Pop Culture

How Houston became the biggest U.S. city without a theme park

The region has flirted with getting another amusement park since the iconic Astroworld closed in 2005. Industry experts say it’s only a matter of time before one materializes.

Gail Delaughter/Houston Public Media

Houston was one of the first metropolitan areas in the United States to open an amusement park, with Astroworld debuting in 1968 and becoming an icon not only in the region but across the entertainment industry.

Fifty-five years later, the popular summertime spot for generations of Southeast Texas kids has been closed for nearly two decades, with once-towering roller coasters and thrill rides having long been torn down and replaced by a big parking lot.

Now Houston is the country's largest market without a theme park, with places like rival Dallas having zipped past it in terms of becoming a destination for family-friendly fun. Six Flags Over Texas remains in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, and Universal Parks & Resorts recently announced a plan to construct a small theme park north of the city in Frisco.

"That's one of the biggest mysteries, I think, in all of the industry," said Christopher Penney, a longtime amusement park enthusiast who worked in the industry and now is an associate professor of management at the University of North Texas. "How you can have a market that's the largest metropolitan area in Texas, how you could have that and not have a single theme park? It's very surprising on many levels."

Two other industry experts, Boston-based theme park journalist Arthur Levine and Dennis Speigel of International Theme Park Services in Ohio, echoed Penney's sentiment. They said Houston remains an attractive location for an amusement park because of its sizable population – more than 2 million residents within the city limits and more than 6 million in the region – but has somehow managed to go without one since Astroworld closed in 2005.

Speigel said multiple theme-park developers have explored the Houston area during the last two decades, adding that economics could be a factor in why nothing has yet to materialize. Penney said investors are hesitant to take chances on start-from-scratch projects at a time when parks in places such as Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, have flopped in recent years.

It can cost upward of $700 million to build an amusement park, according to Speigel, who said a smaller-scale park in the $500 million range might be more suitable for Houston. He and Levine also said theme-park operators such as Six Flags – which ran Astroworld – might be hesitant to return to Houston when there are parks in nearby big cities such as Dallas and San Antonio, which has both Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld.

There also is Pleasure Pier, a carnival-like boardwalk in Galveston, and other similar attractions in the Houston region. Six Flags operates the Hurricane Harbor Splashtown water park in the Spring area, while Big Rivers Water Park & Adventures in rural New Caney offers water slides, thrill rides and aerial adventures.

"If folks are looking to ride a roller coaster, they don't have to travel too far in order to be able to do that," said Levine, who writes about amusement parks at aboutthemeparks.fun. "I think that might give a developer pause."

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, whose second and final term ends this year, said in the fall of 2019 that an amusement park could be forthcoming, according to a report at the time by Houston TV station ABC13. But like some of the other overtures referenced by Speigel, nothing came of it.

Astroworld 1989
AP Photo/Gaylon Wampler
Thrill seekers scream as they come out of the tunnel on the Viper roller coaster at Astroworld Six Flags Theme Park in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 30, 1989. The park closed in 2005.

Turner's office said in a statement to Houston Public Media that the issue has been on the mayor's radar. He had plans in early 2020 to appoint a theme park task force, according to his office, but the COVID-19 pandemic prompted Turner to shift his focus to guiding the city through related financial and public health challenges.

"While there have been some preliminary conversations between the City of Houston and developers, nothing concrete has been finalized at this time," his office said in the statement. "Mayor Turner still champions the idea of attracting a new theme park to the city of Houston and hopes the opportunity is pursued by future administrations."

Neither Six Flags nor Universal Parks & Resorts responded to emails seeking comment.

Penney and Speigel both said Six Flags' decision to close Astroworld in 2005 had more to do with the company's financial viability at the time than it did the success of the amusement park. The value of the land where it was located, compared to other Six Flags' properties, provided more of a return with a sale, according to Penney.

"Astroworld was one where they could get the most return without losing the biggest chunk of their revenue," Penney said. "It was a business decision."

The 75-acre property is now owned by the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, which operates at nearby NRG Park and uses the former amusement park space for extra parking during rodeo season.

Shelby Pipken, a spokesperson for the rodeo, said there are no imminent plans to do anything else with the property.

"It's a big block of land," she said. "I think there's a future, but we just have not decided what it is."

The Astroworld closure notwithstanding, and even during a pandemic, Levine said there has not been an industry-wide contraction of theme parks in recent years. To the contrary, Penney said theme parks are "one of the biggest growing segments" in the entertainment industry, because people are anxious to get out and about post-pandemic and have a desire to "physically hold something or smell something or touch something."

So the three theme-park experts agreed that it's likely only a matter of time before Houstonians can get back on a roller coaster like the Texas Cyclone, or get splashed by a Tidal Wave, without having to leave the city.

"Houston is a market that can support it," Speigel said. "I think at some point in time, someone will develop the properly sized park for that market."

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