Ask any Houston parent and they’ll tell you that keeping kids entertained (and hydrated and safe from sunstroke) over the course of a hot Houston summer is no easy chore. Austin and San Antonio parents have easy access to Hill Country swimming holes, unspoiled bodies of water that aren’t littered with discarded tires and bodies. DFW has lakes right in the city. As for Houston, well, Houston is reasonably close to the beach, but Galveston’s tarry sands and chocolate surf is about all there is in the way of a natural amenities in the area.
What of Houston’s vaunted museums? Well, as the father of two Houston-raised children, I can tell you that most kids don’t care much for art galleries, and that they age out of the Children’s Museum at around eight or nine.
Other options are among the most expensive on the entire planet. The Museum of Natural Science will set a family of four back a minimum of $80. In my lifetime, zoo admission has gone from free to $17 per “adult” (age twelve and up). And at Space Center Houston, even four-year-olds pay $20.
Fine. Take them to the Galleria, where you can at least walk around for free. That was once a decent option for the whole family every now and then, but nowadays Houston’s foremost gargantuan air-conditioned temple to Mammon holds little interest for kids. Video game arcades are a thing of the past. The movie theaters have long since decamped for cheaper pastures. The bungee-cord jumps near the ice skating rink disappeared, as have most of the toy and candy stores.
Even public pools are being replaced by cheaper “spraygrounds.
So, aside from its restaurant scene, Texas’s biggest city is all business and little pleasure, especially for kids. According to WalletHub, Houston was ranked 137 of 150 American cities in places to hang around for a staycation; 110 out of 112 in Texas cities for families, and 88 out of 100 cities for recreation overall.
Yes, these rankings should be taken with a grain of salt, but when one place consistently scores near the bottom in several similar tallies, it’s time to consider that there might be a legitimate point: Houston is No Fun City. Especially since Houston lost Six Flags AstroWorld.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner acknowledged that point at a recent informal confab with local media members. Turner believes that Houston needs another AstroWorld, and if its splendors cannot sprawl where they used to on the South Loop, then it needs to be somewhere within the Bayou City’s vast municipal limits. (And not some place like New Caney, where a planned theme park has been met with numerous delays.)
“If we want to be that destination city in terms of conferences and tourism, we have to have that component in this city,” he said. “It’s one thing to have the rodeo, that’s once a year for three weeks. The Super Bowl will be here and gone. The America Cup COPA, came, gone. NCAA (Final Four), come and gone. We need a major amusement center in this city, especially to focus on our families and young population that’s every day in this city.”
And he’s right. There has been an AstroWorld-sized hole in the city’s heart since the park closed in fall 2005. According to the official explanation from former owners, Six Flags America—which was then $2 billion in the hole—the land on which AstroWorld once stood was too valuable to remain as one of the city’s primary tourist attractions, so it had to go. What that site really needed, it was believed at the time, was “a mixed-use development, including multifamily housing, retail and office.” The property was supposed to fetch somewhere in the range of $95 million to $145 million.
Some sources also said the park was pushed over the brink by the Harris County Sports and Convention Corp, an interest affiliated with the Houston Texans and Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Six Flags and the HCSC got into a wrangle over parking in the Reliant Stadium lot that wound up in expensive litigation, and though officials said that the dispute did not directly cause AstroWorld’s demise, it did dissuade them from upgrading the park to contemporary standards. As a result, AstroWorld began to seem dated. A death spiral ensued.
The sale has been a terrible disaster for all parties. Generations of adults lost a place of memory, and a half-generation of kids never got to the chance to make them. Local teens lost a goldmine of job opportunities. Former Six Flags CEO Kieran Burke, the guy who presided over the closure, was ousted before 2005 was out.
The property sold for a mere $77 million, a fraction of what Six Flags had hoped. Today, it is no more than a vacant lot occasionally used as Rodeo overflow parking. No mixed-use development materialized, even during one of Houston’s most feverish economic booms. All those dozens of acres of empty space went undeveloped, and the property seems likely to remain vacant for years to come now that the oil economy has gone bust again.
And yeah, if Atlanta, Dallas, San Antonio, Tampa, Cincinnati, and Kansas City have them, it’s safe to say that Houston needs a theme park. But what would that theme be?
Houston. The theme should just be Houston. The city itself is like a giant theme park, but the trouble is, it’s spread out over an area the size of Connecticut, the interesting parts hidden between miles of bland strip malls and sun-baked parking lots. Having a Houston theme park could condense the city’s crazed and wonderful diversity in a compact couple of hundred acres.
A few years ago, my wife and I hosted a friend of hers, a former Houstonian who had transplanted to Portland long ago. In one long day, we treated her to Gulf Coast Creole culture (a zydeco brunch at Cafe 4212 on the edge of Third Ward), one of the biggest Mexican mercados this side of Monterrey at Sunny Flea Market on Airline Drive, and then toured Houston’s sprawling Southwest Chinatown, especially Hong Kong City Mall, one of America’s largest Asian-themed shopping centers.
That entailed about 90 minutes in the car and 60 miles of freeway driving, but it made for one of those days when Houston seemed worth it. So let’s cram as much of that as we can—even a theme park version of that diversity would suffice—amid rides as thrilling as Greezed Lightning, the Texas Cyclone, and the Dungeon Drop. Meanwhile the ‘rents can have a bowl of gumbo at the Bayou Zone; savor pho in Saigon, Texas; and tipple on micheladas in La Cantina Mexicana while the kids raise hell on the rides and slides. The time has come for a Planet Houston Theme Park.