Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

Branding on a Budget: 5 Dos and Don’ts from Six Flags Great America

Last week, I used one of my precious vacation days to take a family trip to Six Flags Great America. My family tries to go at least once a year, and I have fond memories of rides, characters, and in-world branding. But Six Flags filed bankruptcy in 2009, and I noticed some serious changes when I visited this year.

Six Flags is now in a transitional period where they need to make money, but also need to continue their level of customer happiness. You might not own a multi-million dollar theme park chain, but you can use these “Do”s and “Don’t”s for branding yourself on a budget.


DO let in outside advertisers and brands.

Before filing for bankruptcy, Six Flags Great America was an amusement park untouched by the outside world. The signs and banners inside the park promoted concerts, parades, or other rides; and all the food was sold from stands with old-timey names like “Hometown Fries.”

Now there are banners for Discover card, you can buy Panda Express’ orange chicken or Johnny Rockets’ shakes, and there’s a Chevy Cruze parked in every open area of the park. And none of that bothered me. If I have to sit in a Stride gum car to ride the Demon, so be it. As long as your outside advertisers aren’t creating direct competition, what’s the harm in letting them promote inside your brand? Consumers are already used to constant advertisement, so as long as it’s done in moderation, you might as well generate some extra income.

DO cut down extraneous content.

Six Flags now focuses more on the main attractions: the rollercoasters.

Six Flags now focuses more on the main attractions: the rollercoasters.

As a kid, I couldn’t take three steps without running into a character or street show. All I wanted to do was ride the American Eagle, so I found them to be an obstacle, not an enhancement.

Now the shows have been cut down significantly: taking place only in theaters or in designated squares; so I don’t have to bump into a barbershop quartet to get to Batman. Great America actually gutted one of their theaters to turn it into the Dark Knight coaster. They also cut out all licensed brands (besides DC, Looney Tunes, and Hanna Barbera) from their rides, saving them millions of dollars. Are your banner ads not generating revenue? Cut them. Are your daily e-mail blasts not really bringing in new business? Scale it back.

DO offer a changing and diverse product line.

Six Flags Great America has always been great about tearing down old rides and replacing them with exciting new ones. The obnoxious Shock Wave roller coaster was torn down to make room for the vastly better Superman: Ultimate Flight. The unused side parking lot is now their water park Hurricane Harbor. And in less than a month they are dismantling the head-smashingly bumpy Iron Wolf (to be replaced with a Green Lantern ride, I hope!).

Create new products, discontinue ones that aren’t selling, or offer new packages of your services. Consumers love to see new and exciting merchandise.


DON’T gouge your customers with add-ons.

No matter how tasty, chicken tenders aren't worth $12!

No matter how tasty, chicken tenders aren’t worth $12!

Once you’re in a theme park, you will be paying out the nose for food. It’s a universally accepted truth. However, there is a point where “theme park” pricing enters the “are you kidding me?” pricing. Great America has totally hit the “are you kidding me?” pricing. $6 for the smallest container of Dippin’ Dots and $12 for chicken tenders? You’re nuts, Great America. Next time I’m bringing sandwiches in my trunk.

Consumers will cut corners wherever they can. If your product has moved from the “reasonable” pricing to “theme park” pricing, you can bet that your clients will be checking out your competitors.

DON’T cut employees/resources when they are needed.

Yet, even for their “are you kidding me?” prices, Six Flags Great America was extremely understaffed. While I was waiting to buy my overpriced chicken during the lunch rush, there was one person working the cash register and one person working the kitchen. And that was it. The same situation repeated in all the food stands across the park. Later we waited about twenty minutes – in a short line – for funnel cakes.

Whatever the reason for the employee shortage, they should’ve delegated their employees to customer service before cleaning or stocking supplies. If there is a demand for a certain product or labor, don’t hold it hostage. This is a sure way to alienate your clients and ruin your brand loyalty.

Any other ways to expand your brand on a budget? Have you been to a Six Flags theme park recently? If so, what changes have you noticed?

 Image credit to Hendricks Photos.


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  1. JPorretto

    Great post Mandy! There’s one thing I would add to this list: Offer Premium Options/Upgrades.

