Greezed Lightnin' (Six Flags Astro World)

Six Flags Astroworld

AstroWorld was a seasonally operated theme park located on approximately 57 acres of land (later expanded to over 75 acres) between Kirby Drive and Fannin Avenue, directly south of Loop 610 in Houston, Texas, USA. Opening on June 1, 1968, AstroWorld was originally developed and constructed as part of the Astrodomain, the brainchild of local philanthropist and former Houston mayor Judge Roy Hofheinz, who intended it to complement The Astrodome.

AstroWorld was sold to the Six Flags Corporation by the Hofheinz family in 1975. Although the fourth park to be included in the Six Flags family of theme parks, it was the first park to be purchased by that company instead of being built. It was marketed as "AstroWorld: A Member of the Six Flags Family" so as to not confuse patrons with Six Flags Over Texas located in Arlington, Texas. Many variations of this naming scheme emerged from the Six Flags marketing department over the years. Despite these attempts at branding the park, most people continued to call it "AstroWorld" and the company eventually responded by making the individual park's name more prominent. Similarly, Fiesta! Texas in San Antonio, Texas has been marketed as "Fiesta! Texas: A Six Flags Theme Park".

AstroWorld was permanently closed by the Six Flags Corporation after its last day of operations on October 30, 2005. It was demolished between October 30, 2005 and the first half of 2006 (although parts of WaterWorld were being demolished prior to the final operating day at AstroWorld). As of 2007, the bridge crossing Loop 610 continues to stand and is the last remaining structure from AstroWorld.

Notable attractions

AstroWorld was the home of many unique attractions and also developed or debuted several prototype ride concepts including the world's first river rapids ride ( Thunder River, 1980), the first successful Arrow suspended-swinging coaster (XLR-8, 1984), the first Arrow mine train coaster to utilize tall steel column supports (Dexter Freebish Electric Roller Ride, 1972), and the first S&S Power sky-swatter ride (SWAT, 2003).

The Alpine Sleigh Ride was a popular dark ride attraction which opened during the park's first season. It featured a ride control system and vehicles (ArrowGlide) designed by Arrow Dynamics. Riders passed through an alpine forest before reaching the show building which was designed to resemble a large mountain capped with snow. A majestic waterfall cascaded from atop the mountain and down into a catch pond near the mountain's base. Once past the waterfall, riders would journey through many chambers within the mountain. These included an echo tunnel and an avalanche room with simulated snow, among others. At several points throughout the ride, the vehicles would exit and travel along the exterior of the mountain-themed show building. The sleigh-themed vehicles were powered by an electrical bus bar where portions of the track ascended, and they were gravity powered during the descents which featured several surprise dips. Part of the show building was shared with the adjacent gas powered car ride (Le Taxi) which passed through a tunnel in the side of the mountain. The ride also included an appearance by the "Abominable Snowman". Alpine Sleigh Ride was retired after the 1983 operating season.

Greezed Lightnin', a classic shuttle roller coaster designed by Anton Schwarzkopf which accelerated riders from 0 - in roughly 4 seconds was installed in 1978. Riders traveled both forwards and backwards during the course of the ride over a non-linear track with one loop and a braking hill on both ends. Greezed Lightnin's 1 millionth ride occurred on October 15, 2005. Frequent riders were familiar with and eagerly anticipated the ride operators' train dispatch warning: "All clear!"

The Ultra Twister, a TOGO pipeline shuttle coaster featuring three heartline twists, opened in 1990 and was the only ride of its kind operating in the United States. Originally featuring a 90-degree vertical lift, a new 45-degree lift hill was constructed for the ride after it was moved to AstroWorld. Exterior sections of the Alpine Sleigh Ride (which had not been in operation for several years) were demolished to make room for the Ultra Twister and its queue house.

