My daughter and I just returned from our annual visit to Six Flags Over Texas. For about seven years we’ve made Six Flags the heart of an extended visit to the area. We also work in minor league baseball (Grand Prairie Air Hogs, Fort Worth Cats, and Frisco Rough Riders), major league baseball (Texas Rangers), a great zoo (the Fort Worth Zoo), and horse racing (Lone Star Park).
Some of my earliest impressions of Texas history came from Six Flags back when the park highlighted its historical theme. I’ve started collecting memorabilia from the old Six Flags because of its unique combination of history and amusement. One of my favorite postcards from the earliest days of Six Flags features a Yankee spy facing a firing squad (all captions are the originals from the postcards). To me, nothing says “family fun” like shooting a Yankee.
It’s interesting to see how Texans mix their fun with their history. One of the themes in our textbook is the difference between the myth and reality of Texas. It’s easy to imagine how big the gap between real Texas history and the myths we hold when you consider the kind of impressions we might have picked up from places like Six Flags. Most of these myths proved harmless. However, it’s disconcerting to think about how many hours our history teachers labored to give us a little authentic history only to see us run off over the summer and witness the recreation of a little “Texas justice” first-hand.
The image of the old west lives in Texas memory. Rick Perry launched his 2006 reelection campaign with the image of cattle being driven (down a modern city street). In truth, the days of the cattle drive were a very small part of our history and ended when fences blocked the trails. Cowboys of some variety still tend to herds but migratory life of the cattle drives existed only briefly. The “wild west” is more than a century in our past and we’ve generally been much more civilized than we often care to admit.
Today, Six Flags Over Texas is very different. Little remains of the Spanish, French, Mexican, Confederate, Texas, and USA sections of the park that mirrored the six flags that have flown over Texas. The sections are still on the map, but have clearly lost their flavor as history gave way to corporate influence (Panda Express™ has a location in the Texas section while Ben and Jerry’s™ is in the South) An “El Sombrero” ride still spins patrons on a giant Mexican hat (although a smaller hat size than the original ride). The original conquistador de Coronado ride is long gone since Six Flags quickly decided that having tourists riding around on the back of live burros was a bad idea.
The “branding” that goes on has little to do with cattle and more to do with Starburst, Papa Johns, and other national brands. There are many more Looney Tunes characters and super heroes wandering around than cowboys. The “Texas Justice” shootout is still staged five times daily but more kids have their picture taken with Batman than Six Flag’s local sheriff. This year saw the replacement of Sam Houston’s Texas show (a short history of the state) with Dick Clark’s Bloopers. The live show at the Crazy Horse Saloon still survives (perhaps because it’s air conditioned), but too many tourists talk noisily or wander in and out during the performance.
The demise of history at Six Flags Over Texas is not the fault of the Six Flags corporation. I think it’s safe to say that they days in which Texans would find it entertaining to ride past a few skeletons propped up in an fake saloon are far as our past as the stagecoach. The days of Texans as accidental historians are gone.