Sydney’s Darling Harbour area has undergone numerous changes over the decades, as the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (formerly known as the Darling Harbour Authority) continually looked at how to better utilise the area in a way that was enjoyable for both local residents and outside visitors. While the Sydney Aquarium and Sydney Entertainment Centre had entertained audiences since the ‘80s, for the longest there sat a substantial amount of undeveloped land in Darling Harbour that the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority was eyeing to develop.
When Sega was king
Hot off the success of his Sega Ozisoft Pty Ltd venture, founder Kevin Bermeister was also at the point where he was looking for a new entrepreneurial challenge and opportunity in Sydney. Initially starting off as a multiplatform entertainment software distributor in the early ‘80s, Ozisoft grew over the next decade as video games grew in popularity, mainly off the back of the 16-bit Mega Drive console by Japanese hardware and software vendor, Sega.
With both Ozisoft and Sega recognising their mutual success, the two businesses would ally together in 1992 to form Sega Ozisoft Pty Limited. The years immediately leading up to and after the tie-up between Ozisoft and Sega was a very successful one for both parties, as the Mega Drive console had carved out a substantial portion of the video game market in Australia at the time. It was also holding its ground against the competing 16-but platform, the Super Nintendo, by Japanese rival, Nintendo.
With his Sega Ozisoft venture riding high, Bermeister must have looked at which direction he could take the Sega business in, and his search brought him into contact with the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority. When and how the idea for Burmeister’s ambitious project came up is not officially listed, but it must have happened sometime between 1992 and 1994, as Bermeister had established his property consortium, Jacfun, in 1994. In that same year, the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority would award Jacfun with the long-term lease over a 1.5ha block of land in the Darling Harbour area in order to develop it into an entertainment facility.
In the next three years, Jacfun would turn the land into the site of a theme park. While Sydney at the time had no shortage of theme parks, with Luna Park in Milson’s Point and then still operating Wonderland Sydney (formerly known as “Australia’s Wonderland”) in Eastern Creek, Jacfun would make this one unique from the rest. In addition to securing funding from the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority, Jacfun managed to convince Sega to pitch in with their own investment for a total of $80 million that would be used to develop a Sega-themed park that would be centred around video game entertainment.
Sega’s house of fun
Sega was no stranger to dealing with and operating theme parks, having already opened its Joypolis facility in Yokohama City in its home turf of Japan on July 20, 1994. The Joypolis venture no doubt served as a blueprint for the development of the Jacfun initiative in Sydney, though the bigger scale and size most likely meant that the Joypolis layout, structure and name was not quite as grand as Jacfun imagined it to be. Sega may have created a Joypolis in Japan, but Jacfun was going to create something larger in Australia - a world that revolved entirely around Sega and its video game properties. Hence, Sega World was the more fitting choice.
Sega World would finally open its doors in March 1997 to significant buzz from both consumers and the press, who would view the theme park as being an interactive version of Disneyland in the heart of Australia. An advertising campaign followed, which featured notable Indigenous Australian actor and television presenter, Ernie Dingo. The Sega World facility was visually recognisable thanks to the Cameron Chisholm & Nicol-designed rectangular building that housed the entire theme park, which was painted bright red complete with a large, glass cone on the roof. All of the rides and facilities were fitted into the Future World Concepts’ designed interior, making it one of the largest indoor theme parks at the time.
There was a mix of traditional rides at Sega World, such as the indoor mine train roller coaster, Rail Chase, and bumper car influenced, Mad Bazooka, as well as the latest in computer entertainment with motion simulators such as Aqua Nova and AS-1. Sega’s long and successful legacy in video arcade gaming was represented with a dedicated coin-op area in the Sega World facility that contained over 100 arcade cabinets, though playing the games was not free. Excluding the arcade machines, the entry fee of $30 for adults and $24 for children gave attendees access to all rides in the facility.
Sega World had one main entrance that consisted of a “time tunnel” that connected three distinct areas focused around the theme of past, present and future. So while the “past” area might have traditional rides such as the Rail Chase mine cart roller coaster, the “future” section would have sci-fi themed AS-1 motion simulator. In total, there were about seven main attractions at Sega World for guests to enjoy, and with the 32-bit Sega Saturn console being actively distributed by Sega Ozisoft in Australia, several machines were set up to be played for free by Sega World guests who were waiting in line.
Betting on the Olympics
While Sega World did open to much fanfare in 1997 and saw an adequate number of visitors in those initial few months, the momentum would sadly be short-lived. Like any theme park, Sega World was a business with targets to hit, and the expectation at the time was that 800,000 people a year would visit the indoor facility. However, as time went on, only half that number would be achieved year after year. It soon became apparent to all of those involved in managing Sega World that it was turning into a money losing venture, though there was hope on the horizon in the form of the 2000 Summer Olympics.
With Sydney having won the bid to host the Olympics in 1993, businesses and locals in the city were gradually gearing up to the opportunities presented by the landmark sports event. In addition to Sydney being the most densely populated city in Australia, the fact that the metropolis would be hosting the Games most likely played a big deciding factor to why Sega World was established in Sydney and not anywhere else. Though attendance numbers at Sega World were not meeting expectations, the theme park’s management decided to tough it out a bit longer in order to capitalise on the expected surge of visitors to Sydney for the 2000 Summer Olympics.
While Sega World’s management was cautiously optimistic about its prospects for 2000, as the Games were just around the corner, Sega in Japan was not quite as confident in the viability of the theme park. Having seen Sega World fail to pull in significant numbers of visitors two years in a row since opening, Sega sold its stake in the operation in 1999. Because Sega had been a partner in the venture since day one, the Japanese vendor had to pay its way out of the original contract to the tune of $36 million, which paid directly to its former associate, Jacfun.