Monday, September 12, 2005

Six Flags Astroworld to close permanently

Stories in both the Chronicle and the Houston Business Journal. I have to say I'm stunned. I haven't been since my much younger years, but Astroworld seems like a right-of-passage for kids in Houston. (ahhh, memories of zero to 60mph launches in <6>that afraid of the new Schlitterbahn in Galveston?

On the plus side, it seems one of the key factors is that the land has gotten too valuable there. With the growth of the Medical Center and the light rail line, I guess there are higher-better uses for that land than a theme park. One of the articles does mention some equipment moving to Six-Flags-owned Splashtown on 45 North near The Woodlands. Not sure if that's just some WaterWorld stuff, or they're looking to build out Splashtown into the new Astroworld. Looking at the Google satellite map, there does seem to be enough land for a buildout up there - but it's gotta be real expensive to move all those rides, and I'm pretty sure the venerable Texas Cyclone won't be making the trip.

I do think there's a chance this won't happen. There is a lot of dead and low-value land along the South Loop. They may not find the buyers they think they will, especially when they take into account the cost of demolition and clearing the land. Maybe even environmental hazards? I'll bet ride maintenance crews weren't all that diligent with grease, oil, lubricants and who-knows-what. This all may be some clever negotiating tactic with Reliant for parking or with the city for tax breaks. It's also possible Six Flags may be acquired soon and the buyer may have alternate plans.

So don't count it out yet. But, just in case, you may want to get your last shot of nostalgia during a pleasant-weather weekend in October...


At 11:16 PM, September 12, 2005, Blogger Max Concrete said...

I agree with your view that the permanent closure and demolition may not happen. The plan just doesn't pass the logic test. Is there a strong demand for land on the South Loop? It's not the best area, and for whatever reason the dome area has never attracted much development, certainly not high-value development.

Perhaps Six Flags is losing money at the park. If that's the case, it could explain the plan. Still, I agree, Six Flags may be able to get more for the property intact if someone is willing to invest some funds in the park.

And yes, this definitely could be a ploy to extract concessions from Harris County.

At 12:16 AM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As kids, we always finagled at least one trip to Astroworld every summer. We thought it was awesome, especially the Alpine Sleigh. Then one summer around 1974, we got a taste of Six Flags in Dallas, and we started thinking Astroworld was a bit lame. Lucky for us, Six Flags bought Astroworld shortly after and added the Cyclone and other extreme rides (extreme for the time, that is).

My first job was at Astroworld, when I was 15. They hired me to write names and such on grains of rice. Other friends of mine worked there too and we carpooled from Clear Lake each day. Good times.

At 8:24 AM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...


You might certainly be right that the owners of AstroWorld are positioning themselves for some heavy-duty negotiations with Harris County. That's a very reasonable scenario.

With that said, it's also worth pointing out that the land in the south loop area from TX 288 westward to the doorstep of Meyerland Plaza has been attracting considerable developer interest recently.

Here's what Chronicle real estate writer Nancy Sarnoff had to say about the area in December 2004:

"...But observers say the area is on the cusp of a development explosion because of its cheap land and proximity to the ever-growing Texas Medical Center..."

"...Indeed, home builders, industrial developers and land speculators are jockeying for still-vacant parcels just beyond the Metro terminus, fueling a land rush in this long-neglected area..."

"...These open spaces and still-low land prices are attracting developers whose options for development closer in are limited..."

I will email the full article to you.

At 10:35 AM, September 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The keywords there are "open land" and "low prices". There's plenty of it (although not right next to the rail line). Six Flags obviously think they can get good money for the park, but it will require demolition and clearing, and it's right next to the freeway, which is more attractive for commercial use than residential. There's plenty of alternative land south, east, and west of there without the same costs or hassles. I have a feeling they read the same article you and I did and decided to test the market while they're closed over the winter (and as a bonus, generate a lot of "last chance" visits in Sept and Oct). If they don't attract a strong buyer, I'll bet you see them re-open come next spring.

At 10:45 AM, September 13, 2005, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

On further reflection, I'm wondering if Astroworld's core problem is our weather. Their key moneymaking months are when kids are out of school June-August, when the weather is just brutal here. It's pretty brutal in Arlington and San Antonio too, but those mist-making devices to cool people off actually work out there because it's a dry heat, unlike here where the air is already saturated with humidity. That discomfort factor, plus being close to Galveston (the beach alternative for teens), might just tip the financial balance against them. The opening of Schlitterbahn Galveston could be the proverbial last straw beyond the camel's max load rating...

At 11:21 AM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Last time I went to Astroworld, I noticed that it looked a little down at the heels, in an "Asbury Park" sort of way. Especially compared to Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio....

Still, I'll definitely be making a Last Chance Pilgrimmage before it closes. It ain't a beauty, but, eh, it's all right.

At 11:59 AM, September 13, 2005, Blogger Andrew said...

How sad that a another Houston legend like the Astrodome will be closed in the coming years.
I just can't imagine Astroworld was any worse that San Antonio or Arlington let alone Atlanta.

There is more to this story!

Even though would hate to see it go I hope if it does go that developers put something worthwhile in that spot.
Houston is losing so much green space and I would love to see a great city park in that spot. I know we have the new downtown park, Hermann and Memorial but a nice tree covered, quiet walking trails, water features and maybe a dog park.
I know it won't make Houston any money but it will surely improve our quality of life.
Just my opinion.

