Welcome back to our series on Six Flags Power Plant! In Part One, we discussed the project and talked about how much of a game changer it could have been for Six Flags and the industry. In Part Two, we get an exclusive interview with Gary Goddard who discusses his involvement with the Six Flags Power Plant, how it evolved into what eventually opened and some of the concepts that never made past the conceptual phase. Enjoy!
JY: How were you originally approached by Six Flags about working on the Power Plant? What was the scope of the project?
GG: Six Flags had decided they needed to be in the new “UEC” (“Urban Entertainment Center”) business to diversify out from being simply “ride parks.” They had done a ton of studies and decided that they would create new “entertainment centers” in the heart of cities, offering families a new kind of experience, but one that built upon the Six Flags brand. ERA (Economic Research Associates) had done a report looking at potential sites throughout the country and one among them stood out: The Baltimore Power Plan, which was located on the newly redeveloped Inner Harbor, which had something like 12,000,000 annual visits. The concept was to create an urban entertainment complex that would offer food, retail and entertainment experiences.
They went to Jon Jerde, an up and coming architect who had been one of the architects who worked on the recently opened Harbor Plaza in San Diego, for the initial concept. John had created a kind of contemporary “retail mall” that existed within the huge Power Plant facility, but Six Flags (and ERA) felt more entertainment was needed. We had just finished doing The Monster Plantation for Six Flags Over Georgia and The Great Texas Longhorn Revue for Six Flags Astroworld. Both had been highly successful, so Six Flags called us in to take a look at what they were calling Six Flags’ Power Plant. They showed us the basic idea, a set of bars and restaurants and shops, set within the giant interior space of the Six Flags Power Plant.
They said, “We really need more entertainment and more shows,” and asked if we could come up with some ideas. We said sure and we started working with Jerde and the Six Flags management team. So our original scope was to create attractions that could be fit into the Jerde retail mall concept and plan. We initially started coming up with ideas for shows and attractions, but then we got this idea of a “GRAND HALL” entryway, playing up the Victorian Industrial era and everyone liked the vision for the place and that kind of set a new direction from Jerde’s concept.
JY: Why was Six Flags looking to branch out from being more of a thrill park and do more of a themed entertainment attraction?
GG: As I mentioned, they had a corporate mandate to get into the “UEC” industry, which was just starting to get a buzz in the retail world. This was the ‘80s and cities were launching downtown renewal projects and providing a lot of financing and tax breaks and revenue bonds for developers that would bring projects that could help jumpstart downtown renewal plans. For Six Flags, the idea was to find ideal locations within major cities and then to have a set of branded entertainment and F&B attractions as options for each new city – all of them geared to the urban core market, providing Six Flags with an entirely new business outside the their iron ride parks.
And yes, as you suggest with your question, the idea was to develop a new kind of entertainment that would be different than “thrill rides,” which was, as you know, what they were really known for. On the other hand, when we signed on, we assumed (wrongly as it turned out) that the project would include at least a couple of rides mixed in with the shows and exhibits. All of our initial concepts included variations on coasters and free falls and such as part of the overall entertainment mix.
To our surprise, Six Flags executives resisted every attempt we made to integrate a few rides into the project. We found this frustrating, as we were young and excited and we were really into the whole idea of this project. We kept getting approvals on our ideas for shows and theming and all, but they would always reject the rides we proposed. We were mystified to be honest. Here we were telling THEM (Six Flags Management) that people will come to this, with the Six Flags name on it, EXPECTING some rides.
At least a Carousel perhaps, or maybe a family coaster that would make its way through the Victorian interior — but they always said, “No Rides,” which was very discouraging for us. In fact, after about a year of working in ride concepts of every kind, and justifying it within the theme of the project – Six Flags management got so upset with me that they wrote a letter to me and I wish I could find it. It started out with something like this: “Dear Gary, please be advised there will be no rides in the Power Plant. Don’t write any more letters and don’t bring it up in any more meetings” and it went on from there. They wanted us to know “loud and clear” that there would be no rides of any kind in the Power Plant and that we (Landmark) were to never bring it up again.
I think this was a turning point for the project and not a good one. We considered bailing at that moment because we felt the project would never be the hit we thought it could and should be without at least a couple of rides. But we were a young company and we had enjoyed a positive relationship with Six Flags on the projects in Houston and Atlanta, so we thought that it would be bad if we backed out and resigned.
Looking back, we probably should have tendered our resignation, as perhaps it would have driven home the importance that we placed on Six Flags needing to include a ride or two as part of the project. Honestly this was the worst decision ever and completely wrong-headed and was one of the main reasons (though not the only one) that the project could not find an audience.
