In the 90’s Sega was the king of video games in Australia. The Adventures of Sonic The Hedgehog played on Saturday mornings and the coolest of the cool owned a Mega Drive. However, things were about to get much cooler still. Sega was going to open a theme park!
Sega World, Sydney was not actually a Sega initiative, but rather the brain child of Kevin Bermeister who ran Sega Ozisoft, the Australian distributor for Sega products. With Ozisoft concurring video game sales in Australia (yes, even beating out that plumber fellow) Bermeister decided it was time to take things to the next level. Exactly when the idea for a theme park came about is unknown, but Bermeister contacted the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority (SHFA herein) sometime between 1992 and 1994. It is known that in 1994 Bermeister established Jacfun, the property company that would go on to build Sega World. That same year the company gained control of a 1.5 hectare (or 161,460 square feet) block on which to develop the park.
Over the next three years Jacfun started construction on the park. During this time Bermeister contacted Sega in Japan asking if they’d like to invest in the project. While it is unknown how much Sega invested, the total investment between the two companies totaled $AU80 million. It should be noted that Sega’s Japan-based park, Joypolis, which opened in 1994, was only a fraction of the size of Sega World. Bermeister saw Sega World as the mecca for digital entertainment, the giant blue glass pyramid atop it drawing people from all around the world
Sega World opened in 1997 to huge excitement from all corners of Australia. The media was calling it Australia’s “interactive Disneyland.” The media push was huge, featuring an advertisement campaign with Indigenous Australian actor Ernie Dingo. Of course Sega fans where beside themselves. The excitement was palpable.
The park was divided up into three sections; past, present and future, with rides and attractions fitting the themes of each. Given Sega’s brilliant arcade game history there was never any doubt that the rides included in the park would be anything but amazing. There was Ghost Hunter, a sort of ghost house-come-roller coaster during the ride of which you have to blast ghosts with the lazer cannon affixed to your car. Aqua Nova, a 3D motion ride set inside a submarine as it went on a mission; AS-1, a motion simulation ride in which visitors partook in a futuristic police chase, the captain of which was none other than Michael Jackson, continuing his long association with Sega; Mad Bazooka, a dodgem-car ride in which the dodgems where fitted with ball cannons, and that’s just a few.
Of course the park also have a very nice selection of traditional arcade machines too. All the latest games of the time were represented as well as Sega’s and other arcade classics. In total approximately 100 arcade cabinets were housed at Sega World. Being 1997 this was the time of the Saturn which you could at the park, as well as many of the then-released games from the merch store. There were also dozens set up inside the park to play. Speaking of the merch store, it housed a huge amount of Sega, and particularly Sonic, paraphernalia to buy. Much of which is now highly desirable – not to mention highly valuable.
I was only 12 the first time I visited Sega World. I remember the majesty of the place blew my mind. This huge space filled with colour and light was like nothing I had ever seen before. While the space itself was impressive the fact that Sonic the Hedgehog was everywhere – from his smiling face greeting you at the door to his cool persona appearing on the drink cups – made me giddy. It was like I was visiting Sonic’s house and all the cool stuff his Sega friends had made were mine to play with! If Bermeister wanted to create a Sega mecca, he certainly succeeded!
However, like many of Sega’s big endeavors, the end of the Sega World chapter is a sad one. It was expected at the time that 800,000 people a year would visit Sega World, Sydney. These numbers were never quit met and as time went on the venture began to lose money. Still, hope was on the horizon in the form of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Jacfun felt that this huge, world-wide event would stabilize the park.
Back in Japan, however, Sega did not agree and sold its stake in the park in 1999. In a slightly happy twist for Jacfun as Sega had been an original investor in Sega World they had to pay to get out, meaning Jacfun received approximately $AU36 million. Of course, at this time Sega were in their own financial troubles as the Saturn was not performing well at all. This, on the back of the failed Mega-CD and 32X, meant that having a hand in another money-losing venture Down Under was not a good thing. Still, the difficulties Sega faced with the Saturn should be noted as it suggests that the company didn’t necessarily have no faith in Sega World, they simply had to make difficult business decisions.
