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Closure of the World's Largest Theme Park

Do you have time for a tale? Sit back, relax, and dive into the interesting and timeless case of Geauga Lake, a tiny family park that started humbly enough before rocketing overnight into international headlines by combining with a full-sized SeaWorld to create the world’s largest Six Flags.

A gargantuan park of mega-coasters, killer whales, dizzying flat rides, a Batman water ski show, dolphins, log flumes, Hurricane Harbor, and motion simulators for one price, Six Flags Worlds of Adventure was conceptually prepared to become the best theme park on Earth.

And yet, you won’t hear about Six Flags Worlds of Adventure today. It’s certainly not on Six Flags’ website. Doesn’t look like they own a park in Ohio at all, does it? Neither will you hear much said about Geauga Lake that isn’t accompanied by sobs from industry fans and admonishing head shaking from insiders. So what caused the rise and fall of Geauga Lake (and the many names it’s gone by)? Now that’s a story for the ages. The best place to start is the beginning. We'll use park maps and images (all from the invaluable Geauga Lake Today fan site unless indicated otherwise) throughout. Those park maps, particularly, tell the story of the park perhaps better than words can!

A history along the shores (1887 – 1968)

GEAUGA LAKE (pronounced Gee-AH-guh) is one of those wonderful, storied parks that grew very organically. Its roots trace back to 1887 (which was adopted as its official “opening date,” if you could call it that) when the park was quite literally a picnic meadow along the northern shores of the eponymous 60-acre pond. Like many of its contemporaries (including nearby Cedar Point), the story really starts when the railroad was built nearby, creating in Geauga Lake a perfect family getaway in the 19th century.

And like so many other picnic parks, Geauga Lake was soon home to a waterside ballroom, gardens, and full-sized steamboat that conducted lavish dance parties on the weekends. In 1889, a steam-powered carousel became its first ever ride – the same spark that would serve as the prologue to many similar, local family parks from Cedar Point to Conneaut Lake; Coney Island to Knoebel's. This was a world before Disney; before the idea that a park could be built-out, constructed all-at-once, and master-planned. Rather, Geauga Lake was the product of generations and generations of slow, steady growth.

To give a sense of Geauga Lake's grand, multi-generational story, consider this: in 1925, just as Walt and Roy Disney were stepping off the train in Los Angeles with dreams of opening an animation studio, Geauga Lake was opening the Big Dipper, the tallest and fastest roller coaster that had ever been built.

The storied past of Geauga Lake is much like many other historical family amusement parks, slowly developing from a picnic spot to a family midway populated by vendors, roller coasters, gardens, and fried food. Likewise, the park’s history is that of debilitating fires, a steady stream of owners, and attractions that form a storied, local foundation for a magnificent park.

It would be impossible to overemphasize the tremendous foundation of the park and its first century. By the 1960s, Geauga Lake was a playground for the great-grandchildren of its first visitors. The quaint park was a draw for locals who hoped to share with their children the wonder of the amusement park on the lake.

The above park map from 1976 gives a good impression of the delightful family park that Geauga Lake was throughout most of its life as it grew up. Even in the bicentennial, Big Dipper was already 51 years old... it had been around for a quarter of the United States' life! 

Whales across the way (1969 – 1997)

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Our story really gets interesting back in 1969, when the park was purchased by Funtime Incorporated, who had plans to develop Geauga Lake into an amusement park as we might define it today – the kind you can see in the map above. Their first decade saw the addition of a log flume, a sightseeing tower of over 200-feet, and even a few steel roller coasters, like Arrow’s Double Loop designed by Ron Toomer. Geauga Lake was transitioning from a picnic park to a modern amusement park.

And it wasn't going to be alone much longer!

A testament to the park’s picturesque location on the southern shore of the gorgeous 60-acre lake, it got a neighbor in 1970 when SEAWORLD OHIO opened directly across, on the northern shore. Predating their now-flagship park in Orlando, SeaWorld Ohio was a real place. The Penguin Encounter, the Shark Encounter, pearl divers, aquaria, Happy Harbor, and even the Shamu show. Yes, that SeaWorld had a park in Ohio, directly across from the Geauga Lake amusement park, a few hundred feet across the pond.

SeaWorld was a complement to Geauga Lake, and it, too, grew and grew. The wildlife park added to its staple killer whale shows, dolphin habitats, and water ski spectaculars.

By the 1990s, SeaWorld in Ohio was a modern park in all ways. It had added an immersive, themed Star Tours style motion simulator called Mission: Bermuda Triangle, a high-tech 4D theater, a meticulously-themed walkthrough dinosaur swamp, and was carrying staples like Clyde and Seamore's sea lion show (below), nighttime spectaculars on the lake, and much more. 

