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X's Failure Threatens Many in Theme Park Industry

X was supposed to mark a return to glory for Arrow Dynamics. And ascension of Six Flags to leadership in theme park innovation. Today, X stands for something else--a failure that threatens several amusement ride companies, if not the whole industry.

From Robert Niles
Posted June 12, 2002 at 4:41 PM
X was supposed to mark a return to glory for its storied builder, Arrow Dynamics. It was also supposed to mark the ascension of Six Flags, often derided for its unthemed off-the-shelf rides, as the nation's leader in theme park innovation.

Today, one year after the Six Flags Magic Mountain roller coaster was supposed to open, X stands for something else--a colossal failure that threatens to drag down at least one amusement ride company, if not more.

Six Flags Magic Mountain always has struggled to get noticed. The park, located 60 miles up Interstate 5 from Disneyland, has bounced from owner to owner over the years. Designed by Sea World for a local real estate developer, the park was sold to Six Flags in 1983. It changed owners once again when Premier Parks bought the Six Flags chain and name in 1998.

In the late 1970s, Magic Mountain did introduce then-record breaking rides like the looping coaster Revolution and the massive wooden coaster Colossus. But in the '80s and '90s, its lineup of roller coasters suffered in competition with newer, higher tech rides like Disneyland's Star Tours and Indiana Jones Adventure.

But X was supposed to change things. While Disneyland struggled with its new and widely derided California Adventure theme park, X was to be the new, innovative ride that would draw Southern Californians north, away from the Mouse.

Riders on X would not sit on top of or below the track, as on traditional coasters. No, riders on X would sit in individual spinning seats at the side of the rails. And they would flip head over heels, and heels over head, throughout the ride. No one had built a ride like this one before, and roller coaster fans around the world started counting the days until they could ride it.

Six Flags announced that X would open in Summer, 2001. It would be the highlight of three new coasters that summer, prying the nation's lead for most coasters from rival Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio.

The announcement of X was a public relations coupe for more than just Six Flags. For its builder, Arrow Dynamics, X was a return to the spotlight. Arrow collaborated with Walt Disney on some of the signature attractions at Disneyland. The company's Matterhorn coaster at Disneyland was the world's first to use a tubular steel track--a development that is credited with making the roller coaster boom possible.

But in later years, Arrow lost its lead in theme park attraction design. Its rides did not age well, and orders declined. In 1984, the company declared bankruptcy. It reorganized, and slowly began rebuilding its once-proud reputation.

And in 2000, it announced that it would build X. Now, people were talking about Arrow again, and in a good way. But the enthusiasm for Arrow, X and Magic Mountain evaporated in the summer of 2001 as X remained a construction zone, and the public began to wonder if the ride would ever open.

Finally, in December 2001, Six Flags began allowing annual pass holders to ride during intermittent "previews." But it was too late for Arrow.

The company misjudged the cost of building X and lost millions on the project, according to company president Fred Bolingbroke. And that month, Arrow once again filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

In its Chapter 11 filing, Arrow stated that it owes more than $3.8 million to unsecured creditors. Compounding the company's problems, Six Flags filed claims in excess of $5.8 million against the company over the delays and difficulties with X.

X officially opened to the public on January 12, 2002. The ride drew enthusiastic reviews [RealVideo required for link], and many who rode on its opening day predicted huge crowds for the ride throughout the summer. For a moment, it appeared that X's trouble was behind it, and that the ride could become the "must-ride" innovation that both Six Flags and Arrow had hoped it would be.

But within days, X begins to experience operational problems. The ride opened late, or not at all, on many days. And when the ride did run, the park often sent out just one train at a time, pushing wait times up to four and five hours.

Many visitors collapsed from heat exhaustion while waiting in X's uncovered, outdoor queue. Many more stormed into Magic Mountain's guest relations office, complaining and demanding refunds.

Six Flags maintenance personnel struggled to get the ride working smoothly. But some techs have suggested to Theme Park Insider meembers that the modifications that Six Flags did to the trains in an effort to improve performance might have done more harm than good. Indeed, the ride's performance continued to deteriorate through the spring.

In May, in an effort to bring aboard another ride manufacturer to fix X, Six Flags tried to buy the design plans for X and all other 4D-model coasters from Arrow. It offered $10,000 in cash, and, more important, to drop its $5.8 million claim against the company.

