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Texas amusement parks can thrill local economies
Pounding Hearts and Paychecks

The rides and attractions at Texas' amusement parks aim to get visitors' blood pumping and to pump millions of dollars into the Texas economy. In 2002, Texas' theme and amusement park industry generated $86.8 million in revenue and employed a yearly average of 6,805 workers, according to Texas Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Texas is home to 11 permanent amusement parks.

"People buy gasoline, they stay in hotels--we're part of the food chain that feeds the Texas highway department," said Paul Borchardt, general manager and president of Wonderland Amusement Park in Amarillo. "The hotel tax helps the city and the state. We also generate sales tax from our products, so we're definitely in the economic circle."

A new spin
Texas parks are some of the most popular on the continent. In 2003, Texas' four largest parks, all theme parks--Sea World in San Antonio and the three Six Flags parks in Dallas, San Antonio and Houston--placed in the top 50 parks in North America based on attendance, according to Amusement Business, a national amusement industry publication. Theme parks are a type of amusement park developed around a theme, such as cultural events, music or marine life.

To stay at the top, the state's theme parks focus on giving visitors new thrills.

Since Six Flags took over management of San Antonio's Fiesta Texas in 1999, the park has added 16 new rides and attractions, said Sydne Purvis, park spokeswoman. Launched in 1992 by Opryland USA, a musical theme park operator, and USAA, a national insurance company, Fiesta Texas originally featured a variety of musical shows in addition to traditional theme park rides.

"We have something new every year, whether it be a new show or a new ride," Purvis said.

In May 2004, Fiesta Texas will unveil its newest attraction, the Tornado, a water ride Purvis described as an "extreme tubing experience."

Not to be outdone, other Texas theme parks will add attractions in 2004. Six Flags Astroworld in Houston will feature Circo Magnifico, a theme park-length version of Cirque Du Soleil, said Daryl Freedman, park public relations manager. Sea World is adding Shamu Express, a new kid-sized roller coaster, said Fran Stephenson, director of public relations.

The next generation
While larger parks offer new rides and attractions to bring visitors back each year, some smaller parks bank on familiarity.

Cary Yates, manager of The Kiddie Park in San Antonio, said there are no plans to jazz up the park's offerings.

"I think part of its charm is that it is what it is," Yates said. "There have been slight changes over the last 40 or 50 years, but it's pretty much the same."

The Kiddie Park employs between eight and 40 people each year and operates 10 child-sized rides. Yates said attendance is good and increases each year.

"We are getting fourth- and fifth-generation riders here," Yates said. "We don't have a weekend go by that we don't have a great-grandparent here with a great-grandchild. We've had great-great-grandparents here as well."

Family parks also rely on the lure of lower ticket prices.

"We're considerably less expensive than theme parks," said Frank Rush Jr., director of Sandy Lake Amusement Park in Northwest Dallas County. "Families can afford to come here to visit for the day and can afford to come back here in a week or so, as opposed to once a year to visit a theme park."

General admission to Sandy Lake Amusement Park is $2, compared with about $40 for the state's theme parks, and once inside Sandy Lake, rides range from $1 to $2 each. At theme parks, the ride prices are included in the admission fee.

Sandy Lake's six directors are its only full-time employees, but the park employs about 100 seasonal workers and sees an estimated 250,000 visitors a year.

Kristi Dean, manager of Joyland in Lubbock, said the park relies on visitors from surrounding towns as well as from Lubbock.

"Basically, there's not a lot in this area, so we draw from all over," Dean said. "We don't have the population base of Dallas, so if we didn't draw from such a large area, we wouldn't be able to live."

Joyland, which averages 80,000 visitors a year, has eight full-time employees and nearly 200 seasonal employees, Dean said

Wonderland, which hosted about 180,000 visitors in 2003, also relies on out-of-town visitors, Borchardt said.

"We're the only thing between Dallas and Denver of any size," Borchardt added.

Smaller parks also can be easier on parents, said Patrick Thomson, president of Western Playland in El Paso.

"We're not spread out like some of the bigger parks, so it's easy to keep track of your kids, and you don't get worn out," Thomson said.

Kind of like farmers
Rides and charm are not the only factors for amusement park success. Weather can be a big influence as well. A few rain clouds can wipe out a good weekend, Thomson said.

"We're kind of like farmers in that we depend on good weather," Thomson said. "We're only open weekends most of the year, and when you lose a weekend to hot or dusty weather, it's hard to make it up."

Though many parks reported a drop in attendance in 2002 due to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, operators say poor weather conditions kept visitors away in 2003.

"We had an upswing [in attendance] until 9-11," Borchardt said. "Everyone had a bad year that year. This last year [of low attendance] I attribute to weather. We didn't get three days in a row [of good weather]--Friday, Saturday, Sunday--until the weekend before the Fourth of July. Our attendance was down because most of our attendance is on the weekend."

Western Playland grew from a kiddie park with six rides in 1960 to a full-fledged amusement park with 27 rides in 2004, Thomson said.

Thomson said his grandfather, Leo Hines, opened Western Playland because he felt the kids in El Paso needed something to do.

"It didn't start off as a business; it was more of a hobby for him," Thomson said. "He didn't care if it made a lot of money as long as it paid off expenses and he could add a ride every once in a while, and now it has grown into a big amusement park."

Will work for fun
Western Playland isn't the only Texas park that's a family affair. Joyland and Sandy Lake amusement parks have been passed down through one or more generations as well.

"It's obviously in our blood," said Rush, who owns and operates Sandy Lake Amusement Park with his wife, parents, sister and brother-in-law. "My sister and I were both raised in the business, and my brother-in-law worked at the park in Oklahoma [opened by Rush's grandparents]."

"My father has a favorite saying," Rush said. "He wouldn't want to be a doctor or lawyer because everyone who walks in the door has a problem, but in the amusement business, everyone wants to have fun."

Angela Freeman

Entertainment to the extreme

For Texans who'd rather watch the X-Games than the Olympic Games, Dallas offers the amusement park version of extreme sports: Zero Gravity Thrill Amusement Park in Dallas.

Zero Gravity dispenses with roller coasters and merry-go-rounds to feature only thrill rides, such as bungee jumping, freefalls and hang gliding and skydiving simulations.

"Most parks will have some rides like this, but to our knowledge, we are the only one in the United States to have thrill rides only," said Dan Meister, park operations manager.

It's an amusement park for the next generation. Meister said most customers are between 14 and 35 years old, but anyone in good health can participate.

To prove that point, one 79-year-old amusement park aficionado flew in from Illinois specifically to experience Zero Gravity's "Nothin' But Net" ride, said Johnny Leach, park maintenance manager. On Nothin' But Net, customers freefall 100 feet into a net suspended below a 16-story tower. There's no bungee cord or parachute. Instead, participants wear a body harness that ensures they land safely.

Though the experience sounds daunting, Meister said it's just like falling into bed. Which isn't to say it's for everyone.

"We do have waivers [customers sign] stating that [they] don't have back, neck or heart problems, or broken bones," Meister said.

Frightening or not, the 79-year-old rode it nine times in a row.