The red flags keep flying at Six Flags

June 21, 2023, 1:41 PM · The TEA/AECOM Theme Index report released last week detailed the ongoing recovery in the theme park industry. While few parks have gotten back to their pre-pandemic attendance levels, almost all are well on their way. Attendance is up across the industry two years in a row, and many parks are within 5% of their 2019 numbers.

With one big exception - Six Flags.

Six Flags Magic Mountain remains 15% below its 2019 numbers. Great America is down 20%, and Great Adventure is down nearly 38%. And those parks are heading in the wrong direction, too, as all three posted 2022 attendance numbers than their 2021 attendance. That's nuts, given that these parks lost days and endured capacity restrictions due to lockdown restrictions that year. The three Six Flags parks tracked by TEA/AECOM were the only major U.S. theme parks to record a drop in attendance in 2022 from 2021.

What's going on?

This isn't just a TEA/AECOM issue. Six Flags has been reporting tough numbers for attendance and revenue in its quarterly financial reports, too. Six Flags management, led by CEO Selim Bassoul, has taken away ticket and meal plan discounts and changed season pass and membership programs as they look to boost per capita guest spending and change the profile of Six Flags visitors.

Pruning the garden can be a sound growth strategy... in the long term. But history has proven that theme and amusement parks are a capital-intensive business. If you want them to come, you must build it.

That's not happening enough at Six Flags parks. The company has opened some of the attractions that it was developing before the pandemic, including the RMC single-rail coasters Jersey Devil Coaster at Six Flags Great Adventure and Wonder Woman Flight of Courage at Six Flags Magic Mountain. But it has not announced any orders for major new coasters since its parks reopened. Instead, Six Flags seems to be relying on food festivals and other special events to drive traffic even as the chain effectively raises its ticket prices.

Clearly, that's not working out for Six Flags yet. While competitors enjoy record-breaking revenue and rising attendance numbers, Six Flags are falling behind. Yes, lower attendance can mean shorter waits and a more pleasant experience, but not if parks cut back to running single trains on coasters and slowing operations throughout the park.

If Six Flags wants positive visitor reviews and word of mouth to drive attendance from the family audience its management covets, it needs to start spending more money on either expanded operations to drive wait times to nothing or new rides to attract that family market. And little kiddie coasters, such as the Skyline P'Sghetti Bowls it has ordered in Georgia and Texas, are not nearly enough. Cutting to growth offers no examples of proven success in the theme park business.

I remember when Six Flags was considered a better, more successful brand for theme parks than Disney. Okay, the 1970s and early '80s were a long time ago, but Cedar Fair, SeaWorld, and other parks are showing that a family market remains for destinations that focus on traditional amusement rides. Not everything has to be Disney and Universal-style themed experiences.

But even those parks need to invest in good food, pleasant surroundings, and engaging customer service in addition to well-operated and fun amusement rides. The model is there for Six Flags to follow. But if Six Flags is intent on creating a new model for success in the amusement park business - one based on cutting rather than building - the early returns suggest that success remains a long way off.

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Replies (18)

June 21, 2023 at 2:23 PM

Ultimately, I think this is a function of poor timing on the part of Six Flags. They clearly wanted to make a sea change in their fan base prior to the pandemic, which was always going to cost them revenue in the short term. Now that they've started down the path, trying to go back on it simply to make up for the pandemic losses that would have occurred whether they changed strategies or not would be suicide.

Personally, I'm not a fan of SF trying to change their guest makeup. The parks served a clear purpose for each of the local markets they serve, and trying to attract a more affluent, big-spending audience always seemed like a misguided attempt by the chain to be something they're not. However, I do have to give them credit for sticking to their guns in the face of criticism in an attempt to completely change their image. The question will be if they can continue to stay the course and actually get things pointed back in the right direction without having to invest millions in capital they don't really want to spend.

I will say this is the first year we have not purchased a SF Annual Pass (we're probably going to buy their "Plus" membership at some point this summer). The reason for that is because they want to charge 2-3x for an experience that has not changed substantially in nearly 5 years. Now, some increases in cost are necessary to keep up with inflation and to provide better compensation for employees, which in turn should result in a better guest experience, but trying to make this 180 in the matter of a year in the face of the challenges posed by the pandemic is a daunting experiment. I certainly don't want SF to go out of business, nor do I want them to revert to what they were in the 2000's. However, I do think there's a niche where they can provide value to their local markets while delivering destination-worthy attractions at prices below what other chains are charging. I do think they need to find this sweeet spot fast, because the clock is ticking...

