We are in the middle of the time of year where we see countless Counts, Hundreds of Haunts, a Smattering of Spirits and other such phenomena appearing around the country (and the world) as we approach Halloween. But sometimes we feel & see things a bit different than during the spooktacular time of year...
Years ago, my corporate masters sent me on a mission to work at a small commuter airline in Nashville, TN which was to become part of the parent airline's affiliate program. Told to "Go west, young man" by my bosses did not thrill me in the least; I'd finally settled into a life which I'd become accustomed to in the urban northeast. So with the threat of unemployment looming over me, I chose to stay working, packed up my ancient Honda and drove to my new home... In Nashville.
Arriving in Nashville in the late spring was a bit of an eye-opener; the city itself presented as being that of a cornerstone of music & industry, and where tourism ruled the roosts. Countless numbers of faux tourist traps lined several main throroughfares throughout the city; and along the banks of the river lay the Opryland Hotel & Conference Center. Along with this came the eponymous Grand Old Opry - and the many museums & tourist attractions there.
But notably, one part of Nashville's vibrant history was surprisingly silent... Opryland itself.
By the end of the 90s, the Gaylord Family had chosen to exit the theme park business entirely; their project at San Antonio (Fiesta Texas) had been sold to Six Flags; and the decision was made to end the nearby Opryland Park as well. Very quietly at the end of 1997, the park shut its doors forever... and was paved over.
Yes, they paved paradise, and put in a parking lot - and a mall.
On the site of the former Opryland park was built another mega-Mills project. Opening in May of 2000, the project had eaten up the entirety of what the park was... and the remaining traces of what had coasters, fun & music was soon plowed over & paved....
Except for one grove of trees...
I went into residence at the Opryland Hotel complex until a corporate apartment could be leased for my duration of six months there. The upscale resort featured some many wonderful features, including a ride-through of the bayou (In the 'Delta' section), indoor fireworks, countless restaurants & beautiful facilities. Indeed, I found Cafe Du Monde to be the perfect place to unwind after work with bengiets & chicory coffee, followed by a cocktail or two in the Dive Bar downstairs.
In the early mornings though, I'd walk a loop to the Opry Mills complex from the conference center back to my hotel suite. Every day, I'd walk past a grove of trees, just to the side of the parking lot. And I would get a chill - no matter how warm or cold it was out - walking by it.
This grove of trees was odd: Everywhere else around there was pavement - except for this one cluster of trees. And one morning, I slowed down, took my time, and looked around, and found that this grove of trees was hiding something. Indeed, it was a concrete trough, wide and with hydraulic elements in it... this was the remains of Grizzly River Rapids. The faux rock work remained in place, the water jets, the tubes to make the 'rapids' still intact - almost as if they could restart it at any time.
In the distance, I could see the tunnels that led to the twin lifts to the platform, and the twists of the old course which wrapped around the grove of trees. I walked around the entire grove, realizing that when they had demolished the park, the rapids ride stood almost untouched - with the old stanchions and rope fencing work that once graced a park midway towards CHAOS (The park's Vekoma enclosed coaster). The entrance paths still existed - though blocked only by two old trashcans that bore the Opryland USA logo on them - though faded & cracked from the blistering summer sun.
Every day I passed by it, I could feel the same sense of having something with me - a spirit that was trapped in the grove of trees - it had both feelings of great happiness - and of great sadness & despair. This ghost felt the emotions of the millions of people who rode GRR during its career at Opryland - and it wanted escape. The rest of the park was gone... yet this one lone remainder stood abandoned & alone. And I felt its sadness - the spirit of the ride lived on - but not in joy.
As I look through GoogleEarth, I now see that what was left of Grizzly River Rapids is now gone - sadly to become memories of what once was. I can only hope that in removing this last legacy piece of history, the spirit is now released; the ghost has been able to find peace. It is ironic though that on the same site now occupies an Events Center - with a slide tower now resting on the site. Soon a water park facillity will join this area too - though nothing will bring back the sounds of fun a river rapids once did.
This week we learned of the passing of Disney Legend & Imagineer Francis Xavier (X) Atencio. At age 98, he has joined Walt, Marty & the rest on the other side, where they are (I'm sure of it!) creating even bigger & better attractions from scratch.
For me, it's a very sad moment, along the lines of Marty Sklar joining the others. Both of them have had a tremendous impact on my life as a theme park fan, but also for creating the parts of Disney that most resonated in my soul.
In the case of X Atencio, he's responsible for some of my most memorable moments in my life as far as Disney goes. Historically speaking, his efforts & creative imagination brought us two iconic rides which are still the gold-standard of attractions to this day: Pirates of the Caribbean & Haunted Mansion. While Walt created the imagination to make these attractions reality, it was the efforts of Hench, Sklar, Gurr & Atencio who brought them to life - and to reality. X was, in so many ways, the critical part of turning Walt's vision into an artistic reality.
