Monday, August 1, 2011

Half a Century of Six Flags

It isn't unusual these days to see a "Six Flags" amusement park in several places across this country — from coast to coast.

You'll even find them in foreign countries.

Some have always been "Six Flags" parks. Others began their existences with other names and under different management, but they were later absorbed into the "Six Flags" corporation. In all, there have been nearly three dozen "Six Flags" amusement parks.

But the very first one opened to the public 50 years ago on this date in Arlington, Texas, about 25 miles west of where I live today. It officially opened for business on Aug. 5, 1961 (the day after Barack Obama was born).

That theme park was known then — and it's still known — as "Six Flags Over Texas," a name it took from the fact that six different nations ruled Texas in its history — Spain, France, the Confederacy, Mexico, the Republic of Texas and the United States.

It was modeled after Disneyland's concept of dividing the park into several sub–sections (theme parks within a theme park, you might say) — but Disney focused more on general themes like Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland.

My grandparents lived in Dallas, and my family visited them often when I was growing up. Outside of the Texas State Fair, there really wasn't much to bring families to Dallas when my parents were children, and I don't think things were all that different before I was born, but "Six Flags Over Texas" changed that.

My mother and my grandmother could hardly wait until I was old enough to take to "Six Flags," which was constantly adding new things in the 1960s and 1970s. When the day finally arrived that we went to "Six Flags," I think they were more excited about it than I was.

And, after they took me the first time, it became a regular thing for us every summer.

(Incidentally, although its primary days of operation have always been from late spring to autumn, "Six Flags" is open for seasonal events today, like its annual Spring Break kickoff, which got started in the 1980s, and its Christmas programs.

(I can't remember if it was open during the Christmas holidays when I was a child. We didn't pay attention. We were busy with other things.)

I loved the rides — some more than others — and I loved the food. And, on especially hot days, I loved the cool of the park's theaters, where song–and–dance shows (often featuring area college students as performers) were repeated frequently every day.

It really was a wonderful combination of entertainment and a crash course in history. As a child, I was attracted by all the things that attract children, but, in hindsight, I have often wondered if maybe the seeds of my interest in history were planted on those day trips to "Six Flags" — an interest that, I am confident, led me to study journalism in college.

Sure, there were the kinds of rides you expect to find at an amusement park. There were roller coasters and bumper cars and a miniature train that went all the way around the park, but there were also several theme–specific rides.

(I remember that the Oil Derrick Tower, which represented the 20th century oil boom in Texas, was the first thing you could see as you approached the amusement park from any direction, looming as it did high above everything else.

(It was visible for miles along that relatively flat terrain, and it was the landmark I watched for — because I knew, when I saw it, that it was really happening. It wasn't an abstract concept.

(I've only been to Disneyland once, and I was a teenager when I did that, but I presume that is how kids feel when they catch their first glimpse of Sleeping Beauty's Castle.)

Many of the rides featured guides who provided an historical narration. OK, sometimes it was modified a little to give the guests more of a sense of being in the moment — a little jam on the bread, as Andy Griffith said once on his TV show.

Sometimes, as I say, the narrators took a little poetic license, but that was all right. The stories they told — to borrow a line from Mark Twain — were mostly true.

And I wasn't going to quibble — because I was only a kid, and I was having fun the way kids do.

I never stopped to think about how the tour guides' stories might be subtly influencing how I thought and what I knew — or what I thought I knew.

But they did — in ways I am still discovering. Even today, when I'm watching, say, The History Channel and something is said that contradicts something I heard in one of those narratives, I do a kind of mental double take.

I don't mind, though. I had fun, and I am thankful for the memories — and whatever actual knowledge I picked up along the way.

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