Six Flags America
May 26, 2013

copyright Jay Ducharme 2013

Sunday morning, Karen and I awoke at 5:00, had breakfast at Denny's and checked out of our room at King's Quarters.  King's Dominion was a great park, but we were concerned how burnt out we were after spending relatively little time there.  We were hoping to have enough energy to make it through day two of the Western New York Coaster Club's Coasterfest™ 32.  Our destination was due north, to Six Flags America in Largo, Maryland.  We had never been there before.  I had wanted to go for decades, back when it was Wild World.  The park bought the famous John Miller wood coaster from then-closed Paragon Park in Hull, Massachusetts (at that time simply named Giant Coaster) and transplanted it to their park.  It was rebuilt by the infamous Charles Dinn, who was famous for smoothing out what he considered nasty forces, like airtime.  John Miller was famous for camelback hills, my favorite coaster feature that produces lots of airtime.  So I was curious what the rebuilt ride was like.  Dinn also restored a helix that had burned down at Paragon Park.  The coaster was renamed The Wild One.  It had the distinction of being on one of the first realistic video screen savers for computers back in the 1990s.  That was as close to riding it as I had ever gotten.  The park was renamed Adventure World in 1994.  Six Flags bought the park five years later, and proceeded to turn it into a generic Six Flags teen thrill park.  It gradually acquired a bad reputation for gang violence.  But with the recent new management at Six Flags, the park was experiencing a renaissance.  Their newest coaster, Apocalypse, started life as the stand-up coaster Iron Wolf at Six Flags Great America in Illinois and was transplanted last year.

We arrived at the park about 9:00.  The entrance was easy to miss off the highway.  The only indication was a relatively small Six Flags America sign.  No big rides were visible, just a road leading into a wooded area.  The club had gotten us "preferred parking" so we were able to drive past the huge general parking lot that was very different from any other parking lot I had ever seen.  The lot was arranged in long stepped tiers, almost like individual roadways up to the park entrance, separated by wide islands filled with grass and trees.  That resulted in all of the cars being able to park under some shade.  It was a really thoughtful design.  We drove around the perimeter of the lot and parked right next to the entrance, which looked nearly identical to the entrance at Six Flags New England.  Fortunately, it was another beautiful day for Coasterfest™, with mostly cloudless skies and mild temperatures.  We were one of the first to get to the park.  We chatted with some of the other members as they arrived.  A woman greeted us at the entrance and handed out really nice t-shirts, lanyards with with tags sporting our club name on them, and our passes.  Then she led us toward the back of the park for our exclusive ride time session.

The park was divided into ten loosely themed areas.  Some had more coherent theming than others.  There was also Hurricane Harbor, the waterpark that was hidden from most of the midway.  We were heading to the Skull Island section.  We first passed through the Main Street area, which would have looked at home in a Disney park.  It was an old colonial street with fake cobblestones and quaint looking shops lining either side.  Sousa marches and fife-and-drum music played over the loudspeakers.  Main Street ended at a fountain featuring a sculpture of three colonial men, one with a flag, one with a drum and the other with a fife.  It was a variation on Willard's famous Spirit of '76 painting.  To the left was the understated entrance to Hurricane Harbor.  To the right, looking somewhat out-of-place, was an ugly giant jumbotron running ads for the park.  Nearby was a replica of the Liberty Bell.  This, it turned out, would be the story of Six Flags America.  It seemed to be a park in transition.  Some areas were lushly landscaped and shaded, like King's Dominon or Busch Gardens.  Other areas looked barren and industrial, with wide swaths of concrete sided by metal buildings.   In front of us was a wooden bridge leading to the Nantucket section.  To the right was a brightly landscaped and colorful Zamperla swing ride.  In front of us was the large ornate colonial-style Grand Theater.  We turned left toward Skull Island and walked to the end of the path where the two ERT coaster sessions awaited us.  On the right was one of them, Apocalypse, the head-banging B&M stand-up coaster.  It sported the old-style Six Flags industrial theming, appearing to have been erected in a dump.  There were two crashed planes strewn about, one of which shot off an enormous fireball as the train passed by.  Ominous music emanated from hidden speakers.  In front of us was Roar, a twisted wood coaster made by the respected Great Coasters International.  It featured their old Prior-and-Church styled swooping curves.  So naturally, Karen and I opted for that one.  We climbed the long zig-zagging ramp up to the empty station and lined up for the front seat.  The ride operator was very friendly and welcomed us.  I asked her if I could make a video of the ride, since no one else was in the train.  She said that was fine as long as I realized I might lose my camera (actually, my iPhone).  She then attempted to released the lap bars, but the ride attendants couldn't pull them up.  I suggested that the metal rails next to the track had to remain in for the lap bars to release.  But the operator kept pressing the button and letting it go, which meant that the release mechanism wouldn't engage.  She apologized and called her supervisor who came right over and told her to hold the button down.  When she did, the attendants were easily able to lift the lap bars.  We climbed into the front seat.  A ride attendant came over to me and said flatly, "I'm sorry sir but no videotaping is allowed on this ride."  I looked up at the ride operator who just stared at me blankly.  I put away my iPhone.

