July 24, 2007

On a cloudy Tuesday morning, I headed off to Six Flags New England in nearby Agawam. Unfortunately, Karen wasn't able to make it. I had a season pass to process, a video to finish and time to kill. I also planned to meet Bill Childs and some of his students there. When I arrived at about 9:30 am, the parking lot was nearly empty with just a handful of cars there. So I parked right next to the trolley stop. The park was already running two trolleys. One pulled up. I hopped in for the quick trip to the entrance bridge. There was an hour before the park officially opened.

The first thing I noticed as I walked toward the entrance plaza was a big ugly green wooden fence on the right. That area used to be a walkway out to the front parking lot. There was no way to tell what was beyond the fence, but I assumed it was the new Thomas the Tank Engine section of the park. I couldn't understand why they didn't let patrons see the area, even if they couldn't get to it. It would look better than that fence. Perhaps they wanted to keep the illusion inside that area. But they could have chosen a more attractive barrier.

As I pondered this, people began flooding into the plaza. Within a few minutes, lines were stretching back from the closed entrance gates. I queued up and a half-hour later the gates were raised and the crowds began streaming in. The Season Pass processing building was nearly empty and in a few minutes I had my nice new pass with an out-of-focus image of me. Bill and I planned to meet up at Superman at 2:00, so I had lots of time for finishing the video I had begun the previous year. For some reason I had never brought my video camera after the park changed ownership in 1997. So I wanted to finally document the changes that had occurred. Even so, the footage that I had shot the previous year was aleady outdated! The first thing I noticed upon entering through the metal detectors was a giant balloon in the likeness of one of the Wiggles characters (from the popular children's TV show). The character towered over the entrance to the carousel and it was holding a huge guitar. Six Flags' choice of bringing both the Wiggles and Thomas the Tank Engine to the parks puzzled me. Those shows were aimed at pre-school to grade-school level kids, not exactly the type who could ride the majority of amusements at Six Flags parks. But evidently the company's strategy was paying off. For the first time, I noticed a lot of grandparents on the midway pushing stollers containing their grandkids. They and 30-something parents seemed to be the majority of the patrons; the gangs of teens from the old Six Flags days seemed to be fewer in number.

I spent a few hours walking around and videotaping. There were some curious sights: the park had put up a series of ads, like small billboards scattered about. One set of ads was for hair gel and didn't really seem to fit in amongst the theming. It blatantly looked like an ad. Another set seemed to imitate the Kodak picture spots that have dotted amusement parks for years. But instead, these were labeled "Starburst Enjoyment Pose" followed by a number. They displayed badly-drawn cartoonish human figures contorted into uncomfortable positions, with a Starburst candy coming out of their mouths. There were also odd signs stuck to trash cans all over the park that read, "Please keep the park clean... because MY FAMILY comes here too." I don't know to whom the "MY" referred. The trash can?

I wandered down through the DC Comics section. The old Joker ride apparently was replaced by the Hall of Justice "interactive experience." The Batman stunt show was now Legion of Doom. And in a very odd switch, Poison Ivy's Twisted Train was now Catwoman's Whip. It was the same coaster, but the name didn't make as much sense now that the ride and queue line was completely overgrown with fauna.

Walking up the back set of stairs to what used to be Tiny Timber Town, it wasn't hard to see the massive changes that had taken place in that area. The bright primary colors of Wiggles World were splashed everywhere. The architectural design was reminiscent of Dr. Suess. What I found remarkable was that the park kept many of the rides from Timber Town intact but simply re-themed the vehicles to fit the Wiggles motif. They worked really well. The area was much larger than I thought it would be. There was a big stage for performances, a Wiggles gift shop, a mini splash area with dancing waters and lots of rides for the kids. Wide-screen TV monitors on themed posts were scattered throughout the area and continuously played Wiggles music videos (barely visible during daylight) that formed an inescapable soundtrack. The workers there must have wanted to commit suicide after ten hours of listening to "Fruit Salad."

In the midst of all that, I was happy to see that the park kept its old antique car ride, Route 66. It was one of the few rides remaining from the original Riverside Park days. It was given a face lift and a shorter queue and almost looked new. Amazingly and for the first time I can remember, no one was in line for it. So I immediately went to the entrance and the ride attendant stopped me. "I'm sorry," the foreigner said. "You must be accompanied."

I thought I misunderstood him. "Excuse me?" I replied. "Are you saying I can't ride this by myself?"

He nodded. "There must be two or four people only."

"But there's nobody else here!" I pleaded.

"I'm sorry, sir," was his only reply.

I sighed and moved on. I walked toward the south end of the park. Mind Eraser would give me a brain hemmorhage. Batman would cause me to black out. Colossus was gone, and that end of the midway felt so barren without it. What took its place was the Wave Swinger that was displaced by Wiggles World. It had been re-themed to DC comics as Crime Wave. It fit well next to Batman, but why were those lone DC comics rides at that end of the park, isolated from the DC comics section where they belonged?

