Margate’s Dreamland

Who doesn't love a ride on Twister?

Who doesn't love a ride on Twister? - Credit: Archant

Nearly 100 years after Dreamland first opened and following a 10-year closure, Kent Life looks at the new, improved theme park’s roller coaster ride to success

Good old Margate. For decades it embodied the essence of British seaside culture: sandcastles on the beach, fish and chips in yesterday’s newspaper, the lure of ringing bells in seafront amusement arcades.

Millions of childhood holidays were spent playing and relaxing on Margate’s inviting sandy beach. And then there was Dreamland.

In many ways it is impossible to separate Margate and Dreamland. The town and its centrally located amusement park have been inextricably linked for 95 years and where the fortunes of one have led, the other has always followed.

In the 1950s and 1960s, at the height of Margate’s popularity as a traditional seaside holiday destination, more than two million people a year were visiting the resort. And almost all of them will have enjoyed a day or two on the thrilling rides here at Dreamland.

But just 20 years later, cheap flights and the rise of the package holiday meant those visitor numbers were sharply falling. And despite a passionate local campaign to save it, the decline in tourism took the park, famed for its original 1920’s roller coaster, on the downward slope that would lead to its closure in 2005. The site became derelict; a town-centre ‘grot spot’ which blighted the landscape and stood as a depressing symbol of everything Margate had lost.

But earlier this summer a decade of uncertainty finally came to an end and Nick Laister, the man behind a ceaseless campaign to return the site to its former glory, was finally able to utter a long-awaited phrase to the crowd gathered outside the gates. Welcome back to Dreamland.

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His heartfelt speech at the re-opening of the historic amusement park was the culmination of 12 years of hard work, first as a campaigner against its closure and later as the chairman of The Dreamland Trust, a professional team set up to lead the massive restoration project.

It was a task that would be hampered by developers’ plans, arson attacks and lengthy legal challenges. As Nick says: “Probably the question I’ve been asked most over the past few weeks is ‘if you had known it would take you 12 years, would you still have done it? Well, it’s taken about 10 years longer than I’d have liked, but the simple answer is yes, I would.

“Dreamland means so much to so many. I’ve been involved in seaside regeneration projects all around the UK, in my day job as a planning consultant for visitor attractions, but I’ve not seen anything like what has happened here in Margate. The way the local community has been inspired by the project and has decided to bring back this site, which is so important to Margate’s economy and its heritage.”

Opened on 19 July, the first phase of the new Dreamland includes 17 restored vintage rides, a roller disco, pleasure gardens, restaurants, food stalls, arcades and amusements from the golden age of the British seaside.

Nostalgia is practically tangible in the air at this very old but very new visitor attraction. Everything from its centrepiece Scenic Railway coaster to the staff uniforms and the vintage-inspired gift shop speak of Margate’s heyday.

The trick has been to make it trendy again and for that they turned to Hemingway Design, led by former Red Or Dead designer Wayne Hemingway.

Eddie Kemsley, Dreamland ceo, tells Kent Life: “HemingwayDesign has had a huge input. They’ve worked with us on the uniforms, the redecorating of the rides, how we put the park together; they’ve been involved across the board.

“They put forward this concept to say it needs to be old-fashioned, to be about nostalgia and vintage because that’s what British seaside rides are, but also it needs to be upbeat and new and something that’s really going to appeal to the next generation.”

The goal has been achieved in spades. The first few weeks have been extremely busy and happy visitors, both young and old, have applauded the new park – despite the fact the Scenic Railway wasn’t quite ready in time for the opening.

There can be no doubt that Dreamland will play a significant role in the continued regeneration of Margate, and of Thanet as a whole. This reopening is only the first phase in a plan that will go on to include the old Dreamland cinema and the ballroom building, but so far the enterprise has already created more than 250 jobs in the area.

The £28m revamp is all thanks to the work of The Dreamland Trust, who raised money and secured funding, but Nick Laister stresses how none of it would have been possible without the support of Thanet District Council, and what he describes as its ‘bravery’ in putting a compulsory purchase order on the site in 2013.

Chris Wells, leader of the council, says: “It’s fantastic to see the culmination of so many years of hard work by so many people finally come to fruition. Dreamland is iconic and means so much to not only Margate and Thanet but to Kent and beyond.

“It’s synonymous with Margate’s heyday and signals the continuation of this vibrant regeneration, already underway with The Turner Contemporary and revival of the old town.”

The cultural significance of Dreamland is obvious but one of the reasons that so many historians have been keen to preserve the park is the listed Scenic Railway - thought to be the UK’s oldest roller coaster. However, Paul Hudson from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which has given £6m to the project, also points out the importance of the 1930’s art deco cinema and the ballroom, as well as some Victorian menagerie cages on the site which pre-date Dreamland.

Paul says: “I’ve been involved with Kent for over 40 years, so I’ve seen the site go up and down. The last 10 years it’s been a real tragedy to walk past and see this huge site derelict in the middle of Margate. So you can see why this project has been so important, not only to us but to everyone involved in Thanet’s regeneration.”

With Margate’s seaside heritage protected and with visitors flooding in through the gates of Dreamland again, the team can concentrate on the day-to-day running of the theme park.

Eddie Kemsley tells me: “We’ve had a huge challenge trying to work within our budgets. We’ve spent £28m on this first phase alone, about the same as one roller coaster might cost a major theme park, so getting that to work and at the same time creating something people will love has been hard. But I think we’ve done it.

“What we really wanted to create was a platform for entertainment, so it’s not just about rides. We’ve got classic side shows coming in like Messham’s Wall of Death, which is amazing, and we’ve got a high-diving show in for the summer. The rides are like a backdrop to the constantly evolving entertainment.”

