Hey there, Park Journey readers!
This past weekend I made my first trip to Six Flags Over Texas since 2009. The park has recently received a barrage of mixed publicity for removing the Confederate flag from the front of the park, instead opting to fly six American flags.
In this opinion piece, I will give a brief recap of the move that Six Flags made, and share my thoughts on their decision. All photos were taken on August 26th and 27th, 2017.
In Case You're Just Joining Us...
Six Flags Over Texas is the original park in the Six Flags chain. The park was originally named after the six nations that has governed Texas during the state's history- Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The Confederate States of America, and, of course, The United States of America. It's worth noting that Six Flags was flying the Confederate State Flags, not the battle flag which is often closer associated with white supremacists.
As Six Flags grew into a national brand, these flags were replaced by simple primary color flags. Usually Six Flags is represented by a series of flags in multiple colors- yellow, green, orange, purple, light blue, and dark blue. However, the original Six Flags Over Texas continued to fly the original flags at the front entrance of their park.
In recent years, Confederate symbols have become an increasingly polarizing subject. In the wake of the violence in Charlottesville, Six Flags began to come under fire for flying a Confederate flag over the entrance to its original park. In response, Six Flags chose to fly six American flags outside its park- a move that would appear to most as a unifying response to a politically divisive topic.
For the sake of this article- I would like to shed a bit of light on my background. I was raised in North Florida (very politically diverse, heavy Southern Influence), went to school in Clemson, SC (2016 College Football National Champions- oh, and also in a very conservative region), moved to Central Florida (swing area), and now live in San Francisco (very liberal). So, for clarity- I have lived my life in areas that have been on both extremes of the political spectrum, and have spent the majority of my life in areas that have significant Southern heritage.
So, without further ado..
"Six Flags is Erasing History"
First of all- if you rely on a corporate theme park for your history lessons- well... yikes.
However, for argument's sake...
Just outside the front gate of Six Flags Over Texas is a marker prominently placed in the middle of the pathways that gives a full history of the park's meaning. Every single park visitor passes this on their way in. The same plaza hosts a plaque of the six original flags.
Included in the inscription is the following:
For four years, 1861-1865, The Stars and Bars of the Confederated States of America flew over Texas. 90,000 Texans served The South. The state supplied large amounts of cotton, food, and other goods at the end of the Civil War. Old Glory, with its Stars and Stripes, again was raised. Some other flags have flown somewhat briefly over other parts of Texas, but the six national banners shown here are those of enduring history. The exhibits associated with the six flags over Texas make vivid the colorful history of the Lone Star State
Now, I know reading is hard, and that many people prefer to learn history based on what is being flown above a toll plaza, but...
It doesn't look like history is erased to me.
"They Shouldn't Even Call it Six Flags Anymore"
When will theme park fans learn? Spoiler alert- Six Flags is a business, not a museum.
Shout-out to all the people who are upset that Disney's California Adventure has added non-California themed attractions, or that Epcot now features things that, *gasp*, are non-educational.
At the end of the day, it's the responsibility of a company's leadership to grow their business, not to stick to arbitrary theming guidelines that were set decades ago. If everyone is so upset about Six Flags changing out two sets of flags poles- where was the outrage when Six Flags started pumping the park full of DC Comics attractions? Seriously, when was the last time this park has put in anything related to its original theme? But raising six American flags is where we draw the line? Sure, ok...
Which brings me to my main point...
Six Flags is a National Brand.
Sure- people may not take issue with the confederate flag in Texas. Unfortunately- Six Flags does not have the luxury of operating in a bubble. In the face of a snowballing national news story- Six Flags had to consider that it also relies on markets such as LA, San Francisco, New York, DC, and Boston- areas that have an extremely strong aversion to Confederate symbolism. While the Confederate flag was not flying at these parks- the threat of national attention could very easily impact brand reputation in these markets.
A lot of people have said that they wish Six Flags would have "stood up" for themselves or "fought to educate people" on the subject. Funny, that's exactly what people said about SeaWorld when they faced political controversy. SeaWorld chose to fight that battle, and they keep inching closer and closer to total collapse as a result. Here's the bottom line - getting involved in politics is not good business in the leisure industry. The whole reason people go to theme parks is to escape every day life, not to engage in divisive politics.
The irony here is that the majority of support for Confederate symbolism comes from the right- the same side that preaches ad nauseam about free market capitalism. Well- guess what- Capitalism just took down the Confederate flag. Grow up, snowflake, it's called business.
So, to conclude...
It's rumor time, no, we aren't starting a rumor, RD is talking about a huge one we posted about yesterday, that Merlin is interested in buying the Busch parks from SeaWorld if they should become available.
Right now it's a HUGE if, although this mornings earnings call filled in a few of the gaps as the news was bad all around. RD investigates the various options for the Busch parks should they come up for sale.
