Arguably one of the most photographed abandoned amusement parks of all time, Six Flags New Orleans has captured the imaginations of people around the world.
There is something about amusement parks that speaks to the inner child in all of us, and seeing one left to rot is always emotionally touching. But on the rare occasion that an amusement park is not closed due to low attendance or because something bigger and better just moved in, but instead is cut down in an instant at the height of its glory, the remains become truly haunting.
It happened with the Pripyat amusement park in Ukraine, opened for only a couple of hours before closing forever due to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. And it happened with Six Flags New Orleans, which closed its gates ahead of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, never to reopen. As tragic as Pripyat is, at least its permanent closure is understandable, as radiation levels are only now receding to the point that guided tours are permitted inside the Exclusion Zone. But what about Six Flags New Orleans? The floodwaters receded nearly 10 years ago. Why has nothing been done with the property since then?
The answers are complex and confusing, hidden in the storied culture and unusual politics of the City That Care Forgot. While we might not reach a satisfactory conclusion, let’s dig through what we know to better understand this most unlikely of amusement parks and what its future might hold.
The Old Spanish Fort
French explorers arrived in the area that would become La Nouvelle-Orleans, or New Orleans, in the 1690s. They settled along the banks of Bayou St. John, which was already an important Native American trade route due to its natural flow into the Mississippi River. In 1701, the French established a small fort to protect their encampment from Spanish invasion. The city of New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718.
The fort did little good, however, as the city of New Orleans passed to Spanish control in 1763 under the Treaty of Fontainebleau, which was reaffirmed by the Treaty of Paris. The Spanish replaced the small wooden fort with an imposing brick structure, which they named San Juan del Bayou. New Orleans returned to French control in 1800, but was sold to the United States in 1803 under the Louisiana Purchase.
In 1823, the fort, now known to locals as the Old Spanish Fort, was decommissioned and the land sold to private developers. Connected by steam railroad and, later, electric trolley, to the city’s then-excellent public transportation network, it was a natural spot for one of the scenic retreats that were popping up all over the United States at that time.
The first hotel in the region, the Bayou St. John Hotel, opened on the site in 1823, and was later sold and renamed the Spanish Fort Hotel. Over time, the Old Spanish Fort added a casino, a theater, several cabarets, some fine dining restaurants, and a dance pavilion, along with a full-scale amusement park. It soon became known as “The Coney Island of the South,” drawing not only locals but tourists from across the country.
Today, Old Spanish Fort is arguably best remembered for its contributions to Jazz music. The surprisingly integrated amusement resort was a natural gathering spot for musicians of all races and ethnicities, who spent long hours playing together, sharing techniques, and performing for the crowds.
Another, somewhat more fashionable, resort opened at West End (modern day Lakeview) on the banks of the New Basin Canal shipping channel in the 1870s. West End added an amusement park in the early 1900s, while much of Old Spanish Fort was destroyed by a fire in 1906. The owners rebuilt, and the two resorts competed for business until the 1920s, when city reclamation projects destroyed much of West End and moved Lake Pontchartrain’s shoreline away from Old Spanish Fort. Both resorts closed soon after.
Pontchartrain Beach, Lincoln Beach, and Jim Crow Segregation
Pontchartrain Beach opened in 1928 across from the Old Spanish Fort, but both the site and the timing proved to be poor. Thanks to the reclamation project that moved the shoreline and the onset of the Great Depression, the amusement park was never profitable, and it soon closed.
In 1939, however, Harry Batt was ready to try again. His family owned the ice manufacturing plant that had supplied ice to the Old Spanish Fort, and he knew an amusement park in New Orleans could be a major success. He moved the location to the foot of Elysian Fields in the former Milneburg neighborhood on the east side of New Orleans.
Pontchartrain Beach flourished in its new home. The thoroughly modern park was filled with exciting roller coasters, family-friendly flat rides, carnival games, and foods of every description. Visitors could also enjoy the beach and swimming pool, watch free entertainment that ranged from stunt divers to beauty pageants, and take in free performances by up and coming live music acts. Even Elvis Presley made an appearance early in his career.
Pontchartrain Beach is a beloved memory for those who were able to take advantage of it, but sadly, a sizeable portion of New Orleans’ population was excluded from its gates. Jim Crow segregation had taken root. “Separate but equal” was the law of the land.
