In a telltale sign during my meeting with Six Flags (NYSE: SIX ) President and CEO Mark Shapiro at Six Flags Great Adventure last week, I let the D-word slip. When he was describing an emphasis on future attractions that the whole family can enjoy together, I asked if that was the Disney (NYSE: DIS ) mindset kicking in, and then I quickly tacked on a "no offense" in case it came out the wrong way.
"No offense at all," Shapiro countered. "We should be so lucky."
Even though Shapiro has been on the job for only a few months, the Disney influence was evident everywhere as my family and I took in both Great Adventure in New Jersey and the smaller Great Escape in upstate New York last week.
The ousted Six Flags regime tried to market its parks as a cheaper, closer, and more thrilling alternative to Disney World. In contrast, the new blood is arming itself to compete on a head-to-head basis.
Six Flags, version 2.0
Even if the financial ramifications of the new direction at Six Flags may be an operating season or two away, you can already tell that things are different.
The old Six Flags had only a costumed character or two strolling through the kid areas. The new team has flooded the parks with Looney Tunes and DC Comics characters.
At Great Adventure, that meant some high-octane "streetmosphere." Batman and Robin were riding around the park in ATVs, making stops along the way to sign autographs and snap some photographs for the kids. Even on a light weekday before the area schools let out, the fountain by the park's entrance always had a few Warner Bros. characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Marvin the Martian, on hand to greet guests.
Some over-the-top characters, like the throwback crowd-strollers one comes across walking down Main Street USA at Disneyland or the Disney/MGM Studios park in Disney World, were also engaging park guests with their interactive antics.
I needed a second opinion. At Great Adventure, my family and I were escorted by an entourage of park and company execs, so I figured that maybe the preferential treatment was skewing my perspective. That's why I was looking forward to our visit to Great Escape, at the southern foothills of the Adirondacks, two days later.
Again, we were there on a weekday. Save for a few school groups hitting the historical amusement park, we practically had the park to ourselves. Surely, I figured, the characters would have been given the day off.
Not a chance. Batman, Flash, and Wonder Woman were roaming the entire park, winning over even a few of the jaded teens on a light Thursday. But I had to rub my eyes when I entered the Looney Tunes kiddie area to see how deep into the batting order Six Flags was taking its affinity with Time Warner's (NYSE: TWX ) Warner Bros. characters.
There, in all her costumed glory, was Granny from the Sylvester and Tweety cartoons. The matronly figure fit right into the storybook park, where fairy tale-themed attractions like taking a horse-drawn pumpkin-carriage ride with a real-life Cinderella or walking through Alice in Wonderland sets are all part of the rustic charm.
Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland went on to become Disney animated classics, but the namesake characters aren't part of the new Disney emphasis at Six Flags. Those public-domain figures have been part of this park's lore long before Shapiro -- or even Six Flags -- had the deed in hand.
If you want a more current snapshot, step into the gift shop.
Ringing up Disney
At Great Adventure, an entire aisle of the Six Flags Kids toy store is devoted to Disney playthings. It doesn't hurt that the Disney Princess line has been a mainstream hit. But a more unusual type of item I found was the Disney Monopoly board game at the eclectic gift shop you find as you exit Great Escape.
I am sure that many, if not all, of these products may have been available last season. There's a nugget of ironic wisdom in knowing that Disney's merchandising subsidiary is generating sales in a competitor's parks, but obviously, Six Flags wouldn't be stocking the wares if they weren't benefiting Six Flags, too.
Maybe we'll never see the day where you will find Six Flags-licensed toys like the coaster play sets and inflatable waterslides that are readily available at most toy retailers inside a Disney park. But you never know.
Shapiro's primary objective has been to reintroduce Six Flags as a quality brand. You see it even in the national chains that Six Flags has teamed up with this season -- names such as Papa John's (Nasdaq: PZZA ) and Home Depot (NYSE: HD ) . The extra green Six Flags receives with these deals is a bonus.
The merits of free agency
I thought that CBS (NYSE: CBS ) was nuts for giving up its Paramount Parks chain, but you also have to admire the flexibility that regional amusement park operators such as Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN ) and Six Flags have these days.
Cedar Fair will now be able to play its Camp Snoopy license against the Nickelodeon characters when it comes time to renegotiate extensions.
Even Disney, a valuable content creator on its own, has turned to proven franchises such as Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and the Muppets (even before it recently acquired the Jim Henson characters) for popular rides and attractions.
And Shapiro isn't done beefing up the cast of characters that guests associate with Six Flags. As a free agent, Shapiro can dream big, winning over new partners and characters who would welcome the opportunity to reach the many guests that travel through the company's turnstiles. There were 33.7 million of those guests last year.
Shapiro has been loading up his team with former execs from Disney, something that makes me believe that Six Flags may eventually work its way into content programming to develop in-house characters and properties. But the brand makeover must come first, and Shapiro knows it.
A feast fit for a mouse
At both parks, "Brunch With Bugs" was being promoted as a premium-priced morning meal where characters go from table to table to engage the young families. If you've ever been to a Disney theme park, you know that this move is something taken right out of the Magic Kingdom's playbook. Character meals are a major component of the Disney vacation, and even though Disney has added several to the parks and adjacent resorts, some have become so popular that they must be booked months in advance.
Brunch With Bugs will take some time before it gets to that point, but because Six Flags is hungrier, it's also doing things a bit more ambitiously. Folks have a willingness to overpay for character breakfasts at parks. Disney has made it a standalone experience, while Six Flags has taken it one step further by donning kids with signature hats and signing them up for the Carrothead Club, where they will be able to keep in touch with monthly newsletters, contests, and promotional offers.
That's the kind of thinking that will save Six Flags. I had the good fortune of going backstage at Great Adventure to meet the new pair of dolphins that will soon share an aquatic stage with the park's sea lions. Like so many things in the Six Flags arsenal, the ammo is potent and family-friendly.
Hello, Granny. Goodbye, Mr. Six.
Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is chasing coasters with his family this week. He invests the way he rides -- he owns a stake in Disney as well as units in Cedar Fair. He's also a member of the thrill-seekingRule Breakersnewsletter team. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.