They sent us off with the usual, "Have a good ride!"  The track wound its way in an S-curve under the structure and up to the lift.  The rollbacks clacked loudly as we were pulled up the hill.  The unpainted pressure-treated wood had faded to silver.  There didn't seem to be any grease on the tracks.  We reached the top of the lift.  The track dropped steeply down and banked as it turned sharply right.  We flew down the hill and the train shook violently.  We rose up into a steeply banked left turn with a slight pop of airtime.  Then we plunged back down and rose up into a tall camelback that popped us out of our seats.  We dove down again into the structure, turned up into another steeply banked turn to the right and then plunged into another tight turn.  All the while, the train was "hunting," shaking violently back and forth as if it didn't know where it was going.  We rumbled through one curve after another and eventually hit the brake run.  When we left the ride, the operator sent us off with a cheery, "Make sure you stop by the photo booth to see your picture!"  We walked by the photo booth on the way out.  It was boarded up.

Roar could be a really fun ride.  I think the main problem, as with many early GCI coasters, was that the current Philadelphia Toboggan trains simply couldn't handle such a twisted track.  GCI's own Millennium Flyer trains or the new Timberliner trains from Gravity Group would probably be a better fit for the ride and run much smoother.  And a little grease would go a long way.  One ride was enough for us.  I really wanted to head over to the Wild One, which we could see throughout most of the park.  But it hadn't opened yet.  So we stood around talking with other enthusiasts and taking pictures.  Several of the enthusiasts came off of Apocalypse and said one ride was enough on that.  Even so, the woman from marketing kept encouraging us all to take more rides on it.  Instead we stood around, letting the sun warm us and looking for something else to do.  Beside the nearby restroom was a small landscaping display with a fountain, made by a local landscaping company.   That was  about the only visually interesting thing in the area.  I still didn't understand why this section was called Skull Island.  Parts of the Roar station featured posts wrapped in rope, creating a slightly nautical appearance.  But nothing else fit the theme.  The club members mostly stuck to riding Roar.  In particular, Ricky Cooper and Tessa Lewis rode in the front seat five times in a row.  It was Tessa's first "grown up" roller coaster and she loved it.

The park was just about to open to the public.  The woman offered to walk us over to Superman: Ride of Steel, and everyone was thrilled about that.  This was one of three original Superman coasters that Intamin had built for Six Flags.  It was a mirror image of the first, which was built for New York's Darien Lake.  Karen and I had ridden the one at Darien and it was one of our favorite steel coasters.  So we were looking forward to this one.  To get to the coaster, we had to walk under the lift hill of the Wild One, which sported a humorous giant advertising banner for Snickers candy that read, "If you still can't find the big wooden roller coaster, you're probably hungry."  We followed the path toward the Gotham City section of the park.  When Six Flags New England built a Gotham City for their Superman ride, the area looked like it had come right out of the comic book, complete with art deco stylings.  But at Six Flags America, the "City" was simply a collection of comic-themed rides.  A few buildings had an art deco look, but the style wasn't carried through over the whole area.