The City of New Orleans opened Lincoln Beach in 1939 as the African-American alternative, also located in New Orleans East. Modeled after Pontchartrain Beach, the amusement complex featured a beach, swimming pool, amusement rides, carnival games, and restaurants. Local musicians played free concerts on a regular basis, including the legendary Fats Domino, Ray Charles, and Nat King Cole. By most accounts, the park was absolutely beautiful, if not as grand in scale as Pontchartrain Beach.
New Orleans was desegregated in 1964. Lincoln Beach closed that year, and Pontchartrain Beach was now open to all. It continued to evolve, adding new rides and amusements, and remained popular through the 1970s. By the early 1980s, however, Pontchartrain Beach was on a steady decline. It closed for good in 1983, leaving New Orleans without an amusement park of its own.
In those days, New Orleans East was a thriving and racially diverse community. Parts of the East, particularly the Lower 9th Ward, were always lower-income and primarily African-American. Most of the Upper 9th, above the Industrial Canal, was middle-income and predominantly white. Gentilly was long known as a neighborhood for upwardly mobile African-American professionals. Oil money was flowing into New Orleans and the city was flourishing.
In the mid-80s, however, all that changed. The oil bust left one in eight Louisianans unemployed, the highest unemployment rate in the country. Many fled for other cities with better opportunities, and those who stayed were suddenly nervous and uncomfortable. The white population took off for the suburbs, abandoning their homes in New Orleans East and other sections of the city.
Over the next decade, the landscape changed. Section 8 subsidized housing began popping up all over “da East,” as the locals call it, and by the mid-1990s the area was known for its high crime. Most New Orleanians began to avoid the neighborhood. Lake Forest Plaza, a glamorous upscale mall built during the 70s, was mostly abandoned. A once-thriving section of the city was starting to crumble.
In 2000, Alfa Smart Parks (now Palace Entertainment) made the head-scratching decision to open Jazzland, a small amusement park, just off the Interstate 510 Exchange in New Orleans East. In the days of Pontchartrain Beach, New Orleans East had been a reasonably affluent suburb with excellent transportation links to the rest of the city. By the year 2000, however, New Orleans’ public transportation system was in shambles. A good portion of the city’s residents lived without cars, but that meant that leaving their neighborhoods took a great deal of effort and advance planning. New Orleans East was better known for crime and urban decay than tourism, and there was literally nothing else in the area to help draw visitors.
Maybe the land was cheap. Perhaps the investors hoped to bring a new Golden Age to a part of the city whose history was in danger of being lost for good. Given the loving tributes to Pontchartrain Beach that were evident throughout Jazzland, however, my guess would be that at least one investor was an ardent fan of that park, and wanted to create something great in its old neighborhood.
Jazzland was a well-done and much-loved local amusement park. Clean and pretty, with a New Orleans theme and plenty of roller coasters as well as flat rides, on paper it appeared to have all the elements for a successful park. Unfortunately, it never managed to turn a profit.
Jazzland suffered from a number of problems due to its location and lack of easy transportation options. However, the rumor at the time was that it was killed by a lack of marketing funds. As the theory went, locals in the immediate neighborhood didn’t have the money to support the park. But if they could just bring in the well-heeled denizens of the Garden District, Metairie, and Lakeview, not to mention tourists from further afield, the park would thrive.
The Six Flags Takeover
In 2002, just two years after opening, Jazzland was on the verge of bankruptcy. It sold quickly to Six Flags, the amusement park chain that was busily expanding its portfolio. As part of the acquisition, Six Flags was required to sign a 75-year lease with the City of New Orleans, obligating the company to run an amusement park on the property for that length of time.
Six Flags came in with big ambitions. They operated the park as Jazzland for the 2002 season, then began a massive overhaul ahead of their 2003 operations. With a new name (Six Flags New Orleans), new roller coasters, new flat rides, new branding, and a mostly new staff, Six Flags also brought a massive marketing campaign. For the first time, people across the nation would hear about the park, and hopefully be inspired to visit.
However, it never quite worked out that way. Despite Six Flags’ best efforts, the New Orleans park steadfastly remained near the bottom of its portfolio in terms of profits. Nonetheless, the company was in it for the long haul, especially in light of the 75-year lease. In 2005, Six Flags was in the planning stages for a new water park that would be included in the price of admission. The company intended to make an official announcement at the end of August, following the summer season. But Mother Nature had plans of her own.