At 5:25 PM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not sure that rising land values were the biggest driver of Six Flags' decision to shutter the facility. Rather, its was probably the park's economic performance, combined with the corporation's debt load, that was the biggest determinant.

I couldn't tell from any of the media stories if the park was actually *losing* money, but it's pretty clear from the articles that attendance had been declining. If Six Flags is carrying $2 billion in debt, is looking for ways to maintain liquidity and keep shareholders happy, it only makes sense to close and sell off their low-performing properties. After all, even if AstroWorld is barely turning a profit today, it will obviously start to lose money in future years if attendance continues trending downward.

Many years ago, when I worked at AstroWorld, it was explained to me that the park's admission fees - exorbitant as they might be - barely covered the operating costs of the park. The food, games and merchandise concessions were the actual profit generators. Sure, you can do little things to try to reduce operating costs, such as deferring maintenance (which the folks at AstroWorld were obviously doing, resulting in the increasingly shabby condition of the park), but if things have gotten to the point that gate revenue alone is no longer sufficient to cover operating costs, then the writing's pretty much on the wall.

So why has attendance been declining? I'm sure there are many factors involved, but consider this: there was a time when AstroWorld actually attracted visitors from out of state. In the 80s and early 90s, Six Flags only operated a handful of parks around the nation, and when I worked there a lot of visitors would come from places like Louisiana and Mexico. More recently, Six Flags has been building mew parks all over the place. They opened a park in New Orleans, siphoning away the Louisiana visitors (although I'm not sure what the disposition of that facility will be in the wake of Katrina, especially since it was on the shore of Lake Ponchitrain)and they opened a park in Mexico City, siphoning away Mexican visitors (at least the ones that weren't already going to Fiesta Texas, which was acquired by Six Flags in the early 90s). With those groups of patrons gone, the only thing remaining were the southeast Texas patrons.

Also, consider that AstroWorld, which was one of the smaller parks in Six Flags' portfolio to begin with, was landlocked. It had no place to expand and hence no place to put new rides or attractions that would keep people coming back. Six Flags would occasionally replace older rides with newer ones, but without more real estate the park became stale and less attractive over time.

Finally, AstroWorld has struggled for years with a reputation that it is a gang-banger hangout. This reputation is largely undeserved (there have been problems with gang activity in the past, even when I was working there, but it's never been rampant and the AstroWorld security folks have done a good job keeping it under control), but it nevertheless has an effect on peoples' decision to visit. Furthermore, once this kind of reputation is developed, it's hard to shake it no matter how hard you try (just ask Jack Drake out at the Greater Greenspoint Chamber of Commerce, who still has to deal with the "Gunspoint" label). Six Flags may have decided that it just wasn't worth trying anymore.


At 6:50 PM, September 13, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Astroworld was not losing money. However, Six Flags has been poorly managed since 1998 when Premiere Parks took the reins and they're now faced with a crushing $2 billion debt with few alternatives to reduce it. Astroworld's performance declined a little, true, but mainly because the park was not getting the capital expenditures for new attractions that most of the other Six Flags enjoyed. SF was leery about putting too much into the old property with the parking uncertainties hanging over their head. Selling AW for the land was a short-sighted move by Six Flags to raise some quick cash to pay off company ride debt at Houston's expense.

Actually, Amusement Business magazine rated Astroworld's attendance as a tie with Fiesta Texas for 39th place in the top 50 amusement parks nationally.

At 4:45 AM, March 30, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Astroworld was rated as the 7th park in the Six Flags chain. It makes no sense to close the 7th rated park while leaving the many other poorer performing parks operating. Reliant Park and County officials were creating parking problems for the park but other solutions were possible. The closing of this park was the final straw in a takeover of the board of directors and the ousting of several board members including the chairman Keiran Burke of Six Flags Inc. Now a much better group is running Six Flags. Lets see what they do with Splashtown.

At 4:14 PM, May 18, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is a great detriment to Houston to lose the Astrodome to Minute Maid Stadium, lose the Houston Oilers (regardless of their record), and it has been absolutely appalling to lose Astroworld. Nothing can replace it. Nothing can replace the grand old Texas Cyclone. What are people thinking? What happened to Houston?

At 4:54 PM, May 18, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

The Astrodome reuse is still up for debate (possibly a convention center hotel), but clearly Minute Maid and Reliant are better stadiums. The Texans seem like a better franchise to me than the Oilers. And I'm confident Astroworld will be slowly rebuilt near Six Flags-owned Splashtown on the far north side. It is a nostalgic loss, but I'm looking forward to the exciting potential of the redevelopment with so many acres in one parcel right by the rail line.

At 9:11 PM, August 26, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I grew up in Los Angeles,and recently moved here.I thought at least they have a theme park,but now it's gone.I am surprised that there is not a thing to do here besides visit a museum or eat bbq.I tried galveston,but the beach is nasty and...well I am just going nuts here!I guess this is why housing is cheap here.

At 8:41 AM, August 27, 2006, Blogger Tory Gattis said...

Oh, there's plenty to do here, it's just a little more subtle than Disneyland. Here's a couple lists:

And if you're ever looking for the more traditional tourism experience and theme parks, drive 3 hours to San Antonio. They're all over it.


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