There are plans for a ‘Screamland’ Halloween festival and a big Christmas show. Now the place is up and running, they are determined to keep it new and interesting and to turn it into a world-class visitor experience. Eddie adds: “The thing I’m most proud of isn’t something you can see, it’s the team and how hard they’ve worked. It has been really tough and with all the ups and downs that Dreamland has had over the years, it’s just brilliant to finally have it open again.”

The history of Dreamland really has been a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs but it’s as clear as the outline of the new Big Wheel on the Margate skyline that things are on the up here.

“You hear it all the time; that Dreamland is the beating heart of Margate, says Nick Laister. It genuinely is.”

Dreamland timeline

By Iain Aitch,


Just before Christmas 1919, John Henry Iles purchased Margate’s ‘The Hall By The Sea’ with the aim of turning the dance hall into an American-style amusement park. Iles bought the site for £40,000 but spent £500,000 developing his vision. It was he who built the now iconic Scenic Railway amid the pleasure gardens and amusements.


Give someone a pencil, ask them to draw a Margate building and the chances are they will come up with an interpretation of the wonderful 1935 Art Deco cinema on the seafront. The 80ft fin on top of the 2,200-seater cinema was part architectural statement and part advert for the amusement park it was linked to.


The first half of the 1940s was, of course, dominated by the war. The cinema and ballroom initially remained open but the entire site was requisitioned by the Government in June 1940. On the back of the Dunkirk evacuation, the restaurants served as treatment centres for the wounded and the ballroom was used as a makeshift dormitory for troops. 2,000 troops were later stationed at Dreamland, including many from the Entertainment National Service Association (better known as ENSA).

The presence of ENSA meant that some film and stage shows continued at Dreamland throughout the war years, though it was not until 1946 that the park was up and running again. In 1947 entertainment giant Billy Butlin invested £160,000 in the site.


The arrival of the 1950s marked a new era after the austerity of the war years. The most important part of this decade, as far as Dreamland and Margate were concerned, was the birth of the teenager. Dreamland was the ideal stomping ground for the rock ‘n’ roll generation. By the mid-1950s the teddy boys had forged Dreamland’s unbreakable links with youth culture.


The 1960s were a classic time for the site, with youth culture booming, the economy on the up and growing numbers of day-trippers from London. But the traditional seaside holiday would start to decline by the end of the decade and television would affect the numbers in the cinema. The 1960s are largely remembered as the era of the mods and rockers and these groups flocked to Dreamland, which was by then one of the premier music venues outside of London. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, Lulu, and Gerry and the Pacemakers all graced the stage at Dreamland.


The park began the 1970s under new ownership, in the shape of Associated Leisure Entertainments Ltd. The new owners brought new rides, new attractions and a revamp of the cinema. Iconic giant slide the Astroglide arrived at the park in 1973 and there was also the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride and the Cyclone for visitors to enjoy by the middle of the decade, when a small zoo was also reintroduced. The popular Water Chute made its first appearance in 1977 and would soon play host to safety-pinned punk rockers, as the cult made its way from London to the seaside.


Dreamland gave Margate yet another iconic structure in 1980, with the new Big Wheel which stood proud of the clock tower at 180-feet high. In 1981 the site was sold to Dutch amusement park operators Bembom. Dreamland was renamed Bembom Brothers Theme Park and the public were excited by the arrival of a slew of new rides, including the white knuckle coaster the Looping Star, a Pirate Ship, the Ladybird children’s coaster and Cinema 2000, which was an early 3D cinema set-up. The Bembom’s new approach meant that all the park’s bars were closed to create a more family friendly environment.


Dreamland got its name back in 1990, when the Bembom Brothers decided that a minor revamp would be best promoted by returning to the name most people still used for the park. Although it was not long before the Bemboms were moving on, as Dreamland was sold on to Jimmy Godden. Godden wanted to move the park in an even more family friendly direction, dispensing with larger white-knuckle rides in favour of more traditional fairground favourites such as dodgems and waltzers.

The iconic Big Wheel was dismantled and sold, although the double Log Flume, Wild Mouse and the Space Station rides in place at least meant the skyline of Margate retained some visible rides to tantalise visitors. They could not, however, halt the decline of Dreamland as the new millennium approached.


Rumours of closure, demolition and a potential change of owners were all rife. One major concern for historians was the future of Dreamland’s 1920s Scenic Railway, so moves were made to have the structure declared a listed building. This campaign was successful and the ride received a Grade II listing in March 2002, the first time such a listing had been given to a ride. It was thought it would ensure the future of Dreamland, yet owner Jimmy Godden declared the park may still close for commercial redevelopment, prompting the formation of the Save Dreamland campaign in 2003. In 2005 the controlling ownership of the park passed to the Margate Town Centre Regeneration Company, with Jimmy Godden retaining a 40 per cent share. The Dreamland Cinema also suffered, closing in 2007, and in April 2008 a suspected arson attack destroyed the middle section of the Scenic Railway’s track, the station and the workshop containing its distinctive trains. The campaign to return the park to its former glory continued however, developing into The Dreamland Trust and receiving backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Thanet District Council and the Sea Change Fund.


After several years of campaigning to save the site from redevelopment, the Dreamland restoration project went live in January 2010, appointing a professional team to deliver The Dreamland Trust’s vision. However, the battle was not over. Due to delays and complications around land transfer, the council and The Dreamland Trust entered into an extended public inquiry, followed by a lengthy legal challenge in the high courts to the council’s Compulsory Purchase Order of the Dreamland site. In 2012 The Dreamland Trust appointed Wayne Hemingway and the HemingwayDesign team to create the look and feel of a reimagined Dreamland. In September 2013 the site was transferred into the council’s ownership, finally securing its future. The gates were reopened to the public in June this year.