It gets mighty cold in December. I should know. I rode an open-air roller coaster car aboard the classic Thunderbolt at Six Flags New England in Agawam, Mass. With December temperatures dipping down into the 30s, and the wind-chill factor created by the 40-mph ride making it seem lower than that, I was cold. The kind of cold that made my eyes water, my fingers tingle, and my nose turn bright red.
So, why was I riding roller coasters—an activity more associated with hazy, lazy days of summer—in December? I was attending the first-ever Holiday in the Park at Six Flags New England. The Christmas-themed event will keep the park’s gates open on weekends and other select days through January 1.
I asked John Winkler, the park’s president and a 34-year veteran of the amusement industry, what his reaction would have been if someone told him many years ago that there was a park located in New England operating rides in December. “I wouldn’t have believed it,” he said with a laugh.
In fact, he proposed bringing the holiday event to the park a few years ago and was met with skepticism and admonishments that the weather would be too cold to consider it. “It’s kind of amazing we’re doing it. It took a lot of guts and a lot of planning to make sure we could pull this off.”
Over the past few years, seasonal parks like Six Flags have been defying conventional wisdom and joining the trend to open during Christmastime. The New England property is the latest and the northernmost location in the chain to offer Holiday in the Park. It joins established events at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif., Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell, Six Flags America in Upper Marlboro, Md., Six Flags St. Louis, Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, and Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington.
Because some rides can get balky or just aren’t designed for colder temperatures, Six Flags New England opens a limited number of them for the event. Among the 26 rides that are operating, however, are a few major roller coasters. To compensate for the reduced number of rides and to help celebrate the season, the park has introduced a number of special activities and features.
It is presenting the show, “Frost,” in an indoor, heated (thankfully) theater. Loosely themed to the holidays, the revue features an energetic cast performing impressive feats such as balancing, break dancing, and tumbling. There is also a five-story-tall tree that is illuminated as evening falls, a 30-foot-tall walk-through tree ornament, and lots of lights (the park estimates that there are over a million of them). In addition to bulbs strung on rides, buildings, and bare trees, there is a long canopy of lights that covers the park’s Main Street. The synchronized lights pulse to a score of holiday music.
Live carolers in Victorian garb and singers performing contemporary holiday tunes are also part of the mix. To add to the festive ambiance, the park even pumps in smells, such as evergreen and peppermint. In addition to Bugs Bunny, Tweety Bird, and the other Warner Bros. characters that typically roam the park, Six Flags created new characters, like Queen Lumenessa and Princess Krystal, to greet visitors.
Predictably, there were long lines to purchase hot chocolate at the holiday event. Other seasonal items include soup served in bread bowls and s’mores that visitors can roast over fire pits. Even for those without the s’mores fixings, the fire pits proved to be popular spots to hang out. There are also propane heaters located throughout the park.
The holiday events at other Six Flags locations are essentially similar, although each one offers some unique touches. New Jersey’s Great Adventure, for example, presents “Spirit of the Season,” a musical show, in its indoor theater. California’s Discovery Kingdom is presenting a special 4D movie, “Arctic Adventure.” At Six Flags Over Texas, visitors can enjoy a night-ending outdoor performance of “A Jolly Holiday” complete with faux snow showers.
So what happens if it really snows at Six Flags New England? “We are now the proud owners of a lot of shovels,” Winkler said. If there’s a lot of snow, he acknowledges that the park may need to cancel Holiday in the Park for a day or two. But Winkler isn’t especially concerned about the elements or whether people will choose to visit the Massachusetts park at an unusual time of year. He thinks that folks want to get out of their homes and join together for the holidays, regardless of the temperature. “The New England crowd is hearty and understands weather.