Life is a roller coaster for this Nerang business

Australia’s Theme Park Capital is the ideal setting for this international company which turns entertainment dreams into reality.

Jun 12, 2023, updated Jun 13, 2023
Pico Play's iconic Blue-ringed octopus at Ripleys Believe IT or Not!

Pico Play's iconic Blue-ringed octopus at Ripleys Believe IT or Not!

It reads like a roll call of the Who’s Who of the global and local entertainment industry: Disney, Dreamworld, Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Universal, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, and JW Marriott, to name just a few.

Chances are, whenever you encounter a theme park or major attraction on the Gold Coast or around the world, Pico Play – named after the Chinese character brushstroke associated with art – is behind the scenes.

Darren McLean was working for Asia’s Pico Group but moved back to his hometown of the Gold Coast in 2016, establishing the subsidiary company Pico Play in his family-owned 1890s timber building at Nerang.

“The Pico Group is more than 50 years old, originated in Singapore, was listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange in the 90s and is very well established in Asia,” said McLean, 42, who lives at Carrara.

“I told them I was going to go back to Australia and into property development and they said ‘how about we set up a new team and try to conquer the attractions’ industry?’.

“It’s just a coincidence that the Gold Coast happens to be the Theme Park Capital of Australia.

“Not many people in Australia know of Pico. We offer a broad range of services in a very niche industry.”

Pico Play Company Director Darren McLean

These services include the planning, design, development and construction of world-class themed attractions and entertainment.

Or, as they describe themselves: the “fun makers” involved in theme parks, zoos and nature parks, water parks and surf parks, family entertainment centres, aquariums and marine parks, and public activations.

“Although the attraction industry is a big business, there are not a lot of companies that service the industry with design and construction,” said McLean, who is the company director and 45 per cent shareholder (the Pico Group owns the remaining 55 per cent).

“We chose to be broad in offering end-to-end services which allows us to get involved in the early stages of projects whether it is a new ride or new development.”

McLean said one of Pico Play’s most iconic works was the giant Blue-ringed octopus in Cavill Mall for Ripley’s Believe It or Not!

“That project is a small project for us but it is very iconic,” he said.

“We’re also involved in the Steel Taipan rollercoaster that opened at Dreamworld last year. We built all the rock tunnels and near miss experiences. It is quite a thrilling rollercoaster.

“We are now working on the new Wizard of Oz precinct at Warner Brothers Movie World.”

Pico Play’s SplashMania project in Asia

McLean, who like many Australians, visited Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary as a child, is excited to be working with them on a new Australiana precinct.

“This park has such a long legacy. I remember going there as a kid and riding on the steam train. Now I get to take my kids. It’s close to my heart and has the largest koala hospital in the world,” he said.

“We’ll be building a homestead that will offer a high-quality dining and function space thanks to the client receiving a grant from the State Government to contribute to the cost of the precinct. That’s a great benefit.

“Sometimes these projects only become viable with these government contributions.

“Pico Play benefits from Federal Export Marketing Grant and the Research and Development Tax Incentive and from networking and awareness through the City of Gold Coast.”

Pico Play employs 18 people at its Nerang office but manages more than 20 projects in seven countries.

“We’ve got a beautiful office overlooking the Nerang River and Hinterland, it is a really creative space with surfboards in the office,” McLean said.

“I don’t surf but I have a boat at the Southport Yacht Club and I try to get out on the Broadwater on that.”

And his favourite project?

“Sometimes the smaller projects are more enjoyable than the larger ones,” he said.

“One which I really love is we designed and built the Wild Island Waterplay Area at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary. It adds a whole new dimension to the park.

“What really drives me is creating. I’m an engineer and I just love creating things that are bespoke and not something that you’ve seen or can copy.

“What really inspires me is taking a piece of paper and sitting down with the designers and saying ‘how can we do this?’”

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary Wild Island


And the next big exciting project?

“We’re working on Parkwood Surf Resort at the Parkwood Golf Club to build a world-class surf lagoon, golf course, and food and beverage and event spaces,” he said.

“It is in the middle of a very large catchment. The idea of this surf park is you can book an hour’s session and ride 13 perfect waves any time of the day or night.

“It is an amazing project for the Gold Coast.”

McLean believes the Gold Coast is a thriving hub of innovative small to medium businesses.

“If we are trying to find a specific lighting supplier or designer that does megatronics, it’s all here,” he said.

“All I’ve got to do is go across the road into the Nerang Industrial Park and there are dozens and dozens of businesses that do everything we want.

“There is definitely that aspect of convenience because you are not lost in a big city.”

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