End of an Era

November 18th, 2014 | Posted in News


In March of 1995 I opened a caricature art concession operation at Six Flags St. Louis in Eureka, Mo. We started out with a single location, eventually expanded to two locations, added airbrush T-Shirts (which I eventually sold my stake in to my airbrush business partner Kent Lind), and spent the next 20 seasons drawing Six Flags customers.

After returning from Dallas from the North Texas Comic Con, I got right back on a plane and went to St. Louis. After arriving, I picked up a rental truck, rolled out to Six Flags, packed up all the equipment and stuff from my two caricature locations there and rolled out of town, never to return. This was the first time I have closed a major theme park operation. I watched the specialty retail (tourist mall kiosk) business roll up and die while I closed or sold locations at Underground Atlanta, Riverwalk in New Orleans, Mall of America, and Union Station in St. Louis. Those kinds of operations tend to have short lives, and the longevity my stands enjoyed in most of those locations was very unusual. However I used to think the theme park business was bulletproof… recessions, an up and down economy, unemployment levels… none of these things seemed to dramatically affect our business in theme parks. We did a very steady and reliable per-cap sales level ($ per person through the gate, a telling stat for success in theme parks) year in and year out. There was a balance in splitting the pie between the parks, the artists and me that kept everyone satisfied and created a solid business relationship.

That’s all changed now, and the reason it’s changed is 100% the result of how the theme park companies have handled their businesses over the last decade. Local theme parks, meaning ones that are located in areas that rely on drawing from a clientele with a “driving radius” of say 500-600 miles as opposed to destination locations like Orlando and California which draw in visitors from all over the world, used to have a mix of about 30% season pass holders and 70% out of town visitors who make their trip to the theme park a once a year (or every few years) vacation. They would bring discretionary money to spend on things like souvenirs to remember their day, of which caricatures was a very popular choice. Season pass holders, locals who would come several times a year, were not our demographic since they didn’t often buy souvenirs to commemorate any of their multiple visits to the park.


If the CEOs of theme park companies got together and decided to put together a game plan to destroy lessee businesses like mine in their parks, they could not have come up with a better blueprint than what they have been doing for the last ten years. Essentially they changed their target customers from out of town, single visit families and vacationers to locals that live within 10-20 miles of the park. They have been catering to those locals and season pass holders in almost every meaningful way they can. How? By making it less expensive to buy a season pass than to buy two individual tickets to the park, making it cheaper to get a season pass than to go to the theme park twice in a single year. They offer season pass perks and discounts all over the place. They have spent millions and millions of dollars and park real estate on elaborate waterparks within the theme park which is an invitation to lounge around in a bathing suit all day rather than walk around spending money, and lately they even have started offering meal plans so customers that come in don’t even need to bring money along for their food. In a short term effort to increase their gate attendance they have increased their season pass holder percentages to upwards of 60-65%. Most of these customers are kids and teenagers who get dropped off by their parents at the front gate to spend the day in the water park, ride a few rides and then get picked up again. Out of whatever figure the park cites as their entire attendance for the summer one of these kids probably counts for 8 or 10 of those people. If the park claims to do a million people in attendance for the season, in reality they probably got about 400,000 unique people through the gate, the other 600,000 are the same people who come multiple times. In reality the number of actual, unique customers that pass by our locations in such a scenario has dropped from 700,000 to about 400,000… coming close to half the number of potential customers. Worse, their efforts have not increased their overall attendance. In fact, attendance is down in most of the parks I have operations in, and significantly down compared to what it was in the 2000s. Less attendance and a dramatically worse demographic is a lethal combination.

Is it any wonder we have been struggling to do the kind of sales we used to do? We’ve been limping along in several theme parks. I have done everything I possibly can to keep the formula we used for decades to be successful: pay my artists the most I can afford to pay them, work hard to find and train high end talent to keep the quality of the work high, treat the artists right to entice them to stick around for several seasons, and create a highly creative and fun environment for my crews to be a part of. For example, even after the theme parks raised their percentage of revenues to a level that borders on ridiculous, I refused to lower the percentage I paid the artists. I just accepted a lower profit level so I could keep good artists happy longer, reasoning that resulted in better sales and an easier time of running things. In an effort to squeeze whatever sales I could from those hundreds of thousands of season pass holders, I offered deep season pass discounts, and even tried to offer a cheap $5 profile caricature for a while. None of that made a significant impact.

