Six Flags declares bankruptcy

Theme park files for Chapter 11

Six Flags, which draws on Hollywood properties for many of its attractions, has embarked on a financial rollercoaster, declaring bankruptcy over the weekend in an effort to deal with the billions of dollars of debt on the theme park operator’s books.

Execs said they don’t plan to close any of the company’s 20 parks as part of the restructuring.

The Chapter 11 filing Saturday aims to tackle the $2.4 billion in debt Six Flags execs inherited when Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder took over the company more than three years ago.

The debt load “cannot be sustained, particularly in these challenging financial markets,” said CEO Mark Shapiro. “As a result, we are cleaning up the past and positioning the company for future growth.”

In an effort to become more competitive with Disney and Universal, Six Flags has been selling off poor-performing parks and aggressively building more rides as well as overhauling food services, banning smoking, adding security and introducing more costumed characters, like those of Looney Tunes, through a close relationship with Warner Bros.

It recently spent $10 million to open Terminator Salvation: The Ride, a wooden rollercoaster, at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif.

Hollywood is no doubt keen to keep Six Flags healthy: Licensing popular movie franchises and TV shows to theme parks generates revenues for studios. And tapping into Hollywood’s hot properties has paid off for Six Flags. Attendance has been up at the parks, with Six Flags attracting 25 million visitors last year, driving record revenues.

In the first three months of this year, Six Flags’ net loss fell 7%. But the recession is taking a toll, bringing revenue down 24% during the period as consumers spend less on merchandise.

Bankruptcy restructuring would help Six Flags cut its debt by $1.8 billion and wipe out more than $300 million in preferred shareholder stock.

Bill Gates, through his Cascade Investment group, is one of the company’s major shareholders, with an 11% stake. In fact, Gates is the largest holder of voting securities through Cascade, according to the bankruptcy filing.

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