June 21, 2023 at 4:13 PM

I'm just not convinced with the SF brand. Over looking the new attractions or lack thereof, what marketing strategies are implemented to coax families and even burned disposable income individuals to return. I've encountered enough rude employees from security to management and enough despaired facilities to last me a Six Flags lifetime. It's particularly interesting looking at the NJ/MD market as SF competitors are in full swing.

June 21, 2023 at 8:36 PM

I think Russell absolutely nailed it:

"Personally, I'm not a fan of SF trying to change their guest makeup. The parks served a clear purpose for each of the local markets they serve, and trying to attract a more affluent, big-spending audience always seemed like a misguided attempt by the chain to be something they're not."

Something I was thinking while reading the article is that there is a place in the market for a theme park that provides a good value. That might hurt the image of the brand among the affluent, middle-class [perhaps upper middle class] consumer they're now trying to attract ... but they're not going to compete on quality with the theme parks those customers are likely to attend. It would be like Mitsubishi giving up its sales incentives and basement pricing to chase Mercedes-Benz customers.

I think this is a challenging needle to thread, obviously, but investing in ways to make a good guest experience accessible to people without means can be a successful business model. Will they figure it out? No idea! But I think it would be a bummer to lose the "best" example of a value theme park that we have.

June 21, 2023 at 11:14 PM

I've said the same thing over and over and over again, for several years, on every topic about SF in this forum. So for this topic i'll just say this:

I haven't been to a Six Flags park since 2018. I went to three on that 2018 trip and every one of them was so awful that I started my own insignificant mini boycott and never gave the company my business ever again. I realize this was well before Selim was put in charge, but based off TRs and Vlogs (and I have been following closely), he has done nothing to fix their major issues. If I were to go to a Six Flags park tomorrow i'm confident there would be several closed rides, coasters operating with one train and long lines, understaffing all over the place, and the pleasure to pay $30+ just to park my car.

It appears I am not the only one having my own little insignificant boycott...these things add up

June 21, 2023 at 11:45 PM

I'd like to add one more comment to my previous post.

I actually was going to break my boycott this year and take my daughter to SFGAm, however did not because the two big rides she could do (The Railroad and Sky Trek Tower) were BOTH SBNO. And on top of that the Lobster, Condor, Giant Drop, in addition to all the water rides were also all SBNO. And in addition to that SUF, Maxx Force, and X-Flight 1 train.
I used to work at SFGAm during the coaster wars Kieran Burke days and that was bad. Its just amazing that the park was ran way better back then even though everyone complained how bad it was and the company was on the brink of bankruptcy. The fact that Selim Bassoul likes to tell the media they are focusing on a more family friendly experience, and then have all the big family rides SBNO, absolutely amazes me.

June 22, 2023 at 6:55 AM

Yep. Six Flags Great America season pass+flash pass holder here. No new rides in four years (I'm not counting water parks)? The only physical improvement has been slapping a fresh coat of paint on one territory. Two of the water rides have been shut down for years.

I will say that the food offerings have gotten better this year, but... They really cheaped out on one mainstay.

Every year we buy the annual refillable soda cup that's popular with passholders. I think it's around $35 but pays for itself if you have at least 6 sodas throughout the season (and since we make 10 to 15 visits per year, and I'm somewhat of a cheapass who makes my boys share the cup, it's definitely worth it).

This year, they made the cup narrower so it has a much smaller volume, and they removed the "accordion" style bendy straw, and replaced it with a "sippy cup" hole.

The problem, aside from getting less product, is they didn't vent the cup with another hole, so the liquid burbles out.

Is this a minor complaint? Sort of (I'd say charging $35 for a cup that doesn't work is idiocy). But if your goal is to attract a premium crowd, then attention to detail is critical.

I visited Kings Island last year, and that was such a pleasant place to be. Six Flags, just go to some Cedar Fair properties and replicate that model. You've got the foundation... Now build it.

