Six Flags, 50 years later
What started as a little piece of Texas Americana has gone international
wk-tatsu (Los Angeles Times photo by Myun J. Chun / May 9, 2006)
I remember feeling afraid, but I didn't panic. After all, brave little girls don't come to Six Flags to cry, though they might go there to get scared witless on a roller coaster.
Back then, there was only one Six Flags. And not even its founder expected the venture to last more than a few seasons. But on Aug. 5, when Six Flags Over Texas marks its golden anniversary, it does so as patriarch of an international entertainment empire.
It's quite a story. It's a Texas story. And like all who bonded with the original park, I take it personally. It wasn't just a fantasy place; this was where I lost and found my sister, this was where I discovered myself to be a cool-headed problem-solver.
That Six Flags was a product of a different time. Heading into 1961, the Dallas-Fort Worth rivalry for economic supremacy left the small towns between them struggling. Meanwhile, Disneyland was five years into a raging success in the Los Angeles suburb of Anaheim.
But for Texans, a California vacation was a daunting 1,400 miles away. And we were — are — patriotic about our state.
In that climate, the late Angus Wynne Jr. saw his opportunity: a regional family amusement park with attractions themed to Texas history. The flags of six nations really did fly over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas (an independent nation for nine years), the Confederacy and the United States.
Halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth, little Arlington was eager for business. Mike Apple, who has been with Six Flags Over Texas since 1967 and is now director of operations, recalls that the impetus behind the park was to bring traffic to the Great Southwest Industrial District.
It worked. Fifty years later, I'm willing to claim that Six Flags Over Texas is responsible for places such as Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, the new Cowboys Stadium and a host of hotels, shops and restaurants that have sprung up only a few blocks away.
In 1961, Six Flags opened with what now sounds like a handful of attractions. A "cat-and-mouse"-style coaster, burro rides, a boat trip, a gunslinger show, an aerial gondola, a steam train, a touring-car ride, a carousel and not a whole lot more.
Set among towering trees and landscaped waterways, Six Flags was closer in spirit to Colonial Willamsburg or regional Renaissance fairs. Every aspect of the park told a Texas story. And Texans responded. More than 500,000 people came that first year, in a season that lasted only 45 days.
Today Six Flags covers 5,662 acres across 19 parks in the United States, Canada and Mexico, making it the world's largest regional theme-park company. It counts about 800 rides and 128 roller coasters. In 2010, even as it emerged from bankruptcy, this empire welcomed 24.3 million visitors.
Why do they keep coming? For many, such as coaster enthusiast David Lipnicky, it's because they grew up with Six Flags. Whenever his grandparents came from out of state for a visit, it always meant a three-generation outing to Six Flags Over Texas.
"It was Christmas and the Super Bowl all in one," he said.
Lipnicky, who has logged 2,125 rides on the now-classic Shock Wave steel coaster and is public relations director for American Coaster Enthusiasts, gives rave reviews for the park's all-new Texas Giant coaster, re-engineered for the 50th anniversary. And he's especially pleased Six Flags Over Texas has brought back a fondly remembered curiosity from the old days: Casa Magnetica, a house in which balls roll uphill.
But I'm still holding out for Skull Island.
If you go
Here's a sampling of what's hot at Six Flags, with single-day admission prices for adults/children/online. Access all parks online at sixflags.com.
California — Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, Vallejo, $50/$37/$37: Swim with dolphins. Six Flags Hurricane Harbor, Valencia, $35/$25/$30: River Cruise, 1,300-foot-long lazy river. Six Flags Magic Mountain, Valencia, $62/$37/$37: Green Lantern First Flight, vertical spinning coaster.