At the same time, the majority stakeholder in Arrow offered to buy the rest of the company, including the plans for X, for $384,000. But an attorney who represents the company's creditors calls the offers "inadequate."

While waiting for the bankruptcy court to make a decision about Arrow's future, Six Flags was left with a ride that rarely worked, and no blueprints to use in fixing it. With breakdowns, customer complains and bad press piling up, in early June Six Flags shut down the ride.

A spokesman for the park confirmed that the ride has closed for "design issues." He went to say that the park would on "modifying the design to make the ride work better." But he would not say when the ride would reopen--not even if it would be days, weeks, or even months.

But this story is ultimately not about just one ride. X's failure sends out a ripple that might ultimately roil the entire industry. Financial analysts report that Six Flags is telling investors that it will not proceed with any new "first of its kind" rides without approval from its major investors. And other ride designers, including Intamin and Bolliger & Mabillard, are said to be reviewing their agreements with Six Flags in light of this development.

If Six Flags is going to cut back or eliminate spending on new designs, coaster designers will lose one of their largest customers, in a field with fewer than 10 major customers to begin with. [Editor's Note: Indeed, Six Flags later reported to Theme Park Insider that it would be slashing its capital investment this year, and into the future.--June 30.]

What does it mean for theme park fans? That the world's largest buyer of amusement rides might not be buying anything new unless someone else buys it and tries it out first. That the Six Flags chain, which once considered stepping up to challenge Busch, Universal and Disney on innovation may have decide to give up and go back to running nothing more than unthemed, off-the-shelf rides that fans have already seen someplace else.

And, that without the income from an aggressive Six Flags, more ride designers might be forced into bankruptcy, slowing development throughout the industry.

This story is not yet finished. Six Flags might find a way to salvage X. Arrow might once again arise from Chapter 11 to design great rides. And Disney or Universal that Six Flags' withdrawal from the market provides them the opportunity to commission new rides at discounted rates.

Or, the failures of X and Arrow could scare already risk-adverse investors and capital markets away from the highly competitive theme park industry.

All that is certain today is that, like the variable in an unsolved algebra problem, X's ultimate resolution remains unknown.

Related Stories on Theme Park Insider:

  • 'X' Opens at Six Flags Magic Mountain
  • Is the 'Coaster War' Going Too Far?
  • It's Time for Magic Mountain to Fix 'X'
  • 4D Coaster Plans To Be Bought By Six Flags?
  • Six Flags Gives In--X Is Closed


    Comments in chronological order. Most recent at the bottom. Scroll down to respond.

    From Brandon Vargo
    Posted June 12, 2002 at 5:51 PM
    You did a good job with this story!!!!!!!!!

    From Anonymous
    Posted June 12, 2002 at 9:33 PM
    It would be truly sad for Six Flags to put off innovation, ESPECIALLY at Magic Mountain. Considering that this park has seen more innovative prototypes than any other present amusement park in the world (barring Coney Island in its glory days).

    What I *DO* see is Magic Mountain fixing up this problem child and getting it running again. No other ride has had such an incredibly high satisfaction rate for those who rode it. They've had such experience with problem children before. To give up on allowing innovation would be the equivalent of Bel Laboratories shutting down because innovatioin became unpopular. the world would lose. My personal fear would be for Magic Mountain to suddenly turn into Cedar Point, a park which lives EXCLUSIVELY from rides perfected at other parks. There is literally not a single prototype ride ANYWHERE at Cedar Point. And PLEASE, I do NOT want ot hear about Mil Force;'s cable lift. The Sansei Giant in Japan has been using the same cable lift system since the 1970's, and scenic railroads used them at the turn of the century.

    Magnum? Bandit in Japan.


    Message to Magic Mountain: Fix the problem child and keep the innovation roilling. Buy up Arrow, get the redesigns needed, then have them mnake more of these monsters for the other Six Flags parks, providing a jump ahead of the competition....

    From Kevin Baxter
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 2:32 AM
    The funny thing is that $5.8 million probably wouldn't be enough if SF can never get this working. Just think what a dozen X's across the country would have done for SF profits. The past decade has brought some great innovation to coasters. I would hate to see that disappear for the next decade.

    From Simon Lee
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 4:24 AM
    There is already to much money sunk in the ride to be just "written off." Six flags is at a very crutial point that could eather make the company the best in the market, or fizzle out into nothing.

