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May 12, 2008

A tour of Magic Mountain, with park president Jay Thomas

Last Thursday, I drove up to Valencia to meet Six Flags Magic Mountain president Jay Thomas, and take a walk through the park. We were joined by press representative Sue Carpenter, and started the morning with an interview in Thomas' office. Here are some highlights:

TPI: So, how's the park?

Thomas: The park is phenomenal. We're heading into 2008; it's a transition season for the park. We've got a new team on board; A new director of marketing, new administration director, a new general manager, a new park president. But the park's doing fantastic. The park's cleaner that it has ever been. We're really working on raising the bar.

Six Flags Magic Mountain
The Sky Tower, with Tatsu, Revolution and the now-operational Valencia Falls in the foreground.

TPI: But this year's theme park industry attendance report had Magic Mountain dropping out of the U.S. top 20.

Thomas: We can't really talk about the attendance. That's the directive given us. But our attendance is not so bad. We're definitely heading in the right direction.

[Indeed. That same day, Six Flags announced chain-wide attendance increased 19 percent in the first three months of 2008. And average per guest spending increased 13 percent on top of that.]

TPI: The advice we give people always is 'get to the park early, when the lines are the shortest.' But that doesn't work for people when they encounter closed rides and delayed openings. What's the situation at Magic Mountain these days? [Delayed opening have been, ah, a problem at SFMM in the past.]

Thomas: We have no delayed openings. Everything runs at opening and stays open until closing.

Riddlers Revenge
Riddlers Revenge, as seen from the Sky Tower.

I come from a background of operations. So I would rather us start the day at max units. Now, of course, that doesn't always work. We do have maintenance schedules we have to follow, and never will we make a decision that will jeopardize safety. But I don't want to spend 15-20 minutes in the middle of the day adding a train.

We're also trying to train guests not to bring certain items onto the load platform, so that we can expedite the loading process. And I think we've made significant gains in that area.

TPI: Which rides do you hit, in what order, to ride as many of the best coasters before noon?

Sue Carpenter: We always tell people to make their way to the back of the park, and make your way to the front. I would always go Goliath, Colossus. I try to start easy and work my way up to the inversions.

Thomas: I send people that direction to build the experiences, to end on Tatsu, to end on X2.

TPI: Let's talk about X2. Are you confident that you'll be able to avoid its past capacity problems?

Thomas: We're going to run with three trains. In the past, we ran with two trains. We often ran with one train. We put a substantial investment in this so that we can run three trains throughout the course of the summer. That alone should have tremendous affect on capacity. The next thing is that we are looking at changing the loading process and the unloading process.

* * *

Thomas described a new "IBU," Individual Business Unit, management philosophy that has been implemented in the park. Managers and employees at each of the more than 300 locations in the park, from rides, to shops, to food carts, adopt a business strategy for that location.

Kevin Yee at MiceAge has detailed how he believes an individual location-based analysis system is hurting customer service at the Disney theme parks. (See the second page of that article.)

Thomas detailed how Magic Mountain is trying to use the IBU philosophy to encourage individual locations to come up with unique ways to improve their show and guest service. One example is at the Sky Tower, where a manager has converted the tower into a "Magic of the Mountain Museum," a tribute to the history of the park.

Magic of the Mountain Museum
A wooden horse from Magic Mountain's original carousel looks out from Sky Tower over Viper and X2.

Magic Mountain troll
The trolls live again at Magic Mountain.

At that point, we headed out into the park for a tour. As I grabbed my camera and sunglasses, I noticed Thomas picked up what we, when I worked at Disney World, called "nabby-grabbers," a long-handled pincer used for picking up garbage around the park. In fact, several managers I saw walking the park before opening were carrying the grabbers, picking up trash and leaves wherever they found them.

After we watched the park's opening ceremony at the front gate, Thomas said that he had challenged Magic Mountain's managers and employees not only to clear its midways of trash, but of all leaves as well. Not only does that help make the park look crisp and clean, he explained, clearing the leaves is important from a cultural perspective, as well.

"Clearing all those leaves looks like an insurmountable task, but when we did it, I now can go to any department in the park and say, 'Remember the leaves? What seemed like an in surmountable task, you overcame.'"

Thomas also talked up Six Flags' code of guest conduct, prominently displayed on signs in the park, as well as on the park's guidemap. As we walked from the front gate toward X2, a teen girl walking past us with her friends casually dropped the f-word in her conversation. She wasn't mad, just using the word, in normal voice, as an adverb, as some people often do. Yet Thomas, Carpenter and the park's operations manager all exchanged looks, and the ops manager quietly peeled away from us to confront the girl.

Tomorrow I will write about what I saw as we walked around the new X2. But after we visited the Sky Tower, as we were making our way back to the administration building, behind the rear of the park, Thomas expressed how frustrating it can be to turn around a reputation.

