Today (July 3) Dreamland and the Scenic Railway celebrate their 100th anniversary.
While a leisure venue has existed on the Margate site since the 1870s, it was not until 1920 that John Henry Iles transformed it into the pleasure garden and amusement park Dreamland – and opened the famous Scenic Railway to the public.
The event was due to have been marked with a series of large-scale events, new art commissions and festival fun . But 2020 has been a year blighted by the coronavirus pandemic.
Events everywhere have been cancelled, large gatherings are banned and social distancing measures in place to halt the transmission of the virus mean opening the amusement park is just not viable.
So, instead of the planned party alternative queen All Together Now TV personality and cabaret performer Paulus declared the 100th birthday before the Scenic set off along the track with 28 giant teddies onboard.
The big bears – each standing 44” tall – were provided by HB Leisure, and UK sightseeing company The Original Tour arranged an open top bus to help transport these VITs (Very Important Teddies) from their base in Surrey all the way to Margate for the ride of their lives.
A handful of the giant toys will be donated to local children’s charities, courtesy of HB Leisure and Dreamland.
Paulus has been a regular Dreamland visitor since staying with his nan in Margate as a small boy. Later years saw visits with friends as a teen and last year Paulus was part of the Pride celebrations at the park.
The performer, who has previously taken to the stage at the Tom Thumb Theatre, also owns a home in Margate.
Paulus said: “It really is a great story for the Scenic which has survived three fires and a world war and I am sure Dreamland will survive through this.”
Dreamland CEO Eddie Kemsley confirmed the Dreamland rides will remain closed ths Summer but, alongside the drive-in cinema which will take place in August, a schedule of socially-distanced public events is being planned.
Sadly 52 staff have now been made redundant with just 22, mostly operations and maintenance workers, remaining on the payroll.
Eddie said: “Dreamland is all about socialising and coming together so the restrictions make it really difficult.
“But we have a few things in the pipeline that we will announce in the coming weeks and pretty much all our 2020 events have transferred to 2021 so next year already has a packed programme.
“We have kept 22 staff, mainly operational as the rides and the park have to be maintained, but when we reopen properly next year we will look to grow the team.
“It has been a head over heart decision. Emotionally every part of me wanted to get the park open this year but we have made the right decision to protect Dreamland for the next 100 years. Our vintage rides cannot accommodate the social distancing measures required to prevent spread of COVID-19, and the safety of our guests comes first.
“The 100th year is 365 days so next Easter hopefully we can mark the end of that hundredth year.”
Where did it all start?
1870: A restaurant and dance hall, known as the Hall By The Sea, was bought by entrepreneur George Sanger and Thomas Dalby Reeve, then Mayor of Margate.
After Reeve’s death in 1875, Sanger went it alone and the hall and land behind became pleasure gardens with a mock ruined abbey, lake, statues and a menagerie.
1920: Dreamland opened on the site of a seafront zoo and gardens. It was owned by showman CC Bartram and businessman John Henry Iles who owned rights to the Scenic Railway.
1938: Dreamland was taken over by Iles’s son Eric but closed following the outbreak of the Second World War.
June 1946: Dreamland reopened on June 6, with money from Billy Butlin, who was chairman of Dreamland from 1946 to 1950.
1980s: The site was taken over by the Bembom Brothers who turned it into a white-knuckle theme park
1996: The Bembom family sold the site to Jimmy Godden who secured grants to assist in an initial £3 million redevelopment.
2002: The Scenic Railway was granted Grade II-listed status.
2003: Mr Godden announced that Dreamland would close and be redeveloped for shops and offices.
2005: Margate Town Centre Regeneration Company, (MTCRC) which had shareholders including Mr Godden, bought the park for £20 million. Dreamland closed to the public and all rides, apart from the Scenic Railway, were removed.
2007: Ideas were put forward for the site by Thanet council which included a mixed scheme with the majority of the site kept as an amusement park, along with homes.
2008: The Scenic Railway was partially destroyed by fire after an arson attack on April 7. The owners pledged to rebuild. Thanet council threatened to compulsory purchase the site if it was not repaired. Dreamland Cinema was upgraded to Grade II* status on April 25.
2009: The Save Dreamland Trust unveiled plans for a heritage theme park and a £3.7 million government grant was awarded to help bring the park back to life.
The £12 million project hit a financial problem. Thanet council stepped in to pay £4 million. The rest came from a £3.8 million government grant, £3 million from the Heritage Lottery fund, and local groups.
2011: A compulsory purchase order was served. Listed buildings were repaired after council served urgent works notices. Legal battles pushed the park’s opening date from 2012 to 2013.
MTCRC put forward alternative plans for the site in an attempt to stop the CPO.
2012: Jimmy Godden died. MTCRC became DreamlandLive. In August the government approved the CPO to Thanet council after an inquiry.
2013: After prolonged legal arguments a notice to quit the park was finally served. Designer Wayne Hemingway’s company was hired to create plans for the park.
May 2014: Another fire hit the park. Dreamland Expo: A Past, Present and Future visitor centre opened. Work to restore the rides began.
November 2014: Sands Heritage agreed in principal to be the park operator.
June 19, 2015: The Dreamland revived park reopened to the public.
December 2015: Sands Heritage Ltd entered into a voluntary debt plan.
May 2016: Dreamland put into administration.
June 18, 2016: Free entry to Dreamland and a weekend of first birthday celebrations.
July 16, 2016 – A record number of people visit Dreamland with 10,000 recorded in one day
July 2016 – The Scenic Railway is closed for repairs and the Octopus Garden children’s area is also shut for repairs after a leak.
