September 01, 2003

Six Flags Autoworld

Here's an entry about a topic near to my heart -- AutoWorld, a Six Flags amusement park based on America's love affair with the automobile. Surprisingly, it was not a success.


Memories of AutoWorld...

Before I can begin to describe AutoWorld to you, you need to know a little bit about me. I spent the first 20 years of my life in Flint, Michigan. Flint is a weird place. It has historical significance for being the birthplace of Buick and General Motors. Not coincidentally, the UAW (United Auto Workers) was also formed in Flint.

Of course, that's all in the past. Flint hasn't been known for too much in the past thirty years or so. Well, unless you count stuff like high crime rates and high unemployment rates. Flint is a dying city.

The thing that I will always remember about Flint (besides the best coney dogs you'll ever eat) is AutoWorld. Six Flags AutoWorld opened in July of 1984 and was marketed as an amusement park. This was the big plan to bring back the economy of Flint. "C'mon Mabel, get the kids in the car, we're going to Flint to see the car amusement park!" As an amusement park, AutoWorld flopped. But it was pretty cool as a museum. Doomed before the doors opened, AutoWorld died a painful death.

My first memories of AutoWorld were trying to go as often as I could. My dad worked for Buick, and I remember going to an employee-family-only day before the park actually opened. At the time I thought that this was a huge perk. (Now I'm sure that this was just a way to test the rides to make sure that they didn't kill anyone.)

Between conning my dad into taking me and field trips, I probably went to AutoWorld around eight or nine times.

Inside AutoWorld

Enough talk, you say, what was it like? First off, AutoWorld tried for curbside appeal and wonderment with a big, geodesic dome. Imagine if EPCOT was almost completely buried in the ground and you'll have a pretty good idea of what it looked like.

The interior of the dome was all built up to look like Flint ("Vehicle City"). But homeless people, abandoned buildings and cars on blocks were nowhere to be found. You see, inside the dome was a Disney-fication of Flint from the early 1900's complete with the (highly filtered) Flint River running through the dome.

The first display that you came to was a small cabin. Inside, was a mannequin. When you pressed a red button on the outside of the cabin it kicked on a film that projected onto the mannequin's face. I cannot begin to tell you how freaky this is. I still have sweaty nightmares about this technology. At any rate, turns out the fellow with the celluloid face is none other than Jacob Smith, founder of Flint! He welcomes you to AutoWorld and talks a little about the origins of Flint.

Moving on, you walk through the cobblestone streets of Flint. Everywhere there are little shops full of tchotchkes emblazoned with the AutoWorld logo. In the center of the dome is a Ferris wheel (the largest indoor Ferris wheel at the time). I also remember that there was a carousel that had been beautifully restored.

Once you left the dome area, you were in an interactive museum. Here are some of the items that I remember:

An arcade. All the videogames were free, but they were provided by D.A.R.E. The games were all about dying. For instance, there was a drunk-driving simulator. There was no way to win this game. It was all a matter of time, and how many innocent bystanders you were going to take out with you.

A really big frickin' car engine. It was supposedly three-stories tall, but it was on a giant pedestal, so you didn't really grasp the size of it.

Animatronics. There were rides that you could take through little corridors full of robotic puppets. One of them was about the history of the automobile. There was another that had a factory worker singing a song to a robot welder.

An IMAX Theater. AutoWorld introduced me to the IMAX experience. Back then, the IMAX movies were only about 20 minutes long, but they had an impact on me. One I remember was called "Speed" and it showed how the perception of speed has changed in the past 100 years. There was another film shown later about some sort of robotic pterodactyl/glider and the flights that it made.

Cars and exhibits about cars. The rest of the park was disguised as a car museum. There were a lot of cars there. There were old cars, new cars, test cars, and even the car from Magnum P.I.!

AutoWorld gets down-sized

AutoWorld only stayed open for less than two years. After the first year, Six Flags pulled their name off of all of the signage and souvenirs.

Once AutoWorld was closed, she wasn't allowed to go gracefully into the night. At first, there were seasonal openings. I remember that AutoWorld was open between Thanksgiving and Christmas one year. The big addition for this was a --- robotic singing Christmas tree. (woo!)

From then on it was closed and AutoWorld visits became impossible. It was occasionally rented out to local schools for proms and things like that.

In 1994, I got my chance to say goodbye. Channel 66, the local Fox affiliate was hosting a "kid's club party" at AutoWorld. My best friend Suzy and I attended. It was pretty sad, many of the rides had been removed, or were non-functional and most of the display exhibits were gone. But, Jacob Smith was still there in his freaky projected-face way!

In 1997 AutoWorld was gutted, then imploded to make room for a parking lot and library for the University of Michigan-Flint. Autoworld cost around 80 million dollars to build, and never saw a profit.

AutoWorld was a stupida. It wasn't just about Flint. If AutoWorld had been built anywhere else, it would've failed there, too. It was an abysmally bad idea that people got behind and championed. Thank God that there are people in this world who couldn't see a white elephant if it sat on them. Otherwise, there might never have been an AutoWorld.

I'll miss yah, AutoWorld.

Note: There is very little written about AutoWorld on the 'net. These are all personal memories, and could be figments of my imagination. I have included all of the pictures that I have been able to find. If you would like to learn more about Flint, and see a little bit of AutoWorld, rent Roger & Me (a comedy/mockumentary about Flint by Michael Moore) sometime.

--- Later --- So tell me, do you remember AutoWorld? I noticed that this page is getting some traffic, so feel free to add your piece of the story. Thanks, Matt

Update: 4/4/06 - With the recent redesign of the site, I have also revisited this page, and have added some additional photos that have been lurking on my desktop.

Some additional housekeeping items - I wrote a bit on AW for a new website called flinthistory. Check them out, or read my article here. Also, I am working on a larger project related to AutoWorld. If you have your own memories of AutoWorld that you'd like to share, I'd love to listen. Please contact me.

Posted by Matty at 04:36 PM | Comments (209)