Six Flags Over Texas celebrates 50-year ride

March 7, 2011 11:00:57 AM PST
Valerie Kelton was 2 when her father, Tom Vandergriff, then the mayor of Arlington, stood proudly on a flag-draped podium on a hot August day in 1961 to welcome the thousands of first-day guests to Six Flags Over Texas. Flanked by the mayors of Fort Worth and Dallas and other dignitaries, Vandergriff watched a Marine color guard raise the U.S. flag as the national anthem played. Next, cast members raised the flags of Spain, France, Mexico, the Confederacy and the Republic of Texas, and on cue, 12 fountains of the Dancing Waters were turned on.

Six Flags Over Texas turns 50 this year, and it plans to celebrate big. The Arlington park opened its 2011 season this weekend, and on June 18 it will kick off "50 Days of Fun," leading up to its official anniversary Aug. 5.

"We actually had our eye on the 50th when we celebrated our 40th," says Steve Martindale, Six Flags Over Texas president. "We realized an anniversary doesn't mean anything to anyone unless there's something in it for them."

Golden anniversaries, though, are about nostalgia, and Six Flags Over Texas hopes its 50th anniversary season will draw park enthusiasts eager to rekindle Six Flags memories. In anticipation, the company is spending $10 million to redo its hugely popular Texas Giant wooden roller coaster, which is expected be ready by late spring.

"We didn't discount the idea that a lot of people have been coming to Six Flags since they were children," said Martindale, who started working at the park as a ride operator in 1973.

"The park has changed, and a lot of the fun for people who come this year, particularly if they haven't been in a long time, is as they move around the park trying to remember where things were when they were children," he said. "We're hoping that people will take the opportunity to come back and remember the way things were." Oilman and industrial real estate developer Angus Wynne Jr. and his Great Southwest Corp. spent $10 million to build the park. Oddly enough, the idea was to operate the amusement park for a few years to support the struggling Great Southwest Industrial District. Its tenants included U.S. Steel Supply, Container Corp. of America and National Cash Register Co., but it needed help attracting more businesses.

Now, the park is the No. 1 paid tourist attraction in the Southwest and part of a billion-dollar corporation.

On Saturday, near the spot where the opening-day ceremonies were held, Wynne family members and officials from the city, the park and Six Flags Entertainment Corp. were to kick off the 2011 season by promising huge fun for guests, just as officials had five decades ago.

The park will be open weekends during the spring; starting May 13, it will be open every day. It will also be open the week of March 14 for spring break.

Six Flags Over Texas archives show that about 550,000 people flocked to the park during the first season, when it was open 45 days over four months. Parent corporation Six Flags Entertainment declined to disclose last year's attendance for the park, but total attendance for Six Flags' 19 theme parks in North America, including Hurricane Harbor in Arlington, was 24.3 million.

Much has changed at the Arlington venue during the past five decades, including doubling to 212 acres. Rides and attractions have come and gone, but the core of the park is the same, including the locations of the Crazy Horse Saloon, Indian Village gift shop and the train.

"Something that Six Flags Over Texas has that maybe other amusement parks may not have," Martindale said, "it's tied to Texas history, and you know how proud Texans are of their history.

"Six Flags has always worked hard to give a quality product and make sure people had a good time. It's not like it's been a slam dunk; we had to work very hard at it."

Technology has played a large role in the park's evolution. Martindale said a turning point came in 1978, when the Shock Wave roller coaster was built. It was so distinctive -- made with tubular steel track and featuring back-to-back loops -- that motorists on Interstate 30 would stop to stare, he said.

"People had never seen anything like it," Martindale said. "It was really the first big and innovative ride that the park had ever put in. That was the point we stepped across the threshold of embracing technology for rides."

The Shock Wave is a far cry from the park's first coaster in the early `60s, La Cucaracha, and it's still popular, he said.

For this season, the park is bringing back a fan favorite, Casa Magnetica, a tilt house that operated from 1962 to 1997 and 2004 to 2007. It's estimated that more than 20 million people have walked through the disorienting attraction.

This summer, Six Flags Over Texas memories will undoubtedly flow like its Roaring Rapids ride, from boys stealing their first kiss in the Spee-Lunker Cave to children riding the Big Bend roller coaster, which was powered by a "third rail."

Kelton rode Big Bend with her father.

"I did not like roller coasters, and he knew it. He would stick me right in the front," said Kelton, who has worked at Six Flags for nearly 18 years.

Wynne died in 1979. But two of his sons have fond memories. Angus Wynne III, owner of Wynne Entertainment in Dallas, said he worked on a construction crew the summer the park opened and helped pour the foundation for Casa Magnetica. He worked there the next three summers, too.

"It was such an exciting time for the kids chosen to work out there," he said.

Shannon Wynne, a local restaurateur, said his favorite time at the park was being taken out to Skull Island at night.

"There wasn't much better than that," he said. "Six Flags was my whole playground."