    Six flags needs to buy Arrow, and go into the coaster design business. This way they can save huge amounts of money by building the ride themselves, and proving to the industry how sucessful thier rides are. They will be making lots of money off of other parks for building thier rides.

    Its do or die six flags. Make careful decisions, and you can rock the theme park world.

    From Anonymous
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 9:49 AM
    X is a great ride. I pray they have a fix in the future so maore people can experience the awesome thrill it is. I commend Six Flags for taking this leap into the future even if it did not work out perfectly.

    From Anonymous
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 9:57 AM
    It Ryan Price
    Good Job on the story
    I knew this was going to happen
    I live in Texas and made plans for July 11 to go ride X
    The closing has messed up my summer

    From Anonymous
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 11:44 AM
    I believe that the ball is in Six Flag's court. The mechanical technology of X is not all THAT innovative. Surely ther are ME's out there who could take this project under thier wing and make it work- How about Six Flags going out and hiring the Engineers away from Arrow who designed the thing?? Could work-

    From Anonymous
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 5:05 PM
    This is like one of the first times in a long time that six flags has built an original design of its own and now its crashing. I wonder if all that cloning made them forget how to build roller coasters?

    From Anonymous
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 9:06 PM
    Does anyone have specifics? What exactly are the problems with X? What modifications did SFMM do to the ride?

    FYI, Gary Story green lighted X while on a visit to Arrow. He needed a coaster that could compete with CP's M-Force and PKI's Son of Beast during Y2K. The idea for X was labeled 'top secret' and was in the desk of Arrow's VP of Engineering. An interesting tidbit, PKI also had trouble with Son of Beast and ended up sueing because of the grade of wood that was used. At the time, they blamed the snow for the delays. PKI worked through their problems just like SFMM will work through their problems.

    From Anonymous
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 9:21 PM
    Ok it's not like Magic Mtn. is riddled with clones here. Out of 15 I count a whopping two clones at Magic Mtn: Deja Vu & Batman. If there are more then show me but Ninja, Viper, Superman:TE, Riddler's Revenge, Psyclone, Goliath, Flashback(originial when it was first built), Revolution, Colossus and of course X are all original designs.

    From Danny Thrower
    Posted June 13, 2002 at 10:21 PM
    Well everybody after soom "hard" research Ive found the man responsible for X and his plans for the future. This is the website

    http://www.timeforkids.com/TFK/explore/story/0,6079,235907,00.html

    Tell me what you think

    From Kevin Baxter
    Posted June 18, 2002 at 2:26 AM
    X may now reopen in a few weeks! Arrow believes the problem lies in a faulty part that was custom-made for them by someone else. This seems a little like buck-passing, but it may very well be true. If so, how will that affect things? Will Arrow suddenly be looked upon as unlucky in this whole situation? Or will the delay still be on their shoulders?

    From Greg Rosow
    Posted June 25, 2002 at 1:10 PM
    I feel bad for both Six Flags and Arrow, actually; both companies wanted to truly mesmorize and astound the public with something unique and wonderful and I would say they almost succeeded, and will succeed eventually. Due to X's problems the larger issues of revenue and copyright licensing have become more important than the point of the ride itself, which was to be enjoyed and savored by the coaster-loving public. I hope both companies iron out their beefs, and I certainly hope neither company shies away from Innovation as a result of what was ultimately sour grapes.

    From nick cianciosi
    Posted July 1, 2002 at 1:54 PM
    I am an engineer responsible for, among other things, designing and introducing new equipment. I can speak firsthand to the fact that any project involving the introduction of something new will result in a certain amount of pain over the short term. But, seeing it through to the end brings rewards. X is a huge project with a lot of variables. I watched it with excitement at first, seeing an American company doing what it had historically done best and coming from behind. The design is innovative and unique. B&M, Intamin and Vekoma had stolen quite a bit of steel thunder through the 90's. X, it seemed, was the way to put Arrow back on top.

    Now it seems as though this story will end the way all too many others have. American business is focused on short-term, next quarter stock market performance. The accountants win out over the engineers. Companies which innovate or compete in capital intensive industries with lots of foreign competition are either bought up or battered out of existence. In the name of stock market performance, innovation will be stifled. The United States continues to cede yet another lucrative industry to the Europeans and the Japanese. And we, the parkgoing public, will be treated to the theme park equivalent of strip malls - the same stuff everywhere you go.

    The story is still unfolding. I really hope SF, Arrow and all the involved creditors can work something out so that everybody wins.