    I had grown tired of the lines and never really wanted to go to GA again. That is until I heard about their “Fast Pass (I believe that is what it’s called).” Sure it cost $100, but I got to skip right to the front of the line at almost every ride and I had one of the most fun days EVER. I did every ride at least twice and still made it home for dinner. Worth every penny. Now instead of dreading the place, I actually want to go back.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      That’s a great addition, Jeff. Even though I hate all the people with Flash Passes that make me wait longer, I’m sure that Six Flags is making bank from them. And for those people that can justify the money, they have excellent experiences like you and turn into repeat customers.

    • Joseph Giorgi

      Good call. I won’t even go to Six Flags anymore unless I’ve got a Fast Pass. Waiting in a 90-minute line to enjoy a 90-second ride is just a waste of the day. I remember waiting nearly two hours to ride the Superman coaster last time I was there. TWO HOURS!!! I could’ve watched the Superman movie in that amount of time!

      • Amanda

        The Flash Pass does make a lot of sense. Even though it’s expensive–it would make the day more fun! I think I’ll look into that next time we go. Maybe for FrightFest….it’s not hot and it’s so awesome!!

        • Serena

          I only ever have purchased a Flash Pass DURING FrightFest. I have never ever needed it during the summer, because I always go middle of the week, preferably when there’s a chance of rain. The chance that the rides will even be closed for 5 minutes scares a lot of people off, so the parks are very empty on a cloudy Tuesday or Wednesday (when most parents have to work) I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than 30 minutes in line for even a new roller coaster with this tactic.

  2. Joseph Giorgi

    Excellent points, Mandy! I was entirely unaware that Six Flags filed for bankruptcy in 2009. That’s a shame. I’ve got some great memories at that place. 🙁

    Letting major brands advertise within the park is a smart move. As long as the advertisements don’t get out of hand, there’s really no harm in it.

    But 12 dollars for chicken tenders? No friggin’ way! Highway robbery doesn’t even begin to describe how unreasonable that is. I know Six Flags is hurting and all, but jacking the prices up like that isn’t going to do much for customer satisfaction. If people start thinking of the Six Flags brand as being “unaffordable,” then they’ll be less likely to visit the park more than once a year. Sure, people can always bring a lunch like you said, but they’ll always need to grab a quick bite to eat before they enter a new line or whatnot, and no one will be happy about paying those kinds of prices. Six Flags better remedy this situation! They need to stay at least SOMEWHAT affordable!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      They’re doing okay right now. There was a lot of business mumbo jumbo, but basically I think that junior partners bought out share holders?

      They sold off some of the smaller theme parks, but I don’t think we have to worry about Great America closing its gates any time soon.

      Unless they lower their food prices. That was seriously insane. Except for their funnel cake sundaes, which were about $9. That’s steep, but not much steeper than county fairs or other amusement parks. Plus it had ice cream.

  3. Jill Tooley

    Stellar takeaways, Mandy! As a long-time attendee of Six Flags Great America, all of these points make perfect sense to me.

    To be honest, I was shocked when they filed for bankruptcy in ’09. How could an establishment that charges $9.00 for a soft pretzel or $3.75 for a 20 oz soda from a vending machine possibly be short on cash? But then it all started to make sense – they used to spend a crap ton of money on things that were wholly unessential to the park experience. Cutting down on the licensed brands probably made a drastic difference, and the scale backs on the film viewings probably didn’t hurt either. (Seriously, besides the appeal of A/C, who pays $75 for a day at a roller coaster park just to go watch a movie?)

    Even though they’ve considerably done away with them since I was a kid, I’d still like to see less of those annoying people with cameras who jump into your path and try to take a souvenir photo. If it was free I might consider it, but why would I trek all the way to the front of the park again just to shell out $50 for a mediocre 8×10 of my group? They could easily reallocate that staff to the food booths! 😉

    By the way, this line: “You’re nuts, Great America. Next time I’m bringing sandwiches in my trunk” would be a sweet tagline! Couldn’t agree more. I don’t care if the sandwich is sort of soggy from sinking into the icy cooler – it beats the hell out of paying $30 for lunch!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Yeah, they cut most of the licensed brands from their rides. Which makes sense. Will people go on the “Tony Hawk Big Spin” coaster just because of the skater’s name? Doubtful. They’re going to go on it because it looks cool, so having the new name of “Pandemonium” will save Six Flags serious cash.

