A few weeks ago, I snuck off from work and played hooky with my kids. We gathered up my girlfriend and her kids and headed straight for that icon of American summer fun: the amusement park. Fortunately, I live in Annapolis, Md., and a Six Flags theme park is literally around the corner. We did have a fun day. We left tired, sunburned, wet and poor — all indicative of some fun, for sure. But this visit left me thinking.
Remember the old rivalry between the two rental car companies Hertz and Avis? Hertz was always crowing, "We're #1," while scrappy Avis told us, "We try harder." We loved Avis for that persistence; it kept us rooting for the little guy. Well, as I reflect on my day at Six Flags, I think that maybe they ought to heed Avis' advice and try a little harder.
Maybe it's not fair to compare Six Flags to the big kahuna, Disney's Magic Kingdom, but in many ways the parks are very similar. They both have Main Streets with shops and eateries that spread out before you when you walk in the gates. Both are laid out in a circular pattern. Both have added water parks in recent years, and while the rides at Six Flags are not of the caliber of those at Walt Disney World, both parks offer rides to thrill all ages. While Six Flags used to call its properties "amusement parks," now they are marketed as "theme parks" — I suspect to keep up with the Disneys — so I feel it is fair to compare the two operations.
1. Cost vs. value
When I travel, I look at both price and value. There's a big difference — don't fool yourself. With Disney, I know I am going to pay a hefty price, but I also know I am going to get value for that investment. When I discovered that Six Flags cost nearly the same as Disney, I expected the value to be close, too. Not the same experience, to be sure — after all, no one seems to do it like Disney — but close. Without any discounts or coupons, it costs only $17 more to walk into the Magic Kingdom ($67 admission) than into the Six Flags in Bowie, Md. ($50 admission). That gap narrows to $12 when you figure that it costs $5 more to park at Six Flags. But any similarity between these two theme parks ends at the price of admission.
2. Food service
The food at Six Flags was mediocre (that's also true at Disney), but it was the service that really hit the floor. The lines were long almost everywhere we went. The concept of a "lunch rush" was lost on the employees, as we waited nearly 20 minutes for burgers at noon (and these were pre-wrapped burgers, folks, not cooked to order on the grill). To save some money, we purchased a "free refill souvenir cup" for $18 that apparently had some fine print somewhere that indicated that refills were free — but only after you paid an additional $2 to refill it! Plus, it was valid only at certain locations — not "all over" as the sign indicated. Truth in advertising?
The park was not really clean. Trash cans were overflowing. The tables at the restaurants were not wiped down and sometimes they were not even cleared (and I do not blame the employees for this — some customers can be pigs). There were piles of cardboard boxes throughout the park; they had once held stuffed animals and other arcade prizes, but now they were just lying around empty. It seems no one cared about the mess. Or maybe they were waiting for Tinkerbell to come in after the park closed and clean it all up.
4. The rides
The rides were good. While certainly not on the scale of Disney, they thrilled everyone in our group. Even I, the wimp (as my kids like to say), ventured on several thrill rides and roller coasters. I even got front spot on the Superman roller coaster which all of my kids wimped out on themselves! But I passed on the bungee jumping ride. If I am going to die bungee jumping, it is going to be someplace a little more exotic than on the concrete at Six Flags, Bowie. The ride operators all seemed bored. Well, OK, it is probably boring work, but it is also is your job, so perk up for heaven's sake.
5. The attitude
I'll admit that the weather was warm — not terribly gross like some Maryland summer days can be, but warm. Maybe that accounts for the slow-motion service at the lunch counter and the apathetic assistance from the ride operators, but it seemed the staff couldn't possibly move any slower. Nothing moved at any type of speed except the rides themselves. These employees are the face of Six Flags and they are what people remember when they go home for the night. If you are in a people business, you need to hire people who actually like people — or at least put on a convincing act.
6. Security and safety
Now, let's talk about security and safety. As we walked through the front gates at Six Flags, we had to pass through a gauntlet of security measures, including uniformed guards and metal detectors — an unfortunate sign of the times in which we live. But inside the park, I saw very little security presence. Maybe that's a good thing in an air marshal kind of way; you never see those guys, either, but you know they're there. Somehow, I don't think that's the case here.
For example, after lunch we discovered an unattended backpack left near a bench. I found a security guard and mentioned it to him. Now, at an airport that unattended backpack would be considered a "suspicious package." Within minutes, the airport would be evacuated, the national threat level would be raised to fuchsia, and some kid's Pokemon collection would be blown to smithereens by an overzealous tech on the bomb squad. Not at Six Flags. When I looped around again in an hour, the backpack was still sitting there. Apparently the guard thought that was the best place for it.
A more glaring lapse in security came as our day was coming to an end. While in line for the Mind Eraser ride, I noticed that a section of railing 6 feet long had fallen from the walkway. The drop was nearly 40 feet to the ground, where there were several concrete foundations. The remains of the railing were lying face up with nails protruding. This was a gaping hole in the walkway just asking for a small child to fall through. I immediately reported the situation to the ride attendant and he brushed me off. I then reported it to a security guard, who told me to go tell guest services to have maintenance come take a look at it. When I went to guest services, the workers were not interested in seeing the photo I had taken of the railing; they just filled out a maintenance request. Considering that a 13-year-old girl had had her legs severed on a ride at another Six Flags park just the day before, I thought there might be a more proactive approach here. Here are my photos if you care to take a look.
I debated about whether to write this column. I really did. My ex-wife says I'm being too critical because there is a difference between an "amusement park" and a "theme park." But then why is Six Flags marketing itself as a theme park? And why isn't the lesser expectation reflected in the price? Maybe companies that are sitting at No. 2 or No. 3 become complacent. Maybe they think their product is "good enough." Maybe they just don't see their product though the eyes of a guest. Maybe some of the travel critics are too nice (or too scared) to write a less-than-glowing review.
Before I put my "The End" on this column, I sought out management at Six Flags America to see if they could defend, explain or refute my experiences. I sent them an e-mail and followed up with a phone message — neither was returned.
Please don't get me wrong, we did have a good time and we will likely go back. I am an eternal optimist, and would like to believe this trip was an anomaly. But when we return, it will be with the expectation that the value is not there — though maybe the value lies in the convenience.
It seems to me that Six Flags might do well to take a lesson from the Avis playbook: Try harder. Come on Six Flags, surprise me!
John Frenaye is the president of JVE Group, Inc., a diversified company based in Annapolis, Md. With nearly ten years as a senior executive in the retail travel industry and a background in business management, he writes about the travel industry as an insider with an outsider's perspective. or visit his . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting