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Sunday, January 31, 2016

The Spee-Lunkers Cave At Six Flags Over Texas

Before The Minions and even before Fraggle Rock, there were The Spee-Lunkers of Six Flags Over Texas.

As this promotional Spee-Lunker puppet explains, the Spee-Lunkers were fanciful characters (puppets themselves, technically) who welcomed visitors to their hidden world at Six Flags Over Texas.

"What is a Spee-Lunker?" you may ask.  Well, imagine if Dobby the House Elf from Harry Potter mated with a Seahorse.  Their offspring might look something like a Spee-Lunker.

"Spees" as they were nicknamed, were part of a dark boat ride at Six Flags Over Texas, housed in "The Cave."

Six Flags Over Texas opened in 1961.  Located in Arlington, this was the very first Six Flags park.

The Cave full of Spee-Lunkers debuted in 1964.

Six Flags is not famous for dark rides, but the three original Six Flags parks (in Texas, Georgia, and Missouri) each had their own special dark ride.

The Spee-Lunker's Cave is a distant cousin of The Monster Plantation (now The Monster Mansion) that opened at Six Flags Over Georgia in 1981.

Having never been to Six Flags Over Texas, my first introduction to the Spee-Lunkers was this magazine from July 1967.

I found this magazine when I visited my local Library's used book store when I was a kid.  I quickly bought it.

One of the original icons for Six Flags Over Texas was Skull Island.

Spooky, but also kind of adorable.

So, this is where I first encountered the Spee-Lunkers.

Notice there is no description for what we are seeing.  What were these little creatures?  Were they sea monkeys?  They had me hooked!  At the time, there was no Internet, so the identity of these characters remained a mystery to me for many years.

Some Groovy, stylish young adults take us on a tour of Six Flags Over Texas.

Seeing the Sheriff scene here makes me think of theme parks like Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee or Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, California.

Wholesome young adults enjoy a wholesome day.

Early Six Flags is quite different from the EXTREME Six Flags we know today.

"Hello, Karen.  I'm the Six Flags Magician.  It's pretty amazing what I can do with doves and cards, but I think you'll agree that my hair is even more impressive and magical."

For about five years, some of my family members lived in Texas.  My visits were typically in December or November, and in all that time, I never made the trip to Six Flags Over Texas.  On one Christmas visit, I found some local 1960's high school yearbooks for sale in a store.

I bet these high school Seniors had some fun at Six Flags Over Texas.  The big hair inspired me to create my own imaginary pitch for a Sixties TV show for the CW Network called Bigger In Texas.

Early Six Flags Over Texas had its own identity and character.

Every hour, oil would erupt out of the Six Flags Over Texas Oil Derrick, showering unsuspecting people under the tower.

Or not.

Whoa!  Where are the wall-to-wall roller coasters?

The arrival of licensed characters kind of robbed Six Flags Over Texas of its original life force and soul.

Skull Island was featured in quite a bit of park merchandise.

Skull Island is kind of similar in some ways to the Skull Rock that used to be at Disneyland in California from 1960 to whenever it was destroyed for the New Fantasyland that debuted in 1983.

Here we can see The Cave (home of the Spee-Lunkers) and Skull Island on an old Six Flags park map.

Like the Spees, Skull Island is no longer at Six Flags Over Texas.

Early Six Flags merchandise could be very unusual.

How about a mod piggy bank?  Well, this isn't a typical piggy bank.

Yes, it is a Spee-Lunker Piggy Bank!

The Spee-Lunkers never got the Smurfs or Snorks treatment, but they did appear on merchandise.

The cute yet grotesque Spee-Lunkers were designed by Walter McKeegan.

Walter McKeegan was an art director for TV shows like I Love Lucy, Petticoat Junction, and The Beverly Hillbillies.

The Spee-Lunkers Cave was designed by theme park designer Randall Duell.

The Six Flags Over Texas Charm Bracelet may be the most coveted souvenir dedicated to the original version of the park.

Included in the assortment of park icon charms are Skull Island and a Spee-Lunker.  Yes, a Spee-Lunker!

This is as close as we'll ever get to a Spee-Lunker action figure.

The Six Flags Over Texas Charm Bracelet sells for big bucks (if you can even find it).

A "Charming" Vintage Six Flags Over Texas Spee-Lunker

This vintage patch seems to predict the future.  In 1985, the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes arrived at the Six Flags chain.  The characters gradually became the focus of promotions and merchandise.

In 1992, the Western Looney Tunes themed "Yosemite Sam and the Gold River Adventure" dark ride replaced the aging Spee-Lunkers attraction.