"I know the work that goes into what we're doing here.... Some that the things that have affected Magic Mountain's reputation, with the gangs, that was years ago. That's not what this park is like today. This park is cleaner. It's safe.... People are working hard here. I wish more people would come out and see what we're doing here," Thomas said.

"I wish we could be cut a break."

So... does Magic Mountain deserve a break? Let me say this: I have never encountered a theme park president so concerned about his park's online reputation that he spent a whole morning walking a Theme Park Insider writer around his park. This wasn't some cattle call with other local journalists or website reps. Just me.

And the park did look nice. Rides were running and Thomas impressed as a manager who did seem to care about the quality of his park, and guests' experience in it. How much of that has trickled down to the park's operations? I'll see sometime in the next few weeks when I revisit the park, as a normal guest this time and without the presidential tour.

In the meantime, though, I'd love to hear from other recent Magic Mountain visitors, in the comments. Has this park improved? How does it rate as an entertainment value?

Readers' Opinions

From Deidre Dennis on May 12, 2008 at 12:28 PM
I have to be honest here. We absolutely LOVED our trip to Magic Mountain last June and plan to go again this August during a planned Disneyland trip. I was a bit skeptical prior to going because of all the bad stuff I'd heard, but we didn't let that deter us and the park was awesome. The staff was very helpful, even standing in line with other teens and adults, they were talkative and helpful. Not once did we encounter the problems that others have reported. In fact, we also spent several days at Knotts Berry Farm and there were nothing there but tweens and teens making out in the line. Personally I can't stand public displays of affection, and generally I just turn the other cheek. But when you're waiting in line for about 15 or 20 minutes with two 10 year olds, it was very uncomfortable. It seemed to me the kids at Knotts were displaying the behaviors and language that perhaps some have observed at Magic Mountain. At any rate, our experience was an absolute joy and I don't have one complaint about the park. Maybe there's a way I can let them know that. Seems to me that we only always hear about the bad stuff but never the good. Anyway, I definitely plan to get a ton of pictures while there and would be happy to let all know how our experience was. Perhaps I'll let the folks that Robert toured with know as well.
From Mike West on May 12, 2008 at 12:54 PM
Well Robert,
You might have guessed from past input that I would be chiming in. Has the park improved? Yes more than a small percentage. Over the last decade each visit has brought us to a cleaner & more decent experience. The addition of a Front of the line feature(& not just on oldies, but on Top Notch-new-this-year coasters), has relieved what used to be the worst of that infernal temperature in the summer. And with it, we can ride ALL coasters on 1 visit. Whether the enthusiasm has completely made it from the highers up to ops dept, probably not. We rode the logs at night & when we both got hit in the face with a rogue branch, the ops guy felt that the info was somehow over his head. But we do see more folks that work there making an effort to say thank you, or apologize if something takes too long. Or taking an interest in the guests & interacting with them, that's a major improvement.
It will be tough to turn the tide of attitudes. For example, the Rep for "The Rat" was recently inhouse doing a Disney Boot Camp for our agents. When one of them commented that Disney recently dropped MM as one of its add on options, The rep responded with " Do people still go to that park?" I was shocked seein as how that's the only park in the west that I can totally get my fill at. Hopefully, interested voices like yours will help us undo the damage that being "LA's superpark" earned them with the gangs, frisking, & filth. They are a much improved "theme Park" once again, and steadily improving.
From Joshua Counsil on May 12, 2008 at 1:44 PM
Thomas sounds like he genuinely cares about people's enjoyment, not just park profit. This could be a turning point. Keep it up, Six Flags.
From Scottland Jacobson on May 12, 2008 at 2:34 PM
I love that a park isn't forgetting its history. Having that "museum" at the Sky Tower with the trolls brings me back to my youth. Because of your post - I'm going to make it a point to revisit Magic Mountain.

Seems that they're refocusing on their old commercial tag line...
"Six Flags is building a better mountain, at Magic Mountain!"

From Ty Mullins on May 12, 2008 at 3:54 PM
Prior to this article, I've always thought as Six Flags Magic Mountain as just Six Flags's competition with Cedar Point. I now see it is a great theme park, and with the possibility of revisiting California in the next few years, I will be sure to visit the park if possible. Keep up the good work Charles!
From Derek Potter on May 12, 2008 at 3:56 PM
I hope for them to turn it around as well. It does sound like they are on the right track operations wise. The fact that the front office seems to have a whole new staff sounds like a good thing. I'll be interested in the second installment when you go back as a normal guest.
From Brandon Mendoza on May 12, 2008 at 5:04 PM
Awesome! It's been over 7 years since I last visited the park. I hope by the time I decide to visit, the gangs and wanna-bes will be cleaned out a bit. The fact that Knott's Berry Farm is starting to degrade even more is kinda sad to me too.

I'm glad the park has someone that truly cares about cleaning up the image and direction of Magic Mountain! Ideally, every theme park should have that attitude.