Written by R.D. Sussman-Dewberry
In the news recently have been several rather important notes about the business that we are all a part of: Theme parks at a crossroads. Indeed, seeing the ouster of the former president of SixFlags Inc for their old head is one of them, as is seeing Joel Manby of SeaWorld Parks (SFP) discussing options for the future of that chain. Right now, theme parks are profitable, with new attractions beginning to be announced for 2018 and beyond, and a good segment in the investment industry to be looking at.... so long as you're buying Disney or Cedar Fair.
Let's take a brief look into what's going on - and why it is going on.
SeaWorld Parks was created during the tumultuous times following the AB-InBev merger in 2010. In essence, the parks were spun off from Anheuser Busch into a separate company in which an ownership group took control, before going public later on. The parks were profitable, growth was good... and then a mockumentary called "Blackfish" was released - a joint effort of PETA and CNN. Being run as pure fact, without the knowledge of SeaWorld Parks, it led to a drop in attendance at the SeaWorld throughout. Later, the mockumentary was rebuked in full as being pretty much fiction - but the damage was done, and PETA was able to put a knife into a great park company. (As an aside: I will forgo my thoughts on PETA and what they did other than to say this: They had a motive, they had a weapon, and they had the means to kill off the chain. )
Since then, the two Busch Gardens parks, the water parks and Sesame Place have all been doing well - in fact, financially supporting the company through these rough times. Though numbers have turned around... they are still lagging the financial success they once had. Joel Manby was brought on board to take the parks in a new direction - and has done so with as much effort as he had shown with his previous employer, Herschend Family Entertainment.
It was announced recently that SWP/Manby had brought in a consultant to look at the future of the company - and the parks therein. Speculation has begun as to the outcome of this, and to the future of the SWP chain. Today it was released that the two Busch Garden parks are now in play - as a spin-off of the SWP company. It would effectively split the company back to the way it was prior to 1986 - before Busch Entertainment Corporation was founded.
So who could bid - and why? Here's my short list.
Cedar Fair: While CF is doing fine financially, to take on the debt of this transaction would be rather extreme. They are now balanced with their finances in check, and showing good numbers profit wise - but at this time it would be taking on another huge chunk of debt to digest in one meal. Financially, it would be rather hard for them to swallow without divesting a park or two along the way.
Merlin: Merlin's financial situation is similar to CF's in terms of debt and equity - but has had a reputation for issues with some parks and the quality of the attractions they have added. Fiscally speaking, they are strong enough to do so - but will have the same financial indigestion afterwards.
Herschend: To me, the most obvious - and best fit - choice for the Busch Gardens Parks. A solid management team from corporate, good financial resources, a mountain of unrestricted cash on hand - and a reputation for quality that is equal to Disney (and in some cases BETTER than Disney). They have been looking to expand for a while, and now have an opportunity to do so with two award-winning parks.
These three companies represent the best possible answers as of right now. Other firms may become involved as well - and depending on the situation, we could even see places we're not familiar with taking a hand in the process.
And as you noticed... SixFlags Inc was left out.
SF Inc is now negotiating financial waters which are at best rocky - and at worst, a storm that will rip that company apart. Financially, the debt situation there is now at a critical mass - with a DDD- credit rating (Basically: Junk bonds) and with a debt to equity ratio that is nearly 4-1 (For every $4.00 of debt, $1.00 is equity/assets) The ouster of their previous president is a VERY ominous sign - and the competition is ramping up their game across the country. Parks like Silver Dollar City (Herschend) in Branson, MO and Knott's Berry Farm (CF) in Buena Park are preparing to add world-class attractions that will invariably draw people away from SF Inc's parks. That level of competition requires an offensive strategy to get people back INTO the SF parks... which too is failing. As of the Q4/Q1 gate totals: Overall attendance is flat - and guest spending is down drastically year over year, despite growth in season pass sales/use. This is a GIANT red flag that there are issues with what people are wanting in the parks - and what they are willing to pay for when there.
At the same time, the strange ownership of SixFlags parks - and the brand therein - may also be in play. The Wynne Trust - who own SFoG & SFoT - as well as the Six Flags name - has become more vocal in the past few months towards their own parks - and the operations therein.
In short: SFInc is closer to their day of reckoning than we've seen since 2005... and their last trip through bankruptcy court. The situation is now becoming very close to that - and is showing signs that to avoid the return that they will have to start shedding assets - and liquidating others - to prevent their financial collapse. While I do not ever see them shutting down (that's foolish folks - you should know better) I do see them looking into their crystal ball - and looking at what assets are performing, which are lagging... and which ones will be sold off. They are now in a place where this is not just an 'if' but rather a 'when' and one that no company should EVER be faced to look at.
In the words of Margo Channing (Look her up, kids...) "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night." We are right on the edge of some serious shakeups in the theme park game - with some big winners, some big losers - and a hell of a lot of upheaval at the end.