Dreamland, the Kentish seaside attraction, must be the phoenix of amusement parks. Over the last twelve months, despite the new high-speed rail line from London to Margate (where it is based), it has only attracted half the number of expected visitors. The operator Sands Heritage had to call in administrators last month.
But when we visited, Dreamland was thronging with fun-seekers: young families, old residents, people in wheelchairs and toddlers. You can buy tokens if you just want to go on a few rides; or, if you did prefer to spend a day there, wristbands granting unlimited access are on sale.
Dreamland first opened in 1921, and closed in 2003, by which time it had fallen into dereliction. For its grand re-opening in June 2015 it was redesigned by Mark Hemingway, the founder of Red or Dead. Those who hadn’t already visited may have been convinced by the retro, stylised shots of the amusement park that it was a hipster-filled venue, with DFLs (Down From Londons) clutching craft beer in tins and riding the Scenic Railway rollercoaster to the tender tunes of indie band Bright Eyes.
But Dreamland is much more than a Shoreditch-on-Sea playground. Like Margate itself, it’s a place of stark juxtapositions. The pleasure-park’s stylish beach-hut shades of candyfloss, neon blue, and ketchup, are set against the grey brutalist concrete tower of Arlington House, ever-present on the horizon. The staff, perky in their high-waisted trousers and sunshine-yellow sweaters, holler out the old fairground classics (‘scream if you want to go faster!!’). The rides are reconstructed so well that visitors of a certain age may find it hard to suppress memories of leering fairground lads furiously pushing giggly 14 year-old girls on the waltzers. The bad 80s rock and other ear-splitting fairground staples blasted out over the tannoy at Dreamland are a reminder that, traditionally, fairgrounds were places where a large amount of grubbiness lurked under the gilded surface.
The original Dreamland was great fun, but quite dodgy” said Susan Grossman, career coach, travel writer and veteran Dreamland visitor. “We were allowed to visit, alone, when we were very young – 10 years old or so – and I’m sure our parents wouldn’t have let us go if they’d known what the place was really like. It was full of sleaze: men in dirty raincoats, that sort of thing.”
Thankfully we didn’t encounter any gents in flasher macs during our visit. Somehow, in the £18m regeneration of the place, Hemingway has managed to retain the spirit of an old-school funfair, but at the same time make it feel fresh, hip and safe. Little touches are a reminder of the amusement park’s past: much of the seating, for instance, is made using planks of wood taken from the original Grade II listed Scenic Railway rollercoaster ride, badly damaged in a 2008 arson attack.
The rollercoaster, open since last October, is the centrepiece of the fairground, and the park is small enough for everyone to be able to hear the sound of its carriages making their rickety way round the track’s loops and curves. Rides vary from lovingly restored original Dreamland models, like the dodgems, the carousel and the caterpillar coaster (whose seats were tiny – people must have come in smaller sizes fifty years ago), to the more modern Enterprise and Top Spin. Our favourite was the resplendent Mirror Maze, which my son insisted on exploring three times.
The place is ideal for families. There’s a designated indoor space for under-8s, the Octopus’s Garden, which has a soft play area, a circus tent and beach huts. Unlike larger attractions like Thorpe Park or Alton Towers (both of which usually pay more to create one ride alone than was spent in the entire regeneration of Dreamland), most of Dreamland’s rides are accessible to children under 1.25m tall.
You can eat well at Dreamland. We chose traditional fish, or scampi, and chips (halloumi burger for D), and it was reasonably priced compared with most chippies in the south-east. The chips were large and fleshy, the fish was tender, and the scampi melted away in our mouths like a spring tide. A whole stall was devoted to vegetarian and vegan options; you could also eat Thai food or hot dogs, depending on your preferences.
We came away from Dreamland impressed. If Margate’s only boast were the amusement park, that might not in itself be enough to draw us back again, but there is also the Turner Contemporary gallery, and Margate’s glorious sandy beach. The town has several good-quality restaurants and hotels; for more information on what there is to do there, with places to eat and stay, check out this post by Mummy Barrow, who was challenged to compare a trip to Margate with a holiday in the Caribbean; or this piece in the LA Times, extolling Margate’s merits to the people of California.
How to get to Dreamland Margate
We travelled on the South-eastern high-speed railway line from London St Pancras, which takes around an hour and a half. It was a relaxed way to travel, with plenty of seating for everyone, and was easier than driving. But Margate is easily accessible by car, just off the M2 and M20.
When is Dreamland open, and how much does Dreamland cost?
Dreamland Margate‘s amusement park is open on weekends only, from 11am till 5pm, until the school summer holidays. During the holidays it’s open every day till 6pm, or 9pm on a Saturday. The Octopus’s Garden is open daily. Admission prices to the amusement park vary. See the Dreamland website for more details.
Read our feature for more on seaside funfairs and pleasure beaches in the UK.
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We were given tickets to Dreamland Margate, including rail travel, for the purpose of this post. All views are my own.