I can hear the shrieks from the parking lot.
On this gorgeous spring afternoon -- sun beaming down, scarcely a cirrus cloud in the sky -- I'm hiking across the ocean of asphalt that makes up the Six Flags Over Texas parking lots. Locking my car, I take leave of the Batman lot, right next to Wonder Woman and just before Green Lantern.
Past a thicket of trees, I can just barely see the brightly painted roller coaster known as the Titan taking another load of passengers up 25 stories and hurtling them down its smooth, steel tracks. The peals of terrified glee occur at clockwork intervals.
I'm returning to Six Flags Over Texas for the first time in more than 15 years. My biggest motivator is pure curiosity. As a music critic, I spend a lot of time shuttling back and forth to Dallas on Interstate 30 to concerts, and invariably, every time I pass the 212-acre amusement park, I feel a nostalgic twinge, wondering if going now would be as much fun as it was back in the '90s, when I was a teenager vacationing from my home in Oklahoma.
I'm also interested in what the amusement-park experience will be like as an adult. It's one thing to be young and insanely giddy to ride as many stomach-contorting contraptions as you can fit into a single visit, but quite another to endure long lines, sharp back pains and the acute sensation of feeling like an intruder into a space meant for much younger people.
"We're an institution for a lot of families," says Sharon Parker, communications manager for Six Flags Over Texas, noting that this year marks the park's 51st season. "People want to convey that sense of nostalgia for their kids."
I don't have kids, though, and I wonder: Is it possible to age out of Six Flags?
Undeterred and having forked over nearly $65 to get inside ($39 admission, $15 parking, plus $10 for fees and taxes), I stride into the entry plaza area and run smack into a row of lowriders blaring Latin music and "Festival Latino" banners hung everywhere. Had the Spain section of the park grown bigger in the ensuing years?
Turns out the weekend event was designed to attract Hispanic families and organizations to the park. (The park is open Friday through Sunday for two more weekends and begins daily operations May 16.)
At first glance, strikingly little has changed since the waning days of the Clinton administration. The "hosts" (park employees) now use fancy wireless technology to scan tickets, and there seem to be a lot more marketing materials blanketing everything (a sad phenomenon not limited to Six Flags), but otherwise, the 'round-the-world atmosphere of the different areas seems largely intact.
Map in hand and digestive system properly braced, I set off to see if this sprawling entertainment facility could make me feel like a kid again.
Back on tracks
I decide to start where my last trip to Six Flags ended: Judge Roy Scream.
It's one of the park's veteran coasters, and its first all-wood model; it opened in March 1980. The all-white contraption seemed like a good way to ease myself into a day of dips, turns and dives.
After enduring the first of what would be many lengthy waits in line with children hopped up on caffeine, sugar and adrenaline, I board the coaster, taking care to keep my hands, arms and legs inside the tiny car.
It's so easy to forget how brutal 90 seconds can be in an amusement park -- and Judge Roy Scream is one of the tamer coasters here. None of the drops on Scream are particularly harrowing, but it's the unforgiving contact between wood and steel that makes riding it feel like being sealed inside a rock tumbler. (In my notes, I actually wrote "Ow!")
"Judge Roy Scream is the only wooden coaster in the park, which makes it unique," says Gary Slade, founder and editor-in-chief of independent, Arlington-based trade publication Amusement Today. "It's a great family coaster -- it's not too wild, not too scary. Wood coasters are somewhat rougher, but that's just the nature of the construction."
The slow bloom of an aching neck comes over me -- followed by the familiar rubber-legged sensation of free-flowing adrenaline.
I walk back through the tunnel beneath Goodtimes Square, and cut over to the Gotham City section of the park, past the small midway with its games of chance and plush Rastafarian bananas as prizes. While the other "worlds" at Six Flags may have aged gracefully, Gotham City looks particularly outdated and kitschy, thanks to director Christopher Nolan's grim, gritty reboot of the Batman franchise.
Still, Batman: The Ride holds up well as the park's only inverted roller coaster (meaning the seats are underneath the track instead of on top of it) and an exercise in pure, foot-dangling terror. Again, interminable waits -- might I suggest downloading a few books to your smartphone to keep from going insane? -- are somewhat mitigated by the sheer burst of adrenaline you feel when the coaster hits 50 mph. Your field of vision spins upside down, and, for a brief, exhilarating, horrifying moment, you see your feet where your head normally is.
The gliding steel rails only enhance the feeling of floating, weirdly detached from the normal sensation of being seated on a roller coaster.
Although it was not yet open when I visited, a revamped coaster, Mr. Freeze: Reverse Blast, is set to open May 12 (see sidebar). Expect this updated attraction, the first overhaul at Six Flags Over Texas since Texas Giant's sprucing-up, to likewise boast high speeds (reportedly hitting 70 miles per hour in under 4 seconds), death-defying turns and incredibly long lines.
The crowd is thickening as the afternoon progresses. I'm weaving my way through the hordes of middle- and high-school kids tearing around the park on some sort of field trip, and ducking past the young families loaded down with the $8 superhero capes for sale in the gift shops, sundae-topped funnel cakes (diabetes on a plate) and $14.99 jumbo drink cups.
I stroll over to the Texas area. The idea of a Texas-centric section seems a little redundant -- isn't the whole park "over Texas"? But I was here to tackle my third coaster of the day: the Titan.
Opened in 2001, the Titan boasts a lot of superlatives (tallest, fastest and longest), making it a destination for thrill-seekers from across the state and country. Billed as a "hyper coaster," this hybrid of "out and back"- and "twister"-style rides ensures white knuckles from the moment the cars glide out of the loading area until they come back around, three and a half minutes later.