The huge 200-foot lift of Superman was easily visible.  The station was the stock Six Flags version, with giant angled red and blue steel slabs lining a red and blue corrugated steel station.  We walked up the steps and boarded the front seat of the comfortable iconic red train.  The bulk of the ride was placed out in a large field.  At Darien, the coaster ran alongside their pond.  At New England, it ran alongside the Connectictut River and through Gotham City.  Here, though, the track almost looked abandoned, surrounded by scruffy unkempt greenery.  After our lap bars were checked, the train was sent up the long lift.  At the top, the track vanished from under us and we flew down, took a heavily banked right turn and then soared up into the first big camelback hill.  We were lifted out of our seats the entire length, then plunged down and sped toward the first massive double-helix.  We came back along a straightaway and rose up into a smaller camelback, again with that wonderful sustained airtime.  There was another double helix in the opposite direction, a sharp right turn up over another hill, and then two powerful bunny hops back to the station.  We returned whooping and cheering.  Now THAT was a coaster!  For a 13 year old ride, it was remarkably smooth.  It was also incredibly exhilarating, and left us wanting more.  I stopped off at the photo booth, which wasn't boarded up.  Like King's Dominion, the park offered a choice of having the photo e-mailed.  So I paid the $7 fee for that.  The clerk gave me a receipt and told me I had to take it over to the Apocalypse gift shop to enter my e-mail address.  That seemed odd, but I assumed the park had only one Internet connection.

After that we were on our own until lunch.  We headed back through the Gotham City section.  Far in the distance behind Superman was another steel coaster, bright yellow.  It too looked as if it had been abandoned in a field.  It was Batwing, a rare Vekoma flying coaster.  I had always wanted to ride one.  But I also knew Vekoma's reputation for really rough rides.  On this ride, you boarded the train lying down on your back.  You went up the lift on your back, and at the top the track flipped you over so that you faced down.  From there you went through all sorts of twists and inversions.  I didn't want to risk doing myself in for the rest of the day, so I passed on it.

We circled around and came to Joker's Jinx.  This hulking green steel coaster was identical to Flight of Fear at King's Dominion (which I actually liked) except that Joker wasn't inside a building in the dark; the dense knotted structure sat exposed on the midway.  It looked like the intestines of a giant mechanical beast, an incomprehensible tangle of steel.  Along one relatively straight stretch of the upper track was a series of circular metal bars, as if it were the outline of an unfinished tunnel.  We watched the train curl like a serpent through its gyrations.  If I had known that was what was in store on Flight of Fear so many years ago, I probably wouldn't have ridden it.

We headed back for the Skull Island section so that I could get my Superman photo processed.  We walked into the gift shop and showed them my receipt.  The girl there told me there was nothing she could do because the people who worked at the photo booth hadn't shown up.  She suggested we come back later.  So instead Karen and I walked over to the nearby Capital Railways train station.  The attendant there told us it wasn't open yet -- even though we had seen the train go by when we were near Joker's Jinx.

So Karen and I made our way over to the Southwest Territory section (which again had next to no theming) to ride the one coaster that had drawn me to the park: the Wild One.  The station was nearly hidden next door to the Sonora Speedway go-carts.  Next to the entrance on a grassy mound sat an older PTC train car with "Wild One" in bas relief on the front.  As we entered the station, I was pleased to see two historical plaques explaining the background of the ride.  We queued up for the front and in a few minutes were in the well-padded seat.  The first thing I noticed was that the track outside the station was wet with grease -- a good sign!  The ride operator dispatched us and we gently rolled around to the left and engaged the lift hill.  At the top, the track curved to the right, almost like Roar, and we rolled down the slope and then flew over a camelback with a quick pop of airtime.  After zooming down, we rose up into the turnaround and then headed back for the station.  The journey was one hop after another, with some strong laterals occasionally thrown in for variety.  We barreled through the helix and rolled into the brake run.

Wild One was a really fun ride.  It needed a little TLC and had a few rough spots, but it was nice to see a Six Flags park with a decent family roller coaster.  One thing that I found interesting was that none of the dips ever reached ground level.   One of John Miller's signatures was dips that went all the way to (and sometime below) the ground.  That was even visible on the historic photos in the station.  But for whatever reason, this version raised the dips about 10 feet above the ground.  I'm not sure if that was a choice by Dinn or whether the topography dictated it.  It certainly required a lot more lumber.  The ride probably would have been even more fun with deeper drops.