By late August 2005, school was back in session and Six Flags New Orleans was operating on weekends only. It closed as normal on August 21, intending to reopen for the weekend of August 26-27. But with a hurricane gathering strength in the Gulf of Mexico, the decision was made to keep the park closed that weekend and focus on storm preparations. Staff members put up a message on the sign out front: Closed for Storm. Little did they know that would become one of the most iconic images of Hurricane Katrina.
On the morning of August 28, the hurricane reached Category 5 strength, becoming the fourth most intense hurricane ever recorded to that point (later surpassed by Hurricanes Rita and Wilma). As it set its sights on New Orleans, the National Weather Service issued two extremely explicit emergency bulletins predicting the catastrophic nature of the damage in no uncertain terms. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin appeared multiple times on TV, issuing the first-ever mandatory evacuation in New Orleans’ history and explaining that the long-predicted “big one” was on its way. President Bush also took to the airwaves to urge people to follow the order.
Yet it seemed the city would be spared. At the last minute, Hurricane Katrina took a slight jog to the east, sparing New Orleans a direct hit. It also weakened significantly, thanks to a stunningly well-timed natural eyewall replacement cycle among other factors. The mood of the city that day is perhaps best summed up in the LiveJournal post of a friend who lived in the French Quarter at that time: “It’s raining. Windy. Going to bed.”
On August 29, the storm made landfall near the Louisiana-Mississippi border as a Category 3, with sustained winds of 120 mph. Still an extremely powerful storm, but much less so than it had been just 24 hours before. Although the Gulf Coast was destroyed, it seemed for a brief time that New Orleans had survived the worst of the devastation. Little did everyone know that the worst was yet to come.
Experts had known for years that the levee system, which protects the below-sea level parts of the city from storm surge, was on the brink. Yet an improvement project initiated after Hurricane Betsy’s flooding in 1965 was less than 90% finished when Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005. On August 29, 2005, the nightmare became a reality. As the day progressed, the city experienced 53 separate levee breaches, 20 of them along the manmade MR-GO (Mississippi River Gulf Outlet) shipping channel. Water poured in, filling the City in a Bowl.
Six Flags New Orleans sits on some of the lowest ground in New Orleans, right by one of the most catastrophic levee breaches. The estimated storm surge in that area was approximately 24 feet, and the water had nowhere to go. The park sat, literally submerged, until the city’s pumps were able to get rid of the water more than a month later.
Crises, Insurance Battles, and a 75-Year Lease
When inspectors were finally able to get into the park and assess the damage, Six Flags reported that the buildings were at least 80% destroyed, the flat rides and most of the coasters were unsalvageable due to the brackish floodwaters, and only the corrosion-resistant Batman roller coaster was in reasonable shape. At that point, the company gave indications that the park would eventually return, but not until at least 2007.
On July 1, 2006, however, Six Flags made another announcement. It had completed its damage assessments and the park was a total loss. It had been one of the lowest performers in the Six Flags line-up before the storm, and the company had no desire to rebuild.
Remember that 75-year lease that Six Flags had signed with the City of New Orleans in 2002? With 80% of the city in need of rebuilding after the flood, residents scattered across the country in the largest diaspora since the Dust Bowl, and ongoing problems with crime, Mayor Nagin was understandably not too happy with the idea of Six Flags packing up and leaving town.
Nagin announced that he planned to hold Six Flags to the lease, obligating them to rebuild to the limits of their insurance claim. The park released numbers showing that their lost assets were valued at more than $33 million, but they had only received $11.5 million in insurance proceeds. In early 2007, Six Flags reported that they planned to sue their insurer for the remaining $175 million in their coverage limit.
In December 2006, despite the ongoing battle with the city, Six Flags began removing some of the park’s rides and other assets for restoration and distribution to its other parks. This set off a firestorm of controversy, as some claimed that they removed former Jazzland pieces that they had no legal claim to, while others argued that they should have been barred from removing anything while under legal obligation to rebuild in New Orleans.
I’m not an attorney, and I don’t claim to have any knowledge of whether Six Flags acted in a legal manner or not. But it does seem pretty morally shady to claim a total loss, fight to get out of a lease, and then remove and restore pieces of the “total loss” for use in your other properties (strictly my non-legal opinion). As the story goes, the city filed a restraining order in 2009 to prevent any further removals.
