A few stories from summers at Six Flags 1967-1970
Note: these are rough drafts, works-in-progress
1967: Parking lot: bumper stickers, guide, tram driver, spiel announcer
1968: Sky Hook; carpool to work
1969: Tower observation deck and superslide: doubles, scholarship
1970: Rover in Operations, a variety of rides
Hourly: $.90, then up to $1.25
Friends from Six Flags summers
• Carpool: Laird McDonald, Barbara Smith, Nancy Ayres, John Bookhout
• Cast members: Hollis Drake, Robert Cowsert, Charlie Wheeler, Karen Jessup, David Watson, Doug Ragsdale, Margie Robinson, Ray Bragg, Tommy Wolfe, Richard Stoddard, Susan Bottorff, David Slater, Kerry Howell, Dudley Hodgkins, Mike Glennan, Larry Wine
Assignment: the Parking Lot
My first job in the park wasn't in the park - I had hoped for a fun assignment, maybe on a ride, but, I was assigned to work the parking lot. The first few weeks, I had two main tasks: I directed cars down the aisles and onto vacant rows and I put bumper stickers on the cars. If a driver didn't want a sticker, they were told to raise their wiper. That was a good way to communicate those wishes as we could look down the row and easily see which windshields had raised wipers. I got the system down well - stickers in one pocket and the paper backings in the other. As i approached a car, i pulled out a sticker, removed half of its backing, positioned the sticker, patted it down, pulled back the remaining back paper and smoothed it out. Fast, barely slow my walk, lots bending, of course, the stickers I put on were aligned and positioned very neatly on the bumper. Within a few weeks, My exposed skin was dark brown from being out in the sun all day. We didn't know of spf and sun dangers at that time, in 1967 - well, at least, I didn't.
Soon, I was promoted to tram operator. This was the plum job in the parking lot. Spending the day seated, under a shade, and driving a tram towing rows of eager parkgoers around the lot and up to the front gate. More fun was sitting in the back and reciting the spiel that first introduced the park to the guests. I was given one night to memorize the spiel, but I, like all the drivers, would ad lib some if we thought of some good joke. After all, we had a captive audience. We also had to buzz the driver when we saw that everyone was seated safely. There was a code, I think it was one buzz to go and two to stop. Or it may have been the other way around. Spiel: seen them on tv: Sid & Marty Krofft puppets, hours
I didn't have a car that summer after my junior year of high school. Sometimes, I would bum a ride from another coworker. Or, I would borrow a parent's car if they didn't need it, or they would drive out to Arlington (about 30 minutes from our house) to pick me up. I don't recall they ever complained, but I believe they got tired of so many long drives. I decided that if I was at Six Flags the next summer, I would buy a car.
• The trash can spiel: "What you've been waiting for - the new Six Flags trash can."
• Walking under the baskets.
• Balance walking along the top of the fence/shed.
The next summer, I was reassigned to ride operations. Great news. This was the most sought after designation. Because you ran the rides. Other department assignments were Food & Beverage, Souvenirs, Security, Maintenance, and the guys who swept the grounds constantly. But I was now a ride operator! I was assigned to the Sky Hook, a former crane outfitted to lift two baskets up above the treetops. It was a simple ride, but I wasn't able to operate it for several weeks. I worked at the que house loading and unloading guests. When the baskets were both in the air, we had a few minutes of down time. Heres how I used some of that time:
1. I would walk under the basket as it was being lowered. My goal was to pass under it so closely that the bottom of the basket almost grazed the top of my head. I got pretty good at it - so that I didn't have to watch the basket. I made it look like I was just strolling towards the exit and was oblivious to the basket coming down. Whew, just missed it. This was fun for a while. until Margie, one of the operations supervisors, watched my antics for a while, then called me over for a 'chat'. She mentioned how much Six Flags had to pay for insurance to cover all the rides. And the Sky Hook had some of the highest insurance rates. They would frown on my almost being crushed by a basket full of people.
2. Along one whole side of the square loading area was a fence, about 8 feet high. Standard fence like you would see in thousands of backyards in thousands of suburbs. Except this one also masked the shed that contained the mechanical equipment for the ride. But from the que house, one couldn't notice the shed, just the fence. So, I would climb up and walk across the fence. I hammed it up, like a tightrope walker would do - balancing, foot after foot, along the very narrow top of the fence. Then, I would act like I was losing my balance and flail my arms and begin to fall. As the mothers gasped and the kids screamed, I stepped onto the roof of the shed (that they couldn't see) and miraculously saved myself from a horribly disfiguring 8 foot fall to the asphalt.