History

1960s

Planning and construction

The park's original layout was created by famed Hollywood designer and architect, Randall Duell , who also worked on Six Flags Over Texas, Magic Mountain, as well as Marriott's Great America parks, among others. The park name, as well as the names of The Astrodome, the Astros baseball team, and all other Astrodomain properties, were a homage to the nation's manned space programs after Houston was selected to be the home of the Johnson Space Center in 1965. AstroWorld was constructed on land that was swampy and prone to flooding. Approximately one million cubic yards of dirt were used to fill the site in preparation for construction. Some areas of the site were filled to depths as great as six feet. Ahead of its time, a unique feature of the park's infrastructure included 2,400 tons of outdoor air conditioning powered by systems built by Carrier Corporation. Underground pipes carrying chilled water radiated out to most areas of the park and provided cool air to queue lines, picnic tables, shops, restaurants and other large open spaces. Air conditioning ducts and grates were disguised and blended to match the area's theming. No expense was spared in the design of AstroWorld and very high standards were set by Judge Hofheinz. Guest comfort and overall experience while visiting the park were of high concern. Mr. Hofheinz took great pride in issuing final approval for many aspects of park design. Many rare and valuable antiques, some from Mr. Hofheinz's personal collection, were used to enhance the theming in areas. The original landscaping, all designed in-house, included approximately 10,000 trees, 20,000 shrubs, and countless millions of flowers; nearly 600 varieties of plants were all combined to create a distinct atmosphere for each of the themed areas.

The bridge crossing Loop 610 which connected AstroWorld to its share of the Astrodomain (now Reliant Park) parking lot was the only publicly-accessible, privately-owned bridge to cross an interstate highway in Harris County, Texas. A monorail system connecting various Astrodomain properties was planned but never built. Stan McIlvaine of the Houston Sports Association (of which Roy Hofheinz was president) had contacted Walt Disney's MAPO, Inc. division concerning the plan as early as 1966. The beamway would have connected AstroWorld's Entry Plaza with the parking lot, the Astrodome, the AstroWorld Hotel, and possibly other nearby locations. The bridge over Loop 610 was engineered and built so that it could accommodate the planned monorail beamway. Bridge supports extended several extra feet on both sides. Tram vehicles were employed to shuttle guests between the Entry Plaza and parking lot after the monorail plan was abandoned. Disney's WEDway PeopleMover technology was eventually installed at the Houston Intercontinental Airport.

Grand Opening

AstroWorld opened to the public on June 1, 1968 with 50 thousand guests visiting the first weekend. Advertised as "The Wonderful World of Fun", the original 57 acres (expanded to over 75 acres and 12 themed areas by 1982; WaterWorld officially became a themed area of AstroWorld in 2002) consisted of eight themed areas, each with its own architecture, lighting, music and sound, cast wardrobe, unique shops and cuisine:

  • Americana Square: Entry plaza, Emporium Store, Barber Shop, Camera Shop, Malt Shop, Bakery, Candy Store
  • Alpine Valley: Dentzel Carousel, Alpine Sleigh Ride, Alpine AstroWay Station (Von Roll aerial tramway)
  • Children's World: Barnyard Petting Zoo, Maypole (tea cups), Rub-a-Dub (nursery rhyme themed boat ride)
  • European Village: AstroNeedle (double-decker Intamin AG Gyro Tower), Le Taxi (taxi car ride)
  • Modville: AstroWheel (double Ferris wheel), Orbiter (scrambler), Spinout (sports car ride)
  • Plaza de Fiesta: Lost World Adventure (jungle boat ride through Rio Misterio); featured in the film Brewster McCloud
  • Oriental Corner: 610 Limited Train (station), Black Dragon (spider/monster ride), Oriental AstroWay Station
  • Western Junction: Crystal Palace Theater, Mill Pond (bumper boats), Shooting Gallery, Wagon Wheel (Chance trabant).

Two new attractions were added to Oriental Corner in 1969: Bamboo Chute (Arrow Dynamics log-flume ride) and Serpent (Arrow Dynamics junior steel coaster).

1970s

An eighth themed area, Fun Island, is opened in 1970. Located in the lagoon between Oriental Corner and European Village, this tiny area featured the Wacky Shack (tilted illusion house) and Swamp Buggy Ride (themed Chance toboggan ride). Other changes included renaming The Happening (scrambler) to The Orbiter which was then enclosed within a domed structure.

Modville received two additions in 1971: the Barrel of Fun (rotor ride) and the "Mod Box", a contemporary-themed gift shop.

Country Fair

Country Fair opened in 1972 as the park's ninth themed area. The Dexter Freebish Electric Roller Ride opens as the main attraction of this new area and is the first attraction to be constructed outside the perimeter of the 610 Limited railroad tracks. Designed by Arrow Dynamics, the large steel coaster featured mine-train style rolling stock and was Arrow's first mine train coaster to utilize tall steel support columns.