From there we walked back to the Capital Railways station and met up with Debbie Grudzein from the WNYCC.  I had never seen a locomotive like the one on this train.  It was like a sawed-off steam engine. With its green and red color scheme, it looked like a Christmas toy.  The seats in the cars were spacious.  The  engine gave two loud horn blasts and we lumbered off.  The train crawled along the tracks extremely slowly.  An attendant at the back of the train gave a running commentary on park landmarks.  His voice was loud and clear, even if he did occasionally get his facts confused.  We stopped briefly at the station in the picnic grove and then continued on.  Much of the ride was through areas that contained only thickly settled trees and odd grey wood platforms.  It was relaxing, although Karen thought there should have been some animatronic figures and dioramas.  Twenty minutes later, we returned to the station.

We took a walk through the shady Olde Boston section.  Again, there was nothing particularly "Boston" about it.  There was a really colorful menagerie carousel that looked as if it would have fit right into a safari theme.  We also spotted many amusing signs labeled "Six Flags Media Networks."  They were basically advertisements for sponsors, but with minimalist amusement park art on them.   Circling back toward the front of the park, we encountered The Great Race, an antique car ride.   The station had the requisite antique auto advertising signs tacked to the wall.   We climbed into one of the cars and took a spin.  The ride curved around the front of the park, near the preferred parking area.  There was an interesting sort of tunnel made from arches of tiny lights.  That must have looked really pretty at night.

As we resumed walking about, I was impressed at the friendliness of all the park employees.  Everyone greeted us and asked how we were doing.  Even the games employees were chatty, and not to get us to play their games.  They were just being nice.  It was really refreshing and made us feel welcomed.  I was feeling a bit thirsty, as was Karen, so we went over to Main Street.  I stopped into the Cold Stone Creamery for a milkshake.  Karen went into the Liberty Funnel Cake Bakery and got a soft pretzel and her usual Diet Coke.

Then we headed toward one of the themed areas we hadn't yet explored.  We first passed by Shipwreck Falls, the shoot-the-chutes ride that sent a wall of water across the midway, and arrived at  Coyote Creek, the most thoroughly themed area of the park.  It looked appropriately like an old west boomtown, complete with horseshoe prints in the pavement.  There were several whimsical storefronts, such as the candy shop with giant pieces of candy on the roof.  Appropriately, Wile E. Coyote was wandering about posing for pictures.  There was also an Alamo-styled buiding, Los Coches Locos, that housed bumper cars.  Opposite that was Renegade Rapids.  Even in the relatively cool weather, there seemed to be no shortage of patrons willing to get soaked.   Like most of the other areas of the park, the Coyote Creek midway came to a dead end (this one in front of the stock Vekoma Mind Eraser coaster that nearly every other Six Flags park had).  Though the Olde Boston and Skull Island areas wrapped around in a large circle at the center of the park, getting to the end of every other section of the park required you to retrace your steps back out.  So we backed out of the Coyote Creek section.  Near its entrance, the Stunt Arena was just starting an old west stunt show that incongruously starred a stereotypical pirate and an Italian baker.

Speaking of baker, it was time for our buffet lunch.  Karen and I weren't especially excited about it although at least, unlike at King's Dominion, we knew the menu (which had been printed on our schedule): out of the offerings, we were able to eat baked beans, macaroni salad and carrot sticks.  The only other option for us in the park would have been pizza.  So we made the trek to the Oak Grove.  And what a trek it was!  We had heard that originally the only way to get to the grove was by the Capital Railways.  But the park had created a walkway.  So we hiked over to the grove entrance.  It was next to the Blizzard River tube ride, which still had vestiges of its original penguin theming.  (Six Flags' Blizzard River rides were initially themed to Batman.)  The grove path disappeared off into the woods, like a rural bike trail.  We followed it.  And followed it.   And followed it.  I understood why guests would take the train instead.  Finally, the pavilions came into view.  They were well-landscaped spacious modern open-air metal structures, basically hexagonal roofs, looking like carousel pavilions.  When Karen and I arrived, we were stunned by the generous spread:  there was fresh salad greens, cole slaw, egg salad, corn, baked beans, vegetable lasagna(!), garlic bread, chips, plus hot dogs and chicken for the carnivores.  Three of the park's marketing reps were there to greet us.  They handed out Apocalypse tattoos to everyone and encouraged us to eat our fill.  And we did; the food was delicious!

