DOES SIX SELL?

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The dancing-geezer ad icon has put Six Flags theme parks into the spotlight, but poor early summer attendance could signal problems in the regional chain's business that its newfound star can't solve.

Mr. Six has been a fixture on news and talk shows, has his own blogs and fast-selling merchandise line and the campaign effort featuring him has ranked among the top 10 most recalled ads by Intermedia Advertising Group. Yet attendance at Six Flags has dropped 4% this year through June, according to recently released financial reports.

Instead of blaming the quick-stepping star of the "It's Playtime!" campaign, industry consultants said bad weather, high gasoline prices, the still-sluggish economy and the late Memorial Day start have chipped away at crowds. Six Flags itself remains committed to the $100 million global ad push it launched this spring and has begun planning ways to use its Mr. Six icon, created by independent Doner, Southfield, Mich., in 2005.

"Regardless of the numbers, this campaign is an absolute home run," said Six Flags spokeswoman Debbie Nauser. "It's delivered far beyond our expectations in media coverage alone."

fan complaints

Fan sites and influencer message boards list complaints from park-goers that include broken rides, unkempt parks, lax security and additional charges for high-profile rides. Park executives said premium fees are an industry standard and that emphasis has been put this year on upgrading guest services and rehabbing restaurants and restrooms.

David Miller, an analyst with Sanders Morris Harris, downgraded Six Flags' stock from buy to hold recently because of floods in Chicago, Atlanta and Texas. "Their ad campaign is a significant effort for the company to rebrand itself," Mr. Miller said. "They're simply getting hit with weather problems."

Some other theme-park chains are in the same boat, competing with an increasing glut of summer leisure activities such as concerts, zoos, sports events and Hollywood blockbusters, which have taken hits in attendance as well. Regional parks are especially vulnerable, analysts said, while destination parks like Disney World and Universal Studios are having strong years, in part because of new rides like Disney's "Twilight Zone Tower of Terror." Cuts in airfares also have encouraged traveling.

Cedar Fair, Six Flags' prime competitor and parent of Ohio's Cedar Point and Southern California's Knott's Berry Farm, posted a 3% drop in June same-park attendance. "With 70% of our annual attendance still ahead of us and a late Labor Day weekend this year, we remain confident that our combined 2004 attendance and revenue goals are still within reach," said Richard Kinzel, chairman, president and CEO of the seven-park amusement chain, in a statement.

Six Flags executives said they have already seen improvement in attendance this month, though no figures were available, and still have more than half the summer to go. The company started rolling out the Mr. Six campaign in March, attempting to reverse a two-year attendance slide.

Doner has shot new Mr. Six commercials for the second half of the summer, including Halloween-themed ads for the parks' Fright Fest, aiming to generate enough excitement so consumers will fit a visit into their packed schedules.

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