Image: Jeremy Thompson, Flickr (license)

Meanwhile, across the lake, Geauga Lake continued to expand, adding steel coasters and wooden coasters and a water park, as it became a standard family park. It was, primarily, a local spot. And all was right with the world. By the 1990s, Geauga Lake had a collection of roller coasters that sounds fairly standard: the Double Loop, the Corkscrew, the Big Dipper, and more – classic rides for a classic park.

Things began to change in 1995, and at first for the better! A company called Premier Parks acquired Funtime Incorporated, uniting parks like New York’s Darien Lake and Colorado’s Elitch Gardens into a single family of perfectly-sized local parks. And Premier was ready to invest, adding Mind Eraser (a Vekoma Boomerang coaster) and Grizzly River Run (a themed Intamin water rapids ride) while also expanding the water park.

Nearing a new millennium (1998 – 2000)

In 1998, Premier Parks gobbled up another entity, purchasing a down-on-its-luck Six Flags from Time Warner for $1.86 billion. The massive acquisition gave Premier control of Six Flags' already large portfolio of parks. But instead of bringing Six Flags parks into the Premier brand, Premier instead renamed itself (and its own parks) in Six Flags’ image. In 2000, Premier re-named itself Six Flags Theme Parks Inc. and set out to bring its smaller, local parks the benefit of Six Flags' name brand appeal.

So for the new millennium, Geauga Lake got a new identity. The park was renamed SIX FLAGS OHIO. More importantly, it was backed by a feverish new strategy. In 2000 alone, the park was granted $40 million in upgrades, expanding fast. That $40 million brought in twenty new rides, including four major coasters. That brought the tiny family park more in line with other Six Flags branded parks around the world, and it recast the historic Geauga Lake family park as something new: a thrilling, high-tech Six Flags complete with Looney Tunes, DC Super Heroes, and some record-breaking thrills. 

Consider just the major roller coasters stuffed into the park in its first year as Six Flags Ohio. First was The Villain (above), a towering hybrid wooden coaster placed in the park’s Western-themed Coyote Creek land. A gargantuan ride, The Villain ripped through 3,980 feet of wooden track at 60 miles per hour, including a very rare piece of modern trick track, swaying from side to side on opposingly banked rails in an otherwise straight piece of track.

Using Six Flags' licensing rights to the DC Super Hero universe, Six Flags Ohio also received an entirely new themed land: Gotham City. The only fitting inhabitant, of course, was a brand-new roller coaster called Batman: Knight Flight. The 157 foot tall B&M coaster featured floorless trains, leaving riders toes dangling inches above the track as it careened through five inversions, including interlocking corkscrews and the ride's signature: a 135 foot tall vertical loop – the tallest vertical loop in the world. 

A third major coaster, Superman: Ultimate Escape was the first of Intamin’s launched Twisted Impulse Coasters, with its two vertical towers dominating the skyline. The very next year, the park went big with X-Flight (below), a neon-green flying coaster that was nothing short of groundbreaking at the time, positioning riders face-first, lying toward the ground as they race through overbanked turns, loops, and rolls. The Vekoma creation was an early take on the concept that would evolve into B&M's flying coasters, like Manta and Tatsu. 

Each of the rides added to the park was tremendous and stunning in its size and design. They were, inarguably, world class rides. Added to the classic coasters from the park's past and the mild investment of Premier, these new modern marvels made up a nine coaster line-up that would make even Cedar Point or Magic Mountain jealous. 

Would you have believed then that the massive investment put into Six Flags Ohio would be its eventual undoing?

If you haven’t noticed: there is no longer a Six Flags Ohio. What came next might have been the park digging its own grave. If we can say anything though, it’s that the parks built around Geauga Lake went down in flames, not by burning out… The best is yet to come.

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Comments

In reply to by dave (not verified)

That wasn't completely true I went to Six Flags Geauga lake every year. Only because my grandfather loved that place. You cannot Blame the lines on the inner-city people. When you say that... I'm guessing your talking about the Urban area?
It was just a cash hole. They took most of the parks. summit lake park, play land park, Euclid park. I'm sure a lot more are not mentioned. Now you have to travel all the way to the widows peak of Ohio just to get amusement. What Should have happened is a petition to make it a Historical Land Mark.

I have many fond memories of both Sea World and Geauga Lake Park. As I child, I loved to visit the parks. Going to Geauga Lake was a yearly birthday treat for my brother and I. I liked the boat ride and the antique cars best. As I got older it was the log ride. One of my first jobs was working in the parks; I spent many summers enjoying my time working there. I managed the antique photo shop for several years. I had season passes after I was no longer working there. I am so sad when I drive thru the area and can't see much of the wonderful place it use to be. I wish someone would seriously consider purchasing the property and start a park on the property. I wouldn't have to be big, but the old Geauga Lake flavor. I'm sure the community would support bringing something back that meant so much to all of us.

