Tim Lyon was 9 years old when his dad dropped him, his brother and his sister off for a day of excitement at the Southeast’s newest theme park — Six Flags Over Georgia.
It was opening day and Lyon was hyped.
His father gave the kids $1 each in their hands to spend for food and souvenirs, but the fun they had that day was priceless.
“Everything was new. Everything was fresh,” said Lyon, a 59-year-old flight attendant who lives in Fayetteville. “Oh my God. We rode the rides all day long, and when he came to pick us up at 6 p.m., we begged and begged and begged to stay until 10 p.m. and he agreed.”
Lyon hasn’t missed a year since.
“It was an experience like we had never had before — riding the log ride, riding the antique cars. It was an exciting day for Atlanta.”
Fifty years ago this month, Six Flags Over Georgia opened to much fanfare. At the time, the park cost $12 million to build, and included the popular Dahlonega Mine Train.
“There were a lot of firsts in the first decade of the park being opened,” said spokesman Gene Petriello.
One of the earliest rides — and a wonder in its day — was the Great American Scream Machine roller coaster. When it opened in 1973, the coaster was the longest and tallest wooden roller coaster in the world. A few years later, the Mind Bender, a triple-looping, 50-plus mph steel roller coaster, opened to thrill-seeking fans.
Chip Sieczko, assistant regional representative for American Coaster Enthusiasts, has visited Six Flags Over Georgia hundreds of times — the first time in 1990, a few years after his family moved to metro Atlanta.
“It’s really the big regional theme park in the Southeast and one of the first theme parks outside of Disneyland,” said Sieczko, who works in tech support. Sieczko, who lives in Sandy Springs, said it’s among the top favorites of “park fans and hardcore coaster geeks.”
His organization, which has more than 6,000 members, has awarded preservation plaques for Mind Bender as a theme park cultural landmark and this year gave the same honor to the Great American Scream Machine.
That first visit was almost magical.
“It was such a beautiful park with all the landscaping, and the ride selection was really second to none — then and now,” he said.
His favorite ride is the Mind Bender roller coaster, which opened in 1978. If one thinks of it as a song or poem, Sieczko said, “It’s just perfect. The pacing. The speed. The beautiful views. It’s just a phenomenal ride.”
John Odum began working at Six Flags Over Georgia in 1972 at age 16 as a costumed character. He rose through the ranks to become general manager of the park from 2000 to 2003 and is now senior vice president of international operations for the Six Flags chain. He’s seen a lot of changes over the years but says some things remain the same: the dedication of the people who work there, and the park’s goal to make sure everybody has a good time.
“Where can we go to have fun?” has been the defining element of Six Flags, he said. “Things have changed, but they stay the same,” he added.
Though the park continues to add new rides and make use of the latest technologies, it’s important that some of the rides remain throughout the years. “We want to bring our kids and grandkids to ride the same rides that we did, like the Log Jamboree and the Dahlonega Mine Train,” he said.
“Guests tell us what they want,” said current park President Dale Kaetzel. “We let our guests be our guides. They vote with their feet and their wallets.”
Other former park managers agree. Spurgeon Richardson, who led the park from 1979 to 1992 and went on to be head of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau, said that family fun was a goal in its earlier years. Back then, the park had the advantage of less competition from other tourist attractions and the lack of distraction from electronic devices. The park also had less competition for employment, letting it choose the best employees available. “Less competition, and the park’s innovation, combined to make us the best we can be,” he said.
Odum’s love for the park and his job led to something greater than he might have expected: That’s how he met Laurie, his wife of 37 years. She worked as a ticket taker at the front gate.
“I was working as the Domino Sugar Bear at Six Flags. She fell in love with it, not knowing I was inside,” he said. It turns out she took a photo with him back in 1975, with neither of them knowing the other.
“We love what we’re doing,” he said.
50 YEARS OF FUN, THRILLS
Three current rides at Six Flags have been at the park since opening day (there were 12 when it opened):
Six Flags Railroad
Dahlonega Mine Train
Hanson Cars (originally operated where Georgia Cyclone is now)
These rides have a link to the park’s opening:
Log Jamboree: The original flume opened in 1967, and a second was added in 1968. The original was removed in 1990, but the second flume remains today.
Sky Buckets: The skyway to the Lickskillet area was added in 1968, but on opening day, another skyway, called the Astro Lifts, ran from where Dare Devil Dive is to a location near the Dahlonega. The original skyway was removed in 1981.
Monster Mansion: The building housing this dark ride remains from the park’s opening day, when it housed Tales of the Okefenokee. In 1981, that ride was replaced by Monster Plantation, which was revised into the current Monster Mansion in 2009.
Six Flags Over Georgia through the years
June 16, 1967: Six Flags Over Georgia opens its doors.
1968: The park adds the Western-themed Lickskillet area.
1972: The Riverview Carousel, which had operated at Chicago’s Riverview Park, anchors a new area known as Carousel Hill.
1973: The Great American Scream Machine debuts in the new Cotton States Exposition area. Guinness Book of World Records recognizes the Scream Machine as the longest (3,800 feet) and tallest (105 feet) on Earth.
1976: The Great Gasp parachute ride towers over the park at 225 feet tall.
1978: Mind Bender, the park’s first looping roller coaster, opens.
1981: Monster Plantation, featuring animatronic characters and a new storyline, opens in the building where Tales of the Okefenokee had operated since opening day.
1990: The Georgia Cyclone opens on the site of the Hanson Cars, which are relocated to their current location on Carousel Hill.
1997: Batman the Ride opens as the area around it and Mind Bender are transformed into Gotham City.
1998: Park entrance is remodeled as Six Flags continues to draw bigger crowds. A back entrance closes.
2002: Superman: Ultimate Flight coaster opens.
2006: Goliath, the park’s tallest and longest roller coaster, debuts; its station is near the spot where Great Gasp was removed the previous year.
2009: Monster Plantation is remodeled into Monster Mansion.
2014:Hurricane Harbor, a water park, is added where an amphitheater had been located; Holiday in the Park, a Christmastime event featuring millions of lights, extends the park season into January.
2017:Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, an interactive dark ride, opens as part of the back of the park becomes Metropolis Park; Six Flags Over Georgia celebrates its 50th anniversary on June 16.
If you go
On June 16, the gates at Six Flags will open an hour earlier than usual, at 9:30 a.m. Ceremonies honoring the park’s anniversary and other activities will take place in the Promenade area at the entrance; rides will operate 10:30 a.m.-9 p.m. General admission at the gate is $67.99 for adults and $47.99 for children under 48 inches tall, but save up to $20 on adult tickets at www.sixflags.com/overgeorgia if you buy a ticket at least one day before your visit. Children 2 and younger are admitted for free. Six Flags Over Georgia is west of Atlanta on I-20 outside of I-285 (275 Riverside Parkway, Austell). 770-739-3400, www.sixflags.com/overgeorgia.