The Swamp Buggy ride (Chance toboggan) was removed in 1973.

A performance stage was constructed at the base of Skyrama (Astroneedle) in 1974.

Six Flags ownership begins

AstroWorld was leased to the Six Flags family of theme parks in 1975 with an option to purchase. They quickly took advantage of that option before the 1976 season. The Mill Pond boats were removed, the pool was partially filled and Gunslinger (Chance Yo-Yo) was installed on that site.

The Coney Island section of AstroWorld opened in 1976.

Coney Island

In the mid-1970s, the management at AstroWorld wanted to build a classic wooden coaster as the key attraction for a new Coney Island themed area and initially considered relocating the world famous Coney Island Cyclone to Houston before settling on building their own faster, taller, mirror-image version. When completed, the Texas Cyclone was one of the largest wooden roller coasters in the United States. Featuring a lift and a 53-degree angled drop, the Texas Cyclone reached speeds of up to . It had over a dozen drops and was one of few full-sized roller coasters in the world to operate without a mid-course brake run. More than 25,000 gallons of red, white and blue paint were used cover the Douglas Fir lumber used for construction. At one time, it was rated the world's #1 roller coaster.

During construction of the Texas Cyclone, a tropical storm destroyed the entire north end turnaround section (as seen in the film Brewster McCloud) causing it to have to be rebuilt and the opening pushed back to June 12, 1976. In 2001 it was determined that modifications made to the ride deemed the head-rests unnecessary and they were removed enabling riders a greater view during the course of the ride.

The original trains featured a "Texas Flag" paint scheme. Three sets of trains were used on this ride over the years.

A small section of trackage was cut away from the ride prior to demolition. It will be preserved for posterity and displayed in a museum.

International Plaza

Modville was renamed International Plaza at the beginning of the 1977 season. The Aquarena Theatre was constructed between Plaza de Fiesta and Western Junction. It featured performances by trained dolphins, Skipper and Dolly. Country Fair received the addition of Boogie Fog Disco, but the Country Fair Carousel was removed.

Greezed Lightnin' was installed in Western Junction for the 1978 operating season. A railroad crossing signal was installed and this became the second attraction to be constructed outside the perimeter of the 610 Limited railroad tracks.

The Showcase Lagoon grandstands were constructed and stunt ski performances began in 1979. These shows included formation skiing as well as high speed jumps off a large ramp. Guests standing near the front rows of the grandstand were often splashed by the wake of the ski boat as it made high speed turns around the small lagoon. At this point in time, the Showcase Lagoon and the east lagoon (also referred to as Oriental Lagoon) were still one large body of water. The ski boat would often use the east lagoon for turning around after a run. A clown skiing on a round piece of plywood while entertaining the crowd was also part of the show.

1980s

The decade began with an exciting start as the park continued to expand its entertainment offerings and add new ride attractions. The 10 acre whitewater adventure, Thunder River, was opened in the northeast corner of the park, planning and construction of Houston's first water park began, two music and live performance venues were constructed, and a catering and special events pavilion known as The Big Red Barn was constructed in the southwest corner of the park.

Thunder River

The world's first river rapids ride, Thunder River, debuted in 1980. General manager, Bill Crandall, had been inspired after watching kayak races and set forth to create a unique and thrilling attraction for the park. The ride was extremely successful and has been duplicated in many variations at most major amusement parks around the world. Thunder River was the third attraction to be constructed outside the perimeter of the 610 Limited railroad tracks.

Thunder River was temporarily closed following a drowning accident on Six Flags Over Texas' Roaring Rapids attraction, but soon re-opened after receiving rapids ride rafts from the defunct Opryland theme park.

Nottingham Village

Country Fair was renamed and remodeled into Nottingham Village in 1981. Dexter Freebish Electric Roller Ride was renamed Excalibur and its queue house was re-themed. The AstroWheel was also removed during this time.

Judge Roy Hofheinz died in November 1982 after seventy years of age.

