The Batman And Robin Of Six Flags
Pete Brecht is a theme park aficionado whose travels take him wherever roller coasters rumble. Last year, Brecht visited 19 parks, including 4 owned by Six Flags Inc. But this summer the 37-year-old database administrator is thinking seriously about dropping Six Flags from his itinerary. Rides operating at half capacity and aggravatingly long lines exasperate him. "It's a shame because they have some pretty great [attractions]," says Brecht, of Charlottesville, Va. "But it's just not worth the hassle."
Such disappointments aren't the only knock on Six Flags, whose 30 parks are more than the combined number operated by competitors Walt Disney and Universal. Peeling paint, bathrooms scarier than some thrill rides, and a reputation as a hangout for unruly teens have tarnished a once-proud brand. "In many respects, they've slid to the point where they resemble a souped-up county fair more than world-class theme parks," says Robert Niles, who founded themeparkinsider.com, a Web site for roller-coaster buffs.
Dan Snyder wouldn't argue the point. The cocksure investor admits that Six Flags has disappointed park patrons almost as much as it has its shareholders. He and fellow owners have watched as shares in the 45-year-old franchise tumbled from more than $40 seven years ago to about $9 while debt piled up to $2.4 billion. "The business was broken," says the 41-year-old Six Flags chairman and owner of the Washington Redskins. Snyder won a proxy fight for control of the New York-based company last fall and is now backed up by some heavyweight investors including Bill Gates of Microsoft. More troubles may be ahead. The theme park business is cutthroat all by itself. But it also competes against other summer attractions like beaches, ball games, and movie theaters. And this year, parks could be squeezed big time if patrons decide gas prices are too high to hit the road, especially since Six Flags tickets can exceed $40.