The fate of Six Flags New Orleans hung in the balance, and the story was simply too tantalizing to resist. Urban exploration, or the process of going into abandoned manmade structures, has probably been going on for as long as people have been abandoning buildings. Yet it experienced a major upsurge, possibly due in part to increased media attention and reality shows, around the year 2005. For legions of urban explorers, Six Flags New Orleans made a perfect target—easy to access, located in a lightly trafficked, mostly abandoned region, and not exactly at the foremost of city officials’ minds. Consequently, the Internet is packed with haunting photographs that tell the story of the site’s 10-year decay from the moments after the floodwaters receded through today (we collated 20 of the best in this article).
Of course, not every person who broke into Six Flags New Orleans was simply interested in recording its story. Looting and vandalism was rampant. Much of what was not destroyed by the storm or removed by the company fell victim to those who were “just having a little fun.” This is also well-documented in photographs of the park.
Lease End and Redevelopment Proposals
In September 2009, the City of New Orleans and Six Flags finally reached a settlement agreement to end the 75-year lease. Six Flags, then under bankruptcy protection, was fined $3 million and a portion of its insurance settlement (if Six Flags was to recover more than $65 million) and ordered to vacate. By that point, New Orleans was well on its way to post-Katrina recovery and eager to entertain ideas for redeveloping the site.
Numerous proposals have been reported, including an upscale mall and several variations on a new theme park. Yet the problems that plagued Jazzland and Six Flags New Orleans before the storm remain…now compounded by the fact that New Orleans East has been one of the slowest areas to recover. The first hospital in the neighborhood since Hurricane Katrina only opened in 2014, and grocery stores are still hard to come by. Would anything even vaguely upscale or tourist-centered have a fighting chance? A lot of people have their doubts, while others argue that the time is right for a new Renaissance in New Orleans East, and a flagship park could lead the way.
The Film Industry
Interestingly, the first signs of new life at Jazzland/Six Flags New Orleans came not from investors or developers, but from the film industry. In 2002, Louisiana implemented an aggressive system of tax credits designed to woo the movie industry to the state. Coupled with the warm weather and laid-back way of life, this move did a terrific job of drawing interest from major directors and studios even before Hurricane Katrina.
After the storm, Hollywood powerhouses Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie bought a house in the French Quarter and established the Make It Right Foundation to build affordable, eco-friendly houses in the Lower 9th Ward. Other celebrities also adopted New Orleans as a spiritual home, giving the city the star power boost it needed to take its movie industry to the next level. In 2013, Louisiana actually outstripped California as the filmmaking capital of the world.
The abandoned theme park has proved just as alluring to moviemakers as it has to urban explorers. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and Jurassic World are just three of the major films that have filmed partially in the derelict park.
Only time will tell what ultimately ends up happening to Jazzland/Six Flags New Orleans. In my opinion, one of the recent proposals may turn out to be the best. According to their website, jazzlandpark.com, the Paida Company has submitted a proposal to combine the best of the old and the new. Under the Jazzland name, the complex would combine a brand-new theme park with a full-scale studio production facility known as the Backlot Studio. Future expansions would add a water park and a mixed-use venue called the Backlot Shoppes.
I believe this proposal has some real merit. The nearby Michoud Assembly Facility, a NASA complex that was responsible for building the external fuel tanks for the Space Shuttle program, has long rented part of its space to a local film studio. As the industry continues to expand, however, it seems that the area could support a competitor, especially if the number of movies filmed at the park continues to grow.
The Paida Company has some real talent on its team—theme park leaders and themed entertainment consultants, and even a former fiscal advisor to the Louisiana Legislature. They know the industry and they know the city, giving them a potential leg up on outside investors who are unfamiliar with the challenges of themed entertainment in the Big Easy.
Perhaps Jazzland will eventually become what Disney-MGM Studios and Universal Studios Florida were originally designed to be—a grand tour of the movies, complete with the opportunity to observe filming, with the added bonus of a celebration of local New Orleans culture. To be sure, there are still numerous obstacles to overcome. But if they take an almost backwards approach, starting with the already-thriving moviemaking side and growing the theme park organically, perhaps they would have a fighting chance to succeed. In a city founded on impossible dreams, is it really too much to hope for?