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Water Ski Show – Surfers Paradise Gardens

Water Ski Show – Surfers Paradise Gardens

“My family owned a farm in Carrara on what is today the Emerald Lakes Golf Club and the Plateau Cres hill,” begins Jack Birmingham. “One day, my brothers and I walked down to see a barrel-chested, fair-haired athletic man waterskiing on the Nerang River. He asked where we were from and we explained. He then invited us to come to the River every afternoon and we could help out. In return, he would teach us to ski. That man was businessman Keith Williams.” 

Jack who recently moved back to the area, now lives a stone’s throw from that exact spot on the river. He and his four brothers, Kevin, Colin, Tom and Bill would not only learn to ski, but several would go on to become water ski champions in their own right. Jack, Kevin and Colin each won a title at the first three Moomba Masters ski tournaments on the Yarra River in Melbourne. Colin became an Australia Ski Team member, won five Australian Championships, and represented Australia five times. 

The birth of the ski gardens 

“Keith was a ski enthusiast who eventually became a groundbreaking Queensland developer and tourism legend,” says Jack. 

The Gold Coast was modeling itself on successful Florida in the USA. Keith, being a keen water skier, decided to build a waterski attraction similar to one he had read about called Cypress Gardens, a theme park in Polk County, Florida. 

With money he made from various Brisbane-based leather goods enterprises, including the manufacturing of the first double motorcycle bench seat, Keith purchased a 250-acre dairy farm in Carrara, where he created his own Shangri-La of water skiing, the Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens. 

Way ahead of his times, the visionary entrepreneur used the ingenuity of local people to build a resort-style theme park with lush gardens, heated pool, modern dressing rooms, sun patio, restaurant, plant nursery, tropical gardens, shuffle board court, seating for 600 people, a go-cart track, and a stretch of some of the first Gold Coast residential canals. Keith also established a water ski and wetsuit factory, which quickly became the country’s largest producer of water-ski equipment and life jackets. In early planning, he set aside space for a Caribbean boat dealership, and Scott McCulloch outboard marine engines. There were also plans for an onsite motel. 

The Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens opened in 1957, and hosted a World Water Ski Championships in 1965 featuring eighty of the world’s best skiers from 20 different countries. It remains the first and last time Australia has ever hosted a World Championship ski event. 

The tourist theme park was based around ski shows featuring the glamourous Aquamaids, and comedy and aerial action. It became tremendously popular with sun-seeking holiday makers. In its 1960’s heyday, the Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens was billed as the city’s must-see tourist attraction. The famous Sunday ski show featured a team pass, men’s jump, slalom, tricks, tandem, pyramid, girls ballet and a bunch of clown acts. 

It was Australia’s first ever professional water ski show. It became so popular the shows quickly increased to twice weekly and eventually became daily shows, often under lights. The shows comprised 24 different acts, starring the best skiers in the country performing in heart-stopping highly risky boat sequences, culminating with the boat routines that crashed through flaming barricades at the top of jump ramps. Skiers had very little safety equipment, utilising only courage, imagination and a daredevil spirit. The spectators of the show can tell you that even the great ski shows of today do not match the talent that was on display at Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens. 

In 1966, Keith added a motor racetrack, drag strip, and speedway circuit known as the Surfers Paradise International Raceway. Within the circuit lay an airstrip. Keith thought of it all. 

Training champions

Jack says, “Keith Williams was great at self promotion. He had his people distribute advertising brochures for the Ski Gardens to every hotel in Surfers Paradise. The ski school offered ski lessons with a free hotel pick-up service.” 

The Ski Gardens was open to all levels of skier training, producing some of Australia’s best water skiers. In its thirteen years, Keith employed many men and women some of whom would become Australia’s greatest ever water skiers. Many of the water skiing staff were paid very low wages, some were unpaid for performances but they all wanted to be there to have their chance to ski. The world-class facility produced Australian skiers who won 47 national titles and multiple World Championship medalists.

Many Australian champions developed their skills at the venue. The well-equipped amenities, and the latest boats created a unique environment that nurtured Australian champions such as Vaughan Bullivant, who was the first water skier in the world to perform various barefoot tricks. One was the barefoot toe hold where he skied at high speed with one foot attached to the ski rope handle. Another one helped him gain his green card to work, and water-ski, at Cypress Gardens in Florida, and later at Redwood City in California, because no-one else could perform the trick. This required a deep water take-off, on his barefeet, up to the standing position; then he would drop down onto his backside, and spin around and around on his backside, and then back up onto his barefeet again. Vaughan was a New Zealand champion for many years and won several Australasian Water Ski Championships.

Also part of the ski show was Wally Morris who many believe is Australia’s best ever all-round water skier, winning the National Championships four times.

In the early to mid-1960’s there was no bigger name or talent in female water skiing in Australia than Ski Gardens regular and 2018 Hall of Fame inductee Margaret Calvert. In an era where women in sports were deemed less important than male competitors, she won titles across every discipline dominating every competition she attended, winning three Gold Skiing Oscars. Margaret will be remembered as one of the greatest overall skiers Australia has ever seen.

Keith himself was Australian water-ski champion from 1957 to 1960. For 10 years, he was also part of the stunt troupe that performed not only at Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens but around Australia – his role being Bozo the Clown.

Everyone at Ski Gardens was passionate about skiing. Betty Wheeler, who worked as Keith’s personal assistant for twelve years was a pioneering water skier, credited as Australia’s first ladies barefoot skier, she went on to win many events in Australian Championships from 1957 to 1962, and competed at the World Championships in 1961.

Betty once said, “Word spread like wildfire that Surfers Paradise Gardens was indeed a water skiers Shangri-La. Skiers were in abundance. Everyone wanted to come to paradise – from remote areas of Queensland – from all over Australia and overseas, even from Cypress Gardens USA, that other mecca of water skiers. Some stayed for a couple of weeks, some for a season, some for years and some are still here. Many lasting friendships were formed and sealed.”

The Move

But nothing lasts forever, not even a water skiers Shangri-La. There were many reasons why the Ski Gardens eventually moved to Sea World on The Spit. A lease of land was granted to Keith by the Queensland Government, where Sea World was built. Jack explains, “Well, one reason for the move was that you could no longer run a ski show on the Nerang River because there were too many boats wanting to use the river. Halfway through a show, fifteen boats would want to pass on their way up and down the river. This disturbed the waters, confused the spectators, and annoyed the performers. The show needed its own waterways, a private lake. That’s what Keith built at Sea World.”

Jack reminisces, “I enjoyed my time at Ski Gardens. I would work at the speedway from morning until mid afternoon, then walk over to the river and perform to the tourists in the ski show. Then Vaughan and I would train for competitions until the sun went down.”

Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens was closed down in 1971 when the ski show transferred to the Spit at Main Beach and the new venture was named Sea World. However, times change – and eventually so did the ownership – and it was decided that water-skiing was no longer “Extreme” enough for current audiences. The last water-ski show was held in August 2009 – after running continuously for 52 years.

By Andrew Kancachian

(Special thanks to Vernia Bullivant for providing the photos and technical editing for this story)