Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Remembering Astroworld

Last week marked the 40th anniversary of the opening of Astroworld. Chronicle blogger Rick Campbell marked the occasion; Bayou City History has some pictures of how the park looked way back then as well.

The theme park located across Loop 610 from the Astrodome was originally owned by Judge Roy Hofheinz and his family; in the mid 1970s, it was sold to Six Flags. The park operated for 38 seasons. In the fall of 2005, Six Flags made the decision to close the park and sell the property; Astroworld closed its doors forever on October 30, 2005.

Having grown up in Houston, I remember Astroworld all too well; it many respects, it was an integral part of my life.

My very first trip to Astroworld was probably sometime in the mid-to-late 70s, when I was a small child. I have only very distant and vague memories of that particular visit, but what I do remember is that, when I was young, trips to Astroworld were a very rare occurrence. They only occurred once every couple of years or so and for that reason were a pretty big deal. To the eyes of a young child, Astroworld, with all its rides and attractions, was a place of magic and excitement.

When I was about ten or eleven, my parents became aware of the value of a season pass to Astroworld, which essentially allowed me to go to Astroworld whenever I wanted. This was pretty cool, at least at first. I'd spend many a summer day there with my friends, Rebecca and Marc and Jeremy, or with my brother and his friends, or with whomever happened to be in town at the time. The season pass could also be used for admission to the Waterworld water park next door, which was a huge plus in the hot Houston summer.

But with repeated visits, the novelty of Astroworld began to wear off. What had seemed so enchanting and amazing just a few years before was now routine and expected. Over time, I began to tire of the
long lines, brutal heat and overpriced food. I continued to hold season passes throughout my middle school and high school summers, but as my interest in other summertime activities grew (as well as the fact that, as a teenager, I spent my summers in Ecuador), the frequency of my visits to Astroworld waned. I think the last time I went to Astroworld as a season pass holder was with my friend Bill and his family right before my senior year of high school began in August of 1990.

It was a couple of years later, in 1992, when I developed a new relationship with Astroworld: I became an employee of the park. I needed a menial, no-experience-or-thinking-required summertime job, and the theme park readily hired high-school and college-age kids. That summer I worked as a costume character, which meant I was paid minimum wage to walk around in the Houston heat and humidity in a furry rabbit suit and continually be assaulted by obnoxious punk teenagers. S
omewhere in the Bush family photo album, in fact, is a picture, taken during the 1992 Republican National Convention, of Bugs Bunny posing with a bunch of George and Barbara Bush's grandchildren and well as a few secret service agents. The guy in the Bugs Bunny costume would be me.

Being a glutton for punishment, I returned to Astroworld in 1994. This time I worked in the merchandise department, selling overpriced souvenirs, but at least I got to stay inside air-conditioned stores. But when that summer ended, I had had enough. It was time to set my employment sights a little higher.

The fact was that, while Astroworld might have been a fun place for people to visit, it was a horrible place to work. Employees were paid poorly and treated even worse. The park's corporate overlords (Six Flags was a division of Time Warner at this time) considered the park's young, seasonal labor base as cheap and expendable; morale was low and employee turnover was high as uptight supervisors treated their underlings harshly and suspiciously and even the most minor offenses resulted in termination.
Cost containment seemed to be the park's only concern; employee hours were closely monitored, benefits were nonexistent, and sectors were oftentimes understaffed to cut labor costs. In spite of this toxic labor culture, employees were required to be constantly cheerful and helpful to guests - a "beatings will continue until morale improves" situation if there ever was one.

By the time my second summer of employment at Astroworld ended in August of 1994, I had completely had it with the park. The excitement and joy that the park had represented to my childhood had completely evaporated and had been replaced with a sense of disgust. From the day I stopped working there until the day the park closed, I visited only once more, and then only at Lori's insistence.

When Six Flags finally decided to close Astroworld in 2005, it came as no surprise.
It was pretty apparent even a decade earlier when I worked there that the park was struggling. It was common knowledge to the employees even then that the park's admission fees barely covered its operating costs: food, games and merchandise concessions were the actual profit generators. Maintenance was deferred in order to reduce operating costs, resulting in the park's increasingly-shabby appearance. The park, rightly or wrongly, began to develop a reputation as a teenage gang-banger hangout. Astroworld was landlocked into its 109-acre footprint and was unable to build enough in the way of new attractions to keep people coming, and new Six Flags facilities in places like San Antonio, Mexico City and New Orleans (pre-Katrina) cut into Astroworld's geographic visitor base. Attendance at the park declined as the value of the land on which it sat increased, and Six Flags, which was reeling under a mountain of debt, eventually saw the writing on the wall.

Today, the area where all those rides, restaurants and attractions once stood is barren; if you didn't know the history of that site, you'd never have any idea that there was once a bustling theme park there.

Almost three years after it closed, there's still a part of me that misses Astroworld. I'll never be able to ride childhood favorites such as the Texas Cyclone or the X-LR8 again and I'll never be able to take Kirby there.

But there's also a part of me that says "good rittance." The reason is simple: as I grew older, so did Astroworld.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you. I had an older brother who worked there as well and he didn't care for it much. We went all the time. My father would drop my brother and I there and then pick us up at closing. I remembered it fondly seeing the shows, Marvel Mcfay, going on all the rides, etc. Reading your blog reminded me of the things I didn't like about it. Thank you...I was pining over it even watching several YouTube videos but there were lots of things that weren't right. I guess I'm a little nostalgic but also am not surprised that it was closed. Thanks for sharing your blog. Erik Rivas-Rivas