What isn't so well understood is the regional amusement/theme park operations in the United States. That's not to say that there isn't knowledge about it out there. There are a lot of people who know that the primary players are Herschend, Cedar Fair, Six Flags, SeaWorld, and Palace Entertainment. But how did those become the primary figures? Why are the parks the way they are? You know, centered around roller coasters instead of big dark rides? Why aren't there more parks being built? This series will attempt to inform you as best we can.
First off, let's make something perfectly clear: the regional theme park scene is an evolution of the regional amusement park scene. In many cases, these parks which were born out of the trolley parks of the late 19th century. Cedar Point, Lake Compounce, Six Flags New England, the deceased Geauga Lake, and Kennywood were literally these sorts of facilities. Kings Island, Elitch Gardens, and Adventureland in Iowa, meanwhile, are more spiritual descendants who are the result of their traditionalist fore bearer being consumed and eliminated. However, that these parks are regional in scope rather than national is not entirely what was desired by their creators. And that is an extremely important part of the story around which everything else rotates.
The basic summary of the genesis of the theme park industry that you'll read almost anywhere is that after the success of Disneyland, several attempts at copying came and went rather quickly. Freedomland is generally a prime example. Depending on the narrative being pushed, either everyone else ever failed from that point because none of them had the success of Eisner-era Disney's growth, or there was an explosion of parks and the story basically ends there because no one saw through the maturation and consolidation periods of the industry in written form. The parks we recognize today as being Six Flags' properties consist of three purpose built Six Flags facilities under the vision of the Wynne Family (Over Texas, Over Georgia, St. Louis), who also has significant financial interest in two of them. Cedar Fair has never constructed a new gate, buying and selling parks over the years beginning with the acquisition of Valleyfair in 1978. Those two operators, in spite of only being responsible for actually producing 4 parks into existence, represent the present operations of 25 "dry" parks with 20 separate founding groups. Add in the parks they've shuttered in the last 15 years (Astroworld, Geauga, New Orleans), and all three of those were constructed by 3 more entirely separate founding groups. If that wasn't enough, Six Flags can claim 4 more branches on their family tree thanks to their water park division.
2 operators. 27 different founders for their parks. How did this happen?
To answer this, we need to go back in time to the boom. 15 of the 25 dry parks owned by Six Flags and Cedar Fair were constructed between 1961 and 1975. 11 of those opened between the years of 1971 and 1976. This is a period of growth in the theme park industry we will simply never see again representing a paradigm shift of amusements away from urban cores to suburbia along with the white people fleeing the inner cities. The idea of following these crowds was, of course, part of the attraction - parks sought to be built near large shopping and residential developments and with excellent access to interstates, but with enough mass as to make them effectively impossible to NIMBY from noise complaints and the like. And virtually every one of these parks was built with the promise of becoming the new Disneyland with Disneyland like attendance and effects to the local economy.
The problem is, of course, that none of these parks were as successful. Disneyland had an incredibly prime location near Los Angeles, guaranteeing it great weather for much of the year. Most parks built in this era didn't have that benefit. Many of those which did have good weather - Busch Gardens California and Texas, for example, or Marco Polo Park near Jacksonville, FL - found their real estate being more valuable for other developments, and they closed up in short order. Most parks were in areas with strong winters, making them seasonal propositions who are deeply challenged at attaining enough revenue in a limited season.
These parks didn't necessarily fail because they lacked intellectual properties that were recognizable to the public or because they lacked innovative and themed attractions either. Most featured large indoor rides or walk through attractions which were actually quite impressive for the time, and the likes of Hanna Barbera and Looney Tunes were regularly licensed for use at these facilities. KECO, the developers of Kings Island, Kings Dominion, and Canada's Wonderland, was in fact a branch of the media company Taft Communications, who used the parks to promote programs appearing on their slates of networks as well as leveraging their position to gain promotion via television productions. The Brady Bunch famously nearly died on Kings Islands' Racer while filming an episode at the park. The parks weren't bad, and they weren't "glorified carnivals". They generally had a theme or series of them and stuck to them. They ranged from Jules Verne's Around the World in 80 Days (Worlds of Fun, Kansas City), the Li'l Abner comic strip (Dogpatch USA), to, well, America (Great America in California and Illinois).
The simple reality is that most of the parks were developed by businessmen who simply didn't understand the theme park industry. The costs of development were as high or higher due to the inflated valuation of land acquisition and labor costs compared to places like Central Florida, making the parks equally or more expensive to develop initially and costly to maintain in their opening state in perpetuity. The sheer volume of cash burn in the theme park industry, something that was well outside the knowledge base of many institutional investors with real estate or entertainment backgrounds who entered the space, drove many an aspiring operator who hadn't outright failed at turning an initial profit off: Marriott (Great America) and Harcourt (SeaWorld) are probably the most well known examples of such corporations. Other park operators (Carowinds, for example) simply came nowhere near to the marks suggested because of a combination of poor attraction choices, wrong/still developing market, or poor timing (The OPEC Oil Crises of 1973 and 1979 also overlaps this time period).
Spending untold sums of money for upkeep on legacy attractions while locals demanded constant updates was a serious concern and challenge for the new themers. While Disney had made its name with family friendly indoor attractions like the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean, early attempts at copying that success for the regional operators simply hadn't panned out. What was panning out was the roller coaster, and it was a mighty fine time to start investing in those. Arrow's development of tubular steel track in 1959 directly led to a number of huge innovations in coaster design. While Disney was afraid to install large thrill rides, regional parks looked at the cost/benefit ratio and realized that building inverting roller coasters was the only rational path for them. They had already generally buried their traditional park competition at this point, and the markets demanded that the thrill ride space be filled. And it was: New and Huge won the day, with Dinn/Summers and RCCA constructing massive wood coasters and Arrow and Vekoma building enormous twisted steel creations. Mind you, most of it sucked, but was huge and drew.
In Part Two, we get into the "How?" - The rise and fall of Six Flags, the ascendancy of Cedar Fair, private capital ruining everything, and some guys with a cave.