Ice House

Closed, But Never Forgotten: AstroWorld Turns 50

As we reflect on AstroWorld's past, we wonder: Will Houston ever have another amusement park like it again?

By Dianna Wray May 29, 2018 Published in the June 2018 issue of Houstonia Magazine

The Texas Cyclone

The day AstroWorld closed, October 30, 2005, was one of unofficial citywide mourning in Houston. Only the Bayou City could have given rise to the park—from its inception a signal, along with the Johnson Space Center and the Astrodome, that Houston was on the rise—and its closure was a shock.

Now, on the 50th anniversary of the park’s opening, on June 1, 1968, it’s hard to imagine such a place existing within the Houston city limits ever again. Still, die-hard fans keep hoping.

On opening weekend five decades ago, even Houston’s temperamental weather got in line. There was a smattering of showers across the city, but the clouds didn’t dare break open over the new attraction—modeled on Disneyland and built just south of the Astrodome, right in the middle of town, by former Houston mayor Roy Hofheinz Sr., who’d traded politics for development after his unceremonious ousting from office a decade before.

More than 20,000 people flooded into the park that first weekend, marveling at the carefully constructed worlds, created by a former movie-set designer and built on more than 50 acres of land. That Christmas, ABC broadcast The Pied Piper of AstroWorld—then-16-year-old Patrick Swayze had a part as a dancing bear—to show off Houston’s newly minted marvel, complete with a 2,400-ton, underground air-conditioning unit for cooling down large portions of the park.

AstroWorld gradually became its own thing, instead of a Disney knockoff. After 1975, when the Hofheinz family leased the park to Six Flags (they sold it outright a few years later), the park served as a testing ground for various innovations, including Thunder River, the first commercially successful river-rapids ride, and Greezed Lightnin’, a roller coaster that went from zero to 60 mph in seconds. The park soon boasted some of the most intense, inventive amusement rides in the industry. From the 1970s on, any kid growing up in Houston knew the names of these beasts: the Texas Cyclone, the Viper, XLR-8, Ultra Twister, Batman The Escape, and so many more.

Greezed Lightnin'

In many ways, the place defied the odds. Other companies attempted to open their own Houston-area theme parks, but Busch Gardens, Hanna-Barbera Land, and Sea-Arama Marineworld all ultimately folded as AstroWorld thrived. More than 30 million people visited in its first two decades alone. During the ’80s and ’90s, as other parks struggled, attendance at AstroWorld increased. Six Flags ownership changed hands repeatedly from the ’80s on, but the Houston park remained the place to go for concerts, Halloween Fright Nights, Holiday in the Park, and, simply, a good old-fashioned thrill.

What killed AstroWorld? Well, there were issues. Season-ticket prices were so cheap, parents started dumping off their kids there, using the place as a makeshift day care. Gang activity got so bad, the park installed metal detectors—which, while commonplace today, was unheard-of at the time. But the main factor was the rising value of the land the park sat on.

In September 2005, the debt-saddled Six Flags owners—betting that what had once been relatively worthless swampland would fetch $150 million or more—announced that the park was closing, shuttering it within a matter of weeks. In the end, though, they got only $77 million. The land stands empty to this day, aside from the tract used for overflow parking from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.

There’s been nothing comparable in Houston since. The Grand Texas Theme Park, slated to be constructed in New Caney, has been held up as the replacement, but it won’t be located inside the city limits and the project has been delayed repeatedly.

There’s still some reason to hope, though. In 2016, Mayor Sylvester Turner went on the record as wanting to see a permanent, year-round AstroWorld-style attraction inside the city. “I’m not talking about in Katy or Tomball or Spring or Pearland,” he said. “I’m talking about within the 640 square miles of the city of Houston.”

It’s fairly certain such a park would be good for Houston. “There’s a spillover effect to any tourist attraction like a theme park,” says Jason Draper, a UH professor specializing in economic tourism. “It makes people who are visiting for work more likely to stay a little longer, and gives people a reason to come down to Houston and spend the money required to stay here, to eat, to get around. The whole economy can benefit.”

Turner tells Houstonia that making another park happen will come down to attracting the right developer with the vision—and financing—to pull it off. “I definitely want to see this happen,” he says. “A world-class city needs a world-class amusement park.”

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