JY: Was the Jules Verne theme of the building and the attractions within a direction that was given by Six Flags or did Landmark entertainment pitch the concepts?
GG: Honestly we were inspired by the Victorian Industrial nature of the building. We didn’t like Jerde’s idea of a contemporary mall simply built within this vast and interesting Victorian space. We wanted to create something that was unique to the space itself. To some degree, the space itself inspired the idea of going with the Victorian/Jules Verne theme. It was a chance to make it really unique. We started sketching out ideas with an amazing team.
I brought in all the guys that I had worked with at Imagineering, so you had people like Herb Ryman, Collin Campbell, James Michaelson, Marc Davis, Al Bertino and Claudio Mazzoli all working on this project.
And we hired this young designer from Knott’s Berry Farm, Eddie Sotto, along with model maker Bob Baranick, and we got Ray Wallace on board as our design architect.
Eddie Martinez came on board later as well. Essentially it was “Imagineering” working on the project along with our own internal team. So we pitched the idea of this incredible place that was built long ago and had remained hidden within the locked up Power Plant.
We created a character Professor Phineas Flagg who was a combination of Jules Verne, H.G. Welles, and P.T. Barnum, who was a scientist, explorer, writer, inventor and showman of the first degree. He was to be a character that would represent the best part of all of us: imagination, positive thinking, creativity and curiosity, which are all the attributes that move us forward and into the future.
We hoped that this character would be our “way in” for audiences to “get” the world they had entered, which were the attractions, the shows and the total “world” that that Professor Flagg had created over a century before. So the Power Plant was this incredible place where he stored, built, invented, created and displayed the wonders of the world as he collected them at the turn of the century. A Victorian Jules Verne-inspired combination of The Batcave, The Fortress of Solitude and Captain Nemo’s laboratory – a place that you truly could not be seen or experienced anywhere else in the world. And a place with fantastic RIDES as well as shows — oh, but then again, maybe not….
JY: Were there any other themes or attractions that were proposed or in development for the Power Plant before the final one was decided upon?
GG: Well, the prior version was the Jon Jerde “mall in the power plant” idea and it definitely had merit in its own way. But again, we liked the idea of doing something out of the ordinary. Originally we didn’t mean to usurp Jon’s concept, but as we got more and more involved, we got more and more excited about the idea of this Victorian wonderland. We kept coming up with more and more ideas and Six Flags loved them, and Jon did too (at first). But soon he started fighting the idea. He thought it was “too themed” and that it needed to be less so. We disagreed, but in a positive way and tried to work things out.
Eventually Jon got so angry with us (though we were not aware of it) that he gave Six Flags an ultimatum. “It’s Landmark or me, one or the other. If you don’t fire them, I’m out.” And so Jerde’s resignation was accepted and Six Flags came to us and said, “Can you take this thing over entirely?” And we said, being young and bold, “Sure!” So we launched into the full-on design of the project and never looked back. Now in fairness to Jon, our concept – WITHOUT RIDES – was probably wrong-headed. In the end, when Six Flags firmly stated “no rides in the Power Plant,” we should have reverted back to something close to Jerde’s concept. But “the fog of design/build” made it impossible to consider that. With a few rides, our concept would have been fantastic and still operating today. WITHOUT rides, Six Flags should have reverted to Jerde’s concept. That’s what I thought about a year out after opening.
JY: Ultimately, there were four attractions within the Power Plant when it opened in 1985. Can you give us a description of what each one was like?
GG: The four main attractions were designed to compliment each other – each one providing a different kind of show.
The Laboratory of Wonders, (Show Designer Eddie Sotto in his pre-Disney days) which was housed high above the central building floor, was a show in three acts, each one providing a demonstration of how technology was making life better for people around the world. Guests went on a walking tour through Professor Flagg’s laboratory, a Victorian “world of invention” that included a welcome from the Professor himself (in a kind of Wizard of Oz technology chamber), followed by a demonstration of the “House of the Future,” complete with a robotic dog, and finally the miraculous electric energy generator which powered up a light and sound show under a dome, and which in turn powered a miniature model of the “future Baltimore Harbor” (as seen from the turn of the century). The attraction was mildly amusing, but only when it worked properly. Sadly, a lot of the technical support (animatronics, light and audio systems, etc.) were not as ‘state of the art’ as we had specified. And of course, this was a “walk-thru” attraction, but more on that later.