From Russell Meyer on May 12, 2008 at 8:27 PM
It's hard for me to go back to a park that when last I visited (about 3 years ago), we spent the entire day (opening rope drop until everything shut down) at yet only got on EIGHT (yes 8) TOTAL rides and one re-ride (Scream). Scream was the ONLY coaster running more than one train, and the parking lot was only 1/4 full.

I will likely try the park again when I'm in Southern California, but there's absolutely no way I'm going out of my way to give this park another chance.

From James Rao on May 12, 2008 at 9:13 PM
Across the board, the top brass at Six Flags are saying all the right things. And let's face it, everyone who likes theme parks is pulling for Six Flags to right the ship. While I am not yet ready to give them my vote of confidence, my fingers are crossed and I am hoping for the best.

I still want to know how the Six Flags Thrilleaders are going to help revitalize things....??

From Robert Niles on May 12, 2008 at 10:37 PM
Oh, darn it! I totally forgot to ask about the thrilleaders. (Slaps forehead and makes Homer-like 'D'oh!' sound....)
From Jeff M on May 13, 2008 at 11:52 AM
Thanks for the current info Robert. I have business there in the near future and you have answered a couple of things I have been wondering about.

I look forward to your "average joe" up and coming review. My only concern is that you plan to visit shortly after this recent visit. I have to question the true reality of the changes occurring to your next visit though. I have found that only true time passed will tell of the parks noted corrections to past problems. With this being said, I believe that a much later visit during one of the parks longest operating days will tell of what is really going on.

The statement you posted by Thomas, ( "Thomas: We can't really talk about the attendance. That's the directive given us. But our attendance is not so bad." ) I have to wonder why he is being directed to not speek of attendance? Sounds like a ban on not only numerics, but anything regarding paying consumers are to be withheld. Just a personal observance, and may be nothing, but I still have doubts. I'll get my impression soon, but I'd sure like to dwelve deeper into these new directives!

From R S on May 13, 2008 at 1:42 PM
My opinion is to work on the rides being open more often than not.

The park is "getting better" by removing tons of flats because they want to save money. They are probably going to add like 1 flat next year, but they took out maybe 5 flats. I don't consider that getting better. They are getting cheaper.

The problems still are going to occur that so many rides aren't going to be open, or they are going to run one train because they don't have enough trains on Batman the Ride. Batman the Ride only has 2. This park is an all year park, but you only have 2 trains for a park that is open all year round.

When I was at the park, they had a number of Gold Rusher, and Ninja trains, but they looked broken. X is getting 3 trains, but they are dumping the old ones. What's going to happen in the off-season when 1 or 2 breakdown? You are down to 1 or 2 trains, and we have the same thing again.

Deja Vu must close during the off-season because they only have 1 train. Fine, it's all great that they are tearing out flats that they don't want to spend the money. They also tore out two roller coasters (Flashback, and Psyclone) because they didn't want to spend the money, and those rides stunk too. If it's an all season park, buy more trains for all your rides even if they can't fit them on the tracks.

The park shouldn't just demolish old flats, and coasters. Put something in there place!! Based on what people say about Revolution, I don't think that ride should stay at the park much longer. There are rumors about that park that eventually Deja Vu, and Colossus will be taken down. That park is just a mess what they are thinking about it.

They need to paint Colossus pronto. I think Revolution, and Superman are the next roller coasters to go, but the brainiacs think Deja Vu should go. Dummies.

I have heard rumors that two wooden coasters are coming next year to Six Flags parks, and I think that one would be going to Six Flags Magic Mountain, and the other I heard would be Six Flags Over Texas. Shapiro did say they will get something new in the roller coaster category next year, and it wouldn't be Tony Hawk, or Dark Knight.

Get on Deja Vu, and Colossus while you still can because it would probably go in either one of those spots.

From Robert Niles on May 13, 2008 at 6:17 PM
FWIW, management reticence to discuss specific parks' attendance numbers is rampant throughout the industry. So Six Flags isn't worse than many others in the field on that.

Also, I don't want to say exactly when I'll be visiting the park (partly 'cause I don't know yet), but I don't want to wait too long, as I want the site to provide some guidance to curious readers for the summer season. And there's nothing keeping me from visiting again after that to keep up on progress (or lack of it)!

Well, other than my crazy personal sked, that is... :-(

From John Smith on May 13, 2008 at 7:07 PM
Jay Thomas is trying to make good changes at the park. management is very different then in the past. there are more supervisors then in the past. more family things to do then in the past. it will take time.
From Ram Seshadri on May 14, 2008 at 3:35 AM
I think Six Flags initially had the right idea when they thought about closing Magic Mountain. So. Cal. is definitely a competitive market when it comes to theme parks. The problem is compounded by the fact that there are a ton of other fun things to do here as well. Given that, it makes more sense to go to only the theme parks that are "world-class" i.e. have an international brand. If people are not flying halfway around the world to check you out, then I have no interest in you either. How many Australian tourists (say) show up every year to visit Valencia? International visitors to Six Flags - now that's an attendance number I would like to see.

No one has time to cut them a break.

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