Dodgems and Crazy Houses
Most of the 2.6 million people who filed through the turnstiles went there to be entertained at Playland, the exhibition's big amusement park. They were following a well-worn path recognised by exhibition organisers who knew that successful high-profile rides would lure patrons back for the return visits that really made exhibitions pay.
After much debate, the New Zealand Centennial Exhibition Company gave the amusement park concession to a British company, the Double Grip Tubular Steel Amusement Devices Company. Its Henry Seff organised the arrangements for 'Playland', which took shape rapidly on the Rongotai College playing fields available from 1 April 1939. The flagship ride, the Cyclone roller-coaster, cost £15,000 to build; the three next most expensive were the Crazy House and Scoota Boats (£4,500 each) and the Dodgem Track (£4,000).
Mechanical troubles sidelined the Highland Fling ride for weeks and the large helter-skelter, the Jack & Jill, also performed badly. Local enthusiasm seems to have dampened after some patrons slipped off their mats and suffered friction burns. Star performer was the Cyclone. Next best was the Crazy House, followed by the Speedway and the Ghost Train. The show was promoted 13 hours a day by a mechanical barker, the Laughing Sailor, imported from the Glasgow Empire Exhibition. He sat over the main door and filled the entire grounds with the sound of his raucous laughter.
Playland's 10 acres (4 hectares) of grounds was the largest yet built in the southern hemisphere. Motorised 'Kiwi Trains' carried fare-paying passengers around the grounds and a 'giant scenic railway' swept and soared along the northern boundary of 'Playland'. The Coronation Scot model train carried children around a 1,500-metre track in 'Kiddieland', the 4,000 square metres of Playland set aside for children.
Playland also included a Devil Plane, Wall of Death, a Shark Pool (with live sharks), H.C. Harcourt's 'Little Theatre', a graphology stand, Pat Gamble and May Wong ('the Daredevil International Lady Stunt Motor-Cyclists') and the human freaks in the 'Odditorium'. Heavyweight superstar of the freak show was 54-stone [343 kg] Mexican Rose, 'the world's fattest girl'. A 'Chamber of Horrors' displaying reconstructions of local murders caused controversy and was censored by the police.
Over the 1939/40 summer 2,870,995 people — 200,000 more than the total number who visited the exhibition — spent their pounds and shillings in Playland.
Text derived from an essay by Gavin McLean in Creating a National Spirit: Celebrating New Zealand's Centennial, ed. William Renwick, VUP, 2005.