By my rough estimate, the city of Flint, Michigan must be built atop of at least 666 ancient burial grounds because it just cannot catch a break. Ever since GM (first founded in Flint) downsized its workforce in the 1960s, the city has been struggling with population loss, high crime rates, and, most recently, lead-contaminated water and outbreaks of Legionnaires’ disease. THIS is what the US should be declaring a national emergency over. But back in 1984, people had a different idea. They actually thought they could save Flint with a car-themed amusement park called AutoWorld. Spoiler alert: it did not work out. Mike actually worked there and this is what he’s learned about it:
Research by Evan Symon.
No One Knew Exactly What It Was Supposed To Be
AutoWorld opened on July 4, 1984 at a cost of about $80 million, with the idea probably being that the patriotism of the day and the month would offset the totalitarian nightmare of the year. That didn’t happen but in the beginning, there was a lot of excitement about the park, according to Mike.
“It was big news here, and everyone applied, so I was surprised I got it. I was selected to be a ride operator for this car history ride … We did practice runs with volunteers to get the process down, and there was someone from the city, this black man with a mustache, who, every time I forgot to mention saving the city, said ‘Remind the moms and dads that by coming here they’re helping Flint come back.’ Everyday after training leading up to the opening, it was the same thing. ‘This is for Flint!’” But what exactly WAS “it”? That really depended on who you asked.
While the park was being designed as more of a museum with a few educational rides, Six Flags advertised it as a theme park with a few museum pieces. Former workers questioned “How many times can you come to the same museum? How many times can you come and see the same thing?” and former backers said focusing on the few rides instead of the museum aspects gave people a false view of what it really was. This wishy-washyness ended up confusing a lot of people.
“We were told to call it a ‘theme park’ because Six Flags owned it. And funny you should mention this, because one of the questions we were told to give a boilerplate answer for was ‘Where are all the rides?’”
“They were expecting people to come thinking there would be more rides here. I had teenagers asking me where the roller coasters were, I had adults asking where the kiddie rides were and I had kids asking me for something not educational. Between them and the factory workers wanting to talk about things, it was rare that we got a compliment.”
When the park closed for the first time (after just 6 months of operation) no one even tried to pretend it was due to anything other than people not really getting it. “I was laid off during the first closure (where they let go of 250 employees). It was my first time being fired, and my uncle’s reaction was ‘So you were let go by an incompetent company working with cars too, huh?’ And he had a point – it seemed like a curse in Flint to work for anything having to do with them.”
But what about the stuff that the park DID have? Umm…
The Park Was Incredibly Boring
AutoWorld was built up as basically a Speed Racer-themed Six Flags. People were expecting roller-coasters shaped liked Buicks, bumper cars made from actual Cadillacs, and food courts with little, round French fries in the shape of car tires. They did not get that. While there were a few standard slow rides and a few track car rides, the rest of the park featured classic cars to look at, a replica of historic Flint, a few movies, a few car information stands and a walk-through of how a car is made.
“That was a complaint we had more and more of. People wanted roller coasters.”
“We had a group of college kids come up during a weekend from Ann Arbor, and they chose AutoWorld over Cedar Point. I don’t know what their reactions were coming in, but by the time they got to my ride they were saying ‘Where’s the fucking rides?’ That happened often, but those (University of) Michigan kids kept getting lost and coming back all day that day.”
And if some weren’t pissed at the rides, they were bored enough to fall asleep.
“We found guests sleeping. You needed to like cars or the history of the city to get excited, and a lot of people weren’t.”
“I only caught a few because my ride was loud and noisy, but people coming in would walk around looking for something to do only to sit down and sleep. Security had a lost kid problem, and a lost adult problem. Because dad and the kids would get off at a ride and not find mom, who had wandered away to sit somewhere away from the cars. It was a real problem. There were benches in the main dome, and it became the den for uninterested people.”
Most Of The Visitors Were From Flint, And That Caused Obvious Problems
The completely indoor AutoWorld was projected to get 750,000 visitors in 1984, and 1,000,000 in 1985. However it was 23% below at the end of 1984. Even with those numbers, it didn’t draw a lot of people from out of the region. Many were the former employees of the factories, driven there by a mixture of boredom and morbid curiosity to see an $80 million monument celebrating the industry that dicked them out of their retirement.
“I knew a few other people who worked there from high school and one of them worked at the front selling tickets,” Mike explains. “She’d complain about needing to jot down where they were from. There was an idea to make a map showing where all the visitors were from. And then they suddenly cut that part out. Too many were saying Michigan. This was supposed to attract car lovers from all over the world, like a car themed Disney World. I know ads were running everywhere. But the only people who came were from here. I asked the occasional person to be friendly, and I don’t remember a single time where they said somewhere outside of Michigan.”
A lot of the park employees actually used to work in the car industry in Flint, so they’d have it harder. They had to throw people out who made a scene. AutoWorld had an exhibit that showed old car commercials, including one from the ‘70s where a bunch of factory workers would talk about how great it was to work for GM, which was about as tasteful as letting your high school bully show videos of your swirlies at your funeral. One of the people focused on in the commercial actually showed up, and it turned out he was one of the workers who was let go in the mass layoffs in Detroit.
“I didn’t hear what he said, but a security guard I was chatting with suddenly got the word on his radio that this guy was rallying everybody up there, and he needed to go. He had caused such a fuss that they had to change the videos so he wasn’t included in case he tried to pull that again.”
“I also know former factory workers liked to talk with employees about what went wrong. My ride was held up many times by a former worker talking with me or another operator about how this place was created instead of going back into factories to keep jobs.”
It Eventually Became Kind Of A Taboo Subject
After failing to deliver on literally everything it promised, AutoWorld was shut down. But the park decided that if it was going down, it would take part of the town with it. Mike explains:
“It stung for me because I lost my job, but there was a malaise in the city after that. AutoWorld was the great hope. It was going to bring cars and industry back. And when AutoWorld failed, so did those dreams. There were some hotels being planned nearby, and one of my uncles (one of the 2 let go from GM) was working for a construction company hoping to get the job. The hotel plans were chopped after AutoWorld closed. He was laid off then and there, and it was back to blaming car companies for everything.”
Michael Moore documented part of this feeling in Roger and Me, showing how the closing of AutoWorld pretty much destroyed Flint’s downtown. And it was true – the hotels, new shopping district and other developments went bankrupt within a few years. It was promised to be a Midwest tourist mecca, and failed.
“Flint felt even more depressed. When AutoWorld was gone, the restaurants left. That entire part of the city turned into a modern ruin.”
And it was taboo for a long time. With time, AutoWorld pretty much became the equivalent of North Haverbrook’s Monorail.
“My sister was part of a Michigan tourism organization for the Flint area, and you couldn’t talk about certain things. Michael Moore was one of them, and AutoWorld was also up there. She had gotten back from her orientation and told me ‘Remember when you worked at AutoWorld? Guess what we’re not supposed to talk with tourism companies about.’ And this was after they tore it down. It did that much damage to the city. It set us back ten years.”
“Flint has tried a lot. They really have. But we keep getting setbacks. AutoWorld was a huge one, but the recession in 2008, car companies pulling out even more, and last year, when they discovered our water was poisonous and hurt Flint. Anyone my age or older will still recoil at hearing AutoWorld. It’s synonymous with failure.”
AutoWorld was demolished for good only 13 years after it first opened. Today, a nursing college is on the site. But it still hasn’t healed the wound left by the place that once promised to save the entire city.