3. Nancy taught me the 'Trash can spiel'
Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention, please.
This is what you have been waiting for. Your patience has paid off. Almost. Here it is: the brand new Six Flags Trash Can. Its for trash, your trash. It has the new deluxe swinging door, the Six Flags logo right here on the side.
The Sky Hook was, essentially, a crane that lifted up a basket. Instead of winding cable on a spool and using a counterweight, there was simply a second basket on the other side of the crane. As one basket went up, its cable splayed out the other side which lowered the other basket. The entire crane rotated at its base so that the descending basket could land on the same loading pad where the other basket ascended.
We would take turns running the ride and loading guests. The operator of the crane/ride sat in a cab about 30 feet up the crane. We would climb up inside a caged ladder to relieve the operator. One time, my relief person climbed and stood on the gangway just outside the cab door. We began talking and laughing about something. I was having such a good time that I forgot I was the ride operator. I was quickly reminded when I noticed, over his shoulder, a basket load of people waving frantically as their basket was dropping into the treetops. The mechanism to raise and lower the baskets was doing just as I had told it to. But, I forgot to work the mechanism to rotate the crane. I jumped off the stool and grabbed the controls - reversing the up/down cable. The basket never got caught in the branches but it had begun to tilt slightly. In the chaos and scramble, I let the other basket back down to be unloaded. That group just went up and down, and not even all the way up. The other group - the ones waving at me and worried for their safety - got a longer ride. All the way up, around, down to the trees, back up, back around, and finally, own to the unloading pad.
The next summer, I worked in a new section of the park, simply called the Tower Section. A tall pseudo oil derrick (the Tower) was the centerpiece. Part way up the tower was a superslide. Those were popular at that time, so the park built one of its own. Fellow ride operators were Larry Wine (ride foreman), Marge Johnson (I had a crush on her), Mike Glennan, and Rodney Elkins. I was the Assistant Ride Foreman.
Our crew worked two rides - elevators up to the tower observation deck and the superslide. The tower was more fun. We loaded guests into one of two elevators, operated the large open glass-doored elevators, and monitored the guests on the two decks at the top. The slide was tough. At the bottom of the slide, we helped people get up from their laying down sliding position and guided them towards one of two exits. we also picked up the burlap riding mats and placed them onto a conveyor belt that took them back up to the top of the slide. At both the top and the bottom, we were always moving, the people just kept on coming up the stairs and down the slide. It never ended. At the top, the conveyor belt just dumped the mats onto the floor. We had to bend down, pick them up, walk them over to the entrance line, and hand them to the guests. That was a bitch. Some crew members let the guests reach down and pick up their own mat, but there had to be a better way. There was a large wooden storage bin up there where we put the mats at night and where some of the girls kept their purses. Aha. Idea. I shoved that big box over to the rail and had someone help me lift up the mat exit chute and we placed it on top of the box. It bent at the junction at the top roller, but no real damage. Now the bags slid down the chute and across the slick top of the box and landed at the rail the guests walked by. The guests could now easily reach over to pick up their mat. No bending or stooping. By us or the guests. I remember that some of the mats would slide too far and slip through the rail and land on the floor in the walkway. I found some rope and looped it around the railings to create a net. This stopped the mats at the railing. I never got permission to move that box there. I just did it. A trait that I retained for the rest of my life. I later heard and adhered to the phrase, 'It's easier to ask forgiveness than to ask permission'. But, everyone who saw this new system, workers and supervisors, thought it was a good move.
Another improvement I made was in the queue (or que) house at the base of the tower. There were two elevators in the very center of the tower shaft and the que house was divided into two lines - one for each elevator. But, while that might sound simple, it didn't work that way. Guests approaching the house would see a line and get in it. So, one side always had a longer line than the other. Then those guests would see the elevator arrive on the short side and see that the few people in that line were able to get right on, even though they entered the que house after the guests that were watching. This was not fair for these people that were spending much of their day waiting in lines for rides. At the end of the line, right before entering the elevator waiting area, we could unhook a chain and let people cross over and enter the other elevator. Hmm. This got me to thinking. What if I closed off one whole side and made everyone use just one line? We would then channel them into one of the two waiting areas. Why not. Let's try it. It was simple matter to put up a chain blocking the entrance to one side of the que house. I also moved a trash can to form a visual and physical barrier. It didn't take long for the crew to get used to the new system. It was actually easier for us to fill a waiting area and then guide the line to the other area.