    From Anonymous
    Posted July 8, 2002 at 5:10 AM
    One point of this article I disagree with is that if Six Flags and Arrow DO fall (which I don't hope happens, although I am in no way a Six Flags fan ...) that this will ruin the entire industry. Maybe this is the opportunity for smaller companies to emerge. The problem I always saw with Six Flags parks and some of these companies turning out multiple coasters in one year was a too-much-too-fast scenario. Maybe if parks went back to smaller ownership groups (such as Cedar Fair and Kennywood) and coaster companies concentrated on putting out 2-3 good, high quality rides a year, we wouldn't have all these new rides with so much downtime, and still would get the innovation which is still needed throughout the industry.

    From Anonymous
    Posted July 25, 2002 at 1:50 PM
    I don't think Arrow has a choice here. If anyone who works there has any conscience, then they're going to give SFMM the plans for the ride. It's immoral to sell a ride for over 20 Million dollars that turns into a piece of scrap medal. If they can't fix the ride, for one reason (bankrupsy) or another, then they should do all they can to help SFMM fix it.

    From Ronald Schettino
    Posted July 27, 2002 at 3:33 PM
    It is truly a shame this has happened. Although, most of these new "extreme" rides have had their share of problems during their first year of operation: Cedar Point's Millennium Force stranded its first 30 passengers for over an hour when the lift cable snapped causing the rides 'opening' to be delayed; Busch Garden's (Williamsburg) Apollo's Chariot made the news when its first rider (Fabio) was struck in the face by a goose (his neck could have easily broken); BatWing (SFA) kept getting 'stuck' at its final braking station ... all in all, kinks have got to take time to work themselves out. It's just too bad big business and bottom dollar has taken the place of rider safety ... I say, give this time. SFMM and Arrow *will* overcome this obstacle; fix the problems and the X will eventually run smooth and easy.

    -scam p

    From Anonymous
    Posted November 8, 2002 at 8:29 PM
    I have a question actually. The article mentions that if SFMM won't buy any new proto rides, it leaves 9 magor buyers. Who are the 9? I can think of 4 of them... Thanks! -Oscar Protheroe

    From Anonymous
    Posted November 8, 2002 at 8:31 PM
    sorry magor = major -Oscar

    From Anonymous
    Posted November 19, 2002 at 12:16 AM
    This may be a silly question, but I honestly can't tell...

    Is X presently operational? My bud is going to be there next weekend and I'm hoping I can get a ride report from him.

    From Coaster Enthusiast
    Posted November 19, 2002 at 1:48 AM
    This may be a silly answer:

    A) To get a proper answer to your question, wouldn't it be a little helpful if you were a registered member so you could receive a reply to your question via eMail?

    B) Sometimmes 'X' is up and running, sometimes it is not. ... You can call the park @ (661) 255-4100 on the day you plan to attend for further information.

    C) You will most definately receive a trip report regardless whether 'X' is operational or not : /


    From steve lee
    Posted November 19, 2002 at 6:36 AM
    Sorry, I was lazy and didn't feel like logging on last night. Clicking the anonymous button was faster than typing.

    I'll never do it again.

    From Anonymous
    Posted November 23, 2002 at 12:00 AM
    the lines are crazy, we showed up 20 minutes after the park opened 2 weeks ago, and still waited 3 HOURS with one car running.

    From Coaster Enthusiast
    Posted November 23, 2002 at 3:46 AM
    "..., and still waited 3 HOURS ..."

    That's so cool. Was that on a Saturday? Did you get in line after noon?

    The longest I've ever waited for a ride was 2 1/2 hours and that was one time; not well planned; fast pass was offered; and it will never happen again.

    Arrive early or, stay late. Avoid attending on weekends and holidays. Call ahead to be forewarned of events such as 'band camp,' 'boy/girl scout,' and/or 'high school' outings.

    Look at convention schedules. Accountants are less likely to visit the local thrill parks than a group of SF fans.

    Visit the park with the 'newest' attraction one year after that attraction opens (regardless of trim brakes and such): the lines are halved as there is now another park with a 'newer' attraction.

    ROBOCoaster?!? What in the name is that?


    From David Allen
    Posted November 25, 2002 at 8:21 AM
    We waited FOUR HOURS last summer. It was supposed to have been two hours, but mechanical breakdowns and the ever present lowlife line jumpers it turned into four. The thing did not open until noon.

    They could write a book: Six Flags....How NOT to Manage a Park.

