While today visitors to Tamarama Beach soak up the sun and sand, over 100 years ago the main attraction was the short-lived amusement park, called Wonderland City.
With a rollercoaster running from cliff to cliff, across the narrow sands, it was quite something.
The Royal Aquarium
The Royal Aquarium opened in October 1887. Right on Tamarama Beach, it included an aquarium, skating rink, and seal and shark pools. Its switchback railway, a rollercoaster carrying thrill-seekers over the sand, was hugely popular.
Fire destroyed the site in 1891 and although it was rebuilt, competition from the nearby Coogee ocean baths and aquarium forced the Royal Aquarium’s closure in 1906.
Wonderland City arrives
William Anderson, theatrical entrepreneur, had flair and flamboyance. With the aquarium’s demise, he smelt a business opportunity and leased the land where it had stood, leaving a tiny 12-foot strip for beach access.
Anderson opened Wonderland City on 1 December 1906, claiming it would rival New York’s famed Coney Island. Sydneysiders clearly agreed: 20,000 attended on its first day, and an estimated 2000 turned up each weekend during the summer.
The rides and spectacles of Wonderland City
When it came to attractions, visitors were spoilt for choice. There was a haunted house, waxworks, a hall of illusions, a double-decker carousel, boxing and wrestling matches, a helter-skelter and skating rink. An airship, the Airem Scarem, ferried punters high over the beach on a cable supported by wooden clifftop towers. Wire walking, acrobatics, and a bicycle act featuring a “death-trap loop” all wowed guests.
Patrons could even dig for gold. They would buy a spade, entitling them to dig in a designated “nugget-bearing area” for a hidden nugget valued at £20.
Animal acts (many of which wouldn’t be accepted today) included dog and monkey racing, and the much-loved Alice the elephant, who gave rides and was the object of a weight-guessing competition. In 1907 Alice also starred in what was then called an “Oriental wedding ceremony” at the park, carrying a newly married couple on her back past 30,000 onlookers.
Wonderland City’s most daring events
“A realistic representation of a shipwreck” debuted in 1907. A vessel was moored off-shore in the role of ship-in-distress, and its passengers and crew were rescued via a lifeline shot into the ocean on a “rocket apparatus”. “When all hands are safely ashore,” it was reported, “there will be a marine spectacle of fire and flames” as the ship burned.
Fire and Flames was the name of another spectacle in 1908, touted as “a realistic presentment of a great metropolitan conflagration”. The Sydney Morning Herald noted: “A street scene is depicted; there is an outbreak of fire, and the alarm brings on the scene the modern fire-fighting apparatus. A battle between the flames and the brigade is waged with exciting thoroughness, one of the inclusions being a rescue from a burning building.”
The city of wonders crumbles
Despite early enthusiasm, the park’s popularity rapidly declined and by 1908 it was in financial difficulty. Ever the showman, Anderson fought on and in 1909 staged a grand carnival featuring “Professor Hepburn, the Fire King; Miss Agnes Turner’s Slide for Life; Lady Godiva; the Amphion Duo; Professor Beckford’s Marionettes; a beauty show for ladies; Professor Franconi, hypnotist; Professor Svensen, the strong man; Anderson Sisters, song and dance artists, Leslie, Champion clog and shoe dancer” and more.
But local opposition to the park’s obstruction of the beach grew and in 1911 Wonderland City permanently closed its doors. It’s believed Anderson lost £15,000 to the venture.
The only reminder of Wonderland City’s existence is nearby Wonderland Avenue. But the park was remembered at 2008’s Sculpture by the Sea. Sydney-based sculptor Rod McRae based his entry on real and imagined characters from Wonderland City, including a ringmaster, a strongman and Alice the elephant.
Photo credits: Wikipedia