Your humble narrator had the opportunity to play the latest Pac-Man game, a 3D platform adventure that while weird as hell is actually pretty damned fun. The wave of nostalgia for the old yellow hero got me poking around into his history, and that's when I discovered that for less than two years, Pac-Man was THE man as far as children's play areas in Six Flags were concerned.
Here's how it happened...
Back in the early '80s, Bally Manufacturing was riding high as one of the top producers of whimsy in the world, partly because of its acquisition of Midway who had made record-breaking amounts of money in the arcade business thanks to Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, and Space Invaders. This was some serious dough. Space Invaders alone generated grosses in the billions by 1981, and the Pacs weren't far behind.
Bally decided to put that money to good use, and in the mid-'80s bought the Six Flags chain of theme parks, including Six Flags Over Texas. During this time the park added three new rollercoasters, and rebranded their children's area Pac-Man Land.
The areas were called "Playports" by playground design genius Jack Pentes. He was a follower of "soft play," the new type of entertainment and educational play areas pioneered by Eric McMillan (Inventor of the ball pit, the punching bag forest, the foam swamp, and pretty much every other modern piece of play setting you have ever seen). Pentes was enthusiastic about the work he was commissioned to create for Six Flags.
"Doing this is like getting a chance to be a kid all over again," said Pentes in a 1983 interview with the Sumter Daily Item.
Pac-Man Land was a classic Pentes design. The game level was loosely recreated with a variety of tunnels, rope bridges, net climbs, and other crawl-and-explore aspects. You could climb a soft mountain, brave the punching bag forest, and the areas featured literally hundreds and of Ms. Pac-Man cabinets for kids to feed quarters to. They removed the Six Flags petting zoo to make way for Pentes' $500,000 ($1.2 million in 2013) design, but that always seemed like kind of an insane idea in the first place anyway. There were also regular magic shows.
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Of course, you could also meet both Pac-Man and Ms. Pac-Man, who would wander the area in costume and take pictures with kids. The costumes were themselves quite impressive, allowing the giant mouths to move just like they did in the games in a way that is either awesome or terrifying depending on how sensitive you were. The Shirt Tails gang from the Hanna-Barbera animated series were also regular costumed mascots in the area for some reason.
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Eventually, Six Flags purchased the rights to use Looney Tunes characters in their parks upon acquisition of the Great American theme park. By 1985 Pac-Man Land was stripped of all references to the video game great, and in his place was the now-familiar faces of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Bally accepted a buyout from Wesray Capital Corporation in 1987, a move that was a just one of many sell-offs as Bally tried to recoup losses from their explosive expansion just five years prior.
Bally's once-mighty hold on the Pac-Man empire was eventually bequeathed to Namco, who was responsible for the recent Pac-Man and the Ghostly Adventures. More than three decades after his first appearance in the world the character is still going strong.
Pentes' design outlasted Pac-Man for many years afterwards, and his dedication to fun in a less rough and more learning-centered way is still apparent in everything from mall playgrounds to school yards to this day. People may forget the specifics, but you can be certain that one way to change the world for the better is to change the way children play, outside on the jungle gym on inside on the controller.