During his second conference call with online journalists, Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro fielded questions and talked about a number of topics, including the company's bankruptcy reorganization, 2009 performance, capital projects for 2010, and the 50th anniversary celebration planned for 2011. But the most interesting tidbit, at least for coaster fans, was probably his announcement about the renovation of the Texas Giant coaster at Six Flags Over Texas. The popular coaster at the original Six Flags park will get a $10-million makeover from the "creator of El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure," according to Shapiro.
Although El Toro was designed by Intamin AG of Switzerland and Ing.-Buro Stengel of Germany and features a unique prefabricated track that delivers an incredibly smooth, airtime-filled ride (which I rate as one of the best wooden coasters in the world), the Six Flags CEO said that Rocky Mountain Amusements will handle the Texas Giant overhaul. The Idaho construction firm is known for building rides, rather than designing them. It's possible that Rocky Mountain Amusements was involved in building El Toro (the company did not return calls seeking more info), but it's unlikely it will be bringing the same prefabrication technology to the Texas project.
It's more likely that the Texas Giant will retain its same layout and incorporate a conventional wooden track. While he declined to offer more details about the El Toro connection, Shapiro did say that the ride will feature the same steep banks that have always distinguished the Texas ride and that it will be "faster, smoother, and loaded with plenty of airtime for the coaster fanatics out there." He also said that the ride will be getting completely new track, new trains by the German manufacturer, Gerstlauer, a state-of-the-art magnetic braking system, and themeing for the queue and during the ride (translation: Fire up the flame throwers!). Six Flags Over Texas will throw a "Giant Farewell" weekend October 30 to November 1. The ride will then close and reopen February 2011 to kick off the company's 50th anniversary.
In other Six Flags news and views from Shapiro:
- Bankruptcy Restructuring- A debt-for-equity reorganization plan hearing is scheduled for early November, and the CEO was hopeful that the company could emerge from bankruptcy on or around the end of 2009. "As we expected," Shapiro said, "certain unsecured creditors oppose the plan." Alternative plans and protracted negotiations may slow down the process.
- 2009 Performance- While Shapiro wouldn't elaborate on third-quarter results (which have yet to be released), he did acknowledge that 2009 would be a down year. Despite the hoped-for "stay-cation" bump, the park chain's Q2 attendance, revenue, and per-capita spending numbers were disappointing. He pointed to the impact of the swine flu at the Texas and Mexico parks, dismal group and corporate business (which has accounted for 1/3 of attendance during flush times), June's terrible weather along the East coast, and the difficulty of operating under bankruptcy protection as contributing factors. But he also said that regional parks have traditionally fared well during difficult economies. "No two ways about it," said the Six Flags honcho, "these are unprecedented economic times."
- 2010 Capital Plans- Among the rides and projects in the works for next season are a new Thomas Town land at Six Flags America in Maryland, the Glow in the Park Parade coming to Six Flags Great America near Chicago and returning to Six Flags New England in Massachusetts, a Tornado funnel ride at Hurricane Harbor at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, a new children's ride at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Southern California, and a suspended looping coaster at La Ronde (which is being relocated from the shuttered Astroworld).
- 50th Anniversary- In addition to the Texas Giant makeover, which will headline the 2011 event, Shapiro says that all Six Flags parks will get new rides, attractions, and/or shows, and that they will feature celebratory themeing and nostalgic touches. Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom has already begun dismantling its stand-up coaster to make way for a water park expansion that will open in 2011. The coaster will likely be moved to another park and reopen with new themeing (and a new name, said Shapiro, who despises its current moniker, Chang) as part of the anniversary plans.
- Other Stuff- Responding to questions about Disney's play for Marvel and Universal's Harry Potter land, Shapiro pointed to the D.C. Comics and Looney Tunes characters that are closely associated with Six Flags, as well as the chain's partnership with The Wiggles and Thomas the Tank Engine. In addition to third-party licensing, he also said that he and his team are busy working on new, original content for the parks. "When we have more room to move with our balance sheet in a few months [post-bankruptcy reorganization], you'll begin to see our imagination pay off."
I have to hand it to Shapiro for participating in the conference call, and, apparently, committing to a regular, ongoing schedule of group interviews. These can't be easy times to be heading any major company, let alone one that's saddled with $2 billion of debt and in the throes of bankruptcy protection. But he did seem more than willing to take on any question lobbed at him. Unfortunately, time ran out before anyone had a chance to ask what's up with the proposed Six Flags park in Dubai or the odd recent announcement about the company's plan to build a park in, of all places, Nigeria. Asked whether he plans to stay on after the reorganization, the young, brash CEO said that while nothing is certain, it is his intention to continue leading the company. "Six Flags is now in my blood. I hope to keep it that way."
Photo: Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro. Six Flags. Used with permission.