I learned another valuable lesson about crowds, guides, and efficiency. I became a staunch proponent of the concept of 1 line to multiple destinations. Link to more info and examples.
In the morning, before the park opened, the slide crew would test the speed of the slides. If they were slow, we had two options: spray some wax onto the metal at the humps, places where riders would slow down. We could also sprinkle some powder, I think it was just cornstarch, to absorb any overnight moisture. We would slide down and spray or sprinkle in the lanes on either side. Sometimes, we would fine tune the outside lane to be extra fast. That lane caught the sun and stayed dry all day. We would rope off that lane and hand pick young riders in line to ride it. We would whisper as if we had some contraband drugs to sell. We worked that line. Trying to find just the right mix of bravado and daring. The fast lane became such a hit that riders would request it. Sometimes, though, it was just too fast to be safe - we kept it roped off.
The football star broke his leg.
One afternoon, a group of boisterous high school kids were coming through the line. They were having a good time. They picked up their mats and stood at the head of about 4 lanes waiting for the lanes to clear down below. They were going to race. This wasn't uncommon among groups of teenage boys. They positioned their mats, sat on them, aligned themselves and were ready to go. One called Ready set Go and they pushed off with tremendous force and glee. The accident was a fluke. One kid, pushed himself up while coming over a hump and rose up off the slide just a few inches. When he landed, one leg was across the lane divider and in the adjoining lane. At the exact moment that he came down, his friend in the next lane came off the hump and landed on his leg. The leg was stopped but the guy's body kept going. Crack. The leg broke. Just a fracture, but he was in pain. At the bottom, we heard him scream as he came on down to a stop. We kept him still and called First Aid. They sent their cart with a stretcher. Two medics lifted the stretcher onto the cart bed. A couple of Operations Supervisors had arrived by this time. During the next few days, I was interviewed by investigators from the parents' insurance company. They wanted to blame us and the park. I explained the fluke of his pushing off and landing a leg in another lane. It could not have been prevented by any ride operator. The parents were, apparently, very upset that he would not be able to play football in the fall. A fun day at Six Flags turned into a life-changer for the kid.
An advantage to working as the elevator operator was that the wind rushed in through the mesh panels in the sides of the elevator. It felt so refreshing during those hot Texas summers. While operating the elevator up to the top of the tower we had a brief spiel to recite - it included some statistics on the tower: how tall, how far you can see, etc. Sometimes, after our required spiel, we would ad lib more tourguide talk. Example: "As we go up and we can see the whole park, let me point out some of the sights (pause). There's one, there's another, and one over there."
Another time, while riding down, I finished the spiel and was about to announce that the rear doors would be opening and please exit towards the rear. About four feet from the landing, the elevator just stopped. Motionless. Quiet. The elevator had descended into the walled barrier, which stifled any wind or ventilation. It was north Texas summer hot. I called maintenance and reported our dilemma. This was the first season for the new oil derrick tower. There had been other problems with the elevators. But, this was a new wrinkle - it was just stuck. I joked for the first few minutes. Then it got old. I couldn't make light of the situation any longer. I called the maintenance operator again - "They were on their way!" The maintenance guys showed up and got to work on top of the cab. Some of the passengers were getting upset. They felt we (the park) should be doing more. Slowly, we made progress and we inched down the remaining four feet. Finally. It had been 30 minutes that we all stood packed into that elevator cab. The doors opened and the fresh air rushed in and the guests rushed out. There were two supervisors at the exit greeting and apologizing to the guests. I stepped out and talked with them briefly to give details of what happened. I then asked to go on a break.
One summer, I worked many double shifts in order to earn enough money to buy a car. The system: We would call the Operations desk where two girls answered the calls from those who weren't coming in to work and also from those of us who called seeking to pick up an extra shift. They would recite the options for that evening and we would pick one. they would make the assignment on a large schedule pad at their desk. We would then leave our day ride a few minutes early to go to the compound to change into the uniform for the evening ride. There was a different feel in the park at night - it was cooler, mellower, and a slightly slower pace. Maybe the guests were tiring and winding down after a long day in the park. The que house lines got shorter and we sometimes let kids stay in the car or boat and ride around again. During that summer, I worked numerous rides: both log flumes, the antique cars, the Mine Train, and a week at the Mini-Mine Train. After the park closed, we would ride the mini-mine standing up - we were surfing the ride. There was one place where we had to duck way down as the train went under a railroad track trestle. I'm glad the supervisors didn't find out as they probly would have stopped that immediately.
