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Swing Time

Six Flags New England Reaches Higher — Much Higher

By JOSEPH BEDNAR and ROBERT GEBO

Jennifer McGrath

Jennifer McGrath says the 400-foot-tall New England Sky Screamer will take the classic theme-park swing ride to the extreme.

Just cross the South End Bridge in Springfield and look south, and it’s easy to see how Six Flags New England already towers over the Connecticut River. On a clear day, Bizarro, Scream, Goliath, and the Cyclone are clearly visible in the distance.

The tallest of those, the award-winning Bizarro rollercoaster and the Scream drop ride, reach about 200 feet into the air, offering breathtaking — and, for some riders, nerve-wracking — views of the river, Mount Tom to the north, and Connecticut to the south.

Now imagine being twice that high.

Actually, visitors won’t have to imagine once the park unveils its newest attraction, the New England Sky Screamer, this summer. Lifting patrons 400 feet up and then swinging them around for two minutes at 35 mph, it’s touted as the world’s tallest swing ride.

Clearly, Six Flags has come a long way in the 15 years since the chain acquired historic Riverside Park, adding it to its international stable of destinations, adding numerous major rides and a bustling water park, and effectively doubling the property’s size. And now, it’s touting a new height record to boot.

“It’s taking that swing ride we know and love and adding every possible element of thrill and fear into it,” said Jennifer McGrath, communications manager for Six Flags New England. “Your arms and legs are exposed in the air, your swing is on chains, just like that classic family swing ride — except this is not classic.”

The ride, which is painted red, white, and blue, will glow with color-changing LED lights at night, she added. “We don’t feel it’s just a new ride for Six Flags New England; we feel it’s a new icon, something people will identify with Western Mass. You can see it from the Springfield area and well into Enfield and Suffield. Six Flags loves breaking records, and they feel this ride is something special, and they know Six Flags guests are going to love it.”

As a prominent chain in a highly competitive industry, Six Flags is always looking to the future, mapping out a national strategy of park additions to keep the buzz high at its 13 parks in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. Not every park gets a major addition on the level of a Sky Screamer every year, but Agawam has received plenty of recent attention, adding the Bonzai Pipeline slides in the Hurricane Harbor water park in 2013, the Goliath switchback coaster in 2012, and the Gotham City Gauntlet mouse coaster in 2011.

“It’s amazing what we’ve evolved to, and we continue to grow,” McGrath said, noting that it’s a cornerstone of the Six Flags brand to continually invest new capital in its properties.

“In true Six Flags fashion, we’re going even bigger in 2014 with our new attractions,” added Jim Reid-Anderson, the chain’s chairman, president, and CEO, in a press statement. “Our promise to you is to bring something new to every single park every year.”

Work and Play

Economic-development and tourism officials have long pointed to Six Flags New England as a major economic engine for the region. While the park, as a publicly held company, does not release attendance figures, it easily outdraws the number-two tourist attraction in Western Mass., Yankee Candle Village, which records 1.5 million guests per year.

SixFlagsGoliathSign

Six Flags officials say they’re committed to introducing something new at all the chain’s parks every year.

“Six Flags has been a wonderful neighbor to Agawam. They’re one of the top five taxpayers in the community, they work closely with all our departments, and they are a huge economic boon to the Pioneer Valley as a whole,” Agawam Mayor Richard Cohen told BusinessWest. “And it’s a regional tourist attraction, so it’s not just great for Agawam, but for the whole Valley.”

Six Flags is a significant employer as well, with more than 100 year-round employees, about half of whom work in maintenance. In the offseason, they’re busy enhancing the grounds, from new painting and signage to landscaping and structural improvements.

In addition, the park hires more than 3,000 seasonal workers annually, giving a major boost to the region’s efforts to employ high-school and college-age individuals, who are facing an historically lean market for summer jobs.

“They’re one of the largest hiring employers in the summer for seasonal purposes, which is great in these economic times,” Cohen said, referring to not only young people, but older individuals who might be unemployed or between jobs. “They really are good neighbors, and we’re really proud to have them in Agawam.”

