materialized.
After changing hands several times, businessman Jeff Crowe bought the site in 2015. Although he never visited the park in its heyday, he saw the potential in decaying buildings – and the prime location – for a cafe and a destination spot that trades on the nostalgia of locals and former tourists.
Since purchasing the site, Crowe has battled the forest, council approval processes, and the common periodic vandalism of bored teens in regional towns.
“The kids would just go through holes in the fence and destroy everything,” he says. When I started cleaning everything, there were condoms, beer bottles, etc. All the doors were smashed in, all the windows were smashed.
Crowe’s efforts saved many ancient buildings from complete destruction. Cinderella’s Castle has been repainted from its signature pink to a dark blue. The miniature chapel where children used to hold pint-sized weddings has a new roof. And the dense sticky bush that choked the site was cut down, replaced in many places by grass.
It has been years of hard work. But Crowe thinks it will be worth it in the end.
“I sold the Bathurst gymnasium that I owned for 37 years to move here and do this,” he says. “There aren’t a lot of negative boxes to tick about this place. It’s close to the beach, the CBD. And I liked the idea of having koalas at the back door.
But these koalas pose a bit of a dilemma. Crowe unwittingly found himself caught up in a battle for the future of Fantasy Glades – and for the identity of Port Macquarie.
On rare occasions, Port Macquarie makes the news for something other than a horrific natural disaster, usually something very strange. For over two years, the city’s greatest history has been the approval, construction and opening of the port’s first Kmart. Sustained public opposition to the introduction of fluoride into the city’s drinking water in 2012 resulted in a non-binding planned ballot. Last month, a life-size fiberglass statue of Colonel Sanders was stolen from the local KFC. (It was recovered later, minus a finger.)
But below the surface, a lot has changed. Port Macquarie is experiencing a sustained population boom as retirees and young families migrate north from Sydney. Charles Sturt University opened a campus in 2012, attracting hundreds of students. Like everywhere else, house prices have gone up astronomically. On the outskirts of Port, swathes of forest have been bulldozed to make way for new residential developments and shopping centers.
Like a teenager trying on different looks, Port Macquarie fumbled with her changing identity as she went from a sleepy seaside town to a major regional hub. The long push to market itself as a destination for Schoolies has always been undermined by the fact that there has never really been a place to go for a drink, let alone a big night out. Its tentative attempt to rebrand itself as a regional arts and culture center failed when the Glasshouse, a pristine performing arts center one block from the waterfront, exceeded its original budget by $ 60 million by $ 6.7 million. The state government was forced to dismiss the council, launch a public inquiry and appoint an administrator, the delightfully named Dick Persson.
Two parts of Port Macquarie’s image have remained the same: its beaches and koalas. One of the largest koala populations in the country lives in the greater Port Macquarie area. Mimicking Berlin’s Buddy Bears tourist countryside, large fiberglass koalas dot the city, each painted by a local artist to resemble figures like Lady Edna, Lachlan Macquarie, and – in one particularly disturbing case – a Japanese geisha.
But Black Summer has raised fears that Port Macquarie’s unofficial mascots may be wiped out. A Biolink study in September estimated that 34% of the koala population at Lake Innes Nature Reserve on the southwestern fringe of Port was killed. When the local koala hospital appealed for $ 25,000 in donations, it was inundated with nearly $ 8 million from around the world.
Even before Black Summer, the koalas of Port Macquarie were in grave danger. As the city expands west into a previously untouched bush, koalas are losing their habitat and increasingly colliding with cars and dogs. The council’s most recent koala recovery strategy, released in 2018, found that the region’s koalas would be “functionally extinct within the next 50 years” without drastic action.
The passion that koalas inspire – and the fear that they will soon disappear – explains the massive success of the campaign to leave Fantasy Glades as it is.
More than 26,000 people have signed an online petition demanding that Port Macquarie-Hastings city council reject Crowe’s request to build 11 vacation cabins on the site. The petitioners, the Shelly Beach Residents Action Group, say the site “is home to koalas, migratory birds and other wildlife” that are “threatened” by Crowe’s plans.
It is not known how many koalas actually live on the site and in the surrounding bush. Much of this is rainforest, where koalas typically don’t live. But a koala management plan prepared for Crowe in 2019 by Biodiversity Australia confirmed that “the site is used regularly by koalas” and concluded that “the site is part of a larger area of Core Koala Habitat”.
Crowe says he has broad community support to revitalize the site, has worked extensively with the council to ensure that the site’s biodiversity is protected, and – in line with council requirements – has submitted an impact statement social who found the site’s koala management plan to “ensure the safety of the local koala community.” Its original plans for the site have been amended on several occasions to reflect the issues raised, including preserving the trees that nourish them. Koala bears.
But the prospect of seeing more displaced koalas struck a chord. After the Shelly Beach Residents Action Group delivered its petition at a council meeting in May, the council vowed to ask the state government to consider purchasing the land and earmarking it for conservation. koalas.
This is news for Crowe.
“They didn’t tell me about it! It’s like I don’t exist, ”he says. “They’re not coming here to help clean up the place.”
Crowe is confident that the site will eventually be allowed to reopen. But with the potential involvement of the state government, Fantasy Glades could sit on the sidelines for months or years.
“Look around you. It’s just too nice to lock it up and let it go to vandals, ”he says. “But I’m not fixing anything more until we get approval. Otherwise, it’s no use.
Until there’s a decision one way or the other, Fantasy Glades will stay where it has been for 19 years: in limbo.