Johannesburg park celebrates 21st season
Without gold, there would not be a Johannesburg as we know it. The city was founded on it, and around 40% of all the world’s supply has been produced there. It was therefore inevitable that someone would choose to set up a gold-mining attraction in what is one of the Gauteng province’s major cities (Gauteng is Sotho for “place of gold”) What started as a humble enterprise is now South Africa’s leading theme park and the “jewel in the crown” of a seven-venue strong casino group. Park World toasts 21 years of Gold Reef City.
Located in the Ormonde district of Johannesburg, Gold Reef City occupies the 12-hectare site of a 19th Century goldmine. Some theme parks feature Ferris Wheels and rollercoasters as their iconic attractions; Gold Reef City has all that, but the skyline is also populated by the headgear of two lift towers that plunge guests underground – each in very different ways.
To this day, visitors can descend towards the depths of the earth and explore the tunnels and passageways of a oce fully functioning mine, feeling the cold air and touching the rough rock that hold the wealth of a nation. The Jozi’s Story of Gold (“Jozi” is Johannesburg) heritage tour forms an integral part of the Gold Reef City offering and adds provenance to the park’s overriding theme – Johannesburg at the height of the gold rush.
This spring the facility celebrated 21 years in business with a three-week-long celebration. Guests could enjoy contemporary African sounds from the Divinity Harmonizing Trio, Soweto String Quartet and Mandoza, marvel at majestic white stallions in the Lipizzaner Show or win 21,000 Rand (€1,800/$2,500) worth of Krugerrands. A grand finale between April 11 and 13 featured drum majorettes, magicians, tumblers and more.
Founded in 1987 by Ben Schutte and the Krok Brothers, Gold Reef City started life as a mine tour, but the rides soon followed. Schutte’s background as a travelling showman meant the park presented a useful place to put his rides and attractions when they were off the road, and he remains a shareholder in its parent company, Gold Reef Resorts.
According to the park’s current CEO, Steve Cook, two things have provided turning points for Gold Reef City. The end of apartheid in the early ‘90s suddenly opened the park up to a much larger market. “If you go back to late ‘80s, when we were the pariah of the world, we were essentially running a theme park for locals,” he says. “That all changed after the elections in 1994.”
Next came new gaming legislation in South Africa, and Gold Reef Resorts was formed with the express purpose of developing a casino alongside the park. The group now manages a number of gaming outlets across South Africa.
The Gold Reef City Casino opened in 2001, and a part of the deal Gold Reef Resorts agreed to build an Apartheid Museum on land adjoining the theme park. Although the casino entertains a different audience, Cook says there are some guests that will patronise the two, though they tend to flow in one direction.
What the casino development, which also includes a 1,100-seat theatre, conference centre and a variety of restaurants, has done is highlight the quality level now on offer throughout the Gold Reef City complex.
Cook arrived at the park in 2004 and says Gold Reef Resorts CEO Steven Joffe has been most supportive in allowing him to make many of the changes recommended in a strategic plan commissioned one year later. “I think one of the reasons for that is he’s a man in his 30s, he’s got young kids …he’s one of our guests. He saw where we were missing out and where we could be.”
The UK-based consultancy Vision XS was invited into the park in 2005 and, as we chat to Cook in his office, he identifies a weighty document on the desk in front of him. “It wasn’t done on pure emotion, it was a scientific thing, let’s not forget that. I have this whole dissertation here to prove it. If you are asking a board to invest 100 million Rand, gut feeling doesn’t cut it.”
Vision XS presented Gold Reef City with a five-year strategic plan to take the park through until 2010. “We are now in the third year of that,” confirms Cook. ”Last year our visitor numbers were up 15% and profit was up 300%, so we’re moving in the right direction.”
The park had always attracted a loyal following, but it wasn’t getting any bigger and neither were guests’ spending habits. “We had a broad base of visitors who would come time and time again because they wanted the rides,” identifies Cook. “We decided we needed to up our gate price together with the experience and encourage a whole new type of visitor, particularly families. What we are pushing now is a safe and secure environment, and you see that when people walk through the gate; the tension just dissipates.”
Cook and his team set out to make staff feel like stakeholders and improve overall guest service. “One of our projects was making the entry process slicker and faster. Unfortunately South Africans are not the best queuers in the world!”
The food and beverage offer has also been improved: “If you are trying to attract a more discerning audience, you cannot just throw a hot dog at them like you would a teenager,” says Cook. “If people are to spend more money, then they want to sit in a restaurant and eat food of quality, which is what we’ve done with branded restaurants like Mugg & Bean. And anyone we sign up now comes in on a royalty basis, before we had tenants.”
