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The Astonishing Evolution of Australia’s Humble Holiday Parks!

From rundown caravan parks to resorts with elaborate water parks, luxury villas and even autism sensory rooms, ANGELA SAURINE looks at how holiday parks have transformed over the years

The jumping pillow at BIG4 Easts Beach in Kiama
The jumping pillow at BIG4 Easts Beach in Kiama

Growing up at BIG4 Easts Beach Holiday Park in Kiama in the 1970s, Leanne Williams remembers playing in a rustic playground and at the beach, and that was about it. These days, the park has a pool, a giant water park, a jumping pillow, a kids’ club and a games room, which have all been gradually added over the years. “Families want more things to do now, and as a business we’re always trying to improve as well,” Leanne, who is now the Park’s managing director, says.

From milking cows to slime making at BIG4 Easts Beach Holiday Park in Kiama

Slime fun at BIG4 Easts Beach Krazy Kidz Club
Slime fun at BIG4 Easts Beach Krazy Kidz Club

Leanne’s great, great grandparents bought the property in 1852 and ran it as a dairy farm, with the family opening it up to campers in 1935. “Initially it was really basic, with people camping among the cows,” she says. “There were cold showers and pit toilets, and they used to treat guests to fresh milk and butter.” The family began introducing powered sites in the 1960s and cabins in the 1970s. “Over time, the accommodation has gone from caravans to small, boxy cabins to the luxurious two or three-bedroom, two-storey villas that we have today,” Leanne says. Another big change in the last decade has been the introduction of planned activities for kids. “It started as basic cooking and craft in the multipurpose room for a couple of days during the school holidays,” Leanne says. “Now, we have a dedicated room and staff, with activities such as slime making, sand and foil art and bingo.”

Water park and remote control car track at dog-friendly BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park

A birdseye view of the water park at BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park
A birdseye view of the water park at BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park

It’s a transformation that’s being mirrored at holiday parks across the country. When BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park owner Theo Whitmont and his family bought the property 12 years ago, it was in a dilapidated state. “On the very first day we started moving out all the old, broken, ratty cabins and caravans that weren’t fit to be used,” he says. “We have since put in a pool, water park, amenities blocks, cabins and ensuite sites.” The dog-friendly holiday park also has a jumping pillow and kids’ club, as well as a remote control car track and games such as frisbee golf, foot pool and bocce.

Racing remote control cars at BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park
Racing remote control cars at BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park

Theo’s ancestors were in the shirt manufacturing business and the family moved into holiday parks in the 1980s. He joined the business 30 years ago. His Dad, Norton Whitmont, is a past president of the Caravan and Camping Industry Association NSW, of which Theo is now a director. “We pride ourselves on being a family business and we have three generations of family members who have stayed in holiday parks, just like our guests,” he says.

Theo says that in the past holiday park stays were considered an affordable, back to basics, working class holiday. “Holiday parks traditionally were places in beautiful beachfront and riverfront locations because town planners were careful what they put in areas prone to inundation and erosion,” he says. “The view was that caravanners would stay for a short holiday, but if it flooded, they wouldn’t stay there. It was great value and created great family memories, and that’s why you see people coming back generation after generation. Kids nowadays are wrapped in cotton wool more and more, and parents and grandparents want them to have the kind of experiences they had when they were growing up. They come to a holiday park and turn back the hands of time – to give kids the freedom to explore, make friends and run around in a safe environment as the sun goes down.”

Autism sensory room and petting zoo at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort, Airlie Beach

The sensory room at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort
The sensory room at BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort

BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort owner Greg McKinnon has also made some dramatic changes to the Airlie Beach property over the years. “When we took it over 30 years ago, it was the worst park in town,” he says. “It was about five acres and had 23 permanent residents, 25 dogs and 50 sites. There was no sewer, no roads, no vegetation. We’ve now developed 22 out of 27 acres.”

BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort aerial
BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort aerial

The Resort now has 175 powered sites and 75 cabins and villas, housing 1000 people at full capacity. It boasts a water park, outdoor cinema and activities such as disco nights. “The petting zoo has been a huge plus for our guests,” Greg says. “Kids these days don’t get to touch a duck or a goat, chook or cow. Here kids get to bottle feed the animals – during the school holidays we do two feeds a day.” The Resort’s most recent addition is an autism sensory room, which includes a box full of sensory toys, weighted blankets and calm music playing. “It’s been a huge success,” Greg says. “Everyone deserves a holiday and we’ve found a real niche there.” In the future, Greg believes we may see everything from wave pools to golf courses incorporated into holiday parks.

Glamping, Kombi Kegs and Bear Grylls Survival Academy at NRMA Parks and Resorts

An Indigenous experience with Cooeee Sistas at NRMA Port Macquarie Breakwall Holiday Resort
An Indigenous experience with Cooeee Sistas at NRMA Port Macquarie Breakwall Holiday Resort

NRMA Parks and Resorts CEO Paul Davies says the holiday park transformation has been the result of a number of players investing and upgrading. “People previously knew them as tourist parks or caravan parks, and they had somewhat of a daggy reputation,” he says. NRMA Parks and Resorts formed in 2017 to support and encourage members of the 100-year-old motoring organisation the chance to get out and explore. It began with four properties, and has expanded to 50 holiday parks owned or managed by NRMA around the country.

Paul says the style of accommodation has been one of the biggest changes to holiday parks over the decades. “Now they offer not just places for people with caravans or tents, but fully sophisticated modern two and three-bedroom cabins and villas,” he says. “Some even have spa baths. They would be the equivalent of four-star hotel rooms, but you also get the social aspect. You don’t expect to make friends walking down a hotel corridor, but in a holiday park you do.”

The water mission at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy at NRMA Parks and Resorts
The water mission at the Bear Grylls Survival Academy at NRMA Parks and Resorts

NRMA Parks and Resorts is constantly developing new products and experiences, including introducing glamping at some properties, and bringing in local food and beverage suppliers, such as food trucks. The company has a national partnership with Kombi Keg, which serves craft beer from converted vans. It has also partnered with the Bear Grylls Survival Academy to offer sessions that teach kids how to light a campfire, tie knots and search for native bush foods at several properties in NSW, Queensland and Victoria. “It’s a lot of fun for kids to get out there and learn and get active in nature,” Paul says.

Down the track, Paul says you can expect to see more Indigenous experiences, such as Welcome to Country ceremonies, dance performances and cultural tours being introduced at NRMA Ocean Beach Holiday Resort on the NSW Central Coast. The company has also introduced electric vehicle charging stations at 50 cabins across its parks to help prepare for the future.

An aerial view of NRMA Ocean Beach Holiday Resort on the NSW Central Coast
An aerial view of NRMA Ocean Beach Holiday Resort on the NSW Central Coast

In partnership with BIG4 Gold Coast Holiday Park, BIG4 East Beach Holiday Park Kiama, BIG4 Adventure Whitsunday Resort and NRMA Parks & Resorts.

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