Starting this week, Six Flags will fly over eastern New Orleans -- and there's finally reason to hope that our town will be home to a successful modern theme park.
In previous years, the development of an eastern New Orleans-based park went through as many drops and turns as a roller coaster, but without the fun. High hopes greeted the 2000 opening of Jazzland, but that project collapsed into a quagmire of bankruptcy and a $25 million debt to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that the city will be paying off until 2017. This week, the park reopens as Six Flags New Orleans -- under the auspices of a company with a proven 40-year track record.
"Six Flags has made a habit of finding these unsuccessful parks and injecting some life in them," says Rob Niles, editor of themeparkinsider.com, an online consumer guide to theme parks. "They are solid regional parks that are definitely a step up. It's also a step up in the stability of the organization -- this is a very capital-intensive industry, and Six Flags isn't going to go away."
The optimism was palpable during a recent tour of the expansive (and expanded) Six Flags New Orleans site. Along with bringing its respected name, national marketing strategies and menagerie of licensed Looney Tunes and DC Comics characters, Six Flags has pumped $24 million worth of improvements into the park. At Six Flags New Orleans, the word of the day is "transformed." Gushed director of marketing David Dorman, "It's a brand new park that's been transformed to the world-class Six Flags standards."
Evidence abounds to back up Dorman's claims. No longer will some rides be concrete boats moving through concrete canals; Six Flags is busy "theming" the place, slathering character-driven charm like icing on a cake. More importantly, Six Flags heard the howls of protest about the unrelenting summer heat at Jazzland. The park now boasts increased air-conditioning and bigger misty cool-off stations, and canopies shade 70 percent of the walkway -- along with 50 transplanted magnolias and oaks.
Tim Ryan, dean of the UNO school of business, is optimistic about the new park's chances and believes Six Flags' presence bodes well for the region. "There's a saying in the hotel/restaurant industry that it's always the third owner that makes money," he says. "I think they have every opportunity to be successful."
Even after the city's financial "hit" from the Jazzland bankruptcy, Ryan believes Six Flags could prove to be a boon -- especially for eastern New Orleans. "At the very least, it can be seen as a 'loss leader,' which could bring in business from around the region and from Jefferson, St. Tammany and St. Bernard parishes," Ryan predicts. Indeed, Six Flags New Orleans joins other recent harbingers of growth in "The East," including the New Orleans Hornets' practice facility, Crescent Crown Distributing's development of the old MacFrugal site, and the opening of The Grand Theatre. Six Flags New Orleans also brings 50 full-time jobs and as many as 1,000 seasonal jobs to the area.
Some credit for this week's opening goes to Mayor Ray Nagin. Six Flags owns and operates 31 parks in North America, and it originally hadn't planned to brand the New Orleans site as a Six Flags property for another year. "Normally they phase in their involvement," says Nagin aide Chris Bonura. "[Nagin] just told them that he'd make the investment up front, and once people get a look at what's going on there, they'll see business increase."
While Jazzland attempted to capitalize on local themes such as jazz and Mardi Gras, Six Flags New Orleans merges local and pop culture. The Mardi Gras section includes the steel roller coaster "the Jester." The childrens' area is now "Looney Tunes Adventures." Song-and-dance shows no longer focus exclusively on New Orleans sounds; the package includes "Batman Thrill Spectacular" and the genericized "American Pop" and "Rock this Country!" The most impressive addition to the park is "DC Comics Super Heroes Adventures," a new section featuring four rides, including "Batman: The Ride," a nationally popular roller coaster that propels riders in chairs resembling ski lifts. On themeparkinsider.com, the Batman coaster scores an impressive 8 out of 10 points from riders.
There's also "Club N-0-6," a Friday night teen-oriented disco. "Six Flags is known for going after the teen and young adult market," says themeparkinsider.com editor Niles. "They're less about family rides than they are about the latest thrill ride coaster. If you're a teen, this is great news."
As Six Flags establishes itself, UNO's Ryan hopes that it will move quickly to add a water park -- something he had advised Jazzland to do from the beginning. We agree, and we hope the park finds room to showcase top local musicians along with their stage shows. Above all, we wish Six Flags success. This time around, let's hope we only feel the bottom falling out when we're on a ride.