Six Flags reality falls short of the advertised fantasy world

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Add me to the list of people trying to find out the identity of Six Flags' high-stepping geriatric. When I find him, he better dance as fast as he can.

Six Flags is spending $100 million on Mr. Six and a guest experience upgrade. Its strategy, as stated to Ad Age earlier this year, was to attract parents to bring in their families for a shared experience. The underlying idea was escapism. "It's about getting away," said Alan Kalter, chairman-CEO of Six Flags' agency, Doner, "and going crazy for a day."

That last I can vouch for after a Fourth of July week visit to Six Flags Great Adventure.

The advertising did indeed draw our family. But what we found was layers of extra costs, a disappointing number of broken rides, some shabby-looking equipment and few visible upgrades.

The admission price for two adults and two children, thanks to a Coca-Cola promotion offering a buy-one-get-one-free ticket, was $97.50. Not unreasonable, until you find that's simply the beginning. Once inside, a number of attractions cost from $8 to $10 additional per rider. (A Six Flags spokeswoman said it's "standard" for many parks, including Cedar Fair, Paramount and Universal, to have paid rides beyond the gate).

A Grand Prix race ride was extra-except that the 10-year-olds in our party were three inches too short to ride. They were also just inches too tall to ride the kiddie bumper cars we offered as consolation. A suicidal-looking stomach turner of an adult bungee cost the foolhardy $40 a pop.

After forking over our $10 parking fee, we found several favorite attractions not working, including the cable cars that ferry the footsore from one end of the park to the other. (While we thought the sign indicated 11, but the spokeswoman clarified there were actually seven out of 70 rides, a small percentage, she said, inoperable due to maintenance or weather conditions.)

Some that were running looked the worse for wear. The super-coasters gleamed but paint was sadly peeling off both the Saw Mill Log Flume and Poland Springs Plunge. The Runaway Mine Train tracks looked rusty-and the ride was out of commission. The spokeswoman said that while the company is spending "several million dollars on upgrades, including painting, it is a work in progress." Yet, it was the height of the season.

Since the children in our party were not big-coaster fans, we turned to virtual entertainment-for additional cost. Several of the token machines in two arcades were broken and while the coin slots on the virtual EA Game "Need for Speed" were clearly marked for quarters, it cost $2 to the attendant to play. A second virtual game netted a $5 fee per child per play.

Lacking a "Fast Lane" pass, an innovation which enables one to skip waiting in line for an additional fee (the Web site suggests a $50 price tag for a family of four) we were prepared for a wait of 45 minutes for several rides. The longest was 90 minutes for a Congo Rapids ride where we got pleasantly soaked.

Soaked yes, but did we get hosed? Noting that Great Adventure is "a swell park," the spokeswoman said, "to try and judge a park on a snapshot of one day is not a fair shake."Yet Six Flags is employing a daytripper strategy.

The day's best feature, it turned out, was the cheapest. Outside the rapids ride were water cannons, where, for a quarter a shot, bystanders on dry land can hilariously douse hapless rapid-shooters. Too bad Mr. Six wasn't in the boat.

Scott Donaton is on vacation. He returns to this space August 9.

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