The creators of Six Flags Over Texas hoped to create a uniquely Texan combination of history and thrills.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, it quickly became apparent that the Happiest Place on Earth was going to be incredibly popular — and incredibly profitable. As a result, others soon attempted to replicate its success by building reasonably happy places elsewhere on the planet. In the late ’50s and early ’60s, several copycat parks were built, including Magic Mountain in Colorado (1957), Pleasure Island in Massachusetts (1959), Freedomland U.S.A. in New York (1960), and Nara Dreamland in Japan (1961).
If none of these names sound familiar, it is because each of these attempts to copy the success of Disneyland ultimately failed, often within a few years of opening. But despite the high failure rate of these mid-century theme parks, there was one that found success. That theme park was Six Flags Over Texas.
In the late 1950s, civic leaders of what was then the small town of Arlington reached out to Walt Disney to try to convince him to open a second Disneyland park in Texas. This effort was led by Arlington’s “boy mayor,” Tom Vandergriff (he was only 25 when elected in 1951), and a local developer with the (suitably Texan) name of Agnus Gilchrist Wynne Jr.
Vandergriff and Wynne put together a development team and selected a site in the middle of the rapidly growing Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area (it would not be referred to as “the Metroplex” until the early 1970s). Just as Disney had carved an oasis out of the orange orchards of southern California, Vandergriff and Wynne hoped to carve a similar oasis out of the backland prairies of northern Texas. And although their proposition was ignored by Disney, they decided to build a theme park in Arlington anyway.
In order to create their version of Disneyland, the developers hired Marco Engineering, a consulting firm founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt Wood Jr. (people had cooler names back then). Wood had managed much of the Disneyland design and construction. At the time, Marco Engineering was the only organization to have any real experience in theme park design, construction, and operation.
Because this park could not be themed after known stories and characters from Disney movies, Marco Engineering proposed focusing on well-known people and characters from Texas history. The park could then be organized around six themed areas based on the six nations that had held sovereignty over some part of the state: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the Confederate States of America, and the United States of America (notably absent from this list were the nations of indigenous people who had occupied Texas for centuries before Spanish conquistadors arrived in 1519). This framework was then used to craft experiences in the Arlington park that were suspiciously similar to those established by Disney in the Anaheim park. Whereas Disneyland had a jungle cruise, the Texas park would have “LaSalle’s River Adventure.” If Anaheim had spinning teacups, Arlington would have a spinning sombrero.
The principal designer of the Arlington theme park was Randall Duell, a California native who, after losing his architecture job during the Great Depression, began working as a set designer for MGM Studios (he contributed to both “The Wizard of Oz” and “Singin’ in the Rain”). He was later hired by Marco Engineering and brought his interdisciplinary experience in architecture and stagecraft to the design of theme parks. Unlike other Marco employees, Duell had not been involved in the creation of Disneyland. And so, while his firm had institutional knowledge about the park in Anaheim, his approach to theme park planning represents a divergent evolutionary path. Whereas Disneyland was organized around a “hub and spoke” model where visitors would branch off from a central plaza to the various lands, the Arlington park was organized around a meandering central circulation spine. This allowed guests to visit the park in its entirety by merely following the loop around the park. This innovation would come to be known as the “Duell loop.”
Construction of the Arlington park began in August of 1960 near the intersection of State Highway 360 and the newly completed Dallas–Fort Worth Turnpike (now Interstate 30). The design preserved most of the site’s existing trees and incorporated them into the six themed lands of what was to be called “Great Southwestland.” Later that year, the name would be updated to “Texas Under Six Flags” before being changed once again a few months before its August 1961 opening to “Six Flags Over Texas” (objections supposedly arose that “Texas ain’t under anything”). Construction costs totaled around $10 million, and work was completed in less than a year.
The completed version of the park stayed true to its original concept: The six lands corresponding to the six flags that once flew over the state were accessed via a central circulation loop. Upon passing through the front gate, visitors encountered an entry mall featuring the eponymous six flags flying behind an arcing 75-ft-long fountain whose water cannons were choreographed with music and illuminated at night. From this plaza, visitors could turn right and head into the area representing the United States or left into the area representing Mexico (the sections were not arranged chronologically around the Duell loop). Each of these sections contained attractions that were related to the featured culture. The aforementioned “La Salle’s River Adventure,” for example, was in the France section, along with a re-creation of Fort Saint Louis, whose log stockade and blockhouse were re-imagined as a children’s play area. In addition to attractions, Six Flags Over Texas featured Broadway-style stage productions as well as more informal street shows, including mariachi performances in the Mexico section and staged gunfights between outlaws and lawmen in the Texas section.
