Arts + EntertainmentKent Towns

How Have Seaside Amusement Arcades in Kent Changed over the Years?

Kent’s seaside amusement arcades are a staple of English holidays, but how have they changed over the years? 

Childhood Revisited” (CC BY 2.0) by Sir Hectimere

Despite perching proudly upon the piers and waterfronts of Kent, the history of our honoured amusement arcades often goes overlooked. Like many things in our county, it all started with a few odd folks turned entrepreneurs who had an ingenious idea.

Back in the early 19th century, it wasn’t unusual to come across travelling fairs in the UK. The first few of these were made up of games stalls and shows, all of which could be hosted from the back of a wagon or, at the very least, set up beside one. Things began to change in 1857 when the stamp vendor, the first automated machine, was patented – and it wasn’t long before automated entertainment machines began to appear throughout Britain.

As the 1900s arrived, travelling fairs began to settle in seaside resorts around the coasts of England, Scotland and Wales. At first, they were known as ‘gaff shops’ and ‘sports’ arcades, but as automated games became more popular, entire amusement arcades began to take shape. By the time the 1930s rolled around, amusement arcades were a staple at every seaside. They had crane machines, fortune-tellers, one-armed bandits, automated football, mechanical clowns and punchballs. Just 30 years later there were even more machines, including pushers, pinball, horseracing and early versions of slot machines.

Still, it wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that arcades truly began to flourish, and it was all thanks to the introduction of video games. Cabinets with Space Invaders, Pong, Pac-Man and Asteroids attracted more customers to amusement arcades than ever, which also allowed many of the establishments to undergo a bit of much-needed refurbishment. It was then that the neon lights, jingling music, PA systems and glass frontages were introduced, perhaps in an attempt to recreate a Las Vegas vibe at the seaside.

These are the amusement arcades of the modern era that we still recognise today here in Kent – or at least, we’d recognise the outsides of the buildings. A mixture of old Victorian foundations and modern(ish) décor. The same can’t be said for the games inside, however, as many of them seem to change regularly. Here, we’ll be breaking down the changes that have happened in Kent amusement arcades over the last few decades, as well as exploring the most popular arcades in our humble county.

What Do The Most Popular Arcade Towns In Kent Have To Offer?

This was Margate’s seafront back in 2012, and while the outside hasn’t changed much, perhaps the insides have?

Margate Seafront – Aug 2012 – King Kong” ( CC BY 2.0) by Gareth1953 All Right Now

According to the Great British Tourism Survey 2017, 16.3 million tourists spent at least one night in South East England last year. Even more tourists travelled to the South East for day trips in 2017 according to a similar Visit Britain report, with a recorded 232 million people visiting throughout the year. Of these visitors, 12% visited a seaside or coastal resort in our part of the world. That’s a whopping 27.8 million people. So, which seaside resorts did tourists visited in Kent?

We couldn’t possibly start with anywhere other than Margate, the seaside where it all started. Not only has Margate been a leading seaside resort for over 250 years, but it is also home to waterfront fairground Dreamland. If amusement arcades are what you’re looking for, there are literally dozens to choose from. Down Marine Terrace alone you’ll find Jimmy G’s, Seaview Amusements, Rowland & Rowland, Down the Coast, Club World, and several others.

Not far from Margate, you’ll find Broadstairs, a beautiful town that boasts incredible beaches like Vikings Bay. Of all the amusement arcades, Broadstairs Leisure Family Amusements is probably the most popular. While we’re in the region on Thanet, we best mention Ramsgate as well, home of not one but two Palace Amusements and plenty of other arcades.

Other seaside destinations with great arcades include Whitstable Bay, Herne Bay, Reculver Beach and Leysdown. That said, regardless of where you go on the waterfront of Kent chances are you’ll come across a few amusement arcades and casinos.

How Have Our Arcades Changed Over The Years?

Although amusement arcades throughout the UK experienced a lot of success throughout the 20th century, things weren’t going quite so well by the turn of the millennium. The biggest cause of this was the introduction of home entertainment systems and gaming consoles. This became an even bigger problem once home internet went mainstream, with many people choosing to play games of chance such as slots and video poker at online casinos instead of at arcades.

Then there were the problems that people who still went to arcades were making. You may notice a number of rules are now slapped on the walls of most arcades, and for good reason. For example, from the coin on a string technique to the much more sophisticated art of cracking random number generators, there used to be several ways to trick slot machines, and many of them eventually changed the industry. Even today, it wouldn’t be surprising to see someone try and shove a pusher or even stick their arm up a crane, but those techniques are less likely to work.

So, when much more sophisticated machines became available to amusement arcades, many of them snapped them right up. Whether you’re in Margate, Whitstable Bay or even Sheerness, it isn’t unusual to see a new-fangled scissor-cutting game where you have to use a string to win an iPhone. There are even arcade games based on hugely popular apps such as Angry Birds, as well as machines that let you live out TV shows like The Walking Dead.

Amusement arcades have evolved in order to keep up with the times and ahead of the game, but is it what the customers want?

From Travelling Fairs To Luxury High-Tech Arcades

Well, here in Kent it must be. Yes, some arcades around the coast may still be a little tatty, with those ugly carpets we all remember from school discos and monstrous light fittings, but most have really stepped up to what the modern world expects of them. They have recent arcade games provided by developers including Raw Thrills, Namco, Apple and Sega. Many even have separate, VIP-style rooms where people who want to take their arcade experience to the next level can go. Some of these could even rival the fanciest casinos, with table service, dress codes and a distinct air of classiness.

It seems that the days of amusement arcades being somewhere to spend your loose 2ps may be coming to an end, but that doesn’t mean Kent’s famous arcades are going to disappear. Quite the opposite. It seems that with the introduction of more modern machinery and an improved atmosphere, arcades could come something entirely new that the entertainment industry is lacking. A sort of cross between an eSports tournament and a casino, the perfect place for thrill seekers of all kinds.

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