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Great America ready for summer, despite Six Flags' financial woes
By Kim Mikus | Daily Herald Staff

Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro stands outside the new Cyber Cafe coffee shop as he tours Six Flags Great America in Gurnee Tuesday.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

Six Flags CEO Mark Shapiro, outside the Dark Knight roller coaster at Six Flags Great America, says the Gurnee park is the most profitable of all 20 of the company's facilities.


Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer

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Published: 5/27/2009 12:00 AM

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The financial roller coaster that Six Flags is riding will have no impact on how the Gurnee theme park is run, CEO Mark Shapiro said Tuesday.

The New York-based company, struggling financially because of a $2.5 billion debt load taken on by previous owners' expansion sprees, says the customer will notice only improvements at all of its 20 parks.

Shapiro pointed to a new water ride, longer season, a cyber coffee cafe and additional concerts among the additions at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, the most profitable in the 20-park portfolio.

Meanwhile, the company was delisted from the New York Stock Exchange in April and is in the process of preparing for a debt-for-equity offering. If that is a success, Six Flags may avoid bankruptcy filing this summer.

"We're going to restructure. We're intent on clearing our balance sheet once and for all," said Shapiro during an interview Tuesday at the Lake County park. "We're not afraid of (the debt)."

Despite the debt struggles, the company is coming off one of its strongest seasons ever. For the first time, the company turned a profit last year of $5 million to $10 million, after years of losses of as much as $100 million.

The profit was a big boost in proving that the changes Shapiro's team is making are working, he said.

"It was do or die last year. We needed to score and we did. It was a monster year," Shapiro said.

He stressed that Six Flags is different from a troubled auto company like Chrysler or General Motors in that his product, unlike automobiles, is selling. Attendance on Memorial day wast about 25,000, which is up from last year.

Shapiro said he's hoping to keep the momentum going.

Instead of lowering ticket prices across the board, he's stepping up advertising and pitching the "value" of a day at the amusement and water park combo, complete with concerts held throughout the summer.

"Six flags is a Disney experience with a lower price," he added. Attractions include thrill rides and family-oriented rides including the new $5 million Buccaneer Battle water ride.

Shapiro acknowledged families don't have lots of discretionary income, but he said they still feel a need to get away for the day and have fun. The company is also seeing increases in the purchase of season passes, which did go down in price to $70.

Next to the financial troubles, Shapiro said, his biggest challenge has been to restore the image at Six Flags Great America. Since he took over, the park has beefed up its work force and security to better offer a clean, family-friendly experience, he said. New rules including no smoking and no offensive clothing, address parents' concerns that unruly teens were dominating the park, he said.

"We have no tolerance for that," said the 37-year-old father of three boys ranging in age from 2 months to 8 years.

He stresses that it's a balancing act to attract both teens and families with young children.

Another aspect that brought some complaints last year were lockers that have been installed at the big roller coasters. Riders must pay $1 to lock up purses, bags and big stuffed animals before they ride.

Shapiro says the concept, taken from another amusement park, was implemented to cut down on theft and the amount of time people wait in lines. There are seven rides with the lockers, up from five last year.

He said the concept is working. The speed of the lines with lockers has improved by 20 percent and theft has decreased 30 percent, he said.

Shapiro has confidence in the future of the company. He and his management staff recently renewed their contracts. Under his four-year agreement, he will be paid a base salary of $1.3 million, with the potential to receive performance bonuses between $1.3 million and $2.6 million.

The former ESPN executive will continue to work to make the parks "standout" places to visit.

"So far, Gurnee is off to a rolling start," he said.