August 4,2016 – A creditors’ meeting is held by administrators Duff & Phelps. Coombs, based in Canterbury, announces it will carry out £1.8 million restoration works at the former Sunshine Café and cinema entrance foyer at Dreamland.
September 2016: Administrators shut down the Vintage Arcade at the park. The same month sees the opening of the iconic Hall By The Sea.
October 2016: Former Dreamland owners MTCRC offer £1m to take back the park and end the legal dispute with Thanet council over land compensation
January 2017: An extension to the administration period is granted meaning the park could continue to run. Offshore firm Arrowgrass increases its loan amount for the park to just under £10million
February 2017: A £15million overhaul of Dreamland is announced with more funding from Arrowgrass. Plans for new and restored rides, landscaped gardens, festivals and street food are unveiled
March 2017: Gorillaz announced to stage Demon Dayz festival in June, the park’s rare menagerie cages are restored, the neon signage is also restored and Arrowgrass announce another £10million of investment. Thanet council appoints real estate adviser, GVA, to find an operator for the former Sunshine Cafe building.
May 2017: Thousands turn out for the opening of the newly improved Dreamland and the event is attended by artist Tracy Emin. The bank holiday weekend attracted some 50,000 people to the park.
June 2017: Official opening of Ziggy;s rooftop bar and thousands enjoy the Demon Dayz gig.
October 2017: Dreamland exits administration and Arrowgrass hold talks about purchasing the Arlington freehold as part of a new masterplan for the site
March 2018: Dreamland announces a £5 park entry fee, which includes a single go on a ride of a visitor’s choice, or the daily Day Dreamer food and drink offer.
April 2018: Dreamland announces 9 new rides will be installed at the park over the summer
June 2018: The Dreamland Drop sky tower ride arrives at the park. Plans for a 120 bed seafront hotel are revealed
January 2019: Former Dreamland CEO Eddie Kemsley returns to head up the Margate amusement park once more
February 2019: The Dreamland hotel plans, which means the demolition of two buildings including Ziggy’s rooftop bar, are approved
April 2019: The £5 park entrance fee is dropped and footfall soared by more than 380% with 105,433 visitors between April 6 and April 22, compared to 21,988 visitors during the 2018 Easter break.
The same month Dreamland CEO Eddie Kemsley told The Isle of Thanet News Dreamland wanted to look at ways to increase the number of hotel beds in Margate and to hold more events out of the main season, creating a 12 month business and the permanent employment associated with that.
August 1, 2019: Thanet council Cabinet members agree the sale of the freehold for the entire Dreamland site -including the council car park and cinema building – to operaters Sands Heritage Limited.
The sale is subject to agreement from external funders regarding the removal of ongoing grant obligations upon the council, and subject to legal advice.
The sale will include the full complex, rides and the TDC restored cinema and Sunshine Café building, containing the ‘Dreamland Bars’, later famous for being the ‘Bali Hai’.
August 15: A meeting is held to discuss the decision after it was called in – meaning a request was made for it to be re-examined – by Labour, Green and Thanet Independent councillors on an authority scrutiny panel.
It was agreed to put forward recommendations to extend the 10 year restriction on housing development at the site to 18 years and for the council to get three-rather than the current one- valuations.
Suggestions that the sale is postponed until Thanet council’s outgoing head of asset management is replaced and to add a clause that the authority would get a percentage of any housing development sales were rejected.
A further proposal that the council car park be withdrawn from the freehold sale was also rejected.
September 2019: The park announced the number of people visiting Dreamland in the year was doubled compared to 2018 and the park’s busiest year since reopening.
There were more than 650,000 visitors in 2019 with the Margate amusement park and events space surpassing half a million visitors mid-August.
Just over 310,000 people visited the park across the summer, bringing the total number of visitors since the park opened for the 2019 season to 650,000 by September 2.
The same month Dreamland bosses said it was “business as usual” at the park following news that funders Arrowgrass Capital Partners planned to close down.
Park operators Sands Heritage Ltd also said they would remain in contact with the hedge fund as arrangements were made for the sell-off of Arrowgrass investments and outstanding loans.
Arrowgrass bought out Dreamland shares to bring the park out of administration in 2017. The park lease remains under Sands Heritage Ltd.
December 2019: The Turner Prize winners were announced in a ceremony held at the park. The winner of the Turner Prize 2019 surprise announcement was that the artists had formed themselves into a collective – meaning the prize went to all the shortlisted artists. The announcement was made by Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, Edward Enninful OBE.
January 2020: DJ Fatboy Slim, aka Norman Cook, and singer Suggs from huge 70s and 80s Ska band Madness were on Margate seafront in a retro Dreamland ice cream van giving away 100 tickets for a huge new festival that was planned to take place at the park this Summer.
The Hi Tide festival was due to have a massive 15,000 audience capacity and came from the creators of the sell-out Demon Dayz Gorillaz gig in 2017.
March 2020: Following the UK Government’s advice on public gatherings in light of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis, Dreamland announced it would not reopen for the Easter season.
The park was due to reopen on April 4.
May 2020: Dreamland gives 52 members of staff notice of redundancy from July 1 due to the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
The amusement park confirms it will not reopen for the Summer meaning a huge loss of income on top of that already suffered by the loss of the Easter season.
July 2020: Dreamland celebrates its park centenary with a low key event and CEO Eddie Kemsley reveals some events are due to be scheduled for the year but the major 2020 gigs have been transferred to 2021.