Amused to Death: Are Snyder?s actions putting Six Flags six feet under?
Amused to Death: Are Snyder?s actions putting Six Flags six feet under? Credit: Charles Steck/File

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Dan Snyder’s run atop the Six Flags amusement-park chain has been at least as fascinating as his Redskins ownership. Since assuming control of the company in 2005 by leading a hostile takeover, Snyder has used his standard game plan—raising the crap out of concession and parking prices, banning pedestrians to enhance parking revenues, and even hawking cheerleaders—to try and revive its fortunes.

Nothing that’s come out of Redskins Park has yet worked at the theme parks.

The company is now more than $2 billion in debt and has lost money every quarter since Snyder took over; first quarter 2008 figures released last week showed the company lost even more than was predicted by market analysts, some of whom have put Six Flags on a bankruptcy watch list in recent months. Six Flags’ stock (SIX) has tanked.

Here’s a partial look back—through adaptations of posts on City Paper’s City Desk blog—at recent lowlights in Snyder’s Six Flags tenure:

Nov. 6, 2007: Four-term mayor Richard Cohen gets booted out of office by the voters of Agawam, Mass., who were upset with a parking ordinance straight out of the Snyder playbook that Cohen pushed.

Until last summer, visitors to Six Flags New England had been able to park for $10 or less at private lots owned by small businessmen on Main Street in Agawam. But in June, the town banned parking in those lots and forced parkgoers to use Six Flags lots, where prices had been hiked by Snyder to as much as $30 per car

Cohen, who supported the ban, initially told the city council that the measure was needed for traffic and pedestrian safety, and Six Flags CEO and Snyder partner Mark Shapiro backed up the mayor’s claim at public hearings—despite the fact no injuries or accidents had been reported in the 20 years the private lots had been operating.

The townspeople turned on Cohen and against the parking ordinance, however, when they learned via a story in Washington City Paper that Snyder had used the exact same safety argument in 2000 to get Prince George’s County to ban pedestrians from walking into FedExField on game days. The FedExField prohibition was overturned in 2004 after a lawsuit on behalf of Redskins season-ticket holders; during that litigation, the safety claim was shredded.

Michael Palazzi, owner of a business that was prevented from parking cars by the Six Flags ordinance and campaign manager for the winning mayoral candidate, attributes the election results to the parking ordinance.

“The parking was it,” says Palazzi. “[Cohen] shot himself in both feet with that. He never thought anybody would beat him. He thought all he had to do was make Six Flags happy.”

Nov. 9, 2007: SIX closes at $1.88, representing a 70-percent drop since Oct. 24, 2005, when Snyder called for the removal of then-Chairman Kieran Burke in a letter to Six Flags shareholders.

At the core of Snyder’s bid to get rid of Burke was this argument: “Stockholders would have been better off hiding their money under a mattress” than investing in the company under Burke, Snyder wrote.

On the day that letter was registered with the SEC, a share of Six Flags stock was trading at $7.35.

I’m no finance guy, but, using the same blunt, simplistic theme Snyder used to depose his predecessor, let me try to add some perspective about his reign: Rather than buying into Snyder’s vision, stockholders would have been better off hiding half of their money under the mattress, then using the other half to build an effigy of the Redskins owner and burning it.

Jan. 9: During the day’s trading, SIX stock falls to $1.75 a share, setting still another record low.

The apparent sell-off comes amid a company push to get liquor licenses for Six Flags Over Texas and the water park Hurricane Harbor—spots it owns in Arlington, Texas.

Some locals try to kill the licensing gambit: “I don’t want them [drunks] messing with my kids and grandkids,” one Arlingtonian railed at a meeting of the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.

In 2005, while launching his successful coup to take over the board of directors, Snyder pledged to stockholders that if they put him in charge, he would “focus on mothers (with young children) as well as youth.”

The stock has lost three-fourths of its value since he wrote that. So, pledge shmedge. Give booze a shot.

Also on Jan. 9: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, the company’s Vallejo, Calif., outpost, is named the worst park for elephants in the entire country.

That is, stockholders aren’t the only ones taking a beating from Six Flags.

The honor is bestowed by In Defense of Animals, a San Rafael, Calif.-based animal rights group. An IDA spokesperson says Six Flags elephants are routinely “hit, hurt, prodded, poked and beaten” with a device called a bull hook, which is a metal hook on the end of a long pole.

The group has asked the federal government to investigate the same Six Flags park because one of the giraffes there died in a fire last fall.

Jan. 31: Accounts from Kaitlyn Lasitter, the 14-year-old whose feet were chopped off at Kentucky Kingdom last year—an incident that the company blamed (along with the weather in Texas) for its overall horrible performance in the summer of 2007—appear in the media.

From the Indianapolis Star:

Kaitlyn Lasitter said the Superman Tower of Power ride had climbed only 20 feet last summer when it jolted and cables fell on her and two of her friends, wrapping around their necks, according to court documents.

Kaitlyn said she and her friends, as well as other people on the ride, were screaming for someone to stop the ride, but it kept going up as the girls frantically pulled the cables away from their necks.

“We were all screaming, and then it kept going up, and we just continually screamed and were yelling at people,” Kaitlyn said in her deposition. “I remember smoke and the smell of burning. I felt like I was going to die.”

March 18: Six Flags announces the formation of the Thrilleaders, billed as “the first-ever professional, theme park cheerleading team.”

From the press release: “The Thrilleaders will captivate Six Flags guests with their explosive, high-energy routines and act as Ambassadors of Thrill throughout the Six Flags family of parks.”

Snyder loves cheerleaders. He’s reworked the Redskins cheerleaders into perhaps the most marketed, least-clothed crew in the league. But amusement parks are a whole other ballgame; the Thrilleaders could be Snyder’s dumbest idea since signing Brandon Lloyd.

Wasn’t Lloyd supposed to act as an Ambassador of Thrill, also?

March 25: Six Flags Great Escape Lodge, a hotel owned by Snyder’s theme park chain, goes viral.

Not Soulja Boy viral. Legionnaires’-disease viral.

New York health authorities would eventually estimate that at least 496 visitors came down with cases of something called norovirus. By April, three class-action lawsuits are filed against Six Flags.

From Newsday: “Norovirus is characterized by acute gastrointestinal pain, vomiting and diarrhea lasting one or two days.”

In other words, norovirus is not to be confused with Norvovirus, an ailment that crippled Snyder’s team during the Norv Turner era and was characterized by malaise and an inability to win close games.