Monday, June 02, 2008

AstroWorld Requiem

Forty years ago on June 1, AstroWorld, the centerpiece of a lot of mine and a host of Houston area kids of my generation's childhood memories opened. The $10 million park was across the 610 Loop from the Astrodomain complex and was accessed by the only private bridge across an interstate highway. It was created and owned by the Hofheinz family until they sold it to Six Flags in 1975.

Astroworld had eight themed areas, all with their own distinctive lighting, music and uniforms for the people working there.

Americana Square: Entry plaza, Emporium Store, Barber Shop, Camera Shop, Malt Shop, Bakery, Candy Store

Alpine Valley: Dentzel Carousel, Alpine Sleigh Ride, Alpine AstroWay Station (Von Roll aerial tramway)

Children's World: Barnyard Petting Zoo, Maypole (tea cups), Rub-a-Dub (nursery rhyme themed boat ride)

European Village: AstroNeedle (double-decker Intamin AG Gyro Tower), Le Taxi (taxi car ride)

Modville: AstroWheel (double Ferris wheel), Orbiter (scrambler), Spinout (sports car ride)

Plaza de Fiesta: Lost World Adventure (jungle boat ride through Rio Misterio); featured in the film Brewster McCloud

Oriental Corner: 610 Limited Train (station), Black Dragon (spider/monster ride), Oriental AstroWay Station

Western Junction: Crystal Palace Theater, Mill Pond (bumper boats), Shooting Gallery, Wagon Wheel (Chance trabant).

The best part about AstroWorld was that it was local. All you had to do was head in the direction of the Astrodomain complex to get there. Six Flags Over Texas was in gasp, Arlington, a four hour drive from Houston.

Even though I have an army of relatives on my mom's side of the family in the Dallas metro area and bounced up I-45 every summer to visit them, I still have never stepped through the gates of Six Flags over Texas. The other Six Flags park in the state, Fiesta Texas, is in San Antonio. While it's newer and only a two hour drive west on I-10 from Houston, I haven't been there either.

AstroWorld was if you were a kid of my generation, the cool place to be. Parents bought their kids season passes for the summer. They dropped them off when the park opened and picked them back up at the end ot the day. Every summer for several years my Grandmother Tama took me and my brother and later my toddler sisters to AstroWorld. There was one summer where I got to go with my church family when Vacation Bible School ended.

If you think waiting in line in Houston's notorious summer heat to get on various park rides was torture, thanks to 2,400 tons of air conditioning it wasn't. One of my favorite rides, the Alpine Sleigh used to have you go through a mountain and get hit with a blast of iceberg chilly air before you exited it. I also used to love Thunder River and the Bamboo Shoot because you get, survey says, seriously splashed.

There was one visit I made to AstroWorld in which a group of my friends and I went. While observing several people riding the then brand new Thunder River, I noted that the raft would be turned by the rushing water currents prior to the Big Splash and any peeps on that side of the boat after it turned would get seriously soaked. I made it a point when we boarded to get on what would become the dry side of the boat. They were pissed when I walked off with a sly grin on my face and bone dry while some of the peeps I rode with were t-shirt contest wet.

And what can I say about the Texas Cyclone and Greezed Lightning? I used to make sure if I was in the park after it rained to ride the Cyclone because it seemed to go a few miles an hour faster than on a dry or warm weather day.

One of the first job interviews I participated in was trying to land a job working at AstroWorld when I turned 16, the minimum age for working there. The applicant pool was long and formidable because it was the ultimate job for teens of my era. If you stated during my high school years that you worked at AstroWorld, your cool points factor went up dramatically.

When I graduated from high school in 1980, I was more excited when my senior year started in the fall of 1979 about the fact that I'd finally get to go to the AstroWorld All Night Senior party than my upcoming walk across the stage in cap and gown a few months later at the Astroarena.

So I was shocked and devastated when Six Flags announced that they were closing the park because they mistakenly believed the real estate underneath the park was more valuable than the park itself. Those bonehead management decisions probably underscore why Six Flags is in debt now.

I followed the efforts long distance to save the park, and had I known it was in danger of closing, I probably would have made a more determined effort to bounce around AstroWorld when I arrived in Houston on Friday afternoon for my brother's July 2005 wedding.

But unfortunately, the efforts failed and the park permanently closed on October 30, 2005. The demolition of it took place soon after its closing and during the early part of 2006. As for the money Six Flags was expecting from the sale of it? It cost them $20 million to demolish the park and clear the land, and they only received $77 million when they were anticipating $105 million. When I passed King's Island on my way to Columbus with Dawn for that fencing tournament last month, it reawakened for a moment the sadness I felt when AstroWorld closed.

The only thing that remains today that even clues you in that the park once stood there is the private bridge crossing Loop 610. A bridge that led to a lot of happy memories for me and several generations of Houston area kids.


OG, The Original Glamazon said...

This post was very close to me personally because I, like you, grew up at Astroworld. It was ony a 35 minute ride from my hometown, Baytown.

Then my ex-husband was a concessionaire there he owned the caricature, temp tatoos, and airbrush shops there. Then 2 years before they closed down they dropped his contract. It was sad he had other parks by then but they were still the major part of his income. They had been struggle for years so the close was not shocked to me because I saw the internal workings or non-workings in the park.

Man I miss the things that make Houston Houston and it seems more and more things are dissapearing.


Monica Roberts said...

Too many memories. I've got a bunch of Astroworld stories I'll have to save for another post or stick in one of my novels..