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Flagging Down Mark Shapiro

The New Six Flags CEO Discusses the 2006 Season--and Beyond--for the Theme Parks

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Flagging Down Mark Shapiro

Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro

Six Flags, 2006. Used with permission,
Updated February 21, 2006
After a prolonged and highly public proxy battle, Washington Redskins owner and Six Flags shareholder Daniel Snyder wrested control of the theme park chain in December 2005. As part of the leadership shakeup, former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro, 35, was named CEO. Faced with over $2 billion in debt, the new executive has bold plans to reinvigorate the Six Flags brand and pump up the bottom line.

The new management team wasted no time trimming its portfolio of 32 theme parks, water parks, and attractions by announcing that it was putting Frontier City and White Water Bay, its two Oklahoma properties, up for sale. (The decision to unload Six Flags Astroworld in Texas was a fait accompli before the transfer of power.) And it quickly established new policies, such as restricting smoking at all of its parks, to bolster its family-friendly image. But when Shapiro began saying that Six Flags' love affair with expensive roller coasters contributed to its financial woes (ironically, he often made the remarks while touring parks set to debut huge coasters that the previous management approved), ride fans fretted and wondered if that meant the end of the line for the park chain's signature thrill machines.

I sat down with Shapiro at the recent grand opening of the Six Flags Great Escape Lodge and Indoor Water Park to learn more about his short- and long-term plans for the parks. Barely 30 days into the job, the affable, high-energy CEO was candid about the company's downfalls and forthcoming about his vision for its future. Following are excerpts from our discussion.

Arthur Levine: What do you see as the most pressing concerns in your drive to improve the chain, and what immediate changes can visitors expect this season at Six Flags parks?

Mark Shapiro: Overall, we're going to improve the value. And we're going to diversify the entertainment. I think in the past, we've focused too much on just the rides. We were just roller coasters. We were just thrill parks. That works. But that can't be the only guiding light. It's going to be about the overall package: parades, shows, fireworks, rides that families can enjoy together, concerts, celebrity appearances. And we're going to improve guest service with safe, clean environments, and by moving the lines quicker--ride lines, food lines, ticket lines. We're going to have ride breakdowns. That's the nature of the business. But people will forgive us if we over-deliver on the overall guest experience. In the past, Six Flags has fallen behind on the delivery promise.

A.L.: Some of these changes sound great in a general sense, but can you be more specific?

M.S.: You're going to see Bugs Bunny and a lot more Loony Tunes characters walking around at all of the Six Flags parks. They almost disappeared the past few years. We'll have 15 to 20 characters every hour of every operating day. They'll do autographs, digital photos, and character meals. And we're going to introduce the Justice League DC Comics characters, like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Don't get me wrong. I don't want to lose the teenagers. But, we're repositioning the brand for families. Every single park will have a daily parade. Most Six Flags-branded parks will have fireworks this season. Some will have fireworks and laser shows. We're adding more stunt shows.

A.L.: Realizing you can't change everything overnight, let's focus on a few areas. What might you do about lines?

M.S.: Over the next few years, all of our parks are going to incorporate wireless systems, like the gas station touch-and-go pay systems. You'll be waiting in line for food or tickets, you'll tap your affinity card, and you'll be on your way. We're going to cut way down on transaction times. As for the rides, not all parks have our FastLane system (the extra-charge program that lets guests bypass lines), and that's a priority for us. We're trying something new at our park in Mexico with a VIP program that allows guests to have preferential seating at all of the shows, and immediate access to any six rides in the park. We plan to have some kind of FastLane program at all our parks. Lines are something all parks struggle with. If there's something else out there to try, I'm all ears.

Next page: Shapiro talks about the fate of roller coasters and more.

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