      I actually found the annoyance of the photo takers at an all time low this year. Not once did they jump in front of me and ask to take my picture. And when my brother took my picture with Wonder Woman, the staff member on site offered to take it instead. Maybe it was just a fluke, but it was nice. 🙂

  4. amy

    These are some great tips Mandy, great job! I especially liked, “Consumers will cut corners wherever they can.” People go to Six Flags for a fun, enjoyable day with family and friends. The last thing they want to do is be stressing over their bank account balance when ordering a corn dog.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Exactly! And especially during an economic recession? Six Flags has a lot of guts/nerve/crazy to charge so much!

  5. Bret B.

    I want a funnel cake!

  6. Kyle

    I totally agree with all of your points, Mandy. I actually wasn’t aware that Six Flags filed for bankruptcy in 2009. Funny that you mentioned the Stride advertisements on the Demon because I also happened to notice those last time I visited. I found them kind of obnoxious at first because of the bright, vibrant colors, but by the time I was on the ride I didn’t even give it a second thought.

    Ahh I wanna ride some coasters now! 😀

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      Yeah, the amount of Stride advertising on the Demon is kind of obnoxious at first, but it doesn’t detract from the coaster experience, so I say let it continue. As long as Six Flags doesn’t sacrifice ride quality, I don’t care if they slap advertisements on every safety restraint or go kart.

  7. Jen

    Nice Post Mandy! In ’09 when I first heard Great America was filing for bankruptcy a little part of me died inside. I’m glad they’ve pulled through and are still in business though. I think it was really smart of them to bring in outside advertising, it doesn’t bother me at all, I’m just there for the rides! They could rename the “Raging Bull Coaster” the “American Family Insurance Coaster” and it would still be super awesome and fun. Isn’t that what Six Flags is all about.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      That is what Six Flags is all about. If they want to paint the cars of the Viper to look like Chevy Cruzes, awesome. Paint an ad on the side of the Giant Drop, super. Just give me those coasters.

  8. Scooby

    Having been to six flags a few years ago, I am not sure I’d ever go back. May be it was the atmosphere of tweens swearing and making-out, or the ridiculous lines; I am not sure what was worse. Or perhaps, maybe, I am getting “old”, but the park trip was not worth the time or the money. Jury is still out, but they have a HUGE, untapped marketing opportunity. They should sell naming rights to coasters and revamp the entire park and get it back to the way I remember it as a kid- the go to place for a huellaofa time! Otherwise, I fear they will fall flat, …soon.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I fear that the tweens making out is something that comes hand-in-hand with the Six Flags experience. I have never gone before without witnessing one of those displays.

      But you’re right, Six Flags has a lot of potential and is doing a fragile balancing act. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with them…

  9. Amanda

    Great post Mandy! =) I too love Six Flags, and am glad they pulled through and didn’t go out of business. The ads don’t bother me a bit either, and I think it was a great move to allow them in to make extra funds. We usually pack a cooler and buy a few food items, so the high prices are still crazy, but don’t ruin the day. I agree with their decision to take down Iron Wolf–talk about a headache! And great point about cutting down on the characters and shows–that is not why people go to Six Flags–it’s all about the coasters!

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      They’ve also installed TV monitors while waiting in line that show commercials and music videos. Not only are they generating revenue, but I kind of like having that distraction in line!

  10. Jenna Markowski

    Excellent post, Mandy! All of these are really great points. I’m actually surprised that it took so long for Six Flags to start bringing in outside advertising. And I agree with Jen, taking away the licensed characters doesn’t bother me at all — it really doesn’t matter WHAT they name the rides, as long as the rides are still awesome! Plus, the fact that they’re doing away with the Iron Wolf is good news for everyone.

    You couldn’t be more right about the expensive food! Six flags is missing out on a lot of money there — rather than serving a few people snacks at an insane price, they could be selling exponentially more food for cheaper. My family and I gave up on getting lunch at Six Flags a long time ago. We’ve always brought lunch and left it in a cooler in the car! We usually spur for at least one Dip ‘n Dots or a soft pretzel, but if prices are that crazy I don’t know if I still would.

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      You’re right, Jenna. If prices on food had been just a little cheaper, I totally would’ve gone crazy on snacks. Not just the funnel cake, but Dippin Dots, cotton candy…you missed out on some money, Six Flags.

  11. Ness

    They’re finally getting rid of the Iron Wolf, eh? Hopefully they’re replace it with a ride that doesn’t crush testicles as much! 😀

    • Mandy Kilinskis

      I don’t have that problem (just the head smashing for me), but here’s hoping!

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