June 22, 2023 at 8:39 AM

If things were this bad for the good Six Flags parks, I can’t even imagine how it looked over at the crappy ones like La Ronde or Frontier City.

Who knows? Maybe now that St. Louis has fewer guests, James Rao might finally like that park?

June 22, 2023 at 8:51 AM

Six Flags Great America Platinum Passholder. Everything that FYJones stated is true... The operations at SFGA are awful. Their "big" addition from 4 years ago, the Mardi Gras Hangover, is closed for the season. Not a huge loss, but a capacity eater, and kind of an embarrassment when they were advertising the heck out of it being the largest looper in the nation just 4 years ago. The Giant Drop has not been open all season, and the Great American Eagle is operating on a reduced schedule, and only one side is open at a time. The Condor is in pieces (or was 10 days ago). Roaring Rapids has been closed for years, and Loggers Run is now closed because they have finally opened the Yankee Clipper (with the Aquaman layover). The food offerings, while improved, are still a joke.

I am not sure how SF is going to "improve" their customer mix. More affluent park goers are going to demand a standard that SF just cannot meet. Everything seems to be run down at one of their flagship parks, there is zero attention to detail, and the staff are among the worst I have ever seen. Holiday World (family run) puts them to shame, but so does SF St. Louis. The staff at SFSL are much more engaging and friendly. I will say that I did appreciate that the roving bands of unruly teens at SFGA were not nearly as prevalent as they have been in previous years. There have been times when SFGA is bordering on not safe (and some times crossed that border with the parking lot shooting last summer).

On a more micro-level, we went to SFGA for my daughter's birthday weekend...the first time she has been 54" and can ride every coaster. It is pretty big event in the life of a coaster enthusiast. Saturday was 85 and sunny, and the park was packed. MaxxForce did not open when the park opened because, well it is MaxxForce. It did open for a couple of hours in the afternoon with wait times approaching 2 hours. Raging Bull opened 90 minutes late, Goliath was down at opening, all of these breakdowns are exacerbated by the Eagle operating on a reduced schedule. The staff on Batman were more interested in playing grab-ass with one another, as load times for the 5 trains where we could watch in the station were all over 4 and a half minutes. Staff were busy chasing one another around the platform, which is not irritating at all as lines build (sarcasm). Sunday it rained and had a high of 56 degrees, so naturally they were running only one train on Superman Ultimate Flight, so that wait times climbed into the 90-120 minute range for a park that was nearly empty. The worst part is that the queue for Superman is exposed in the rain, so riders were soaked from the constant drizzle of a 90 minute wait.

My 10 year old son compared their operations to Mt. Olympus in the Wisconsin Dells, which is not a flattering comparison. MTO is notorious for long waits due to only one train on each of their coasters. The only ride that had decent operations was the Raging Bull on Sunday. The team on that ride were loading trains and getting them out of the station in under a minute.

June 22, 2023 at 9:18 AM

Just finished visiting Fiesta Texas. All in all a subpar couple of days. Rides were constantly down to technical difficulties. Employees were rude and generally unpleasant. A far cry from the Arlington location. As a long time season pass holder I am wondering if it is even worth it now. Twice the price and less benefits. How does this even qualify as a “premium “ experience?

June 22, 2023 at 10:33 AM

on my recent visit to fiesta texas last april...$32 to park the car, $23.99 for chicken tenders, fries and a coke (however, the tenders were actually surprisingly good), $7.50 for a powerade. i think i found the problem

June 22, 2023 at 11:52 AM

Man those prices put Disney and Universal to shame! 23.99 for a chicken basket, 7.50 for a powerade!

That's embarrassing and shameful. Also running one train at a time is an absolute insult. They do that to make people splurge on front of line access and to spend more time to buy their 25 dollar chicken basket.

I am glad people are holding them accountable for price gouging like that and running one train. Vote with your dollar folks!

June 22, 2023 at 3:55 PM

Hello, new member here! Registered just to gripe. Six Flags is definitely blowing it, on food prices and beyond. They wanted over $16 for a single slice of pizza at Six Flags America on Tuesday. A shared rice bowl and nachos set my friend and I back $31 (after tax), although my membership discount did offset the final cost.