With Pirates of the Caribbean, X created the art and the characters which live through the ride's story-line. It shows a diversity of ideas that were made prime & whole. And his own hands were involved in the creation of these efforts, of turning a vision into what thousands of people daily - and hundreds of millions over 50 years - see and experience.
What many don't realize is that in fact his heart & soul are in these rides - down to the creation of two of the most iconic Disney songs in history: "Yo Ho! A Pirate's life for me", and "Grim Grinning Ghosts". Both of these are facets of my Disneyist mind; indeed, both are part of my Disney collection, permanently installed into my iPod. And I'll admit, they have led to two of my best experiences - with X in spirit with me.
2013 was a VERY rough year for me, transitioning in life from one role to another, and to the aging that was going on around me. To say it shook me hard was an understatement - there were some days where it wasn't quite certain if I was going to be there the next. Through the help of my friends & adopted family, I got through it - and grabbed a plane to go to Disneyland/SoCal for a week...including the DLR for a much-needed mental reboot.
The first day I had in the park was on-my-own - which if you're a Disneyist is a beautiful thing. Combine that with a nearly-deserted park (Walk on Matterhorn, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain...) and I was able to do things that I had wanted to do for a while: Let my inner child out to breathe. And he did just that. With Ears in tow (Yes, I still have my Ears, I wear them with pride...) I did the Mountain Run (Space, Matterhorn, Thunder & Splash) in under 30 minutes - a new record for me. And I had my requisite Dole Whip(s). And then I headed to my must-do at DL: Pirates Of The Caribbean.
On an empty park day like this, you get some unusual opportunities to enjoy the park, including (and this is a one-off, I'm sure) having my own private boat on Pirates! So off we went into the ride's insides, past the Blue Bayou, and down the waterfalls into the ride itself - and I began to sing. (After all, there was nobody else around me... who's going to care!) And sing I did.
For those of you who do not know me, to say that I have a flawless singing voice is a deception. Picture squeezing a broken accordian... or a REALLY out of tune tuba. But hey! Private boat ride! And so I sang... "YO HO! YO HO A PIRATES LIFE FOR ME..." for the entire duration of the ride. And as we headed up the waterfall at the end, and into the station, I picked up and headed out refreshed & relaxed. Only to be greeted by two Plaid Vested Disney staff people.
"Sir, we're glad you're enjoying your day at Disney... but we need to ask you to sing with a MUCH lower voice."
"Why? I wasn't that loud...."
"Sir, you could be heard three scenes in either direction..."
Bright red, I realized that the music & moment had gotten to me - and that X's influence in revitalizing me was a gift that was intangible - and beautiful.
X's influences on me go back a lot further - and again to Disneyland.
In 2012, I'd headed to LA for a weekend trip, and would be spending the day at Disneyland. It was a particularly harsh February for me, one that started off with receiving dissolution papers for a failed relationship. I was in a dark funk, replacing a lot of what I was normally known to be with a black cloud and heavy darkness that had immersed me in deep and heavy depression. The trip to LA was already in the works when this all came down, and it carried itself with me in my roll-aboard.
The day at the resort was quite good - surrounded with friends & adopted family to begin with - and a good collection of people no less. A lot of love for a lot of people began to crack the darkness around me. After a bit, I went my separate ways to enjoy some of the key Disneyland attractions I'd yet to experience - namely, Haunted Mansion. The lines this evening were quite long, as Disneyland was in the middle of their Mardi Gras celebration, making lines (and crowds) a bit thick; indeed, Haunted Mansion was a 30 minute wait - though one I was happy to deal with. Entering my doom buggy, the notes of the background music surrounding me made it feel right; the smells and the sights of X's creativity began to open my mind - and as we moved through the various scenes & sounds of Haunted Mansion I realized two things: I was singing along - and I was happy. And that I was finally cracking that negativity that was immersing me - and that X's work was part of it. And that Disney's magic was resolving me that though I had ghosts I had to deal with - I could do it.
I rode Haunted Mansion again - and felt even better afterwards, as if a weight had been lifted off of me. Being in something where the ghosts of the past aren't always evil or mean or damaging - and showing that there can be better memories reminded me that I had a road with pain ahead of me - but it would eventually be BEHIND me.
X's influences on me are some of the best I can say I've experienced. His artistic mind and creative personality is a gift we all can receive. And for the millions of people he touched through his works, I say thank you - You altered my life and my mind in beautiful ways. You lifted my soul when I needed it. And you gave me something that others could not: You gave me hope - and with that, happiness. And I will feel your spirit with me every time I head into Haunted Mansion - knowing you are a good ghost who will reside there forever.
Francis Xavier (X) Atencio
September 4, 1919 – September 10, 2017
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...