Judge Roy Scream vs. The Texas Cyclone

An insider’s guide to Texas amusement parks.

Veterans of Texas’ four big theme parks will tell you that what separates a great time from a merely passable one is the quality of your inside information—how to beat the heat, where to find the tastiest food, which shows are worth the wait, when to visit the most popular rides. Some of this critical info is available through common sense: If you want to avoid long lines, forget Saturdays and plan your trip for midweek. But the rest is known only to true theme-park mavens—and that’s where we come in. Want the real skinny on the frills and thrills? Here’s our tell-all guide.

Six Flags

201 Road to Six Flags, Arlington (817-640-8900). Open daily May 23 through August 23; weekends only from August 29  to November 22; selected dates from Nov-ember 27 to December 31. Most days, gates open at 10 a.m., 9:30 when large crowds are expected. Closing times vary.

Six Flags Over Texas is the oldest and most visited park in the state. Over the years, several changes in ownership have transformed its 88 acres from a quirky theme park with the unique historical idea of Texas under six flags into a thrill-ride park populated by owner Time Warner’s Looney Tunes characters. In spite of the shift in emphasis and subtle signs of wear and tear (such as paint peeling off the seats of the parking lot trams), maturity has its advantages: Towering oak and pecan trees scattered about the premises provide an abundance of shade, and the staff is so cheerful and experienced that the park runs with a smooth efficiency no matter how crowded it gets.

Getting There  Take the Six Flags exit from either Texas Highway 360 or Interstate 30; the park sits at the intersection of the two roads, fifteen miles from Dallas and Fort Worth. Parking is $5 a day; season parking passes are $15. On especially congested days, the management thoughtfully posts signs in front of the parking lot’s entrance, warning that you may want to turn back.

Cost One-day admission is $22.95 plus tax for adults; $16.95 for children less than 48 inches tall and seniors 55 and over; children 2 and under are free. A two-day admission is $28.95. Individual season passes are $59.95.

Getting Around A helpful if unwieldy color map describing the park’s layout is part of the admission price, but the basic premise is six sections, with an assortment of good and bad attractions in each. You’ll do a fair amount of walking from one end of the park to the other, so you might want to take the train that encircles the grounds to get acquainted. (On crowded days, though, you’re allowed to travel nonstop only halfway around.) Lost children are taken to the Lost Parents Caboose in Looney Tunes Land. If you anticipate being separated from the rest of your party during your visit, decide on a meeting spot—preferably anywhere other than the carousel near the main entrance, since that’s where everyone else seems to congregate.

The Rides  Six Flags is a roller coaster enthusiast’s dream, with six fantastic coaster-style attractions. Nostalgic adults will love the Judge Roy Scream, a throwback to the Comet at the State Fair, while kids prefer the legendary Texas Giant, the gut-churning Flashback, the double loop Shock Wave, and the Texas Cliffhanger, which simulates a ten-story free-fall. Unfortunately, the wait for all rides—and sometimes even the bumper cars—can exceed an hour on some crowded weekends, which allows you to take in only five or six rides during a full day. (The only good news about the long lines: Video screens in many waiting areas show—what else?—Looney Tunes cartoons.) And beware the weather. Windy conditions can force the temporary closing of the Oil Derrick observation tower, the Air Racer plane ride, and the Texas Chute Out parachute drop. By early June, two new attractions should be on-line: the Batman Stunt Show, in a new 2,500-seat amphitheater, and a float ride called Yosemite Sam and the Gold River Adventure.

The Shows  Each day seven shows are presented around the clock, including a Motown revue, a magic show, an old-fashioned western melodrama, and a Bugs Bunny production. “Do You Hear the People Sing?”—a tribute to freedom and world harmony performed at the Southern Palace—is the most popular; lines form half an hour before show time. As for the gunfight show, unless you plop down fifteen minutes early in front of the stores in the Texas section where the cowboys hang out, the action can be obscured by passersby drifting through the area. Name entertainment is presented for a small surcharge on weekends and holidays at the 10,000-seat Music Mill Theater.

Food Six Flags is home to the Pink Thing, a brightly colored creamy confection that has set a personal standard for theme-park junk food. Today, however, it takes a back seat to the state-of-the-art frozen novelty, the Lemon Chill, a slushy lemon-and-sugar concoction with the consistency of soft ice cream. Skip the cafeteria-style restaurants serving Mexican food and fried chicken; real fast-food places do it better. On the other hand, the Food Court in Looney Tunes Land cuts the mustard. The one-third-pound All-American Cheddar Burger rightfully earned top honors in Inside Track magazine’s annual poll of amusement-park aficionados. You’ll also find a decent quarter-pound hot dog, a passable chicken fajita salad, and edible pepperoni or sausage pizza slices. The skin-on homestyle fries are superb. No alcohol is served in the park. Joe Nick Patoski


9001 Kirby Drive, Houston (713-799-1234). Open daily May 25 to August 23; weekends only from August 29 to November 1. Gates open 10 a.m. weekends and 11 a.m. weekdays. Closing times vary.

Astroworld’s chief virtue and major drawback is that it is in Houston. The virtue is that the park is accessible to everyone from Beaumont to Victoria. The drawback is that summer visitors cannot escape the stultifying heat and humidity they left behind. Within the park’s 75 acres are about two dozen thrill rides set off by

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