That 250-plus-foot drop? Feels like about 900 from way above Arlington.
Amusement Today's Slade characterizes Titan as one of Six Flags' "big dogs" (the other two being the Texas Giant and Batman: The Ride), although he says there are several "marquee" coasters in the park, including Shock Wave and the Runaway Mine Train.
"Six Flags Over Texas has a very unique, diverse collection of coasters," Slade says. "You don't see repeats of types of coasters in the park."
Having logged roughly eight minutes' worth of riding time amid almost three hours of waiting, I decided it was time for a snack, but rather than indulge in one of the many fine dining options -- from Johnny Rockets to E.G. Sugarwater's; Panda Express was new, and I don't think Cold Stone Creamery was around the last time, either -- I kept it simple, if only to avoid upchuck later.
Crunching my $5 popcorn and slurping my Dr Pepper, I scan the crowd. Here before me was the next generation, one that pundits claim will be socially atrophied and unable to enjoy such simple pleasures as log flumes or tilt-a-whirls because social media will destroy their neurons.
That's not what I saw. Instead, there were kids of all races, genders and creeds shouting, running, forming anxious bunches around parents and chaperones, bursting with energy in this vast (to them) playground of possibilities. It was almost enough to make me feel young at heart.
It certainly inspired me to get up off the bench and start moving toward the next coaster, the one that has loomed largest in my memory.
For an Oklahoma kid, a chance to ride the Texas Giant was a golden opportunity. Growing up near Tulsa, the only real amusement park we had was Bell's, with its Zingo roller coaster that boasted a couple sharp drops, but nothing like the Giant.
I can still recall the vivid sensation of what it felt like at the top of that first, 147-foot drop (I swore I could see all the way to Houston), and plunging down what felt like forever.
Originally an all-wooden coaster when it opened in 1990 (translation: Ow!), the park revamped the ride last year to incorporate more steel -- making it what the industry calls a steel-hybrid. (Slade also credits the urethane wheels with smoothing out the ride.) It was voted the best new ride of 2011 by Amusement Today.
And I'd forgotten just how frigging long it takes to board the thing. I waited nearly two hours to strap into the car, which pulled me once more up that incline toward the Texas flag-bedecked first drop. Turns out, on a clear day, you can see downtown Dallas from up there.
The "new" Texas Giant whips by in a flat two minutes, delivering banked turns that feel as if they're occurring at a full 90-degree angle. My insides were clutching in ecstatic terror; the steel doesn't quite remove all of the full-body throttling sensation, either.
Was it as thrilling as I remembered? My mind said yes, but my increasingly battered body was less sure.
"It's a fantastic ride, a fantastic thrill," says Amusement Today's Slade.
The day was melting into early evening by the time I got in line for what turned out to be my final ride: Runaway Mountain, an indoor (read: near-total darkness) steel coaster that opened in 1996.
The crowds slowly move past faux alligators in piercingly blue swamp waters, and into a faux mine. Again, the wait stretches for nearly 90 minutes. (And yes, Six Flags has taken steps to address those who wish to skip all this standing around with the Flash Pass; see sidebar.)
My ascent into darkness is temporarily delayed by the tearful young girl in the seat behind me; apparently, not all kids like flying around in the dark. (Park employees, along with the girl's mother, help her off the ride before it gets going.) Once more, I am thrown left and right, feeling the restraining bar dig into my midsection at every sharp turn. We can't really see where we're going, which only heightens the thrill. You feel more or less out of control, and the ride is dizzying, too, which explains the sideways looks I got from a few "hosts" as I disembark and stagger, blinking, into the evening air.
I am spent.
My exhaustion stems more from waiting around than actually riding everything I wanted -- I didn't get to take a spin on La Vibora, the Runaway Mine Train or Aquaman Splashdown; I bailed on the beloved Roaring Rapids because I just couldn't take the line. And I couldn't take respite in any of the stage shows because, until Six Flags is up and running full-time, the theaters are dark.
On top of that, my back, neck and legs not-so-subtly suggest that it might be best to call it a day (although I'm only 31, I felt as if I were pushing 60 after running the gantlet of coasters). My adrenaline levels sufficiently spiked, I tuck my map into my back pocket and set out for the Batman lot.
Behind me, the cries of delighted thrill-seekers, spaced apart like commas, slice through the evening air.
Rush of youth
Did I find what I was looking for at Six Flags?
Surprisingly, yes. Once the teenage years of field trips and summer visits with your friends are past, the pressures and responsibilities of real life set in: college, work, finding a mate, paying bills and raising a family. But it occurred to me: As adults, we may need amusement parks even more than children do. The humdrum business of car payments, mortgages and staff meetings suddenly seems a lot less urgent when you're facing a 200-foot drop, your heart in your throat.
Six Flags is near-total escape.
Yes, it costs a small fortune to spend a day there (though discounts abound online, and a season pass is a pretty good deal if you plan to go more than twice; see sidebar). But it's a great way to release stress that doesn't involve an expensive hobby or holing up in a bar until last call.
The park has changed a little, but I've changed a lot in the past 15 years. And the 31-year-old version of me needs a place where I can tuck my extremities inside a small steel cage and scream like a horror-movie victim, as I slalom through drops and around spine-cracking turns.
As I pull out of the Batman lot and head home, I ask the question again: Is it possible to recapture a bit of your youth?
For those blissful few seconds of free fall, yeah, you can.