Melbourne’s Luna Park, located in St Kilda, opened its doors on December 13th, 1912.
Luna Park is the oldest theme park in Australia and has had millions of visitors since it opened its doors.
History of St Kilda
Before Europeans discovered St Kilda, the Yalukit-Willam people of the Kulin Nation lived in the area for thousands of years. Most evidence of these indigenous lives had been lost, but an ancient Corroboree Red Gum tree where gatherings were held can still be seen in the middle of St Kilda Junction.
The first mention of St Kilda by European settlers was by Charles Grimes, a colonial surveyor. He sailed into Melbourne from Sydney in 1802. It was not until late 1830 when grazers began to settle in what was then known as Green Knoll. It then quickly became Melbourne’s seaside holiday destination of choice.
The next 30 years the development of St Kilda ebbed and flowed as the Victorian economy grew after the Gold Rush.
In the beginning of the 20th century it was clear that St Kilda had cemented as the premier beachside location in Melbourne seeing the opening of Melbourne’s now iconic amusement park, Luna Park, in 1912.
History of Luna Park
The amusement park was built by American showman James Dixon Williams together with the Phillips brothers. Not much information is available of their background, but they were involved in the building of some picture theatres in Washington and Vancouver before coming to Sydney in 1909.
They quickly established a chain of luxury cinemas in Sydney and then in Melbourne. After this they took the lease of the Dreamland site, a failed amusement park on the St. Kilda seashore. Experts were reputedly brought in from Coney Island in New York, to build an up to date attraction. The new park was to be Named Luna Park, perhaps named after Luna Park on Coney Island, or Luna Park Seattle.
It is not clear who designed Mr. Moon, the famous mouth entrance of the park. T.S. Eslick is credited with the design of the park in the opening day brochure. Vernon Churchill was described as the scenic artist.
The park was a great success in the years before World War l, attractions such as the scenic railway, River Caved of the World, Penny Arcade as well as live performances in the palace of illusions were to be found in the amusement park. Around 1913, Williams returned to the US, and helped with founding First National Films, which later became Warner Brothers. The Philip brothers stayed and ran the park until their deaths in the 1950s.
During the war Luna Park closed, although the Scenic Railway continued to operate. Additionally, the park was still used for “fund-raising or patriotic events”. It did not re-open until an large overhaul in 1923, which added new and improved attractions, such as a water chute and the Big Dipper roller coaster.
A number of new attractions were made, between the wars. These attractions included a ghost train in 1934 and dodgem cars in 1926-1927. Luna Park was refurbished in the 1950s and The Rotor was added in 1951. The park remained popular throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Some of the earlier attractions were replaced by some newer ones in the late 1970s. A fire destroyed an attraction in 1981, in the same year as the River Caves were declared unsafe and got demolished.
Remaining Historic Features
The most important historic features of the park that still remain to this day include the iconic “Mr. Moon” entry built in 1912 and restored in 1999 In addition, the carousel built in 1913 and restored in 2000 and the scenic railway (1912), which is the oldest operating roller coaster in the world.
Other historic attractions are the ghost train (1934), and the fairytale-castle-style dodgems building (1927). The remaining historic features of the park are listed on the National Trust of Australia. Mr. Moon, the scenic railway and the carousel are listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
Luna Park had a lease for 50 years, which was sold with 28 years remaining in 1998. Two superannuation funds represented by the BCR Asset Management bought it for $3 Million. They later spent approximately $10 million on refurbishments, mostly focused on upgrading the service and safety, upgrading existing rides and installing new ones.
The Scenic Railway was rebuilt with a new fiberglass version placed over the remnants of the original plaster one, and the towers were repainted in the original colors. Additionally, the carousel was restored, returning the horses and the painted decoration.
Luna Park was bought by Lindsay Fox in early 2005, with the pledge to restore the amusement park to old glory. As of 2021, none of these plans have been realised. However, the scenic Railway Station was given a facelift. A major section of the Scenic Railway underwent major repairs between 2007 and 2008.
Other Luna Parks
Three other Luna Parks were built or planned in Australia. Plus, there were two other places that used the name, after the amusement park in St Kilda.
The Phillips brothers built a second Luna Park in Adelaide seaside suburb Glenelg, in 1930. The park located in Glenelg had an exact clone of Melbourne’s big dipper that operated at Sydney, until 1979. This relocated to Sydney, when a site became available in Milsons Point Sydney. Luna Park Sydney was an immediate success, with a new face entrance and a version of the giggle palace called Coney Island. The park still operates to this day. However, it lost most of the original rides.
T.S. Eslick reappeared in Australia (1938) and built the Cloudland Ballroom, which was originally called Luna Park. When World War ll intervened, the park was closed. The Ballroom reopened in 1942 and became a popular part of the Brisbane entertainment scene until the shock demolition in 1982.
A small cluster of amusements on the foreshore of the Brisbane suburb Redcliffe adopted the name Luna Park, in 1944. They operated until the late 1960s, when the last ride closed its doors.
In 1939, another collection of rides opened in the Perth suburb of Scarborough, which included a simplified version of Mr. Moon. It was open for 33 years before it was demolished and replaced by a shopping Centre in 1972.