Opinion

Making a Splash

New England’s largest theme park has room to grow, as evidenced by this year’s major expansion of its water park. Times are good all around, the park’s general manager says, and not just for the company. Agawam is reaping greater tax revenues from Six Flags than ever before, while the park has proven to be a major asset for the region’s increasing emphasis on tourism.

Ron Sevart climbed to the top of a waterslide tower and pointed to the ground below. He then pointed in another direction, and then another.

If he was trying to demonstrate the scope of the newest project at Six Flags New England, a massive expansion of the water park, it worked. The expansion wraps around the existing water area, adding nine slides, a second wave pool, vastly expanded deck space, and a new entrance from Main Street. The end result? Twice as much room for water recreation.

"It was already the largest water park in New England," said Sevart, the park’s general manager. "Now there’s a lot more space."

When it comes to park arithmetic, however, Sevart isn’t content to stop at the doubling of the water park. He also likes to talk in multiples of 10 — that is, the fact that Six Flags brings in about 10 times the tax revenues for Agawam that Riverside Park did eight years ago, an increase from about $240,000 to an anticipated $2.4 million this year.

In effect, entering its fourth year as a Six Flags park — having added attractions in each of those years — the facility is enjoying a better relationship with its neighbors and its town than ever before, Sevart said, and that’s crucial, given that the coming years will bring even more physical growth to New England’s largest amusement park.

Meanwhile, the tourism efforts along Springfield’s riverfront and across the Pioneer Valley offer an opportunity for the park to partner with other organizations in promoting the entire region — an effort that promises to be beneficial to the individual attractions.

Six Flags is indeed making a splash — one that Sevart thinks you don’t have to get wet to notice.

Water, Water Everywhere

Those who do want to get wet, however, need to look no further than Hurricane Harbor, the new name of the water park originally dubbed Island Kingdom. The new name, said Sevart, is one used throughout the Six Flags brand for water parks that reach a certain size; the only three others are in New Jersey, California, and Texas.

The expansion — which cost the company around $8 million — doubles the water park’s size, adding more than 10 new attractions, such as the Tornado, a funnel-shaped tube that ’flushes’ riders into the pool below, the first slide of its kind in the world.

In the center of the new wave pool is Hurricane Falls, which features six body slides, and nearby are Zooma Falls and Geronimo Falls, both of which use ’cloverleaf’ rafts in which three or four guests can ride together. Looking down at the sprawling construction from the top of an existing set of waterslides, Sevart said the park is accustomed to major changes.

"The transition from Island Kingdom to Hurricane Harbor sort of mirrors our transition from Riverside Park to Six Flags," he said. "In each case, you can see the effect of the capital investment."

Access to the water park is still free with park admission, and Sevart said the major expansion is meant to give guests something new — and hopefully make them repeat customers.

"We’d like to increase attendance," he said, recognizing that wet weather in each of the past two summers has hindered those efforts to some extent. "With this facility, people can experience even more, and at the end of the day, they’ll want to come back again."

A new park entrance is being constructed at the south end, beside Hurricane Harbor, but that doesn’t mark the end of the line for physical growth. With plenty of unused land owned by Six Flags south of the existing park — including parking space on the west side of Main Street that stretches to Connecticut — Sevart said the company is by no means done with its expansion plans.

The question arises, of course, as to how big is too big, especially with a park that straddles a riverway. Unlike some theme parks — such as the Disney parks in Florida — which are built in a circular pattern, the Agawam facility is more of a straight line, requiring a longer walk to hit every attraction.

Sevart suggested that some type of people-mover ride, whether a chair lift, a train, or something similar, might be required if the park expands any more to the south. But that ride would be an attraction in itself, he added, asking, "who wouldn’t want to ride a train?"

Besides, he said, some areas of the park, particularly at each end, already form walking loops, and any design for expansion would have to take into consideration the most efficient foot-traffic pattern to save visitors time.

Speaking of saving time, the park’s Fast Lane service, a reservation system for the busiest rides, was a big success after its launch last spring, Sevart said, even though it posed an additional cost to park visitors.

"Time is more important than money for visitors at that point. Once people are here, they want to experience as much as they can without waiting in long lines," he said. "It’s about quality time with family. That’s what we’re selling, and that’s important."

Indeed, Fast Lane was an idea brought about by park visitors’ main concern, which was wasting too much time waiting in line, he added. Another addition last year, the floorless roller coaster Batman: the Dark Knight, alleviated the line issue even more by giving the park another marquee attraction to siphon people away from other long-wait rides, like the hugely popular Superman: Ride of Steel.

In fact, wait times — and park traffic in general — are a key concern for any facility, which is why Six Flags tries to push visitors to midweek dates with bargain prices.

Sevart said he knows of people with season passes — which don’t cost much more than the price of one admission — who arrive first thing in the morning, ride Superman once or twice, and leave. Others like to show up on the spur of the moment after a rainstorm.

"If I didn’t work for the park," he laughed, "I’d get a season pass and come when it isn’t busy."

Hot Property

But weekend attendance — and ticket sales in general — have been steadily on the rise, he said, which is why the Six Flags corporation continues to invest capital in the New England park, which it sees as a growth property, between its popularity and its expansion possibilities. The $8 million water park project comes on the heels of another $8 million in new attractions in 2002, and more than $50 million in the past four years.

"We’re seen as a park that’s experiencing growth, and we’re fortunate to be part of a company that invests in parks that are successful," Sevart said. "We’re competing on an ongoing basis with the other parks for capital investment."

And the park is succeeding even when measured against Six Flags parks in warmer climes that are able to stay open more than six months a year. However, Sevart said, it’s not a huge disadvantage because the high season of most amusement parks corresponds to summer vacation for students, which is why Six Flags parks are typically open only on weekends until school lets out in June.

A more important consideration in Western Mass. is how the park complements — and in some ways spearheads — a developing tourism industry in the region, characterized by a number of driving destinations, from the new Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield to Yankee Candle in South Deerfield.

Park management sees an opportunity in those attractions, not competition. That’s why Six Flags has teamed up with the Hall of Fame on marketing materials that promote educational programs at each facility, such as a student ’physics day’ at Six Flags. Sevart is aware of how hotels, such as the successful new Hilton Garden Inn bordering the Hall, are doing, and he’s encouraged.

"The attractions are working together," Sevart said. "We know what’s going on in each other’s business."

The town of Agawam is certainly aware of Six Flags’ business side, he added, considering that the tax revenue has exploded in the past decade, which helps to keep down residential taxes. In addition, the park pays for the town’s police and fire services itself — this on top of a recent $9 million investment in parking and development of a workable traffic plan.

Meanwhile, Sevart talks to the facility’s immediate Main Street neighbors a few times a year and sends them newsletters to keep them apprised of new developments — a necessary part of life when running such a sprawling operation 145 days a year. "I’m finding that it’s the best relationship we’ve ever had with the town," he said.

Exciting Ride

That relationship will be a plus as the park looks to further expansion. It has been open about those plans and aggressive so far in bringing something new to the banks of the Connecticut River.

From his office, Sevart can look directly down on the front corridor of the park, which stretches from the front gate and the classic carousel past the old Thunderbolt roller coaster, now one of eight coasters on the grounds.

Because of those attractions and others, that pathway certainly retains some of the old-style feel of Riverside Park. But now, there’s something new being added every year, and the success of those ventures can be measured simply with a look out the window. "I can tell what kind of day we’re having by how crowded that walkway is," Sevart said.

Similarly, he can tell what kind of year it’s been by what the Six Flags corporation has in the pipeline. And by all accounts, the old amusement park on the riverside in Agawam still has plenty of growing to do.

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