May 12, 2008
A tour of Magic Mountain, with park president Jay ThomasLast 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.
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, 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.
A wooden horse from Magic Mountain's original carousel looks out from Sky Tower over Viper and X2.
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?
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