What California parks can expect as two theme park giants merge

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A view of the entrance as parkgoers ride the Silver Bullet roller coaster during the reopening day at Knott’s Berry Farm to the full public and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park after the easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Buena Park, Calif. 

A view of the entrance as parkgoers ride the Silver Bullet roller coaster during the reopening day at Knott’s Berry Farm to the full public and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the park after the easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions Saturday, May 29, 2021, in Buena Park, Calif. 

Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

In a somewhat shocking move for the theme park industry, the two juggernauts of regional theme parks have announced plans to merge. Six Flags and Cedar Fair will soon operate as one, under the name Six Flags, as a $3.5 billion conglomerate. The unprecedented portfolio will include 42 theme parks, 15 water parks and nine resorts across the United States, Canada and Mexico. 

While the deal has minimal market overlap in other parts of the country, that’s not true in California. Close to home, on the mind of many theme park fans is how this will impact our own Six Flags Magic Mountain and the Cedar Fair-operated Knott’s Berry Farm. The two SoCal parks in question are less than 60 miles apart, and in the Bay Area, there are competitors about the same distance away: California’s Great America in Santa Clara and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo. 

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While operating under the Six Flags name, Cedar Fair will hold the majority stake and its CEO, Richard Zimmerman, will lead. Changes could be slow, subtle and even undetected by the eye of the average guest if the individual parks retain their own identity.

“I’m surprised by the news,” industry insider Arthur Levine, who has been covering the theme park industry for decades, tells SFGATE. “It’s been floated before, but I thought it was just posturing and didn’t think it would actually happen. In many ways, it makes sense, especially when you look at the markets in which both companies operate. It does raise antitrust issues, and I’m concerned about the merger’s impact on the industry.”

His concern about this potential industry monopoly? Dominating the bulk of the regional theme park industry could drive down the need for competition, which could directly impact the guest experience. This would mean less of a need to update and maintain existing attractions and no real push to open new attractions.

How this will trickle down to the guest experience is a hot-button topic for many. As part of the merger announcement, the company addressed this by promising an improved operating model. Cedar Fair’s parks largely have a reputation among fans as being operated well, while Six Flags has been said to leave some desiring more in terms of guest experience. One thing is for sure is that the announcement has caused quite a stir with fans. “Both Cedar Fair and Six Flags are mixed bags when it comes to how their parks are managed,” Clint Gamache, owner of theme park fan site ThrillGeek, tells SFGATE.

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“Overall in the industry, Cedar Fair parks, like Cedar Point, Knott’s Berry Farm and Carowinds, are known for being better run than the Six Flags parks, so many fans are worried their favorite Cedar Fair park may go downhill in quality,” Matt Roseboom, publisher of Attractions Magazine, tells SFGATE.

Riders get a sneak peek preview at the LEX LUTHOR: Drop of Doom Media Day at Six Flags Magic Mountain on July 6, 2012, in Valencia, Calif.

Riders get a sneak peek preview at the LEX LUTHOR: Drop of Doom Media Day at Six Flags Magic Mountain on July 6, 2012, in Valencia, Calif.

Mathew Imaging/WireImage

But perhaps an exciting possibility is the newfound ability to share intellectual properties. After the merger, more parks will have access to iconic brands like DC Comics, Peanuts and Looney Tunes. This opens the door to new attractions and experiences that share the stories and characters of these beloved properties.

“I hope all the parks continue to improve, and the combined power of both companies only enhances all the parks of both,” adds Roseboom. “It would benefit all their combined parks as long as they don’t just start adding clones of current rides and lands in other parks. I wouldn’t want to see current rides and lands just get name and look makeovers.”

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With such a large portfolio, the company could take an aggressive approach to narrowing it down by closing or selling off smaller or less profitable parks. Cedar Fair park Great America has already announced it will be closing within the decade and a merger of this nature could accelerate those plans.

“I can’t see any universe where the combined company keeps 42 parks in their portfolio,” Gregg Condon, Southern California parkgoer and editor-in-chief of Park Journey, tells SFGATE. Condon mentions the possibility of smaller theme park companies, like Herschend Family Entertainment, which owns Dollywood and Silver Dollar City, stepping into a new market.

The good news? It’s largely agreed upon in the industry that Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain have a good chance at remaining intact as we know them today. Of the new portfolio, the two are among the most historic and continue to act as industry leaders in an often cluttered, competitive space.

“I also don’t see the chain wanting to give up the opportunity to have the top two ‘coaster parks’ in their lineup,” Condon shares.

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“As for California, I think it’ll mostly be business as usual,” Levine says. “Both Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain are flagship parks with strong identities, and I suspect they will continue as such.”

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