Six Flags declares bankruptcy, but is the ride over? Let's hope not!

Its TV commercials would count this as "no flags": Six Flags, which operates 20 amusement parks, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Saturday.

It's been one long downhill ride for the thriller, which has been battling debt for years. The past few months have seen the park's embattled CEO, Mark Shapiro, giving high-profile interviews (like this one with CBS) about the company's dire straits that were, investors knew, de facto warnings of the coming filing. Even the parks' TV pitchman, the elderly Mr. Six, is aging and arthritic.

Despite the filing, the company's optimistic public face hasn't changed. "We can assure you that this is a corporate issue, and it does not affect the day-to-day operations of the parks," said a company rep. "Our parks are open this weekend, and will continue to be open with more new rides and attractions and longer hours all summer."

The company plans to file a reorganization plan that aims, mostly through deleveraging, to clear $2.4 billion in debt. Six Flags keeps some soggy books, and that started even before it had to write off an entire park in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Says Shapiro: "We are cleaning up the past and positioning the company for future growth."

So it's back-office accounting, and not attendance, that is the issue. In fact, thanks to the continued addition of new banner attractions and aggressive price-cutting, some of its parks posted record attendance last season.

But will they be there next year? As of now, yes. The attendance numbers could be seen as an encouraging sign. So could the reaction from individual parks' management. Magic Mountain's big boss told Theme Park Insiderthat despite the filing, "We are actively planning for our 50th celebration in 2011."

However, the parks' operations have a poor reputation, and a chronic lack of resources won't reverse that anytime soon. Six Flags parks, while steadily improving thanks to $100 million in improvements, still suffer from an overrun of unsupervised teens, dirty facilities, and long lines created by too few ride vehicles.

Then again, they're also still putting cutting-edge thrill rides into play, which regularly sends rival Cedar Fair back to the drawing board in a never-ending battle of the blockbusters.

One thing Six Flags doesn't get enough credit for, though, is for charging a price that doesn't bleed customers. A Six Flags park is still one of the most affordable full days out in the country, with many parks costing less than $40 a day, and a season pass for unlimited admission not much more than that. Even three hours at a professional football and baseball game can cost each person in the family several times more.

Besides, where will all those American teens go to blow off steam now -- state parks?

Six Flags, which has locations all over the country, is an important resource for Americans who want to have fun closer to home this year. The seats may be sticky and the ride operators surly, but if we lose Six Flags, it'll be a real loss to the country. No matter what beefs we have with the way the parks are run, they're a terrific value. They can't all be Disneyland.
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