Theme Park History: The demise of Six Flags AstroWorld
Written by Jacob Sundstrom
Over eight years ago, Houston lost its only major amusement park when Six Flags shuttered AstroWorld for a semi-lucrative real estate sale. Now, all that remains of the south Texas theme park is the entry bridge pictured below.Tweet
From a Houston Chronicle article in September of 2005, just a weekend after Six Flags announced the closure of the park, writer Sean Murphy wrote, “The site at Loop 610 and Kirby could become a mixed-use development, including multifamily housing, retail and offices.”
Since then the only things placed on the lot are generators and parked cars. The oh-so lucrative “mixed use” development has fallen through the cracks and Houston is without its premier entertainment institution.
What once housed nine roller coasters and more than a dozen flat rides now holds thousands upon thousands of parking spaces utilized for less than a month a year for the Houston Rodeo. The "largest rodeo in the world” needs a big parking lot and AstroWorld’s gravesite fulfills the need beautifully.
The entry bridge passes over the 610 freeway and is lined with lamps that you’d only find at a theme park built in the 1960s. Many of the lamp covers are missing and the flower beds between them are neglected. What once connected the Astrodome to AstroWorld is now just an overly large pedestrian bridge.
In 2000 the Astroneedle, the largest icon at the park, was dismantled and stored in the park’s boneyard. Just five years later the park closed along with it. Several attractions were moved to various parks across the country.
The Schwarzkopf shuttle loop, Greezed Lightnin’, was moved to Cliff’s Amusement Park in New Mexico -- it’s not sitting in storage. Dungeon Drop, a second-generation Intamin drop tower, is operating at Six Flags St. Louis as Superman Tower of Power [not to be confused with the Tower of Power that closed in Kentucky Kingdom following an accident].
“Dungeon Drop was the park’s Intamin drop tower and arguably one of the few instances where Six Flags made a concerted effort at theme work and succeeded admirably,” said Justin Surguine, a veteran theme park traveler who made his one and only visit to AstroWorld in 2004. “The line wound through a circular building built to resemble a castle dungeon, and it was extremely well-executed. The drop itself was mortifying as it was much taller than any other drop tower I had ridden up to that point and because drop towers in general are unnerving to me, but it was a great experience.”
X-L-R-8, a marginally unique but not spectacular Arrow Suspended coasters, was trashed because its layout did not facilitate an easy move (large footprint that required large clearances). The Texas Cyclone met a similar fate as moving a wooden roller coaster has never been an easy task. The rest of the rides were dismantled and scrapped, the entire park was gone in less than six months. After projecting numbers upwards of $150 million for the value of the land, Six Flags sold the barren lot for $77 million. Shortly thereafter Six Flags CEO lost his job and the former Cleveland Baseball Team general manager, Mark Shapiro, took over.
“Astroworld never really left the 1980s,” said Surguine. “Sure, it had Serial Thriller, Swat, and the drop tower to give some inkling that they were trying to move into the future, but for all intents and purposes, it was a showcase of 1980s amusement park technology. Discounting its vintage ride technology, though, the park was actually very pleasant. It didn’t have the sloppy, thrown-together feel that many of its sibling parks had.”
The park ranked 39th in attendance in 2004, making it the eighth-most attended Six Flags that year in one of the largest metro areas a Six Flags park operates in. This quote from editor Robert Niles sums up what was probably one of the major contributing factors in the closure of the park. He draws a comparison to a (now former) Six Flags park, Elitch Gardens.
“The location sounds similar to Elitch Gardens in Denver, which shares a parking lot with the Pepsi Center (NBA Nuggets and NHL Avalanche) and is located across the Interstate from Invesco Field (NFL Broncos). The park's also a short distance from Coors Field (MLB Rockies) and Lower Downtown, and next to the circuit for the Grand Prix of Denver (Champ Car). It's a spectacular location, and well worth nine figures. It also ought to be bringing in major dough 52 weeks a year, given its premier position in the Denver metro area.”
It’s not often a large theme park up and vanishes in the United States. Given the up-front cost of building, let alone demolishing, a theme park most are sold to another operator. Six Flags holds the proud distinction of running the two of the last three major amusement parks that closed in America into the ground. Something Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom and Six Flags AstroWorld have in common is the void they left in their communities when they left.
The greater Houston area is nearly three hours driving distance from Six Flags Fiesta Texas and Six Flags Over Texas. Its only amusement parks to speak of are the Kemah Boardwalk and the Galveston Pleasure Pier, neither of which can be considered “full day” attractions.
So when AstroWorld left it was akin to losing a local sports team. All that remains are an empty plot of land and locals’ memories.
“Astroworld was an institution in my mind,” said Bryson Rushing, a 23 year old who grew up 30 minutes south of the Astrodomain. “It was a thing of permanence. I didn't have a concept that anything could end let alone something as big and present in my mind as that. This was the first real concept of the finite nature of things. It really impacted the way I viewed the world; being so young.”
Amusement parks and attractions like it have a way of sticking themselves to memories like gum on the bottom of a shoe.
“I remember going one last time before the park closed,” said Rushing. “This was after my parents had divorced and I hadn't been to the park in years. My life had gotten a bit more strenuous after the split and I remember the afternoon being one of the best times I had had with my dad and brother in a while.”
“We were about to leave and my dad said we could go on one more ride. We chose XL-R8 because the line was short. We rode it and the ride had a very long swooping/soaring/freeing quality to it. When it ended we were slowly walking away and my dad had noticed that we were the only ones at the ride. He stopped us, lifted us over the barrier into the entrance for the ride and we rode it again. and again. and again. We must have rode it 20 or 25 times before we finally left. It was pure unadulterated fun. To this day I still can't think of a memory as relaxed and carefree as that one.”
Houston will see their amusement park drout end at the end of 2015 when Grand Texas theme park opens to the public. The entertainment district will feature an amusement park, water park, minor league baseball and other amenities north of the Houston city limits. While it doesn’t appear that the park will match the size or scope of AstroWorld, it will be a welcome addition to a city that is used to driving three hours to get to the nearest full-sized amusement park.
This isn’t all to say that AstroWorld was a perfect amusement parks. It had flaws, many of which were set upon it by a company that, well, ran into some pretty serious road bumps in the late 90s-mid 2000s. Some parks, like Magic Mountain in Los Angeles, survived and others didn’t. What AstroWorld was when it was closed doesn’t define what it meant to the Houston community. What defines AstroWorld are the memories felt and shared by those that visited it; and soon enough, a new generation of Houstonians will have a new place to fill with memories of their own.
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