I have many fond memories of both Sea World and Geauga Lake Park. As I child, I loved to visit the parks. Going to Geauga Lake was a yearly birthday treat for my brother and I. I liked the boat ride and the antique cars best. As I got older it was the log ride. One of my first jobs was working in the parks; I spent many summers enjoying my time working there. I managed the antique photo shop for several years. I had season passes after I was no longer working there. I am so sad when I drive thru the area and can't see much of the wonderful place it use to be. I wish someone would seriously consider purchasing the property and start a park on the property. I wouldn't have to be big, but the old Geauga Lake flavor. I'm sure the community would support bringing something back that meant so much to all of us.

Man, how this article makes me sad. I had SUCH fond memories of Geauga Lake and Sea World. I visited during many summers when I was at my aunt's house. The saddest part for me is knowing that her house is no longer there because it sat down a dirt road between Geauga Lake and Sea World where I could walk down to the bank of the lake and watch the Sea World fireworks when they had them. Geauga Lake was one of two family amusement parks that led to my love of wooden roller coasters. And, yes, as per some of the other comments, I also miss the pearl divers at Sea World and still have my pearls from a few visits.

Hello!

Well I worked @ Gl during the CF reign and before that was a season pass holder for 6F. I offer a few additional observations from a different perspective.

The change to 6F was a mixed blessing. Remember that before the change the prior owners had made upgrades to the park to attract the teen demographic, eg The Wolf Bobs and the world's first double loop coaster, among others. 6F's decision to keep the marine park was met with a sigh of relief by the locals who realized that the former Sea World was the real draw, bringing people in from New England, the Mid-South and deep Mid-West. By the time 6F ended their final season, people from those regions were returning.It appeared as if the park was entering a period of stability and growth. Then the sudden decision, a scant few months before season open, to sell the property after having publicly denied several queries concerning the closure of 6F parks. Perhaps CF, on the crest of that wave of speculation, made an irrefusable offer.

Under CF management many questionable decisions were made, almost immediately, which made an impact on the quality of the park and the feelings of the people in attendance. 1. The Halloween event was limited to family friendly only attractions. I conversed with the contractors responsible for staging the haunted houses, who expressed their opinion that this would kill attendance at future Halloween events. They were right. The next closest amusement park with gory, adult themed Halloween attractions? CP. 2. The Oktoberfest event was drastically gutted the second year. Expletive laden complaints from attendees who felt ripped-off were heard throughout the park. The third year, the number of vendors again dropped, which was echoed in attendance figures. The closest amusement park with a full bore Oktoberfest? CP. 3. Meanwhile behind the scenes, it was said that,down at the state house, CF reps were busy pushing for legislative approval to permit GL it's own police force. They were successful. Honest to God, state certified, gun toting GL police officers now patrolled the park. Not one or two per shift, all patrols were police. Exceptions were at the gates and police administrative positions. What does it say about a park that feels it requires armed police officers to patrol during open business hours with guests in attendance? What is happening in that park that requires the need for lethal force? Do I want to bring my family there? 4. Immediately upon acquiring the park, CF significantly raised the price of Season Passes and raised parking fees and concession prices. Budget minded families were to be seen leaving the park to walk to nearby fast food outlets. 5. Concurrently, employee wages were cut drastically from the former 6F levels. Managers complained they were hired in up to $2.00 less per hour than the previous year, often just .25 p/h more than the employees they supervised. Many left their positions to find less stressful jobs elsewhere. Each subsequent year, employees were offered less. Eventually, CF negotiated with Cleveland RTA to install a stop nearby so desperate workers from economically distressed communities in the city could be employed. Gone were the days when middle class college students would seek employment at GL. 6.More and more employees were also brought in from economically troubled countries in Eastern Europe. Some had difficulty speaking and understanding English. While most of these young adults were honest hard working individuals, many were too hard working. Some claimed to be working second and third jobs elsewhere putting in 80+ hours a week. Many were ride operators responsible for the safety of the riders. While the general public was not aware of this situation, I can't help but wonder how comfortable they would have been had they known the person pulling the switch on their roller coaster or scanning a stretch of water in the wave pool had just come off a double shift elsewhere?

What was the impetus for the decisions made by CF regarding this park? Were they trying to reform the park to it's former family friendly state? If so, why close the park after taking so much trouble to clear out the non-suitable attractions and not take the next logical step to revamp it and promote it? Were the rumors true that CF bought the park to shut down a perceived rival to CP's supremacy as the "worlds best thrill ride park"?
Anyone who believed GL was or ever could be such a threat must surely be demented. So I guess we'll never really know what was behind the buying and closing of GL by CF. It will forever remain in the realm of speculation. Unless - an insider on the board of directors or other high ranking mucky-muck in the CF hierarchy decides to write an expose. Who knows? Could be a best-seller. Any takers?

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