Meandering back through the beautifully-themed Rockville section, I was getting hungry so I decided to try the new Papa John's pizza place (which replaced the old Pizzeria Uno). I got a slice of cheese pizza for $6.95 (!) and a side salad for $3.95. The woman making the side salad evidently was new, because when it was delivered to me the cashier said to the woman who made it, "This is a garden salad, not a side salad." And then she turned to me and said, "Oh well, you get a big salad this time." It certainly was huge. So I sat down to eat. The pizza was luke-warm, and I didn't feel too good after I ate it. The salad was really good, though, but I could only eat half of it.

I walked toward the entrance and saw a giant inflated Thomas the Tank Engine next to the carousel. I was surprised how difficult it was to find the entrance to that area, which is actually quite small. There was a little helicopter ride, a themed Crazy Bus and a huge gift shop that also functioned as the train station. Behind the gift shop was the train ride. The locomotive was nicely themed and looked exactly like the one from the TV show. It even had moving eyes on the front. The area Thomas traveled through looked a bit barren, though. There was a train house in the middle of the area featuring mock-ups of other engines from the show. But that was about it. Oh yes -- there was also an ugly green fence. I wish they had covered it with themed scenery of some sort. But most likely the little kids who would love the ride wouldn't notice the fence.

I was pleased that Six Flags was still allowing hand stamps for re-entry. I brought my camera back to my car. The trolley operater said that the day before, the park had 2,000 guests maximum (it was a rainy day). But the place was filling up now. The sun had begun peeking through the clouds and there was a steady stream of patrons crossing the entrance bridge. I went back into the park and wandered around. It was about 12:30. I headed for one of the few shady spots, a hidden deck behind the Great Chase kiddie coaster and the Thunderbolt. I relaxed on a bench drinking my $3.50 bottle of water. It was actually quite peaceful there. Eventually I moved on. I noticed that Mr. Six, the annoyingly ubiquitous past mascot of Six Flags, was nowhere to be seen. He had even been taken off of the one ride that had been named after him: Mr. Six's Pandemonium. I went up to Crackaxle Canyon and sat in the shade in front of the Houdini ride. People would walk up to the ride entrance cautiously, not knowing what the heck the Opera House was. They'd just sort of shrug and walk in.

I went back to Main Street and got a very good butter pecan ice cream cone at the new Ben and Jerry's stand. That set me back about six dollars. Finally it was about 1:45, so I headed down to Superman. The queue was about half-filled and the crew was running only one train on the coaster. Bill was waiting with his two students in front of the Superhero Grill. It was great to see him again. He introduced us all and we headed into the queue line. We chatted about all sorts of things while we waited, from Harry Potter to coaster accidents. After about two hours of waiting, we finally made it up to the station. Bill timed the ride cycles at a little over five minutes. Some felt closer to ten minutes. We couldn't undertand why the red train was sitting idle.

Since his students had never been on the ride before, we chose to wait for the front seat. So after a total of about two-and-a-half hours, we finally climbed into the train. We had watched as a few other large people (who had waited as long as we did) left the station without riding because they couldn't fit into the restraints. The ride attendants (there were five of them) were pretty zealous with their job. The guy who was tending to me insisted I take off my fanny pack. I told him it was acting as my belt (which it was) and that my pants might fall off. He didn't care; either the fanny pack went or I couldn't ride. So I yanked it through my belt loops and finally gave it to him. When he came back, he yanked my seat belt so tight I thought my gut was going to pop. And then he stapled the lap bar into me. I managed to loosen the seat belt a bit so that I could breathe. Finally, the train started up the long lift.

I had forgotten how nerve-wracking that lift was with no visible track on the left -- just 200 feet straight down. The view of the Connecticut River was stunning. That first drop still took my breath away. The ride seemed much faster than when I last rode it. The air time was like being shot from a cannon. Once again, Superman proved why it was the greatest coaster ever built. It was a masterful combination of pacing and surprising force. I was sad when we hit the brake run. I certainly wasn't going to wait two hours for another ride. (And I wasn't about to pay an extra $20 for the Flash Pass so that I could cut the line.) Bill's students rode in the front seat after we did and they were really impressed.

By that point is was about 4:30. I parted company with Bill. I had planned to get in a ride on Pandemonium but I was burned out by that point. With my season pass I can come back anytime -- as long as I don't mind paying the $15 parking fee.

Overall I enjoyed myself although as usual I didn't do much. The staff seemed much more friendly and helpful than in the past. They were actually smiling. Everything, including the rest rooms, was clean. The Superman line was free of gum! I was glad that the park had begun to appeal to families. I wished there were more shady spots in the park and better food. I had thought about eating at either Subway or the Skillet Potato booth, but since Papa John's was fairly new I tried that. It wasn't as good as the "real" Papa John's, but the salad certainly was a bargain. The park wasn't exactly a great value; a family of four would have to spend $215 to walk in the gates, though buying tickets in advance online would save $50. I was glad that announcements playing at the entrance encouraged people to get a hand stamp if they wanted to go back to their cars and eat food they had brought in coolers. At least that gave families one option to control costs. The park may not have extorted every last bit of money from the pockets of the guests, but it was more of a goodwill gesture that made people feel that the park was on their side. Perhaps Six Flags managment learned from its past mistakes. From the crowd they had, it seemed like the public was begin to respond to that.

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