Sky Screamer

Sky Screamer, a first-generation Intamin AG Freefall ride, was constructed in the Plaza de Fiesta section and opened in 1983. Consisting of a tower reaching in height and a horizontal braking runout, Sky Screamer had an L-shaped appearance. It featured eight uniquely designed gondolas, each holding four riders. The gondolas used one set of wheels to go up the lift and down the drop (4 large wheels at each back corner), but used a different set in the transfer and loading/unloading area of the ride (smaller rollers located on the bottom of the gondola). Gondolas were lifted upward through a shaft in the tower's center by a lift chain. Once at the top, the gondola was disengaged from the lift chain and pushed forward into the drop position. The gondola was released into freefall following the sounding of a loud klaxon (which was audible throughout various sections of the park and often lured visitors to the ride). A pair of guide rails ran downward along the outside of the tower before curving into the horizontal braking runout. The freefall drop into the horizontal curve applied a g-force of 4.5 on the riders. In late 1983, 50% more anti-rollback devices were installed. The additional anti-rollbacks were staggered on each side of the lift. These modifications were intended to improve stopping ability in wet conditions and were a response to a non-fatal accident on a similar ride at another park. In 1986, the ride's "G-Block" was moved farther down the horizontal braking runout. The end of "H-Block" was extended to the beginning of the station conveyors in 1994. Sky Screamer was dismantled on November 2, 1997 after many years of breakdowns and shutdowns which lead to Operations management to deem that the ride was no longer economically feasible to operate.

WaterWorld

WaterWorld, Houston's first major water park, was constructed on a section of land east of AstroWorld and opened to the public in 1983. Admission to the water park was separate for almost 20 years, until it was decided in 2002 to allow admission to both parks with one paid ticket, at which time the entire water park officially became a themed area of AstroWorld.

The Alpine Sleigh Ride was retired at the end of 1983.

Enchanted Kingdom

The year 1984 brought many changes to the park. The Children's World section of the park was closed, renamed "Enchanted Kingdom" and relocated to the European Village site formerly occupied by Le Taxi, which itself had been relocated to the former Spin-Out track. The sports cars originally used on the Spin-Out were retired after being displaced by the taxis. Also, a tilt-a-whirl replaced the park's "Whirling Dervish" (flying bobs) although the name was kept. The Arrow Dynamics suspended-swinging coaster, XLR-8, was constructed above the River of No Return boat ride. The river was shortened and several scenes from that ride were eliminated to provide space for XLR-8's queue house. River of No Return became an educational attraction known as The River Ride.

XLR-8

Arrow Dynamics was prepared to follow-up on their suspended-swinging coaster concept after the failure of their prototype, The Bat, at King's Island theme park. They did this with XLR-8, considered to be the first successful coaster installation of its kind which was originally intended to be part of a ride rotation program which Six Flags Corporation had implemented during that time, however the ride was never moved from the time it opened on May 12, 1984 until its track and supporting structure were dismantled and scrapped during AstroWorld's demolition. Evidence of the intent to eventually relocate XLR-8 could be seen in the queue house design, which consisted of a basic wooden platform covered by a canvas canopy. This queue house would remain mostly unchanged during the ride's existence, but the path leading up to it was eventually re-routed to improve traffic in that area of the park.

XLR-8 originally featured three trains, each comprised of seven cars. This number was reduced to two trains during the late 1980s. The ride featured two lifts, approximately of track, multiple spiral turns and a view of the river ride landscaping below. XLR-8 was capable of cycling approximately 950 riders per hour. The estimated cost of construction was reported to be $3.2 million. Trains completed the course in about 3 minutes, reaching a top speed of . Lift one reached a height of while Lift 2 only reached in height.

XLR-8 received a Secondary Control Panel in July 1988. This panel was located on the loading side of the queue house and near the first row loading position. The ride attendant and Master Console Operator had to hold their dispatch buttons simultaneously in order to dispatch a train. This alteration was made in order to enforce a double check between ride attendants and operators.

The trains of XLR-8 were upgraded with diaper-like devices in May 1989. These devices hung beneath the trains' wheel assemblies to catch any oil or debris and prevent it from coming into contact with riders.

The catwalk at Lift 2 was lengthened in the Spring of 1998 and stairs were added.

