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TALES OF THE CITY Innocence Lost At the New Six Flags

A wistful remembrance of Skull Island, the LaSalle Riverboat, and-Arriba!-the Fiesta Train
By John Bloom |

It was a ghostly feeling, and a cold one, wandering through Six Flags Over Texas after all these years. I was an eight-year-old kid on opening day, 1961, when we all swarmed over Skull Island and rode donkeys for much of the afternoon. We had no interest in the so-called “thrill rides’-there were perhaps two of them that traveled faster than five miles an hour- because we associated them with the sleazy State Fair Midway, where chain-smoking hoodlums in mangy leather jackets yelled at us, terrified us, and strapped us into twangy metal cars with a leather thong that scratched our legs. Six Flags was a place where you ran and leapt and got in trouble for darting around the next corner where your parents couldn’t see you. It was the first amusement park to fully exploit “blind-corner” landscaping, whereby you never knew exactly where you were in the park, and every time you passed under an awning or circled a terraced garden, you were likely to find some new pageant, carried on by overdressed college-age actors-cowboys and pirates and soldiers-who seemed infinitely talented and hysterically funny at the time.

There were animated characters, too, that jumped at you from the reedy bulrushes of the “LaSalle River,” and alligators that threatened to swallow you up, and nooks and crannies and lofts built to resemble forts and plantation houses and saloons, containing. . .absolutely nothing. I went inside every one, and with the logic of an eight-year-old, felt equally rewarded if the saloon turned out to be a candy store or a false front At Six Flags, there was the illusion of being transported to a place so exotic and alluring (and perhaps a little dangerous) that it seemed much larger than you could ever be. It was not so much an amusement park as a safari, and I was in charge of the hunt.

I say it was a ghostly feeling, my recent visit to the park, because the Six Flags of my childhood is not really there any longer. Was this the same place where Angus Wynne Jr. had animators working night and day for eight months so that a realistic French colonist could jump from behind a log at just the right moment and fire a rifle to frighten six-year-olds’? And an Indian maiden, tanning a buffalo hide, would have the authentic garb of the historical period she was supposed to represent? The place where this once took place is now, as closely as I could tell, a shop selling California-style beach wear. Is this the amusement park that bought a baby elephant from Thailand for the petting zoo? The site has been replaced by a few “kiddie rides” obviously designed to honor a licensing agreement with Warner Brothers (Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, etc.). I looked, too, for the historical markers once scattered through the park. I had read every word in 1961, fascinated by the original idea that brought the park into existence-the six flags. But the only sign that the park is organized according to Texas history is that the six flags still do fly over the dancing waters-which weren’t dancing the day I was there-and there are a few buildings that still bear the telltale architectural signs of once belonging to Texas, the Confederacy, France, Spain, Mexico, or the United States. Needless to say, there is no Alamo. The United States and France have been just about wiped out, though, by the construction of new super-rides like Roaring Rapids, Splashwater Falls, and various other spine-twisters. The Confederacy lives on via the Southern Palace Theater, where C-minus theater students lip-sync patriotic songs and allegedly dance. Mexico includes the infamous child-crushing Bobsled Ride, in tribute, I suppose, to the great Mexican tradition of bobsledding through Juarez. And all the restaurants that once served in the park-El Chico, Naler’s Plantation House, Goffs- have given way to generic fast food offered up, until recently, by employees of Bally Corporation, the nation’s largest manufacturer of slot machines and proprietor of gambling resorts. The park was sold to Wesray Capital Corporation in April.