Working double shifts was fun cuz I got to meet lots of other people and interact with their ride families.
One of the rides I worked during that summer was the Astrolift - the ski-lift style ride that took guests from one side of the park to the other. It was removed many years ago, after an accident on a similar ride at another park. But, that summer, I was loading and unloading the gondolas. The door swung closed on a simple door hinge. I was loading a family into the gondola and didn't notice that the mom still had her finger in the crack of the open door. I swung the door shut and the leverage of the door and the sharp metal corners sliced right into her finger. Blood. Lots of blood. I helped the dad, who was starting to panic, get back out and told them I would take them to First Aid. I yelled to the ride supervisor and we left. As we were rushing, half walking and half running, mom felt faint and started to pass out. The dad handed his daughter to me and picked up his wife. I could see that the little girl was beginning to get scared. Probly picking up the vibes from the 3 adults around her. We made it to First Aid okay - I led the dad through the door marked 'Employees only'. The nurse on duty took over and began to clean and bandage the wound. She told me that it would be okay and I should return to my ride. Which I did. But on the walk back, I felt awful. I had hurt someone due to my carelessness.
You may remember that when you visited a Six Flags park, especially back in the early days of the park's history, that you rarely saw any litter on the ground. That was due to several things:
- There was an entire staff of young people who did nothing but sweep up litter into a folding container at the end of a pole.
- There were trash cans everywhere you looked. they were all over the place. most were painted to fit the decor of their themed area, but you could still recognize the familiar swinging door in the dome on the top.
- And, all employees were conditioned, from the very first day of cast training, that we were to never step over a piece of trash. We were to bend down, pick it up, and put it in the nearest trash can. Never walk past it. That habit has stuck with me ever since. Even in NYC, I pick up litter. In Oklahoma, its more difficult because there is so much litter - likely due to open-bed pickup trucks, fierce winds, and less local pride. That Six Flags habit from 1966 even led me to develop the JustOnePiece campaign.
I did buy a car that summer. A white 1966 Ford Mustang. My dad helped me - he cosigned the loan. Of course, I customized the car. I painted thin red pinstripes along the body and added a cassette player to play Spinning wheel, Chicago, Cream, the Association and other bands from that era. At that time, I stopped listening to the car radio with its interruptions, obnoxious ads and jingles, and contests. That was the beginning of a habit that I still adhere to today.
More stories to come
• Faking a fall from the top of the tower, lying injured on the catwalk as the elevator went by.
• Visits to other Six Flags. Stayed with Mike Glennan in St. Louis, drove with a friend, slept on floor. Mike got us past lines.
• With parents trip to Atlanta and Florida. Dad and I did Six Flags.
The Sky Hook, summer 1968
The Tower, summer of 1969
An article I wrote for the 1970 Employee Newspaper
Never to be finished . . .
Yearly Increase in Rides, Attraction Continues
In the time most of us have doubled our age, SIX FLAGS Over Texas has more than doubled its number of rides and attractions. The history of SIX FLAGS is comparable to the history of the State which is typified in the Park.
The idea for SIX FLAGS was conceived by Angus G. Wynne, Jr., then President of Great Southwest Corporation, and now Chairman of the Board. He and his associates had purchased 5,000 acres of prime land in Arlington/Grand Prairie between Dallas and Fort Worth and began planning for a family-type entertainment center to go along with his program for a huge industrial/recreational community.
Plans were based on the principle that the entertainment center would have a unique wholesome atmosphere, be kept impeccably clean at all times, and staffed with clean-cut, well-trained college students.
Beginning in September of 1960 with groundbreaking ceremonies, over 400 construction workers with special talents turned a sloping tree-studded area into into 106 acres of outstanding beauty. Utilizing the existing vegetation and more than 1,000 trees on the site, architects and engineers laid out SIX FLAGS Over Texas so that the beauty of the site would be preserved in as much of its natural state as possible.
Before a spade of earth was turned, however, a year of study, planning, and research was concluded. Great Southwest Corporation, using its own construction division under the direction of Luther D. Clark, now President of Six Flags, Inc., completed the tremendous task in slightly over 11 months.
SIX FLAGS opened to the public August 5, 1961.
