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April 21, 2011
If there's such a thing as a new-amusement-park smell, it emanated this month fromSix Flags St. Louis.
Fresh coats of paint and asphalt sealant made everything seem new again as workers busily put final touches on the Eureka park, which opened Saturday for its 41st season.
"This is definitely the time of year when we all feel the adrenaline rushing through our veins," says Dave Roemer, the park's president.
Roemer has experienced that rush many times before. He started as a seasonal mail-room clerk at the park in 1972 and rose through the Six Flags ranks to his current position.
But he's not the most tenured employee at Six Flags St. Louis. Five full-time workers have been there since the park first opened its gates as Six Flags Over Mid-America on June 5, 1971.
Still, this milestone season isn't about the employees — it's about the guests.
People who visit the park this year will get plenty of chances to reminisce about the good old days. "Then and Now" signs posted near several attractions show places where Six Flags has changed over the years.
Places like the dark water ride that now has a Scooby-Doo theme but used to be called Injun Joe's Cave and was based on the story of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.
"That used to be my favorite ride," Roemer says, wearing a Looney Tunes tie and a smile as he walks through the park, greeting every worker he sees by name. "It was all animatronics, which was state of the art in 1971. You could hear every 'click, click, click, whoosh' as the characters moved. We've come a long way since then."
In the Palace Theater, close to the Scooby-Doo attraction, visitors can look through a display of old photos from the park's construction and earliest days, as well as staff uniforms and other relics. A placard is dedicated to Angus Wynne Jr., the Texas land developer who opened his first amusement park — Six Flags Over Texas — in 1961.
Wynne helped popularize the concept of paying one admission fee, while other parks at the time charged visitors to go on individual rides. And he created a corporate culture where no employee — from ride operators to the CEO — could walk past a piece of trash and not pick it up and throw it away. It's an ethos that still exists today; whenever Roemer is out in the park, he carries a broom and pan with him, sweeping up any litter he sees.
Fifty years after Wynne built his Texas park, Six Flags Entertainment Corp. is the world's largest regional amusement-park company, with 19 properties throughout North America that cater to more than 24 million visitors each year.
"This is a banner year for our parks and our brand," says Six Flags CEO James Reid-Anderson, who joined the company last year. "We are very proud of the Six Flags legacy, a legacy of providing fun, thrilling memories for generations of families."
But Six Flags also has seen its share of dark days, both locally and on Wall Street.
In 1978, a gondola car at the Eureka park fell about 50 feet from its cable to the ground, killing three people inside and critically injuring one other. In 1984, a woman was thrown to her death from a stand-up roller coaster at the park called Rail Blazer.
And the Six Flags corporation weathered a period of Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2009 and 2010, emerging from it a few months before Reid-Anderson took the helm in August. The CEO says he is focusing his efforts on continuing to strengthen the company's balance sheet while keeping customer satisfaction and employee morale high.
"I can tell you there's no better job than leading a company whose No. 1 mission is to make people happy," Reid-Anderson says. "What could be better than that?"
While many of the original attractions at Six Flags St. Louis are ancient history — remember the dolphin show, or the short-lived Mule-Go-Round? — plenty of buildings, rides and kiosks remain from Day 1.
And the park is constantly evolving, Roemer says, staying on top of entertainment trends to give thrill-seekers what they desire. Next month, the park will debut its newest attraction, SkyScreamer, a 236-foot tower (the tallest ride in the park) that spins guests in swings in a 98-foot circle at speeds reaching almost 45 mph.
For someone like Roemer, who watched the park grow from infancy, Six Flags memories are about more than the biggest, tallest, fastest and most breathtaking rides.
"When I started here, there were no trees yet in the park," he says, looking toward a big tree with white blossoms outside the Palace Theater. "It's almost hard to believe I've been here longer than that tree. But I feel blessed to be able to really get to know our guests and give them the best experience we can. And every year, we do it again."
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