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.
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.