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Ultimate Rollercoaster > Roller Coasters > History > Theme Park Boom



Many of the most recognizable parks today are run by huge multi-million dollar corporations and are often the subsidiary of a subsidiary. Sometimes visitors to these parks complain that the places are too informal and large to give the feel of the local amusement park that was so prevalent. They say that the new corporate parks were the reason that a lot of traditional parks closed. While this is true in many respects, we must also remember that were it not for these huge parks being able to invest money in coasters, thrill rides and media attention, the family park would not also have survived through many rough years.

Six Flags St. Louis Mine Train
The River King Mine Ride built in 1971 by Arrow was the first roller coaster at Six Flags St. Louis. Enlarge Photo

For family park owners, the amusement industry was very shaky during the sixties. It appeared that the old amusement park was dead and if anything could survive it would be the theme park. The late sixties saw the closing of many traditional parks and the first years of the following decade were not very different, except that Six Flags Over Georgia opened in 1967 and Six Flags Mid-America (now Six Flags St, Louis) opened in 1971. These parks were built after the company of Six Flags, Inc., was created to facilitate the building of new theme parks under the Six Flags umbrella. Both followed the model set down by the original park and had six sections themed after the former governing bodies of the states.

The success of Six Flags, mixing thrill rides with theming, began to attract big-name corporate investors who saw this as a safe, new investing venture. The sixties had been a good decade economically for many large businesses and parks knew that families who had extra spending money would visit their facilities. After all, executives figured that if people were willing to travel across the country to Disneyland, they would visit a well-built theme park in their own town. Instead of building a park within the city, which was considered unsafe by suburbanites (and where countless parks had closed during the previous decade), the builders of these new parks bought up huge tracts of land outside the suburbs that they could fully control.

Taft Broadcasting was one of the first corporations to invest in theme parks. They had owned Cincinnati's Coney Island, but felt a new location was needed for the park to thrive and moved many of the rides to the new King's Island when it opened. The park featured many of the characters from the Hanna-Barbara cartoons and gave them the television exposure considered necessary for a new park to succeed.

John Allen's Racer, Kings Island
The Racer at Kings Island is a wonderful out and back wooden roller coaster designed by John Allen. Enlarge Photo

Racer, Kings Island
Today, The Racer operates one side with the trains running backward and the other side running forward. Enlarge Photo

King's Island opened with something no other theme park had, something that brought people from all over the world, a signature roller coaster.

As Robert Cartmell said, "April 29, 1972, is usually given as the day when the gloom ended and the new golden age began. On that day King's Island premiered its Racer."

The Racer was designed by John Allen, traveled at 61 mph, was 3,415 feet long and stood 88-feet high. However, there was something different about this new coaster. It had more impact than any of Allen's roller coasters in the sixties and drew more attention than the Thunderbolt coaster at Kennywood. Allen had taken his coaster designing to the next level and created a roller coaster that was a theme park's dream. It was large and thrilling but families could still ride it with their children.

The coaster was also the most camera-friendly coaster to be found anywhere. The layout was a beautifully symmetrical out and back design that split in the middle, had a sparkling coat of white paint and was located in the middle of the Coney Mall section. One cannot look at the Racer without being reminded of a work of art and thrill ride combined into one.

Kings Island Racer 3
John Allen's Racer is credited with starting the new age of roller coasters. Enlarge Photo

Kings Island Racer 4
Kings Island's Racer is a John Allen designed dual-track racing wooden coaster. Enlarge Photo

The Taft Corporation created Kings Dominion, in Doswell, Virginia that opened in 1975, bought Carowinds Park in North and South Carolina, opened it under their management in 1976 and opened Canada's Wonderland in 1982. King's Dominion opened the Rebel Yell in 1975 (a John Allen design) and one year later Carowinds opened Thunder Road (Curtis Summers design), both coasters had near-identical layouts to the Racer.

One year after the Racer opened; Six Flags over Georgia premiered another gorgeous John Allen coaster, The Great American Scream Machine. At 105 feet, it was the tallest coaster standing and featured a beautiful location over a lake and 3,800 feet of out and back track. This coaster was very similar to the Racer because it was extremely photogenic and gave a ride everyone could enjoy. Three years later Allen designed the Screamin' Eagle at Six Flags over Mid-America. Like Allen's other creations it had a great setting, this time on a hillside at the back of the park. Again, it was the highest and fastest when it opened and gave a thrilling, yet enjoyable, ride.

Some said that Allen's later rides were too smooth, but he defended the change in style. "I told the Six Flags people the amusement park business has changed. With the one-price policy, six-year-old kids get on the rides, and when people pay one price, they want to ride everything. That means you're riding a large range of ages. And in many cases, like in St. Louis, they haven't ridden a coaster in a long time. So you have to be careful." Unfortunately, Six Flags St. Louis has poorly maintained the coaster and re-profiled many of the thrilling parts of the ride. The curves have been heavily banked and the unique double up taken out. To the discredit of Six Flags, the Eagle now runs as a shell of its former self. (Tim Onosko's book, Funland U.S.A., uses "six-month" instead of "six-year-old," but I do not think Allen pictured babies on his rides).

Anheuser-Busch opened its first Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida. It was a luscious garden adjacent to the brewery, where people were invited to roam the grounds and see the various exotic animals for free. The brewery operated a similar garden in Los Angeles, but it closed within a few years of its opening. The gardens in Tampa began adding thrill rides and extensive African theming in 1974, the same year another Busch park opened in Williamsburg, Virginia. This park was themed after Europe and featured sections of the park based on Germany, England (now Ireland), France and Italy. Both parks are still recognized today as some of the best theme parks in the United States.

Two years after Busch entered the thrill ride industry the Marriott Corporation opened their version of the theme park. The theming here was similar to Freedomland U.S.A., except Marriott wisely intertwined American history, family rides, flat rides and roller coasters. The two "Great America parks" (Marriott trademarked the patriotic name) were located north of Chicago and south of San Francisco. They were noteworthy because they were identically built and were the first parks that opened with the goal of giving the visitor the identical experiences at each park. There were plans for a park in Washington D.C. that would be similar to the other two. However, the company was never able to create a feasible plan for the park's construction and the plan was never implemented.

Each park premiered with two coasters, an Arrow loop corkscrew roller coaster called the Turn of the Century and a Schwarzkopf speedracer called Willard's Whizzer (named after the owner of the Marriott chain). The next year the Tidal Wave, a Schwarzkopf shuttle loop, was added to the ride collection and both parks were financially sound. Over the next few years less money was put into the parks as the owners grew disinterested, a fact was reflected in park attendance. The Illinois park was sold in 1984 to Bally's, which owned Six Flags, and the California park was sold in 1985 and finally bought by King's Entertainment in 1989.

Under Bally's management the Six Flags Corporation began buying up other theme parks and putting them under the Six Flags banner. Astroworld in Houston opened in 1968, quickly went into debt and was bought by the Six Flags corporation in 1975, Magic Mountain in Valencia, California opened in 1971 and was purchased in 1979 and Great Adventure outside of Jackson, New Jersey, opened in 1974 and was acquired in 1979.

All the parks were huge additions for the Six Flags family of parks and easily adaptable to the corporate themeing. The seventies were a time of change for the industry, with companies like Taft, Six Flags, Marriott and Anheuser-Busch getting involved in a burgeoning world of theme parks. Unfortunately it was bittersweet time as many family parks closed as the new theme parks opened and took their business away. But, we must remember that if theme parks had not come around, many of these family parks probably would have not made it through the decade.

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