What would you do? How to save the Six Flags amusement parks
By Robert NilesSix Flags, as a theme park chain, is in trouble.
Published: December 1, 2010 at 11:48 AM
The Six Flags brand simply doesn't resonate in a positive way with theme park fans, as it once did. Attendance at Six Flags parks is flat or declining, with no Six Flags parks is the North American top 10 for attendance. Six Flags' most popular park, Great Adventure, is mired in 19th place.
By the way, these six American flags are not the "Six Flags" that inspired the amusement park chain.
Last month, news emerged that the park's new management team is terminating several of its licensing deals, which will mean the elimination of theming from many attractions in its parks. Six Flags is dropping the Tony Hawk name from its Big Spin coasters. Thomas Town will become Whistle Stop Depot. Evel Knievel is becoming American Thunder. Wiggles World will be going away, too. So might the Terminator theme from Magic Mountain's newest roller coaster.
All this prompts me to ask: What would you do to help Six Flags?
When Angus Wynne developed the original Six Flags park, in Arlington, Texas, its themed lands were tributes to the six national flags that had flown over Texas during its history: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederacy and the United States. (You now know the answer to the trivia question: "What are the Six Flags in the Six Flags amusement park chain?") Six Flags built only two other parks in its history: Six Flags Over Georgia and Six Flags Over Mid-America (now Six Flags St. Louis). Both continued with regionally-themed lands.
The chain then acquired dozens of other parks over the years, keeping some and eventually selling others. The Chicago Great America park, bought from Mariott, fit Six Flags' regional-based theming well. But Magic Mountain, designed by the same crew that created SeaWorld, didn't. (With its meandering paths and giant observation tower in the middle, Magic Mountain has a very similar footprint to SeaWorld San Diego, just with roller coasters in the place of the aquariums.) Even in the original three parks, changes and additions over the years have undercut the original theming.
Without the clear identity branding that Disney created with its Magic Kingdom theme parks, Universal created with its studios and SeaWorld and Busch Gardens created with their parks, Six Flags no longer stands for any unique thematic experience in visitors' minds, the way that those other chains do.
Granted, Disney and Universal have extended those brands with different types of parks, including Epcot and Islands of Adventure. But Six Flags never clearly established with the public that original template from which to expand into new ones, as Disney and Universal first did. Remember, Disney offered nothing but Magic Kingdom theme parks for 27 years before it opened Epcot.
When I think of a Six Flags park now, I think instead of the jumble of outside brands that these parks throw at me when I visit: Starburst, Papa John's, Johnny Rockets, Coca-Cola. In restaurants, on pathways and even in queues, time in a Six Flags park means a non-stop visual and audio immersion in brand marketing. But those brands aren't "Six Flags."
A visit to a Disney or SeaWorld theme park is a non-stop immersion in brand marketing, too. But in those parks, I'm being sold the Disney and SeaWorld brands, first.
What is Six Flags' brand now? I don't know.
So that's my challenge to you. How can Six Flags create a brand identity that would resonate with you? What would you have the company do to entice you to visit its theme parks? Is it to double down on its remaining DC Comics licenses (Batman, Superman, etc.)? Is it to return to the original Angus Wynne-era concept of regional tributes? Is it to strip even more licensed brands from its parks, and trying to become something more like Cedar Point?
If you're proposing changes that require big capital investments, how will Six Flags raise the cash? If it is to sell parks, which ones? And if capital isn't available, what can Six Flags do to improve?
Under Mark Shapiro's leadership, Six Flags parks improved their customer service, becoming cleaner, friendlier parks with attractions that operated at close to full capacity - quite a difference from previous years when many rides closed frequently to save on maintenance costs and many park employees treated their jobs with indifference, at best. But service and pricing issues remain. Parking charges are stiff and food remains ridiculously overpriced.
If something doesn't happen to draw more folks to these parks, Six Flags will soon slide from the list of America's top 20 theme parks entirely. Six Flags is running out of lives. So, what would you do to save it?
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