He noted that the public ownership group that bought Six Flags in 2010 has been much easier to work and communicate with than Premier Parks, which operated the chain from 1998 until its Chapter 11 bankruptcy and restructuring a decade later. That’s important, he said, when planning a project like the Sky Screamer, which has the potential of drawing bigger crowds to the park, but is also a significant change to this small town’s skyline.

“They came to us early, in a very timely manner, and answered all our questions,” the mayor said, adding that Agawam residents were largely supportive of the project. “There were some people — not many — afraid that this would change the landscape of the area. But we already have cell towers. And they did this in patriotic colors. They took our concerns into consideration, and it was done tastefully. I have not had many — if any — complaints at all.

“Everything was done expeditiously — the public announcement, meetings, permits,” he reiterated. “They don’t wait until the last minute. Since the new regime took over, they work well on the local level, answering the concerns that people have. The relationship is much healthier, and communication has been much better.”

That’s not to say the park hasn’t been growing all along. Since becoming a Six Flags property in 1998, it has introduced a raft of thrill rides, including Bizarro (formerly Superman: Ride of Steel), winner of five Golden Ticket Awards from Amusement Today as the nation’s top steel coaster, in 2000; Flashback, a switchback coaster, also in 2000; Batman: the Dark Knight, a floorless coaster, in 2002; Pandemonium, a kid-friendly spinning coaster, in 2005; and, of course, the recent additions.

Meanwhile, Hurricane Harbor, which now totals 33 waterslides in addition to a lazy river, two wave pools, and other watery fun, opened in 1998 as part of the Six Flags makeover.

The entire property now comprises more than 270 acres, and ranks as both the largest amusement park and largest water park in New England.

Food for Thought

Other recent changes are less flashy, but are significant to many patrons. For example, McGrath said, restaurant menus will add food items, including more vegetarian fare — a shift that guests had been asking for. Once again, the park will offer a $99 dining plan along with its popular season-ticket options, allowing guests one lunch and one dinner per visit throughout the season.

As for the season tickets, they are priced at different tiers — higher tiers include free parking all year, among other amenities — but tend to pay for themselves within two or three visits, making Six Flags an affordable recreation option for area families, McGrath said. That’s important in a stressed economy, when many families can’t afford to fly to vacation destinations. “This is a day trip for anyone, all the way up to Maine — down to Pennsylvania, even.”

Many of those visitors are parents and grandparents taking their kids to Six Flags and sharing their fond memories of Riverside Park, which existed as an amusement park alongside the Connecticut River for about 90 years.

Some relics remain on the grounds, McGrath said, from the 1909 carousel to the antique automobiles that rattle along a metal track and give youngsters the chance to experience driving a car. Then there’s the Thunderbolt, the 1941 wooden coaster — standing 70 feet tall and traveling up to 40 mph — that has been called a landmark by American coaster enthusiasts. Six Flags preserves rides like this, McGrath said, because the company understands the special memories they have for many.

No matter what a ride’s age, she noted, maintenance teams check each attraction daily, often from as early as 5 a.m. “Our staff is diligent in regard to checking safety, and it’s a main focus — before the park opens, during, after, every potential minute for our guests, it’s a thorough process.”

Besides its obvious link to families, Six Flags involves itself in the community through charity events as well, working with more than 3,000 organizations annually across its 13-park footprint. Locally, that includes school-supply drives and coat drives for children, as well as Cause for Paws, an event that raises money for the Dakin Pioneer Valley Humane Society, and an annual skin-cancer-awareness event.

But the main buzz right now is clearly on the rides, which opened to their first guests of the 2014 season on April 12. New England Sky Screamer will open a bit later in the season, and though it’s expected to be a hit, it won’t be the last one, McGrath said.

“Right now, we are well into the planning process of 2015, even though we are executing 2014,” she told BusinessWest. “When it comes to building a new attraction for the park, we listen to our guests, of course, and what they would like to see in the future. We want to entertain those of all ages.”

After all, at the end of the day, it’s all about reaching new heights of entertainment — literally and figuratively.


Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar@businesswest.com


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