I met fellow explorers Mike Rosati and Minda Vermazen for the first time in the Las Vegas Airport, en route to New Orleans to photograph the abandoned Six Flags Theme Park that closed when Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005. We read online that the park was being dismantled and sold for scrap beginning in January 2011, so with little time to spare, we hastily made plans to visit during the first week of December 2010. Our plane landed around midnight, and we drove straight to the park on a cursory scouting mission. We took a couple night shots from outside the park, made a plan, then headed to the hotel for some rest.
The next day, we spent 10 hours documenting and exploring the park. Mike dropped Minda and me and our gear off, then parked the car in an adjacent neighborhood that is still littered with abandoned homes in the aftermath of the hurricane and flooding.
We entered through a hole in a barbed-wire fence along a main thoroughfare, right next to a Six Flags sign that still reads “Closed for Storm” a full five plus years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city. Weeds and grasses were sprouting in the vast, empty parking lot, crumbling the pavement as nature begins its first steps to reclaim the amusement park.
As we approached a heavily vandalized attendant’s booth, I noticed fading roller coasters, derelict rides and concession buildings on the horizon. We continued across the parking lot to the ticket booths and park entrance. Right away, I saw indications of the extent of flooding at the park: the iron gate was rusted to a height of approximately four feet after being submerged underwater for a month following the storm.
As we entered through a toppled section of the gate, the place felt like a ghost town. The ticket booths were empty, but signs and notes were still tacked to the walls. A nearby office was filled with computers and monitors stained by receded flood waters. Discarded toy prizes and stuffed animals were scattered around. The entry plaza featured French Quarter style buildings lining the former “Main Street” that led visitors to the park’s attractions. As I passed by the buildings, it reminded me of walking down a deserted street in an actual abandoned town.
History and Geography
Jazzland Theme Park, located in Eastern New Orleans, opened in 2000 with a Louisiana theme. Although the park did well in its first season, within a couple years the city had taken over the property after dwindling visitor numbers forced the company into bankruptcy. In 2002, Six Flags leased the property from the city, making improvements and adding new rides before reopening in 2003. The park was profitable during its first two seasons, but success would be short-lived. Toward the end of the 2005 season, the park was forced to shut down as Hurricane Katrina approached from the Gulf of Mexico. Six Flags New Orleans closed on August 27 in preparation for the storm and never reopened.
The park is situated in a low-lying area surrounded by a 6-foot flood berm within the Ninth Ward, one of the most heavily damaged regions of the city. When drainage pumps failed during the storm and the earthen berm subsequently burst, the artificial basin filled with brackish floodwater, a combination of rainwater and seawater overflow from Katrina’s immense storm surge. The entire grounds were submerged under four to seven feet of corrosive water for more than a month, damaging most of the rides beyond repair. Six Flags, Inc. declared the park a total loss in July 2006, with no desire to rebuild.
Exploring the Park
Except for Batman: The Ride and a couple other rides that were removed and relocated to other Six Flags locations, the park sits in a state of arrested decay just like the day it closed over five years ago. These days pools are overgrown with moss and muck. Ceiling fans droop toward the ground like claws. Sidewalks where eager riders lined up for their next adventure are barely navigable in some instances. At The Jester and Mega Zeph roller coasters, walkways are completely overgrown with grasses, shrubs, and other wild plants. The high water mark is still visible on various buildings and signs.
Decorative palm trees still line the walking paths, now covered by shrubs in their vases. Ironically, the pathways that shuttled visitors to their next ride had waves of water painted on them to lead the way.
As night began to fall, the park took on a spooky feeling. A place once defined by twirling rides, laughter, screaming kids and sparkling light displays was completely silent and dark. Everything was in a standstill, except for wind tattered shade coverings and the Zydeco Zinger ride swings blowing gently in the breeze.
Before leaving, we climbed to the top of the wooden roller coaster, which was built on a steel frame to withstand hurricane-force winds. Climbing the stairs was a surreal experience that was familiar, yet new and exciting. As opposed to zooming by in a train seated next to strangers, I hiked up at my own pace. As I ascended, I looked down on the abandoned park and out to the horizon along the Interstate, enjoying the view. It was windy and cold at the top, so I only snapped a couple pictures before climbing back down and leaving the park. Although the coaster’s reinforced frame did successfully protect it from the storm’s winds, the ride couldn’t survive the corrosive floodwaters and will have to be scrapped.
After three years of negotiations, Six Flags finally came to an agreement with the city of New Orleans to terminate its 75 year lease in 2009, after operating the park for only 2 1/2 seasons. The city took over responsibility for the property following the agreement. Also in 2009, Six Flags removed the New Orleans’ page from its web site, signaling the inevitable demise of the park that had been obvious years earlier when Six Flags began attempting to get out of their lease. Still, just prior to being removed, the web page continued to claim that “Six Flags is still in the process of settling claims with its insurers due to substantial damage caused by Hurricane Katrina. As a result, Six Flags New Orleans will remain closed at this time. We know that it is still a difficult time for the residents of New Orleans, and we remain committed to working with the city in support of the recovery efforts.”
In January 2011, Southern Star Amusement Inc. announced its current plan to redevelop the park. During Phase One, the company plans to rebuild using the existing footprint and infrastructure and revert the park back to its original Louisiana theme. Future plans include “quickly” adding a water park during Phase Two, and adding other amenities such as retail shops, a hotel, a sports complex, and even a movie studio/film set in Phase Three.
This is the same company that backed out of plans to restore and expand the park in 2008 as “Legend City Adventure Park.” Then in 2009, they announced plans redevelop the park with a Nickelodeon-branded theme which fell through when bonds failed to materialize.
I was surprised and sobered to see first hand the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Even five years later, abandoned homes, schools, and other buildings are commonplace. I got the feeling that flood insurance dictated who rebuilt and who fled. On a positive note, the French Quarter is thriving with energy, tourists, and even new restaurants, hopefully signaling the continued revival of a great city.