Today's news included an interesting, and yet very sad turn here in Houston. Six Flags is going to close
, demolish and sell the land for Astroworld, Houston's only amusement park. The troubled company, which is up for sale itself, felt that Astroworld was unlikely to be come profitable, and there was ongoing trouble with the parking lot, which is actually part of the large lot for the Astrodome/Reliant Stadium across the freeway.
One of the odd things about Astroworld is the fact that the bridge over Loop 610 was actually the first privately owned bridge over an Interstate highway. This is just another example of odd trivia bits that I keep in my head. I remember on some of my first trips to the park, in the middle seventies when my family still lived in Nacogdoches, this fact was espoused on the tram ride form the Astrodome lot to the park entrance. This was also way before you would have ever thought of having to go through a metal detector before riding a ferris wheel.
It's interesting that Astroworld
(or as Six Flags would like you to call it, Six Flags Houston) was recently listed as a place for the evacuees to go to get away from the dome for a short time, but since it's $41.99 to get in, it was a luxury most couldn't afford.
Astroworld started in 1968 by Houston Mayor Judge Roy Hofheinz (the "judge" was a title, but everyone seems to include it with his name) as a response to Dallas/Ft. Worth's Six Flags Over Texas park and placed it close to the Astrodome, built just a few years prior. In those days, that was far out of town on Houston's underdeveloped south side. Now being only five miles away from downtown, it's actually one of the closest theme parks to a city center in the country. One of the problems the park has is that it's completely hemmed in by other businesses and cannot expand.
As a part of trying to out do Six Flags Over Texas, Judge Hofheinz designed the park with several different lands, also similar to Disneyland with it's themed lands. Since Six Flags took the idea of having one section for each of the Flags that flew over Texas (Spain, France, Mexico, Texas Republic, Confederacy and the USA), the Judge would do them one better and set up his as different places in the world. Of course the judge lacked some imagination so after having Plaza de Fiesta, Oriental Corner, European Village and Main Street USA, there was a Western Village, Children's World, Country Fair, Coney Island and worst of all, Modville.
Years later Modville
became Contemporary Corner. It seems things can't be groovy forever.
Each area had it's signature ride. The Bamboo Shoot
was a log ride in China, the lost river cruise
went through an Aztec temple but still with the same lame jokes, and Modville had the odd spidery-looking double ferris wheel (just called the Astrowheel
) and a drop floor barrel ride called "The Happening". No Lie.
Astroworld started with three coasters, the Serpent kiddie coaster, the Alpine Sleigh Ride
that went over and into the anamatronic-dwarf-populated gold mine of Der Hofheinzburg Mountain, and in the largest coaster in the Country Fair area known as Dexter Freebish's Electric Roller Ride
. The ride, long since gone as many of the others I've mentioned, was the inspiration for the one-hit wonder bad of a few years ago. For a time they changed the area around it to a Medieval England theme and called the ride Excalibur.
Six Flags bought the park in 1971 and started slowly adding new attractions. The biggest, and most well-known attraction is the Texas Cyclone
roller-coaster. The wooden coaster opened in 1976 (after being nearly destroyed by a hurricane during construction) and jumped on to the top ten list of best coasters for many years. It's pretty simple, it's a taller, bigger mirror image construction of the Coney Island Cyclone coaster. It revs up to a sixty-mile-per hour speed quickly and has several turns that sent riders out of their seats and into their fellow rider's laps.
For many years the Texas Cyclone
only had a lapbar to keep it's riders from flying out of the cars. After a couple of notable deaths, the park completely overhauled the cars in the early 90's. Gone were the boxy wooden cars with the lap bar, and later a simple seatbelt. Replacing them were extruded fiberglass cars with wrap-around headrests that kept you from seeing the view as you climbed up the first hill, seatbelts and individual seat bars that kept you in place instead of crashing into your neighbor.
To say that some of the thrill was gone would be an understatement.
Later additions would include the one loop slingshot coaster, Greezed Lightnin'
, The Ultra Twister
tube coaster that spins you around on an x-axis, and the Looping Starship
, basically a large 360 degree swing that was built to look like the Space Shuttle. The park also debuted the first white water rafting ride, Thunder River
In 1983 they opened a waterpark next door, cleverly called Water World many years before the movie disaster of the same name. It was the first waterpark in the city and took the last of the land owned by the company, tucked to the east side of the park and only accessible by the 610 Limited train
. Water World will be closing as well.
Things haven't gone well for the park in the last few years. You can tell that Six Flags was leaving it for dead, and not maintaining the park well. My last trip there was greeted by many empty storefronts in the Main Street area and little cleanup or repainting anywhere else. A new ride hadn't opened in several years. Things have been removed, like the Astroneedle
that rose above the park, but fell into such disrepair that they didn't run a car up the flagpole for three years before finally pulling it down when faced with the fact that it might just fall over on it's own.
Somewhere along the way, it became more of a business, or perhaps I just got older and noticed it more. As the Six Flags corporation was sold of to a succession of buyers, different changes would happen to the park. When Time Warner took over for a few years suddenly several of the rides were branded with new characters. The Alpine Sleighs were torn out and replaced by a Batman ride, for one. Of course one of the biggest changes was taking out the original park mascot, the incredibly flamboyant Marvel McFey
(!!) for all of your favorite Looney Toons characters, ready for merchandising. Trust me, no one ever bought a Marvel McFey doll, but plenty of people left with Bugs Bunny. McFey looked like lostncove
with his big red beard, wearing gypsy tramp clothing. Just like Randy does now.
Still, some of the old flavor that made Astroworld unique was lost, and it became more and more a generic Six Flags park. That with the money woes of Six Flags and the rising ticket prices has led to people staying home. What's sad is that this leaves Houston with no amusement park whatsoever. The nation's fourth largest city will have to go to San Antonio where Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Sea World are located. Of course there's always Six Flags over Texas. Still, it's just the fact that there will be no roller-coasters in southeast Texas at all seems very strange to me.
Can another company swoop in and save the park? Perhaps, but there would be a lot of maintenance and several new rides to build as Six Flags intends to take several of the rides out to move to other parks. It's unlikely that a sale of Six Flags itself would come in time to save the park. Otherwise you'd be fixing up 30 year old rides (like the Texas Cyclone
) just to have the public wait for new ones to be put in. It looks like this ride, is over.
Sadly, even though I've not gone to the park in a few years, more due to the fact that my fat ass won't fit in some of the rides, it definitely feels like a loss, and that a chunk of my childhood (and young adulthood) has just left the building.
Thanks to the fan site SixFlagsHouston.com
for having most of the linked images.