The Magic Lantern Theatre was a gigantic robotic theatre that Tony Christopher and Ted King developed (with a cast of 80 Audio Animatronic characters designed by Marc Davis), which was hosted by MR. ELECTRO, a rather amazing animatronic character that was the Emcee, and who – with PROTO, his young assistant – provided the running narrative for the entire musical presentation. The concept here was taking a Victorian Toy Theatre and bringing it to life on a massive scale. It was VERY ambitious and had some incredible moments. Overall, due to the animatronic characters being a bit stiff, the show never achieved the level of excitement that we had hoped for. But the opening number was amazing, and there were several great moments. But again, the vision for the project was far above the technology needed to produce it in the way it was conceived.
The Circus of the Mysterious (Lead Show Designers included Richard Hoag, Robert DeLapp, and Ted King) was in the basement of the Power Plant and was an ambitious attempt to create a mysterious “fun house” of sorts. The concept here was that Professor Flagg, during his travels throughout the world, had a deep fascination with things that defied explanation and he collected objects of mystery and power. In this walking tour, a host of strange and magical objects were on display, such as The Leprechaun’s Throne, The Fountain of Youth, Pandora’s Box, and so on. Each of these objects were designed as elaborate (or in some cases, not so elaborate) illusions of one kind or another. The show, much as The Laboratory of Wonders, had some interesting moments, but it lacked the excitement we had hoped for, in part because it too was a ‘walk-thru” attraction (again, more on that later).
Finally there was The Sensorium, the world’s first 3D/4D theatre, a unique place that Professor Flagg created to allow people to not only see the world in 3D, but also, through the marvels of technology, to feel, hear, and even smell the world as it was brought to them in this very special theatre. Without a doubt, The Sensorium was the hit of the entire project. One of the reviews after opening actually said that The Sensorium “was worth the price of admission alone.” As the subject of the attraction we set up the idea that Professor Flagg wanted to create a kind of “time capsule” of a simpler time. A time when people lived a life that was a little slower paced and when people had time to enjoy and share the world around them. The attraction managed to have some thrills, some laughs and even touched the heart as well.
JY: Were there any “firsts” in terms of technology used at the Power Plant?
GG: The main first was The Sensorium. The idea of creating a theatre that would combine 3D film with real in-theatre effects (vibrating chairs, programmed scents, mist and water spritzes, wind, etc.) was something new. Little did we know we would spawn an entirely new generation of 3D/4D attractions. We wound up doing a number of these kinds of theatres over the years (including The Time Machine of Dreams for Sanrio Puroland, The Journey Into Nature at Oita Harmonyland, and on up through Hershey’s Really Big 3D Show, Deepo’s Undersea Wondershow, Terminator 2: 3D and of course The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man).
But all of these 3D/4D attractions were inspired by The Sensorium. The Sensorium actually was recognized with a technical achievement award for The Sensorium as well. We had to figure out how to synchronize our film with the show control system that was triggering the audio and in-theatre effects. Remember, this was way before the digital era and we had film moving through the gates of two standard projectors and we had to have a flawless way of synchronizing all of the show’s many effects. This included the triggering of 18 programed scents that were delivered at each chair in the theatre. We also have to have a charcoal AC system that could filter out all the scents after each show. Our guys figured it out and were given a technical achievement award by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science.
JY: What was the long term goal of this project? Were they looking to rotate out the shows eventually or were they hoping to open similar concepts in other cities?
GG: The long term goal was to create a unique attraction themed to the local area, and then to create additional UEC’s throughout the country in major cities. At the time the idea was that each city would have its own unique attraction. (The S.S. Admiral in St. Louis was yet another such UEC project, but that is a story for another time.) There were no plans to create additional Power Plants as this was a very specific attraction created for a very specific building and location.
JY: Were there any previous attractions that inspired this one? Or were there story elements, technologies or other ideas from Power Plant’s attractions that really worked that you decided to use in other attractions you created after this one?
GG: The overall project was inspired more by movies like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” H.G. Welles “The Time Machine” and other Victorian Industrial-era stories and movies. Among the attractions, The Sensorium, as I mentioned earlier, was the gateway project for all of the 3D/4D attractions that came after it. The Sensorium was the “experimental” version and from that we learned that the concept was very strong and that audiences of all ages really liked it. Based upon this we created other 3D/4D attractions and within a short time Disney was doing the same thing.
Editor’s Note: Come back next time for our final chapter in The Power Plant story where we talked about why it closed, what could have been done differently and what it could mean to Six Flags today as a company. As a reminder, the images contained in this article can not be copied or redistributed without the written consent of their respective owners.