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Abandoned: The Heartbreaking True Story of Six Flags New Orleans

Urban Exploration

Image - Rande Archer, Flickr

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).

Six Flags New OrleansSix Flags New Orleans

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

Mall Proposal Image (c) nola.com

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

Image - Jdarn010, Wikimedia Commons

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.

Future Possibilities

Concept art (c) jazzlandpark.com

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?

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