There were many interesting and unique methods of design and planning that went into the construction of SIX FLAGS Over Texas.
First, Great Southwest Corporation purchased an operational, well equipped wood mill from New York and had it shipped 'en masse' down to a site in the Great Southwest Industrial District, wherein the Park is located. The wood mill, using an ingenious method of fabrication, played a major role in the building of SIX FLAGS.
A team of artists and architects drew sketches of the shops and building to be developed for the various sections of the historical-theme Park. These sketches were then redrawn on huge pieces of cardboard that were the exact sizes of the facades of the buildings to be constructed. Carpenters at the wood mill cut the lumber to conform to the life-size drawings on the cardboard. When completed in prefabricated sections, these buildings were transported to their own designated sections of the Park, resulting in the creation of entire towns.
The first name chosen for the Park was Great Southwestland. A few months prior to its completion, the name "Texas Under Six Flags" was substituted for Great Southwestland. That is, until Charles R. Meeker, Jr., the former Dallas State Fair Musicals producer and director of the early Six Flags musical campus revues, objected. "Texas ain't under nuthin!" he exclaimed to Mr. Wynne. Hence, the change of the title to "Six Flags Over Texas."
The statement was also made that SIX FLAGS would never be finished; it would continue to grow more and more each year. SIX FLAGS proved such a success in its first year with 564,000 visitors, that engineers were already working on improvements for the 1962 season. Some of these included moving the Sidewinder to Mexico where the Sombrero is located now. Another Happy Motoring freeway was added and the Chaparral antique cars were introduced in the Texas section. An extension of Skull Island was built and entitled Pirate's Island. The Canoes and Casa Magnetica were also built this year.
1963 was a major year in the history of the Park. Both the Log Ride and Boom Town were added that year. Boom Town consisted of the Sky Hook, a second Train Depot, Dry Hole Charlie's Cafe, the Carousel, and hat and souvenir stands.
The next year construction slowed down slightly as only minor additions were made. Three new swamp slides were added, the canoes were moved to Boom Town, and several new animations were put to life on the Stagecoach and Riverboat rides. Work had begun on a new type of ride which proved to be very popular when it opened in 1965. That was the Speelunkers Cave, the only ride of its kind at the time. The Shooting Gallery was also built that year and El Sombrero replaced the Sidewinder in Mexico. The SIX FLAGS circus performed in a new arena outside the Texas section. It was to be replaced, however, by the Wild West Show in 1966.
Also in 1966 the Amphitheater was covered and air conditioned. The ice house in the security compound became a landmark that year. At the end of that season and formally in the 1967 season, the Runaway Mine Train became one of the major rides in the Park. 1967 also saw the addition of the Jet Set and Snack Stand and the closing of the Stagecoach. A small ride known as the Spindletop was opened on a hill next to the old personnel office where the puppet theater stands now.
A major year for improvements was 1968. Because of increasing popularity, a second Log Flume was added, a completely new Fiesta Train was introduced and the Cyclorama of the American West replaced the Indian Village behind the Indian Souvenir Shop. The Spindletop was moved to Pirate's Island and two new theaters were built. The Southern Palace took the place of the Amphitheater while the Puppet Theater housed Sid and Marty Krofft's new puppet show.
The major addition for 1969 was the Oil Derrick and the Derrick Slide. They were located on the old Stagecoach route and Pirate's Island. A new area behind the Cave was added which included the Chevy Show, the Blowout, and a Sea Food Restaurant. The Sky Hook was moved to Six Flags Over Georgia, and the Mini-Mine Train was built in its place.
This year the Los Voladores Pavilion took the place of the Wild West Show. The flyers, who are Totonaca Indians, follow traditions which date back over 400 years. Their flight from the top of a 100-foot pole is based on a pre-Columbian rite designed to bring the attention of the rain gods. No nets or other modern safety devices are used.
The next major added this year was the Spectrum. A revised Blowout, it was moved from its former location and renamed. Plans are in motion to start a chain of such mod shops throughout Texas. As a replacement, Hilarious Harry's Gag Shop was introduced.
SIX FLAGS has never stopped growing - neither in size, now 145 acres, number of attractions, over 85, nor in attendance, exceeding 14,600,000 visitors. Angus Wynne's formula for success has indeed succeeded. The combination of a clean, attractive family entertainment center and a group of cheerful, respectful employees, has worked to make SIX FLAGS into Texas' most popular tourist attraction.