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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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It never was the world's largest theme park. The 700 acres that are used represent the park's total land holdings, not the acreage that was actually used for the park. Yes it was a massive 700 acres (actually 690) but that included the hotel, the campground, the lake (50 acres), the parking lots and 110 undeveloped acres. According Six Flags' 2003 10-k it wasn't even the largest Six Flags park, Great Adventure's total land holdings were 2,200 acres and Darien Lake's were 988. The 10-k also states that of WOA's 690 acres, 158 were used for theme park operations. By comparison, Great Adventure had 240 acres devoted to theme park operations while Magic Mountain had 160 acres. It wasn't even the largest theme park in Ohio. Cedar Fair's 10-k shows that King's Island has a total of 677 acres, 351 of which are developed, while the report Cedar Point has 365 acres nearly all of which are developed.

I'm years late to the discussion here - which means that probably very few people will see it (and all due credit, by the way to Brian Krosnick for his great reporting in this piece) - but I thought I'd add my two cents, coming from one of the other perspectives that was mentioned in the article: that of the proto-typical "Out of Towner" attracted to Geauga Lake during the Six Flags' "glory years."

The one and only time we visited what was then Six Flags Worlds of Adventure (I knew nothing of the name Geauga Lake or its history, being from Western New York) was the summer of 2003 when my wife and I took our then 6-year-old nephew and 5-year-old niece there for a long weekend. I find Krosnick's description of the park having been transformed from a "local park for locals" to an international theme park interesting because the reason - and I mean the ONLY reason - we went there was due to the fact that we were Six Flags season pass holders (at our local park, which was then, and is again, Six Flags Darien Lake - more on that later). With those passes, we could get in to Worlds of Adventure for free.

Not knowing what to expect as we set foot in Worlds of Adventure, sight unseen - other than we were intrigued by a combined theme park and Sea World concept - we were all quite impressed by the size and scope of the park. It truly had something for everyone, from the kiddie rides (good for our 5 year old niece) to the roller coasters for myself and our nephew, to the entertainment (great for us all). Having nothing else on which to base our opinions, we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience and thought it would be a place to which we would all return in the future. Sad to say we never returned, since that was the final year of Six Flags' ownership of the park and our Darien Lake-issued season passes would no longer be valid for admittance.

Though we never planned a return visit, the only reason we did not was due to our Six Flags membership status. Otherwise we were all very impressed with the park. From our perspective, that was the end of the story when it came to Six Flags Worlds of Adventure - I knew nothing of the tortured history of the park following Six Flags' departure. Now, with the hindsight of a decade and a half behind us - as well as the full knowledge of the history of the park as outlined in this article - I am saddened by the all-too-soon demise of what, to us, was a great park.

One side note - since we traveled more than four hours to get to the park - we combined our trip with a stopover in Cleveland (or, we may have stayed there for the duration of our visit - it has been so long now, I've forgotten that detail). While there, we took in several Lakefront attractions including the USS Cod and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All in all, it was a great family trip with great memories that have lasted to this day.

The takeaway from this story, as "Out of Towners," is that the park actually attracted our tourism dollars - not only to the park itself, but also the surrounding areas - money, as Western New York residents, that we wouldn't have otherwise spent in central Ohio.

Postscript: Had we known, during our 2003 visit to Six Flags Worlds of Adventure, that that was the last year of Six Flags' ownership - or that the reason for Six Flags' departure was due to their imminent financial implosion - we would have been nervous about our own Six Flags park and membership. As it was, Six Flags' reorganization meant that they would also sell off Darien Lake (our park) within a couple of years. Fortunately for us - and Darien Lakes' other fans - the company that bought it cared for it with a stewardship that was much more conscientious than Cedar Fair's treatment of Geauga Lake and its fans. Flash forward to this year, a stronger Six Flags organization has re-purchased Darien Lake and we are now under the Six Flags banner once again, without having barely missed a step.

I went to Geauga Lake ONCE with a friend's family in the early/mid 90's. We took 2 days and did both Sea World and Geauga Lake. This die-hard Cedar Point girl remembers GL to be very underwhelming. I always remembered the coasters as a small wood one and "half of the Corkscrew" - even though it seems like there were a few more, even then. So I always dismissed it. I knew it had turned into a Six Flags, but I figured it was just a rebranding. I never knew that they added coasters. After hearing the whole story, I'm kind of sad that I wrote it off and never went back.

I had a few great memories of everything starting with sea world. I loved it as a youngster and was lucky enough to visit before it sold out too (1999). It's one of the reasons I love marine life so much. as for Geauga lake/Six Flags, I first visited with a free ticket from selling newspaper subscriptions and almost drowned in the first wave pool, I was pulled up by a life guard and the waves stopped for a half hour because of it. when I was in high school (summer 96) a bunch of friends went in for the after 4pm cheaper rates just to see a DOORS cover band playing on one of the stages. I'm pretty sure the last visit for me was 2007 when the boardwalk crossing the lake was there. I made some special brownies because I had a free ticket from a buddies work picnic. my friend was sick and couldn't go, but that didn't stop me going alone. I spent most of my day in the water park loving the slides and hours in the lazy river. that board walk was a perfect end to the day with slight drizzle of rain and a great buzz. It makes me sad to know a park that could of overtaken ceder point as the best amusement park in all of the world was sold to cedar fairs just to close it's competition. you can't blame cedar fairs for doing what they did. It was less than an hour drive north and less crowded than cedar point. It leaves a sour look on my face thinking what has happened to put an end to a great lake. SIX FLAGS SUCKS!

I grew up in Ohio, not far from here and as an 80s kid, would come every summer of my childhood and early teen years to these parks. Spend the day at GL, wind down after supper taking in Sea World's shows. It was perfect...

I grew up and we stopped going. We heard shortly after Sea World packed up shop and went south, citing the winters as "too cold" to maintain the park, which always struck me as odd since they've been here forever and it's never been a problem before. Less reason to go.

Then I heard Six Flags bought GL and figured it was now going to be a generic themed mass roller coaster park (something I could find elsewhere) and didn't want to bother going back.

Didn't know anything else had happened beyond that point. Had no idea ALL THIS HAPPENED because frankly, there's been no advertising of any of it that's reached me. I think I heard the phrase "worlds of adventure" once or twice, tops. No word they had parks all around the entire lake now.

So sad...

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