Southern Star Amphitheater

The Southern Star Amphitheater opened in the southeast corner of AstroWorld in 1985. This venue was originally frequented by top-billed performers, including Jimmy Buffett & the Coral Reefer Band, prior to the construction of The Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands, at which time Southern Star saw a decline in the number of top-billed acts performing on its stage. Reserved seating was available and a large grassy lawn was provided to guests with general admission. The close proximity of Greezed Lightnin's first runout spike to the stage often resulted in that ride being closed during performances to minimize noise.

The Looping Starship opened at International Plaza in 1986, replacing Warp 10. AstroWorld had originally intended to name the ride "Challenger" as a homage to the infamous Space Shuttle, but decided on Looping Starship after Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed.

End of Bally's ownership

The Six Flags Corporation was acquired from Bally by Wesray Capital Corporation and members of Six Flags management for $610 Million in 1987. During this season, the troika ride formerly known as Warp 10 was reopened as Warp 2000 in the Plaza de Fiesta section. The Wacky Shack closed and its building was renovated to become the park's season pass processing station for several years.

1990s

The Six Flags chain of theme parks was purchased by Time Warner over a period of four years beginning in 1990.

During the 1990s, AstroWorld introduced several new attractions including Batman The Escape (which was once the only stand-up roller coaster in the state of Texas), the TOGO Ultra Twister (a pipeline shuttle coaster featuring three heartline twists), the Mayan Mindbender indoor rollercoaster, and Dungeon Drop (a 20-story Intamin AG freefall tower).

Thriller

In 1998, AstroWorld opened a classic looping coaster designed by Anton Schwarzkopf. Originally a travelling coaster throughout Germany and other parts of Europe, the coaster known as Thriller was re-named Taz's Texas Tornado, and later simply referred to as Texas Tornado. This coaster installation brought the park's collection of classic Schwarzkopf rides up to three. Despite efforts to operate the coaster efficiently, it was removed at the end of the 2002 season and sent to Six Flags Marine World where its first drop and loop were modified by Premier Rides in an attempt to reduce the G-forces experienced by riders. The ride operated at that park under the name "Zonga" until it was closed and dismantled. It now will be used at a fair in Mexico.

2000s

AstroWorld's last five years of existence began with the dismantling of the Astroneedle in the year 2000. The ride was stored in the park's boneyard until 2005.

AstroWorld was the park to debut "SWAT", the prototype S&S Power 'Sky Swatter' ride. Swat was the world's tallest looping ride to give the sensation of being on a Fly Swatter. The ride was then moved to Six Flags New England as Catapult after AstroWorld was closed.

Closure and demolition

On September 12, 2005, Six Flags CEO, Kieran Burke, announced that the company's legendary AstroWorld theme park in Houston, Texas, would be closed and demolished at the end of the 2005 season. The company cited issues such as the park's performance, and parking issues involving the Houston Texans football team, Reliant Stadium, and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo leveraged with the estimated value of the property upon which the park was located. Company executives were expecting to receive upwards of $150 million for the real estate, but ended up receiving less than half of that amount. After spending $20 million to demolish the park and clear the land, Six Flags received $77 million when the bare property was sold to Angel/McIver Interests, a Conroe, Texas based land development firm in 2006 (reported in a corporate earnings report). This transaction contributed to the decision by shareholders of the company to remove Burke from both his position as CEO as well as his seat on the board. He was replaced as CEO by former Disney and ESPN executive Mark Shapiro.

Plans for the former site have not been determined. Local developers feel that the size and location along the 610 Loop near the Reliant Park complex and proximity to METRORail make it ideal for a dense urban type of development.

Some of AstroWorld and WaterWorld's rides and attractions were relocated to other parks while many were scrapped or were too badly damaged during demolition to be reassembled elsewhere. Greezed Lightnin' was relocated to Joyland Amusement Park in Lubbock, Texas . The Dentzel carousel was purchased by Brass Ring Entertainment and is being refurbished and prepared for an as-yet undisclosed museum location. The Looping Starship has been relocated to Mammoth Lake in Clute, Texas along with pieces of the Mayan Mindbender.

References

  • Scott A. Lukas, “How the Theme Park Gets Its Power: Lived Theming, Social Control, and the Themed Worker Self,” pp. 183-206 in The Themed Space: Locating Culture, Nation, and Self, ed. Scott A. Lukas (Lanham, MD, Lexington Books, 2007), ISBN 0739121421

See also

External links

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