Dreamworld's Log Ride modifications are a symbol of everything wrong with Ardent Leisure
The newly reopened Rocky Hollow Log Ride is a clear example of ignoring every other theme park operator in the world to come up with an untested and overly complicated safety improvement. It's why Ardent Leisure need to bow out of the theme park game.
No other theme park has ever embarked on a safety feature like this on a flume ride. It's unprecedented in all the wrong ways: a clear symbol of many years of inadequate investment and eschewing industry best practice.
Ardent Leisure, who this year mark 20 years owning Dreamworld, have had a tumultuous year. The Thunder River Rapids incident set off a chain reaction of shareholder doubt, CEO resignations and an aggressive battle for control of the board of directors. Dreamworld reported a free cash flow loss – revenue minus capital expenditure – of $16 million last financial year. This year is shaping up better but the park is still a long way off from the $25-odd million free cash flow in years prior.
The company's financial situation is concerning – least of all because the company has funneled the bulk of capital into their USA-based Main Event chain of entertainment centres for many years.
Though not everything is dire. Ardent Chairman Dr. Gary Weiss spoke in November about insurance covering aspects of the incident and in February last year Ardent Leisure wiped nearly $100 million from the value of Dreamworld which gave short-term benefits. As a result, the group's 2016 tax burden of $8.7 million became a benefit of $3.3 million for 2017 – an effective gain of nearly $12 million. The group's recent sale of their Australian bowling division also freed up vast capital and left Dreamworld as the company's sole Australian asset.
Yet the reopened Log Ride shows few signs of capital flowing into the theme park. Dreamworld elected to install a steel frame on the 35 year old fibreglass log boats and mount a sliding canopy to each. They're certainly not the first theme park to address the issue of riders standing up, but they're the only theme park – anywhere in the world – to settle on such a low-cost, overhanded approach. Leading water ride manufacturers like Intamin, WhiteWater or Mack Rides certainly don't offer these kinds of safety feature.
Indeed any industry observer should look at these canopies for what they are: tasteless, clinical and everything you'd expect from a theme park that routinely makes changes or additions based on dollars and cents, in total isolation from what other responsible operators do in the theme park industry. The only goal here was to get the Log Ride open quickly and cheaply.
Ardent announced at the November AGM that several members of the board of directors travelled to Disney theme parks to learn safety practices from the theme park industry leader.
"We spent half a day going on rides, seeing the way they manage the risks involved on those rides, making sure that we understood the protections and cost of those protections," said Ardent director Roger Davis.
They definitely didn't come across any crude cage-like canopies on Disney's many safe, world-class flume rides.
Indeed Disney addressed the issue of riders standing up on Splash Mountain by modifying their boats many years ago to feature individual backrests and a high back on the boat. They don't stop riders standing up, but they do mean it's essentially impossible to lose your balance and fall out. It's moulded into the log-inspired design of the boat to the point where you wouldn't even notice the safety feature if you weren't looking for it.
Splash Mountain also features no low-clearance beams that a rider could come into contact with if they stood up. Sensors detect abnormal rider activity while a plethora of CCTV cameras and staff monitor the ride.
Today every manufacturer of flume rides includes high backs and individual seats as standard. Wild West Falls at nearby Warner Bros. Movie World has featured this for 20 years, coupled with lap bars that ensure riders remain seated.
It's perfectly understandable that a 35 year-old log ride that was built and designed in-house will need ongoing work and improvements to remain safe.
In situations like this, logic dictates that theme park operators engage with industry leaders to develop a proper, modern replacement of the safety systems, the boats or even the entire attraction if it comes to that. The experience and knowledge Dreamworld has simply pales in comparison to that of modern manufacturers who have built hundreds of rides around the world.
It's simply wrong for Ardent Leisure to think that they know best, but it's what you expect from an operator that has never shown much interest in running a theme park like a theme park.
Ardent Leisure should do what's best for shareholders, staff, visitors and the Australian tourism industry: sell Dreamworld and focus on their bowling alleys in the US. Dreamworld's future – and these difficult years ahead – need a committed, experienced theme park operator at the helm.