    From Anonymous
    Posted December 17, 2002 at 5:57 PM
    I realize this is a bit late, but the past two weekends X has been running two trains, with about 3 minutes between dispatches. Given that it's normally been about 7 minutes between with one train, at least capacity is up to somewhere near 550 people @ hour.

    The weekend before last (Dec 8th) it took a good hour to start taking on people (about 11am) and we didn't end up riding.

    This last weekend (Dec. 15th) it was running when we got there (about 10:45, we were runnin' late), and we got on in about an hour and a half. The same length line would have easily taken 3 hours & 15 when they were running one train, so I'm glad to see that capacity is slowly starting to creep up and the ride seems to be becoming a bit more reliable.

    From Anonymous
    Posted July 26, 2003 at 12:03 PM
    Great story review. I have to admit that the last time I was at Magic Mountain the queu line for X was very long. I really hope that Magic Mountain fixes this problem soon.

    From Anonymous
    Posted September 29, 2003 at 3:02 AM
    Not only did this article disgust me, but it made me sad. The person who wrote this arcticle had no idea about roller coasters. They said let Disney get back to making new and original coasters, and get back in the game (or something like that). Bull crap. Disney is crap. Their rides are crap. Six Flags Magic Mountain is the best theme park on earth. Your arcticle is out of date. You should be ashamed of yourself.


    From a proud Six Flags Magic Mountain Season pass holder.

    From Jeff Arons
    Posted September 29, 2003 at 4:35 AM
    The person who wrote this article is the person who owns this site, so shut up and don't post about anyone if you don't know who they are. Im not surprised, however, because you are too lazy to sign up, and you don't even post your name at the bottom of your posts! Oh wait, I forgot, you are an Anoynomus.

    From Ryan Farrugia
    Posted September 29, 2003 at 11:11 AM
    I honestly don't think that one failure in the industry can cause the rest to crumble. Yes, at the beginning X was a failure, but now it seems to be running, and people still flock to it. Just because Six Flags doesn't want to buy new kinds of rides, doesn't mean other park chains wont. Look at Paramount, Volcano, Stealth, and HS:XLC were all new kinds of coasters.

    Another thing, Arrow has been bought by S&S (if you didn't know that) so maybe we'll see more from S&S-Arrow now. Have you looked at their site recntly, Arrow has come out with 3 or 4 brand new deisgns for their 4D coaster; along with new trains for their suspended, a virgina reel, and two kinds of ArrowBATic coasters. Along with S&S's new coasters (Scream Squirrel) and flat rides (Swat) we can see S&S being the new "Arrow." And let's not forget that S&S also does woodies too now.

    And note to Annonymous...Cedar Point is the best park out there.

    From Ben Mills
    Posted September 29, 2003 at 1:28 PM
    Wow...that was one of the most hardcore Six Flags ignoramouses we've had on TPI in a while.

    But yeah, you're right. Robert clearly has no idea about roller coasters. Who was it who reviewed Scream, X, and other Magic Mountain coasters for the LA Times? Oh right, that was you, wasn't it Mr Anonymous!

    From Andrew Swanson
    Posted September 29, 2003 at 3:23 PM
    Certainly he knows nothing about roller coasters! In addition to NOT reviewing those rides that Ben mentioned, Mr. Niles was never the attractions lead on such innovative rides as BTMR and Pirates at WDW. No, Mr. Anynomous, those roles were obviously performed by you. It's also such a crappy article with its grammer and spelling and paragraphs. Clearly he doesn't know what he's talking about considering how he backed up his statements with facts. No, Mr anynomous, you are certainly the more proficient writer with your many different ways of saying "This is crap" over and over again, by slightly rewording it each time.

    Also, I find it rather ironic that you complain about the fact that the article is out of date. Why then did you bother to bring it back into discussion considering it was written well over a year ago, and at that time, X was having many many problems.

    Clearly you're new to this site if you Don't know that Robert is the site's owner. It might also help you to realize that most people who post on this site, regardless of how much they like parks, do have a life outside of theme parks. Many people have mentioned other hobbies such as theatre, music, and sports just to name a few. Clearly if the article "made you sad," you have entirely too much time on your hands, because there is more in life to make you happy or sad than a roller coaster-much less a year old article about a roller coaster.

    I've been a member at TPI for over a year now, and it is the best website out there for parks. This is clearly due to the professional nature of Robert's hard work.

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