In the decades that followed, Six Flags added more ambitious attractions themed to their location within the park, even if these connections were somewhat tenuous. In 1963, for example, the “El Aserradero” (“sawmill”) was added to the Spain section. The log flume ride was the first of its kind and became a popular destination for visitors during the park’s summer season. What the ride had to do with Spain or its role in Texas history was never fully articulated.
1968 saw the opening of the “Southern Palace Theatre” in time for the park’s eighth season. Built over a preexisting outdoor amphitheater, the air-conditioned venue provided another way for park guests to cool off on particularly hot days. Designed to resemble the main house of an antebellum plantation (a building type associated more with the deep South than with Texas), it did not depict other structures and practices associated with these slave labor camps. Indeed, Six Flags never developed a clear idea of what to do with the Confederate section of the park. Other than the southern fried chicken served at “Naler’s Chicken Plantation” and street performances featuring Confederate soldiers looking for — and occasionally executing — Yankee spies, the land never featured a signature ride.
1969 saw the construction of the park’s iconic red 300-ft-tall tower. Located just a few hundred feet from the theater built the year before, it assumed the form of an enlarged oil derrick. It gave visitors a bird’s-eye view of the new attractions that were popping up throughout the park. The tower was built between the French and Confederate sections of the park, even though neither France nor the Confederacy were responsible for the state’s 20th-century oil production boom. Instead, the tower represented a larger movement toward locating attractions wherever room was available. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the themed sections became less distinct and increasingly less tied to the state’s history. Attractions that did specifically relate to Texas history were gradually replaced to make way for a collection of more thrilling (but also more generic) rides. “La Salle’s River Adventure” was demolished in 1982 to make way for the “Roaring Rapids,” a ride that was duplicated at several other theme parks around the country. In addition, secondary pathways and shortcuts between sections muddled the clarity of the original Duell loop circulation plan so that navigating the park often required signage or a map.
Those closely studying souvenir maps of Six Flags might have noticed that by the 1990s, the Confederate section of the park had been renamed “The Old South.” By then, the Confederate battle flag was no longer flown at the park or sold in gift shops. The Confederate national flag, the so-called “Stars and Bars” was still flown along with the five other national flags at the park until 2017, when all historic national flags (including those originally featured at the entry mall) were replaced by American flags. Although this proved controversial to those who feel theme parks are an important medium for teaching history, the change echoed a sustained movement away from the direct ties to Texas history that had been occurring at Six Flags for decades.
The 1990s also saw the Time Warner corporation gaining control of the park (Six Flags Over Texas is still owned by a number of limited partners, including family members of the park’s original investors). A logo change in 1993 reflected the decreasing role of Texas history as an organizing theme, as Time Warner brought with it the sort of intellectual properties, such as Looney Tunes and DC Comics characters, that Six Flags lacked when it opened in 1961. In place of gunslingers and Confederate soldiers, Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck now roam the park. As the original six themed lands became less prominent, new additions to the park, such as the 1999 Gotham City expansion, reflected an accelerating trend of building thrill rides based on superhero characters as opposed to experiences based on historical figures. Apparently, Batman sells better than Jim Bowie.
Six Flags Over Texas has changed significantly since its gates first opened in the summer of 1961. In a way, the radical changes occurring inside the park mirrored those occurring outside of it. If the theme park is unrecognizable from its original form, the same could be said of the city in which it was located.
In the year Six Flags opened, Arlington was home to less than 45,000 people. Today, Arlington is the state’s seventh largest city with a population nearing 400,000. Once a small town, it is now part of a carpet of suburban development spanning 11 counties that 7.6 million people call home. The gradual change may have been imperceptible, but the Arlington that exists today barely resembles the one that existed a generation ago. In order to grow, it had to give up what once made it unique. The growth that allowed Arlington to transform itself from a small town into a big city also brought with it the same issues (traffic, crime, etc.) associated with larger cities.
Change, whether it happens to a theme park or to a city, is one characteristic of the built environment that is easy to anticipate. Directing that change, however, is always difficult. According to Davis McCown, the author of “Six Flags Over Texas: The First Fifty Years” (the source for much of the information contained in this article), “Six Flags’ management must balance keeping in place a recognizable park that millions of guests have enjoyed for over 60 years with new and exciting forms of entertainment.”
Similarly, leaders of Arlington (or Austin, Alpine, or anywhere else in Texas) face the constant challenge of guiding their cities toward a future that is new and exciting while maintaining a connection — however tenuous — to the history that once defined them.
Brantley Hightower, AIA, is the interim editor of Texas Architect. He grew up in Arlington and often visited Six Flags Over Texas, where the “Shock Wave” was — and still is — his favorite rollercoaster.