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Theme Park History: The demise of Six Flags AstroWorld

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Published: March 27, 2014 at 9:12 AM

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.

Walkway

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.”

Texas Cyclone

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.

Boardwalk

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.

Map

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Anon Mouse on March 27, 2014 at 10:04 AM
I went to Houston twice for work at KSC. I never ventured into AstroWorld. That was a long time ago when AstroWorld was still open and advertised. There was nothing unique about the park in the marketing materials so I didn't go. Houston is insufferable in the summer for its humid climate and constant showers and thunder storms. Personally, I think Houston would benefit from an indoor amusement park. Otherwise, getting out is just not worth the effort. That's my own opinion.
From Annette Forrest on March 27, 2014 at 10:36 AM
This article was fantastic. It would be interesting to see an exploration of all the theme parks that were closed down over the years and turned into housing developments or whatever. My husband's family is from Ohio and there was a park there called Euclid Beach Park, right on the shores of Lake Erie. I believe it was torn down in the 1960s or so. They ripped it down and in its place they build low income housing and senior citizen housing.

I don't know what the purpose of that was, as it's all dilapidated now. Wouldn't it have been better to keep the amusement park and give people something to do? There was plenty of other places to build housing. Why tear down theme parks to build projects? Makes no sense.

What they did with AstroWorld seems even dumber. They tore it down and made it a parking lot that seems to never be used. Was it really better financially to just tear that place down and only use the land once a year for a rodeo's parking? I can't believe that would be true.

From Gabriel Schroll on March 27, 2014 at 11:05 AM
I lived in Austin for a few years and am happy to say that I visited Astro World once. Unfortunately I don't remember all that much about it except it was next to a highway and I swear one of the roller coasters had part of its track extend out over the highway. Just a little, but that's the memory I have more than any other.
From Anon Mouse on March 27, 2014 at 11:08 AM
It seems like Six Flags could not run the park. They didn't try to sell to another park operator. They thought they could get more money for the land by selling it to a developer; however, this failed since the recession.

There are no good options. Six Flags obviously could not run a park properly. It was just an unfortunate circumstance. Even today, their parks suck.

I don't think the current owners intended it to be used as a parking lot for a rodeo. It is a temporary use situation until the development project is started. Now, I suspect the land will be sold again at a lower valuation, or continue to remain a parking lot.

From James Rao on March 27, 2014 at 1:32 PM
Good stuff as always, Jacob. Thanks for this tragic history lesson. And for once again igniting the fires of my hatred for Six Flags.

BTW, I have ridden Superman Tower of Power at SFStL. It is a very basic, extremely short, drop tower, and it is definitely not worth any sort of wait. I have no idea why this three second thrill ride pulls such large crowds. Oh, and it breaks down all the time. Nice work, Sux Flags.

From Jacob Sundstrom on March 27, 2014 at 1:54 PM
Thanks for the feedback, everyone.

@Anon: The rain is really more of a fall-spring thing -- and many other theme parks deal with similar climate (Cedar Point, anyone?) successfully. If you live out here you get used to the humidity; it's just a part of life in the South!

@Annette: Thank you! Speaking of Ohio, I think I'd like to hear a bit about Geauga Lake as that just closed down recently. I believe the intent was to develop the land into some sort of mixed-use...clearly that didn't happen. I imagine the recession has a lot to do with that. We'll see if anything comes of it in the future.

@Gabriel: I don't know about track extending over the highway, but you are definitely right about it being pushed up right next to it!

@Anon 2: Yep, that's what I eventually came to. Six Flags couldn't run the park and knew they could get more money selling it to a developer than to another theme park operator. And here we are!

@James: Well in fairness, the ride isn't exactly new. And the concept of a drop tower is, well, pretty simple! There's not a whole lot you can do to dress it up, in my experience. The reliability issue is probably more of an Intamin issue than a Six Flags issue (though it wouldn't surprise me if Six Flags' upkeep is suspect).

From 96.41.20.179 on March 27, 2014 at 2:18 PM
Thank you for writing this. I grew up in Houston and as you can imagine visiting Astroworld all the time as a kid. It was a big part of my childhood. I remember watching the news about the park closing forever. I was in tears. It is the equivalent of losing a sports team, (I hope the Rockets never move to another city; that would destroy me). My family made one last trip to the park the weekend before it closed. We were literally there from opening to closing. We rode my favorite rides the mind bender, the Texas cyclone, dungeon drop, and the accelerator many times. When the park was closing I didn't want to leave. We slowly crossed the bridge to our car in tears because we would never set foot there again. For some it was just a theme park, but to me and other Houstonians it was a place of memories. I am happy that we still have Keemah Boadwalk and I am looking forward to the Grand Texas. But I will never forget the memeries that Astrowold gave me. RIP old friend. (Just writing this post is making me cry).
From Annette Forrest on March 27, 2014 at 2:56 PM
@Jacob -- the Geauga Lake and Sea World stories are intertwined. That was my husband's childhood, going to those parks. He has a stack of photo albums of summer trips to both. His father worked at a company that had its summer picnic at Sea World and his mother had her company picnic at Geauga Lake every year. Apparently this was very popular. They would rent big pavilions out and have cookouts.

Sea World left Ohio first, back in the 1990s. I think it closed because of the Ohio weather and the park was only open in the summers. Personally, I don't understand why they didn't make it like a zoo, where it could be open all year round. Maybe have done a discounted admission in the winter months when they couldn't do the outdoor shows. It had a water park there too I think, but no rides because of Geauga Lake. As my husband explained it, they could not add rides at Sea World because the village that the property in would not allow rides there because of Geauga Lake across the street. They were very close together, these parks.

