Luna Park is a Sydney institution and one of the only fun parks located in the centre of a major city in the world. Opened in October 1935 on the Eight Hour Day long weekend, the Park pleasantly occupied the huge space that was left behind after the Harbour Bridge workshops were dismantled. This site had been almost immediately identified as a perfect spot for a fun park, curiously by a New Zealander.
At 8pm on the 4th October the gates flew open and crowds rushed in. The Park had been relocated from Glenelg in South Australia where it had operated successfully since 1928. Sadly (for Adelaide), although successful it was not popular with Council or neighbours, who complained of carnival types hanging around. This was to be a problem for Luna Park in Sydney some time later (in fact 1000 locals at North Sydney signed a petition before it was even opened opposing it!).
In Sydney Luna Park found its true home. Rebuilt looking up at the brand new Harbour Bridge on the edge of the glistening harbour, the crazy smiling face beamed between art deco towers looking across at a city just pulling itself out of a depression.
Many of the rides were relocated directly from Glenelg, proven favourites of the carnival crowd like the Big Dipper, Tunnel of Love and the River Caves. New rides such as the Whirler which spun riders round and round, Coney Island with its slides, crazy mirrors and joy wheel and the Ghost Train quickly became perennial favourites. These rides had international cred, being based on Coney Island in New York before testing on Australian audiences at Luna Park St Kilda and then Sydney.
Through the Depression and the war years, Luna Park flourished. Right though until the 1970s the Park was a Sydney must see. Closing over winter, its opening nights heralded the return of a Sydney summer and good times.
That is until the early 1970s. Economic pressure on the Park saw operators open all year in an attempt to attract the crowds. A new paint job, with artists such as Martin Sharp, Peter Kingston and Garry Shead re-lit the Park in a psychedelic groove which worked nicely until disaster struck in 1979.
In June 1979, on a Sydney winter night, Luna Park was open and operating as normal. A train strike had slowed the city; the only train running that night was the ghost train at Luna Park. As usual it was a popular ride but oddly where there were usually three staff, an operator, a ticket collector and a patrol inside tonight there were only two. The inside of the ride was unsupervised.
In the Ghost Train that night a fire broke out, racing through the timber roof and walls of the ride, filling the internal space with smoke and flames and trapping the riders in darkness. There were no sprinklers inside and the ride was quickly engulfed. Seven people died, six children and an adult. In the aftermath conspiracies flew thick and fast. Some claimed a ‘colourful Sydney identity’ was involved: this was never proved. At the investigation an expert testified the fire was not caused by an electrical fault. This fuelled the speculation.
Nothing was proved. It was a terrible accident.
Luna Park struggled on, then closed in 1981, re-opened in 1982, closed in 1988, re-opened in 1995, closed 1996 and finally really re-opened in 2004 and remains open today (but with no Ghost Train).
It’s Luna Park, it’s just for fun.