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Six Flags Over Georgia turns 50 and oh, what a ride

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.

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“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.”

Six Flags Over Georgia aerial shot in 1967. CONTRIBUTED BY BOB VERLIN (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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.

RELATED: Flashback Fotos: Six Flags Over Georgia through the years

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.

The Great Air Racer airplane ride, the Great Gasp parachute ride (background) and the Georgia Cyclone roller coaster were three popular rides at Six Flags Over Georgia in the 1990s. CONTRIBUTED BY SIX FLAGS OVER GEORGIA (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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.

One of Six Flags Over Georgia’s most recognizable rides, the wooden Great American Scream Machine, is seen in this vintage photo. The amusement park is currently celebrating its 50th season. CONTRIBUTED BY SIX FLAGS OVER GEORGIA (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

RELATED: Amusement park expert gives high praise to Six Flags over Georgia

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.”

5 rides at Six Flags for thrill seekers (www.accessatlanta.com)

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.

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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.”

When Six Flags Over Georgia opened in 1967, one of its rides was Tales of the Okefenokee. In 1981, that ride was replaced by Monster Plantation, which was revised into the current Monster Mansion in 2009. (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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.

Six Flags Over Georgia had the Hanson Cars when it opened in 1967 (though in a different spot). Over a half century ago, these antique cars were the latest in transportation. Today, visitors to Six Flags Over Georgia can pilot these sporty, one-cylinder, 7-horsepower gasoline buggies at a racy 7 miles per hour. CONTRIBUTED BY GREAT SOUTHWEST CORP. POSTCARD (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

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