There were previously very few games in the park, but now HB Leisure has been contracted to operate a number of concessions throughout the venue. “Again I think it’s an important thing. While the kids are on the rides, mum and dad can play the games, or vice versa, it keeps people happy as they walk around the park.”
New attractions added in recent years include Africa’s first 4D theatre (by Kraftwerk/3DBA), a significant addition according to Cook: “Suddenly there were several international offerings that weren’t there before. We weren’t just a local theme park anymore, and that was very important.”
The park is so confident in the service it now offers guests that management took legal action last year against a consumer television programme that criticised its safety record. “A national TV channel screened a programme that was not only unfair but totally unjustified,” remembers Cook. “It just wasn’t true, but it did us a lot of harm and it took us a year to get over that. I believe however with the implementation of the strategic plan we have turned that around.”
Cook’s background is in marketing. He’s proud of the park’s current positioning as “Pure Jozi Pure Gold” and defines it thus: “The property we believe presents the contemporary Johannesburg offering, and it’s gold in terms of experience.” There just happens to be a bit of real gold inside the park. Nice pun.
The mining theme is applied in varying degrees. As well as the lift tower used to take guests down the mine in the Story of Gold, a second tower features as part of one of park’s most unique attractions. The Tower of Terror is a vertical drop rollercoaster with a vertical lift mounted inside the headgear. The track configuration is similar to Oblivion, the B&M Dive Machine at Alton Towers in England. On exciting the lift, the eight-passenger ride vehicle dives through a tunnel underground, back up and round to the loading station. The ride was built in-house in co-operation with several South African companies that specialise in mine lifting equipment.
Although the park counts several international names as suppliers, an admission fee of R110 (€9.30/$14.50) means that any decision to buy new equipment has to taken very carefully.
“New rides, particularly with our exchange rate, are not cheap so you have to make a calculated decision on which would work,” explains Cook, “but I think with the Tower of Terror it was just that we had a good idea and we had the expertise locally.”
Installed in 1999, Anaconda (pictured above) is the park’s largest rollercoaster and the only inverted ride of its kind to be built by Giovanola of Switzerland. Approximately 800-metres-long, large sections of the ride are built over water and a nice thematic element is a spiral section around the outside of a rock. The ride is currently in the process of getting a new colour scheme – orange instead of purple – and a second train (from SAT Rides in Germany) will soon go into use on peak days.
Gold Reef City’s other coasters include the Golden Loop, a Schwarzkopf shuttle coaster, Jozi Express by Zierer (ex-Japan), and the Runaway Train, a powered coaster installed years ago by Ben Schutte.
With good weather most of the year, water rides are popular with Gold Reef City guests and include the Raging River Rapids, located in the shadow of Anaconda, and a Log Ride (flume) close to the Runaway Train, both of which can be found in the Thunder Mountain section of the park.
Panoramic views are offered on board a 55-metre Nauta Bussink Ferris Wheel in Town Square. In the Lost Reef City area, meanwhile, a number of German rides include a Weber Dream Boat, Huss UFO and Breakdance and a Wave Swinger. Over the winter (the park remains open all year) the Miner’s Revenge, a Huss Top Spin, will also be moved to this section of the park and extensively re-themed.
A dedicated Kiddies Corner features many family favourites including a Tilt-a-Whirl, carousel, balloon wheel, vintage cars, indoor play area and panning for gold (if ever there was a park suited to such an attraction then this is it). Children are also accommodated inside the Lost Reef’s farmyard area, revamped in recent years to offer more animal interaction.
In addition to the mine tour, the Jozi’s Story of Gold experience also features a cluster of museum houses in Town Square, an introductory movie and a gold pouring demonstration. Together they take around two hours to complete. Live entertainment, from street theatre to circus shows, is on offer throughout the park.
A 4-to-5-hectare parcel of land between the Lost Reef and the highway was snapped up by the park a few years ago while still available and a number of options are currently being explored by Gold Reef Resorts, including a possible second gate waterpark.
Although the casino turns over vastly more money than the theme park – and Cook presents us with some quite dazzling figures to prove it – Gold Reef City remains the trophy asset for its parent company, a wholesome family entertainment outlet that helps balance the group’s portfolio.
A number of approaches have been made for Gold Reef Resorts in recent years and at the time of writing a deal was on the table from Sun International, operator of the famous Sun City Casino. “I think if anything this would strengthen us as a theme park,” believes Cook. The park already boasts one hotel, but Sun International’s experience in the sector could help Gold Reef City realise its full potential as a resort destination.
Right now the park’s CEO and his team will see out the remainder of the strategic plan, with the ultimate goal of increasing annual attendance from around 800,000 to one million. Then they really would strike gold.
See the June 2008 printed issue of Park World for staff interviews and additional photos.