As expected, they had a contest to guess facts about the park.  For the new season, the park was opening Bonzai Pipeline, a vertical-drop tube ride.  So to commemorate that, they gave away a Barbie Doll and a Ken doll decked out in gaudy bathing attire and stuck inside plastic tubes with the ride logo on them.  Karen and I won the Barbie version, and Karen gave it to Tessa as a reward for riding Roar.  They gave away other prizes and then invited us to have dessert (cookies and ice cream).  I'd never seen such a lavish spread for a coaster event.  As Karen and I made our way back toward the midway, we spotted another humorous sign near one of the pavilions.  It was adorned with cartoon rollercoasters and read, "When mealtime comes, we'll be ready for you."

Karen was curious about another area of the park we hadn't explored: Whistlestop Park.   Over the years, Six Flags had attempted different licensed kiddie areas.  For a few years it was Thomas the Tank Engine and then it was The Wiggles.  Whistlestop Park seemed to fit well within Six Flags America.  It was generic enough to allow the park some flexibility, but it also gave them an angle for some fun theming.  In addition to there being a few different train rides (for both adults and kids), there was also a playscape area with slides and the usual assortment of kiddie rides (a Ferris wheel, Crazy Bus, etc...).  A few small trees there would hopefully grow over the years to provide some shade and make for a fun and relaxing family spot.  It was also one of the few areas in the park that had more than one entrance, so we circled around by the back of Joker's Jinx and walked back toward the front of the park.

A small suspension bridge across a circle of lush greenery attracted Karen's attention, so we walked across it.  The bridge didn't seem to have any particular purpose except to amuse the many kids who walked across it.  It ended in front of a facade of painted flowers near Looney Tunes Movie Town, another kid-friendly area.  It featured lots of whimsical kid-sized buildings, and some other structures that didn't have a clear purpose.  There was also another giant playscape area, and there were also ample illustrations of Looney Tunes characters.

We left Movie Town, passed by a large Johnny Rockets burger joint and a busy basketball game where a player struggled to score as many baskets as he could in 30 seconds.  (He ended up with 3.)  The we walked into the one remaining area we hadn't explored: Hurricane Harbor.  Off to the side of the bridge to Main Street, there was another wooden bridge leading there.  And there was also a strange abandoned ramp structure, like a queue line for a water slide that no longer existed.  Hurricane Harbor featured the usual Carribbean theming most waterparks have.  There was the hanging shark common to a lot of Six Flags parks.  And there were the usual assortment of water rides, including a half-pipe (basically a giant U-shaped slide that riders plunge down in a tube, from from one tip of the U to the other until they come to rest in a small pool).  There was also a gigantic wave pool, and behind it could be seen the construction of the Bonzai Pipeline.  The area just seemed to keep going on and on.  It was about half the size of the entire rest of the park, and it was packed with people.

We made our way out of Hurricane Harbor.  Along the side of the Grand Theater, Looney Tunes characters were posing for pictures.  There was even a schedule there to let guests know not only when the characters would appear, but which ones.  So if you had favorite characters, you knew when you could see them.  That was a thoughtful touch.  By that point it was nearly 4:00, and we were dragging.  So we decided to bid farewell to Six Flags America.

Even with its seeming identity crisis -- the old industrial teen thrill park versus a new family-friendly destination -- we couldn't help but be charmed by the park.  The extremely friendly employees certainly helped, even though some seemed uninformed.   And the architectural flourishes that were there, especially in Coyote Creek, worked well and helped transport me to another place and time. And that, after all, is what amusement parks are for -- to take us away from our hum-drum lives, to delight us with the unusual and unexpected.   I was really impressed by the park's generosity, how much appreciation the staff showed for our club and the amazing buffet they provided.  Finally getting a ride on Wild One certainly didn't disappoint, and neither did Superman.  The park has a lot of room to expand, so I hope with that they enhance their theming and landscaping and continue to provide activities the whole family can enjoy.  Six Flags America should remain an impressive destination for generations to come, and we look forward to returning.

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