The Sydney Olympics came and went. It was a huge success for the city of Sydney and Australia as a whole. Huge amounts of revenue was brought in by all the tourists who came to see the Games and decided to tour the country while they were here. And while Sega World did share in some of this success, unfortunately it still was not enough to meet the park’s break-even point. The writing, it seemed, was on the wall.
Not long after the Games, several of the parks rides, including Mad Bazooka and the virtual reality attractions were sold off to make room for new attractions. The park announced it would be closed during off-peak hours two days a week to facilitate the construction of these new attractions, one of which would be an ice rink. During this time all arcade cabinets were made free to play, where as previously you had to pay in addition to your park entry fee. These arrangements were to last until early 2001 when the new attractions would be opened. In November of 2000 Sega World stopped operating. It was assumed at the time that this was to make way for the construction of the new attractions and the park would reopen once they were complete. Alas, once the doors of Sega World closed that November they were never to be opened again.
Jacfun and the SHFA wasted no time in letting go of the failed venture. In March of 2001 an auction was organised to sell off the remaining attractions and rides from the park. It was thought that the combined sales total would be approximately $AU1 million. However, in their rush to clean their hands of the Sega World attractions Jacfun and the SHFA accepted “any reasonable” offer. This resulted in many of the rides selling for much less than originally though, such as one ride initially priced at $AU200,00 going for only $AU140, 000.
With the park cleaned out the Sega World site would remain dormant for a long time while the SHFA decided what to do with it. Jacfun had plans to turn the site into an entertainment district but did little to nothing to see this come to pass. Frustrated at this lack of action, the SHFA paid Jacfun $AU10 million in March of 2003 to terminate their 99-year lease of the site.
With Jacfun gone, the SHFA could now do what it wished with the site. However, the building had been left to rot by Jacfun. Previously, the SHFA had put into plan the “Darling Harbour 2010” review. It was felt that the Darling Harbour area had not met the public’s needs in the last few years and that it needed an overhaul. To this end the Sega World building and the areas around it were upgraded. Sometime in 2005 the Sega World building was leased to Chinese company Shanghai Group Australia (or SGA) who used it for a furniture exhibition center.
Given the similarity in the name, SGA simply had the “E” from “Sega” removed to form the SGA acronym. All of the Sega and Sonic related adornments that had surrounded the area where removed when the park originally closed five years before thus there was no indication of Sega ever having to do anything with the area.
Gone, But Not (Entierly) Forgotten
SGA continued to operate in the building until sometime in 2008 when the Commonwealth Bank of Australia entered into a long term lease for the property. The CBA’s plans were to construct a new central hub for its local employees. Given that the valuable land was only moments from Sydney’s CBD it make perfect sense for the bank. However, the old Sega World building, constructed as it was in mid 90’s, was outdated and not at all suitable for the CBA’s plans. Thus, between late October and early November of 2008 the Sega World, Sydney building was torn down. Not even Sega Ozisoft exists anymore, being acquired in 2002 by Atari and renamed Atari Australia Pty Ltd which, in turn, was renamed Namco Bandai Holdings in 2009.
As if to add insult to injury, more for Sega fans than anyone actually involved, Jacfun took the Sydney Harbour Foreshore Authority to court in 2009 over redevelopment issues in a messy legal battle that lasted well into 2011.
If you visit Sydney Harbour today you’ll find no evidence of Sega World having ever existed. The site on which Sega World once stood is covered in glass office blocks, coffee shops and other business. While it’s inevitable that cities change and attractions come and go, it’s still a shame that there is no trace of the park left. Having operated for such a short time and doing so in an era in which the internet was still in its infancy, finding any kind of information on the park can be hard.
The saga of Sega World, Syndey is almost a parable of Sega’s own history. A strong, forward thinking idea that burns hot and bright for a while, but when the excitement and majesty passes and that idea becomes just another in our fast changing world it shrivels, dies and leaves only the memories of those that experianced it in its wake.