In October it will be ten years since Six Flags AstroWorld packed up and left Houston without an amusement park. Next year will also be the year that the highly anticipated Grand Texas Theme Park will open up, promising to be even bigger and better than our dearly departed old rollercoaster haunt.
Still, as excited as I am for the new park next summer, this summer has me a little down in the dumps remembering all the fun times that I used to have at AstroWorld that I'll never get to share with my daughter. Oh sure, AstroWorld had its downsides. The food was bad and overpriced, it was usually dirty, and if you swallowed the Thunder River water by accident you were likely to produce a Thunder River of your own later.
But there were things you could do there you couldn't do anywhere else.
Season Passes There are plenty of places you can go and ride rides and eat fatty foods and make your parents stand in hot lines in and around Houston. The Pleasure Pier, Kemah Boardwalk, and the Downtown Aquarium all offer these things in varying degrees, and the all-day, ride-as-much-as-you-like passes are often extremely reasonably priced.
There's no season pass, though. We got season passes every year when my brother and I were kids, and sometimes my father would drop us off on the way to work as many as three days in a row. For a $10 fee you could store a cooler (Until they did away with that), so we could bring all the non-ridiculously priced food we wanted and spend all day riding over and over again without parental supervision. All for a single, annual ticket. That was value entertainment, and it's gone.
Combination Amusement/Water Park Splashtown is awesome. Don't get me wrong. I love going there, but I loved having the ability to go between AstroWorld and WaterWorld more. Get tired of the Texas Cyclone? Go hit the lazy river. When you get sick of that, head back over to XLR8.
Granted, sometimes getting between the parks involved a ridiculous hike that seemed like a weird plot to tire out swimmers before they got in the water, but the back gate near the Tidal Wave was pretty accessible if you wanted to do AstroWorld first. Plus, they were usually on the same season pass so you were getting not only value but variety. These days you have to pick one or the other.
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Location My absolute favorite day-out place in Houston is actually in Galveston. Moody Gardens has that amazing aquarium, IMAX, space stuff, a paddle boat to ride, the works. It's a grand place to visit.
But it's far... really far when you live in Jersey Village. Ditto the Kemah Boardwalk and Pleasure Pier, and Grand Texas isn't much closer. Only the Downtown Aquarium is centrally located, the park with the least variety.
Having hauled a four-year-old down to Moody Gardens recently I can say that the difference between a half-hour and an hour-long drive can make or break the attitude of a kid. That goes double if you want to wake up early to beat the heat and crowds. AstroWorld, for all its faults, was right on the loop.
Fright Fest Fright Fest went into decline long before AstroWorld closed. I even worked in one of its carnival-themed haunted houses my senior year in high school, and that was where I discovered what mildewed clown make-up smells like. If you're curious to find out, have a man with large, smelly balls dip them in cold cream and then use said balls to apply the cream to your face. You have just recreated my job at 17.
Before that, though, man AstroWorld knew how to throw a damned Halloween party. They changed the globe to a terrifying, grinning pumpkin, they had great monster mash concerts and even awesome little musicals like Arania's Nightmare, and the trick 'r treating in the kid's section was always excellent. As an adult it also made dining in the medieval mead hall even better. I can't think of a family destination in Houston that has ever done Halloween as well.
The Branding This is a weird thing to miss because I didn't realize it mattered to me until well into adulthood. As I was sitting here working on this piece a man working next to me was lamenting the loss of the Astrodome. I shrugged and said "Hey, everyone's got ideas but no one wants to pay for them" and moved on back to typing.
But he's right, you know? When I was a kid that whole area was kind of a beauty mark for the city. This was the Astrodome where our teams played and the rodeo happened, the eighth wonder of the world. Across the bridge was AstroWorld, part of an amusement empire. Now one is a lifeless shell and the other is a barren field overseen by Reliant Stadium. We've lost some of our identity.
In its place the city has built up the area around Minute Maid Park, but to me as fun as that area is it feels so much smaller. Almost hidden. And it definitely doesn't make me think of Houston so much as just "the city". I miss having Astro-everthing. I miss being Space City, and AstroWorld was a part of that.
I'm not lamenting progress. I'll be first in line for Grand Texas, and it may well top AstroWorld in every technical measure. But it's Grand Texas, not Grand Houston, and somewhere the ghost of Judge Roy Hofheinz weeps for it.