The current state of Tivoli, with the iconic pagoda and the empty boating lake. Daniel Maldonado
Tivoli, a forgotten playground

Tivoli, a forgotten playground

Once the most popular amusement park on the Costa del Sol, it stood for freedom, fun and glamour. Since its closure in 2020, it has fallen into disuse with a loyal band of workers fighting for its revival. The mayor of Benalmádena has said that negotiations are under way and that the park will open again

Matías Stuber

Friday, 2 February 2024, 14:48

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A merry-go-round covered by a huge tarpaulin, life-size dinosaur figures facing another extinction, pedal-boats covered in dust, a drop tower that no longer drops and a big wheel that has seen better days. Tarmac paths run in between the rides, sidestepping palm trees in need of a prune, and the rough-looking façade of the tunnel of terror that is scary no more. Welcome to Tivoli, the best-known amusement park on the Costa del Sol.

First the good news: if Tivoli can continue, it will be thanks to a group of workers who still keep an eye on the infrastructure, do what they can to maintain the rides and continue to fight for an investor serious enough to deliver a complete turnaround. Three years under their belts without pay and stuck in legal wrangling.

The workers are sure the park will re-open. Dani Maldonado

If not for them the park would have already become a mecca for scrap merchants, the big wheel would have been crushed into small metal cubes and nothing would be left of the roller coaster, not even the sign. Tivoli would simply be a wasteland with no expectations other than being somewhere to avoid. "The park is set to reopen," insists Juan Francisco Carmona. He is one of the 85 workers whose lives changed forever on 15 September, 2020 (shutdown day).

–What did Tivoli sound like in those days?

– "Children laughing, having fun."

This world of fun is located in Benalmádena, only 20 minutes by car from Malaga city and just two roundabouts from the motorway exit. Large colourful letters spelling "Tivoli" still greet us at the entrance to what was once such a paradise of entertainment. For decades there would be long queues to enter the park. Nowadays the ticket offices are locked up tight. The cement walls around the perimeter, originally built to stop ticket-dodgers, now only serve as a deterrent to vandals.

Tivoli classics like the 'roscones' and the boat roundabout. Dani Maldonado

Tivoli is also on prime real estate: a large area of land in the heart of the Costa del Sol, five minutes from the beach, the rides rising up against a landscape of concrete alongside nature almost running wild. For anyone wanting to check out the inexorable passing of time, this is the place. In equal measure it is the place to savour the stopping of time. Walking through the park in January 2024 is reminiscent of being out during a curfew. The show boat: deserted. The drop tower ride: empty. The Plaza del Oeste (Wild West square): not a soul. As for the roller coaster: only a few peacocks stepping across the rails. "We pay for their food to keep them going," says Carmona.

We could be on the set for a new season of The Leftovers. Each step is like a sudden loss of hearing and there's an uncomfortable silence. As when riding a roller coaster, our perspective changes. At the same time it's fascinating and surreal, overwhelming and oppressive, beautiful and disturbing.

There is probably no other place so close to the hearts of the people of the Costa del Sol. Several generations chose Tivoli for their family excursions. The first-comers were local to the region. Then they came from the rest of Spain. Finally, the overseas visitors, giving it a more cosmopolitan feel. With its closure it has gained cult status.

Tivoli's history is closely interwoven with the rise of the Costa del Sol as a tourist destination. Built in 1972 by Dane Bent Olsen, Tivoli gave Spanish visitors the chance to feel a little more international. There, life was a little freer and more colourful than the rather grey, daily life under the dictatorship.

The Big Wheel and the Russian Mountain were emblematic rides in the park. Dani Maldonado
Imagen principal - The Big Wheel and the Russian Mountain were emblematic rides in the park.
Imagen secundaria 1 - The Big Wheel and the Russian Mountain were emblematic rides in the park.
Imagen secundaria 2 - The Big Wheel and the Russian Mountain were emblematic rides in the park.

Boomtime for Tivoli really took off in the 80s and 90s. Summer season during these decades saw shows and concerts every other day. When it wasn't Julio Iglesias, it was Rocío Jurado. When it wasn't Alejandro Sanz, it was international artists like James Brown. In the world of music no one was anyone if they had not performed at Tivoli.

Back to present-day Tivoli, the workers' efforts have another goal: to prevent the rides from falling apart in the hope of bringing them back to life. Of the 85 that existed, 27 remain in situ. Some found greener pastures and moved on. Others simply couldn't hang on any longer. Every day at noon these employees meet at the gates to take a photo so their struggle is not forgotten. Carmona frowns and expresses his mistrust of the press. Nowadays Tivoli only makes the headlines if some YouTuber is caught in the park looking for a bit of fame. No paper is prepared to speak of the lack of action by successive regional governments - just warm words from the outgoing Socialist leaders and more of the same from the incoming, centre-right Partido Popular. "What we need is action," say the Tivoli workers.

The present state of one of the stages and the bumper cars. Dani Maldonado

Turning points

If we were to look for turning points in the history of Tivoli, quite a few appear. A key one to tackle involves a certain person's name, that of the owner of Tivoli from 2004 to 2007. Rafael Gómez, a businessman from Cordoba, better known as Sandokán, became the owner of Tivoli. His life story provides enough content for several Netflix series to be made. To some people he was a conman, but he was also the last serious investor in the park. His money delivered the last major revamp, replacing the dolphinarium with the drop tower ride and a complete refit of the tunnel of terror. For those few years under his control the park returned to profitability. Then Operation Malaya blew up and Sandokán ended up accused of planning corruption and in need of liquid funds to face the legal onslaught of a trial. The park was sold to Tremón, a Madrid-based real estate group claiming to be diversifying its portfolio.

What then follows is a story of steady decline. Without further investment in the park the good years would be no more. The books drifted into the red although the workers insist that the park was profitable right up to the last day. Tremón disagrees. Given the group's core business, one might suspect their purchase of the park was purely speculative - to use the land for urban development. Last year, Benalmádena council modified the PGOU (its town masterplan), placing a restrictive clause on Tivoli's land to shield it from being built on. Tivoli's former employees remain distrustful.

Meanwhile this great amusement park on the Costa del Sol still evokes a kaleidoscope of happy memories for so many residents of Malaga and beyond. From the motorway you catch a glimpse of a large, man-made, metal object. It's not some public art installation, it's the famous Tivoli big wheel. I long for the day when it turns again, just like before, when we were kids.

A photo inside the park. Dani Maldonado

Mayor promises reopening of Tivoli within this term of office

With a place such as Tivoli that stirs up strong emotions, there remains one key question: what can be done to breathe life into such a crippled giant? Employees keep pushing Tremón to sell to interested parties. It seems there are some, supposedly including a British theme park magnate willing to invest a million into the park. Benalmádena town hall has said this week that it is acting as intermediary between Tremón and possible investors regarding the future purchase of the park. "Tivoli will open during this term of office," said mayor Juan Antonio Lara on Wednesday, after announcing an agreement with Tremón to open the Pueblosol car park, which also belongs to the group. Lara confirmed that among the investors was a firm devoted exclusively to managing amusement parks. The mayor explained that the interested parties would wait for the outcome of a lawsuit brought by Rafael Gómez against Tremón in an attempt to declare the sale to the real estate group void. The sentence is expected in April.

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