Speaking of my membership, I couldn't reserve my once-per-season premium parking because the website wasn't working. That turned out to be for the best - their EV chargers, which I had originally planned on using - were out of order with no warning.

But worse of all was the sordid environment. Look, I don't expect employees anyplace to pretend to love their work - I find that disingenuous and weird. But when the workers ALL seem bored and miserable, it's obvious that poor management is sucking the joy out what seems to be a pleasant (or at least tolerable) job at other parks.

The only bright spot was short wait times for the rides. Not because of good management, but because other once-frequent guests already knew what I was actively finding out: whole vibe kinda sucks there!

I came home and cancelled the membership I faithfully paid for through the whole pandemic. I don't regret spending the money, but I'm not gonna keep doing it. Plenty of other parks out there which are as good or better, for the money.

Thanks for this article and to others who have commented. I feel really validated <3

June 22, 2023 at 4:31 PM

Darien Lake, $12.99 to $17.99 for a HOT DOG, 25 to park car. No other food or drink options around the park. Can't bring in food or drink at all. They would rather the guests die from dehydration. They do have a family picnic area in the parking lot so you can pack food. One train operations and clearly the bare minimum for staff. They pulled out 2 major rides one being the ferris wheel and replaced them with... nothing. All in an area with an average income of 35k to 50k, we are not rich enough for $15 hot dogs here.

Oh did I mention they put up a barrier at random and close off half of what little is left of the park whenever they feel like it.

I will never give them my business again.

I feel like people want to upgrade their park experience even if it means not going to a park every season. People here are saving for trips to Disney or Universal instead of wasting their money on this garbage park.

June 22, 2023 at 7:46 PM

I'm not posting this comment on behalf of new rides, I'm posting this comment because I want people to read what I have to say about how ridiculous it was to take the six flags memberships away. For just me and my husband I was paying a fair amount for the diamond elite membership that included are flash pass, preferred parking pass, are meal pass, and everything above. That was what was bringing all the money into the six flags company to begin with and the reason why they lost a lot of visitors was because of the fact that they pulled that all away. They think that they're losing money out on all that that is BS they are gaining more money. They don't even allow the meals to be added on to the payment plan you have to pay that in full now. They didn't really bring back too much what they need to do is bring back what they had just 2 years ago. Due to the fact that six flags magic mountain was shut down because of covid in the state of California, there was only one state closest to California that opened back up their six flags real quickly and that was Texas. And what do you know, that trip down here to Texas made us decide to live here because of the fact that they had two six flags and Waco Texas happens to be right in between those two parks. That was the worst thing they could ever do is cancel those memberships and I would do anything to get everyone to gather just to get those memberships back. If they want more visitors and if they want more money then they need to bring back them diamond elite memberships to where you get everything and you're only paying every month like you're paying a membership at a gym. Whoever took those memberships away or just greedy people who just want money and by doing that that was the most stupidest move because they lost out on money.

June 22, 2023 at 10:11 PM

Five accounts all created today to bash Six Flags? Hmm…

June 22, 2023 at 11:35 PM

Kirean Burke - lawyer
Mark Shapiro - TV programming executive
Jim Reid Anderson - healthcare supplier executive
John Duffy - accountant
Jim Reid Anderson (again)
Mike Spanos - soft drink / snack food executive
Selim Bassoul - kitchen equipment supplier executive

This is pretty much all you need to know as to why Six Flags is, and has been, so horrible for so long. Maybe someday their board will get a clue (though probably not).

June 23, 2023 at 8:09 AM

If you're not a season pass holder, it is $35 to park at SF Great America, which seems very high even for people in the Chicago market who are used to paying huge fees to park. The food prices do gouge, but going to as many theme parks as we do; we are used to that. The biggest issues with their food are: quality (as in the food lacks any quality at all) and the service: (if you think ride ops are horrible; check out the food and beverage service). Oh, and never, ever, ever use the mobile ordering ap. We made this mistake and waited 45 minutes over the return time for burgers at Johnny Rocket's. People in the 30 minute line were getting their food before us, and we were past the supposed delivery time.

June 23, 2023 at 8:07 PM

James. Trexen I can't speak for anyone else, but this article showed up in my Google recommendations. Could easily be where the others came fron as well.

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