Luna Park’s is a story that has been told many times. No doubt you grew up on it, as you did fairy floss and the anticipation of winning a goldfish in a bag. The familiar sight of Luna Park, as it stands now, on the other side of the Harbour Bridge, is a relic of 1930s design and aspiration. Tragedy hit in 1979 with a fire that killed seven people closed the park down. Since then its fortunes were as changeable as the twists and turns of the Wild Mouse rollercoaster. Some of Sydney’s leading artists contributed to the park’s ultimate preservation.
But if you’ve wondered what it would be like to return now, and thought you might be disappointed, you won’t be.
Even to the most jaded the entrance to Luna Park is still impressive. The Harbour Bridge rises monolithically behind you (the Opera House tucked under its curve), while to your left a view of the city’s skyline. In front of you is the iconic face, now in its eighth incarnation. Enter through its gaping mouth to the tune of ragtime piano and suspend any pretensions of maturity for a few hours.
Despite a series of refurbishments over the years, the park still feels lived in. The Wild Mouse rumbles precariously on as it has done since 1962, threatening to throw you into the harbour at every bend. The centrifugal effect of the Rotor has been turning stomachs since 1951 and the simple joy of the Dodgems has been enjoyed since 1935.
Newer rides may not have the same character and charm of these older ones, but they’re still exhilarating. Just try not to ride the Tango Train straight after lunch. Food, on that note, is not restricted to corn dogs and fairy floss (although, knock yourself out). The cool, sleek interior of The Deck restaurant provides a moment of sobriety amid the frenzy, which isn’t to say the food isn’t vibrant. Dishes include shucked oysters and seared scallops to start, or hot, smoked Huon Valley salmon and roast chicken torchon for main. Or you could take to The Deck’s bar for a well-deserved stiff drink after a day spent upside down and back-to-front. The wine list is extensive and the cocktail list colourful.
Back in the game, and Coney Island Funny Land (named for the original Luna Park, still operating, on NYC’s Coney Island) is the only operating example of a 1930s-style funhouse left in the world, the layout is almost identical to when Luna Park opened in 1935. Race your friend (or a 10-year-old kid) down the slippery dip and check yourself out in the distorting mirrors. This is also the place to see photos and memorabilia spanning the last 80 years, as well many examples of work by the park’s first artist-in-residence, Arthur Barton.
Barton worked at the park from 1935 until his retirement in 1970. It was his artwork – sign writing, portraits, indeed the famous face – that inspired a generation of Sydney artists including the late Martin Sharp to contribute artistically in the ’70s.
Then in 1975, Sharp himself was commissioned to redesign the face, kick-starting a lifelong obsession, and later a campaign as part of the Friends of Luna Park group to have its cultural significance recognised. It was placed on the State Heritage Register in 2010. “The cultural heritage is the contribution of a few Australian artists, Martin Sharp and Peter Kingston, and others who saw in Luna Park something very significant related to their childhood and an earlier period in Australia,” says Garry Shead, whose first gig at the park was to help paint the carousel and a shooting gallery called Pirate Pete’s Sea Battle. “[It] is a very significant visual jewel, and is quite unique in the world.”
When Shead’s portrait Martin Sharp and his magic theatre was shortlisted for the Archibald Prize in 2012, the artist wrote that for Sharp, Luna Park had become a metaphor for the world. “[It] became, for Martin, a place in which the various rides, the Big Dipper and other entertainments, represent life’s journey, with its ups and downs.”
Certainly, there aren’t many places you can run the whole gamut of emotions in one afternoon. From abject fear at the height of the Hair Raiser to unabashed joy as you bump your loved ones on the Dodgems. Give it a go – you’ll be surprised at how fast your inner child comes clambering out.