The unique Spees are gone, but not forgotten.  Allegedly, some of the Spee-Lunkers made their way into the homes (and Christmas displays) of loving Texans.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Opryland's Grizzly River Rampage Souvenirs: Bear Left

Once Upon A Time in Nashville, Tennessee, there was a legendary grizzly bear who lived in the Opryland amusement park.

 According to advertisements and merchandise for Grizzly River Rampage, the bear would emerge from the rapids to terrify raft riders.

Of course, this scene never actually existed in the ride, which opened at Opryland in 1982.  Amusement Parks are notorious for this sort of marketing scheme.

Grizzly River Rampage opened with a number of standard amusement park souvenir items for sale.  Drinking and shot glasses are part of the bear essential assortment of offerings.

How about a GRR floaty pen?

Even the floaty pen promised a scene that wasn't real.

 There was also a GRR floaty keychain.

The floaty keychain was a little bit more honest.

Nope, there's no ferocious grizzly popping up out of the water.

The rafts of Grizzly River Rampage did go through a cave and see a statue of what might have been a grizzly bear.

There may have been strobe lights to simulate movement of the bear figure.

My first and only visit to Opryland was in 1985.  Growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, I was part of the audience that saw the marketing blitz for Grizzly River Rampage.

Yes, you will get soaked on GRR.  A towel is an appropriate souvenir.

We visited Opryland in September of 1985.  It was chilly outside, but we had to ride GRR.  We stayed at the Opryland Hotel, which is huge and still exists today.

At the time of my visit, I don't remember seeing any Grizzly River Rampage souvenirs for sale (like this figural charm, which I would have wanted---but I was a fifth grader and did not have money to spend for that, so it wouldn't have mattered anyway).

I was obsessed with the marketing for this ride.

There was a wonderful comic-book style ad in the Sunday Birmingham News that I still remember to this day (it may have been in the comics section).  If anyone has that, please send it my way!

One of the nicest items is a Grizzly River Rampage stein.

Opryland and Grizzly River Rampage became a thing of the past when the park closed down December 31, 1997 and never re-opened.

A grizzly bear raft ride exists today at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim.  Check out Disney's Country Bears at Grizzly River Run in California Adventure.  There are no advertised grizzlies on that attraction, either (except for a mountain shaped like a bear).

Friday, January 8, 2016

Henry Kiwi and Dwayne Crane in The Bird Sanctuary

Between 2003 and 2005, I spent a lot of free time creating characters for The Bird Sanctuary.  In my mind, it was going to be a movie, but I was never able to think of a good story to give these birdies.

The main character was going to be Henry Kiwi, which was the first character I made.  Kiwi birds are considered "honorary mammals" in their native New Zealand (because they can't fly, they have whiskers and they have hairlike feathers), so I thought he would be a unique lead.  Dwayne Crane (an African Crowned Crane) was supposed to be his antagonist rival---someone who can't stand flightless birds. (Like I said, I couldn't think of a good story...)

That being said, I did create quite a bit of exploratory artwork for The Bird Sanctuary, especially in 2004 and 2005.

In 2002, I got a PowerMac G4 with Photoshop and a Stylus.  I had great fun testing what it could do.

The birds are made out of Sculpey, a crafting clay that can be cured in a standard oven.  It smells pretty horrible when it is baking.  Dwayne Crane and Phoebe Flamingo are about 12 inches tall.  These were an engineering feat to make.  They are free standing and had to stand up in a glass baking pan in the oven.  Each bird is made up of twisted wire coat hangers, clumps of aluminum foil and many different colors of Sculpey (no painting was required).  Looking at them now, I am amazed that they are structurally sound.

With their short size, Lowell Owl and Gwen Penguin were probably the easiest to build.  Henry Kiwi was kind of tricky---making sure the character did not tip over and making his "hair" (with an extrusion Sculpey tool) took some time.

The most time-consuming character was the last one I made (in 2005), Brock Peacock.  Creating all those eye feathers (front and back) and getting the darn bird built lead to Sculpey burnout.

I made these so long ago, that I feel like a different person made them.

Henry Kiwi makes friends with a Starling.

Dwayne Crane is not so nice to the little bird, and gets a different reaction.

Much of the conflict is courtesy of Dwayne Crane.

Henry is a very friendly, popular, and different kind of bird---one that isn't flashy, and it drives Dwayne crazy.

Dwayne has to be the best at everything.

The Bird Sanctuary is a world of birds from all over the globe.

It's a great, big, beautiful (and dangerous) world for a Kiwi.

Henry Kiwi can't fly, but he can take care of himself.

The apex bird in The Bird Sanctuary is Brock Peacock.  He looks good and he knows it.

If Brock Peacock ever forgets he is handsome, he has dozens of shrieking Peahen groupies flocking around to remind him.