After Sea World pulled out, Geauga Lake bought that property and kept the water park side of it but largely got rid of the animals. Sea World took the whales with them. I believe this Sea World had both the first "penguin encounter" and "shark encounter" tubes around (where you would be in that glass tube on a moving floor and it took you past the penguins and through a giant shark tank, respectively). Now, everyone seems to have these but my husband said it was a big deal when they first opened. This would be mid-1980s. 1987 maybe?

Geauga Lake limped on for a few more years, but then it closed down too. Maybe around 2005 or so?

What I really wonder about, and this would be a great article on TPI by you or maybe Robert, is to answer the question of why parks like Geauga Lake were fantastically popular in the 1980s and up until around 1998 or so...but then collapse in the 2000s. What changed?

My husband is 40 now, and he and his friends of that age from Ohio all have these big memories of Geauga Lake and Cedar Point (though that was further away and more expensive). Rich kids got to go to Cedar Point a lot, whereas regular people went to Geauga Lake. That is my husband's take on it, anyway.

Cedar Point is still there, but both Geauga Lake and Sea World are gone. AstroWorld is gone. A lot of these parks that were for "regular people" and were not top-tier are all going away or gone.

Why is that?

Only the higher priced prestige offerings are around now, but all of those second-tier parks were thriving until the new millennium. What changed?

Does anyone know?

From Rob Pastor on March 27, 2014 at 3:29 PM
I used to go to Geauga Lake from the late 70's until a couple of years before it closed. We went just to have a different place to go. It was nowhere near the quality or size of our local park, Kennywood, or Lake Erie Cedar Point. My impressions of the park prior to Six Flags purchasing it were of a park with only enough attractions for 3 to 4 hours stay. What they did have though was a good wave pool and water park. I have no idea what their attendance was, but it was rarely crowded when we went. They had a newer wooden coaster, Wolf Bobs, that was decent. But the park was generally very dirty with bad scents coming from their nearby lake attractions. Sea World, until they pulled out, was very new & clean, but there wasn't much to do there. Usually three fourths of a day would be more than enough to do both parks. When Six Flags first bought the park they cleaned it up and added a large number of really good coasters. But after a couple of years the park started to go downhill rapidly. Cedar Point bought it but realized after a year or two that it was too run down and not economically feasible to continue to operate with the levels of attendance the park had.They only continued to operate the water park. I don't believe the park was ever on a strong financial footing. In summary, I only went because it was someplace different, but it wasn't much of a park. Sometimes nostalgic memories aren't really reminiscent of reality.
From Brad Jashinsky on March 27, 2014 at 4:00 PM
A great article about a park I wish I could have visited before it was closed down. One small correction is that the Mark Shapiro who became CEO of Six Flags is a different Mark Shapiro than the President of the Cleveland Indians: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mark_Shapiro
From 98.21.203.151 on March 27, 2014 at 7:00 PM
Great job on the article. This was actually the first I have heard of Houston's new park. I'm glad to see something new is coming to the area.
From 98.200.82.138 on March 28, 2014 at 12:49 PM
It does really stink to live in such a large city with no amusement park. I would love to see SOMETHING here. Grand Texas sounds like a great addition but I'd like to see something bigger.
When I first moved here about 5 or so years ago, I remember hearing rumors that Disney was looking at some land by Katy. Up near where Grand Texas is being built, another theme park, Earthquest Adventures, is supposed to be in the works as well. The idea and layout seems fantastic and amazing but apparently there's been a lot of issues getting investors and such so not much progress there from what I've heard.
Back to Astroworld... From what family and friends that have lived around here said, Astroworld started having a lot of the little "gangster/thug" kids attending making it unpleasant for families and other park-goers-- from disrespecting the property to just their language and antics. The land was supposed to be sold as a property where they were going to place condos/apartments but once the recession hit, that deal went downhill. Now, it's storage for Reliant (soon to be NRG) and parking for the rodeo.
From Michael Gilmore on March 28, 2014 at 7:23 PM
Supposedly I was the first one in AstroWorld, but I was 2. The Tenneco Company had their families come and test the park out a day before the grand opening. It was a small but beautiful park which had a lot to offer. It had the smallest lagoon for theme parks but had excellent ski shows inside it. It was very dramatic and some well-know television stars got their start there as actors. Sadly the park was sold to Six Flags, and quite frankly, that is when everything unraveled. Six Flags either refused or simply could not expend monies to not only keep the park updated or even maintenanced. When you went into the park in the last years, the water was not clean and the buildings had not been painted in years. In order to try to keep guests coming they spent a little money (or swapped rides with other parks) on new attractions but they squeezed them in where the pedestrian routes were and made it hard to navigate the park. In the end, the park attracted a bad crowd and parents simply did not feel safe sending their kids there. Six Flags had two water parks in Houston at that time as well. By the way, the "Bridge To No-Where" over the 610 Loop is quite special. It is the only privately owned bridge in America to be built over a Federal freeway. It was accomplished because President Lyndon Johnson signed-off on it. So, you know it will be hard to tear it down.
No word yet on the "Eight Wonder of the World" - The Houston Astrodome. They wanted to make it into an indoor themepark/hotel but now they may want to turn it into a large parking garage. Believe it or not.
EarthQuest Adventures was a wonderful concept and was going to be opened near the Woodlands. After years of trying to get it off the ground it was cancelled. The City of Houston reportedly sunk over $10 million dollars trying to make it a go.
But sadly, America's 4th largest city is still without a real themepark.
From Michael Gilmore on March 29, 2014 at 8:54 PM
p.s. No track ever went over the freeway. They were well behind the property walls :) Made me laugh though...

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