- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

Mark Shapiro is two months into his tenure as chief executive officer of Six Flags Inc., and he’s outlined plans to turn the theme park company into an alternative to Walt Disney World and bring in corporate partnerships.

He plans to have costumed characters walk the parks, put on daily parades, sell “Flash pass” tickets that get buyers to the front of the line, and build minicoasters for parents to ride with their children — all taking a cue from the Disney park in Orlando, Fla.

“I know the hardship many families have making the jaunt to Orlando; my mission is to make Six Flags the better alternative,” Mr. Shapiro said after meeting with about 100 employees at Six Flags America in Largo yesterday.

Six Flags Chairman Daniel Snyder brought Mr. Shapiro to the world’s largest regional theme park company in December after the Washington Redskins owner took control of Six Flags in a proxy battle that ended in November. Mr. Shapiro was the chief executive officer at Red Zone LLC, Mr. Snyder’s private investment company. He also spent 12 years at ESPN, which is owned by Disney.

A marketing agreement between the football team and Six Flags America is almost a given, he said.

“If the Redskins help us sell tickets, we’ll help them sell tickets,” Mr. Shapiro said, adding that the parties haven’t discussed anything yet. “I’m kind of taking that one for granted.”

He’s bringing the sponsorship philosophy to all Six Flag’s parks — to roller coasters, food stands and games. Sunkist earlier this week was named official fruit supplier of the New York theme park company, and there are rumors of talks with Pizza Hut and Papa John’s.

“I don’t want to overcommercialize the park,” Mr. Shapiro said. “If they want to sponsor a roller coaster, that’s fine. If they want the FedEx Express, ‘we get you there the fastest,’ I have no problem with that. People trust that brand.”

By 2007, arcade games, rock walls and features that cost an extra fee will be included in admission, he said. Those costs could be absorbed by sponsorships and promotions with products such as Sony’s Playstation or Microsoft’s XBox, he speculated.

“Smart marketers will begin to use Six Flags to reach people,” Mr. Shapiro said. “We have a captive audience that spends 10 hours a day here. Opera, movie, Redskins game — nobody [else] is spending 10 hours anywhere.”

The changes are all focused on marketing to children and their parents, who spend more money than thrill-seeking teenagers.

“You know what makes a theme park? It’s the environment,” Mr. Shapiro told Six Flag’s staff. “It takes me an hour to get on a ride at Disney because I get stuck on Main Street USA.”

Modeled after the entrance to Disney World, he plans to add food carts, coffee stands, photographers, garbage cans and bathroom attendants, Mr. Shapiro said as he walked the park with management, including new general manager Terry W. Prather, who held the same position at Six Flags New Orleans.

“We’re not abandoning roller coasters,” he said. “We have two audiences we have to serve. We’ll continue to be the thrill-ride leader … and families. We have to get the balance back.”

But he told employees that the 30-park company is $2.6 billion in debt, so Six Flags doesn’t have the money to make additional changes until 2007.

Six Flags has hired Staubach Co., an Addison, Texas, real estate company to analyze the company’s real estate holdings and assist in determining what should be sold to pay off debt.

Mr. Shapiro wouldn’t say that Six Flags America is safe from the ax, but said he likes the Baltimore-Washington market.

“If the community responds [to the park’s changes], this will become a no-touch market,” he said.

Six Flags America will hire 400 additional seasonal employees this summer, boosting its seasonal figure to 2,000. Attendance there climbed about 3.5 percent last year following four years of declining figures.

The park will spend $80,000 to remove the Iron Eagle roller coaster that had become an unpopular “eyesore,” said Mr. Shapiro, who conceded he doesn’t like riding the upside-down rides, but loves big drops and traditional rides such as the Tilt-A-Whirl.

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