Unfortunately things have finally reached critical mass, and the severe reduction of legitimate customers have reduced our sales so much I cannot keep artists interested in sticking around for multiple seasons (or in some cases even to the end of one season) no matter what percentage they get paid. That has finally resulted in the quality of our product going down, difficulty in finding and keeping a good crew, and is contributing to even more dismal sales.

Six Flags St. Louis reached the point this year where the amount of money I was actually seeing at the end of the season was not worth the time and effort of owning and running the operation, and I closed up shop. If there are any caricaturists drawing at Six Flags St. Louis next year, they won’t be my artists. Good luck to them. Theme park managers don’t seem to think our free falling sales are their fault, preferring rather to point to things like that fact that our artists aren’t doing jumping jacks outside the booth barking at passers by to try and squeeze blood out of a turnip, or that we don’t have enough artists in our booths to maximize the sales on high attendance days, choosing to ignore that the few artists we have are not even very busy.

I still have operations at Six Flags New England, where the denser population and higher income levels keep the crowds better in terms of spending, and at Valleyfair and Nick Universe in in Minnesota, where we have down scaled and are just staying afloat. It’s a shame that what was a healthy business that made money for all involved has become a yearly struggle, but there is little I can do to fix it on my end. The theme parks have become exactly what they have been aiming to become, and this is what we have to work with.

So long St. Louis. It’s been a fun two decades.


  1. Ed Steckley says:

    End of an era, indeed.

  2. Brian Benson says:

    Man!!! You hit the nail on the head. We’ve experienced the exact thing at our little water park. The suits running these parks have ruined these gold mines.

  3. I feel your pain, Tom. It’s back to the drawing board (literally) for many of us who used to count on retail locations for our weekly bread and butter.

  4. Steve Fasen says:

    The tenacious effort required to keeping these things going will forever be to your credit. Few will realize what personal sacrifices have been made so that existing and upcoming artists have a place to be and grow. Doing all that you have done in an environment hostile to your efforts, seemingly business hypocritical, and personally demoralizing say volumes about your character. You have earned your stripes and the honor of your scar tissue.

    As you know we have run into the same issues and have used it as an incentive to attempt a reconstruction of alternative avenues for what we do. You have made lemonade out of your circumstances and I respect you for that. I believe in the end that the wheel will turn of the parks are to survive. Eventually they will run out of options to restructure, self delusional corporate sycophants, and stockholders that are not supported by the reality of the business format in place. I hope.

    Good luck to all the artists who have worked with Tom. He gave you sustenance, but much more than that. If you look closely you also came away with ability, confidence, self awareness, spirit, and the ability to take responsibility for what you own efforts can create. Go out and use it, then send him a thank you note now and again.

  5. mindsurfer1 says:

    I was much saddened to read this but have hope in the fact that your talent, resourcefullness and attitude will not desert you. I wish you all the best.

  6. David Curbis says:

    Truly the end of an ERA, Thank you for letting me tag along and work with you and the guys.

  7. Ryan Roe says:

    Definitely an end of an era. Can’t thank you enough for the opportunities you gave me. It was a life changing experience for sure.

  8. Gary says:

    WOW! This is the same exact assessment I made a little over a yr ago when I decided to close the airbrush shop at six flags in california. I was working all the hours and rarely had employees come in. Each day was a crap-shoot. As Tom said, the days of determining income based on attendance are over.

    The park either enjoys the color, variety and interest specialty crafts bring to their guest or…….

  9. Rich says:

    This reflects my experience as a “concessions operator” in theme parks (especially Six Flags) as well. Decreased attendance, squeezing the vendors with higher percentages, and more.

    Sorry to hear this is happening to others as well.

  10. Nathan Ashmore says:

    Thank you Tom! I have a unique skill after my five years of working for you and has proven to be invaluable.

  11. Jeff Niffen says:

    I know I didn’t work for you very long at the St. Louis location. A year or so here and there. However, I will take with me to my dying days an invaluable skill and respect for the medium. It is really too sad what has happened to the theme park industry over the years. I watched that park go downhill like crazy, and I don’t see it turning around any time soon.

    • Andrea Walsh says:

      When I met you in 2000, I was running a caricature stand at Belmont Park and made a decent living there for 5 years. Like you, I paid my artists a high commission plus tips to keep them coming back. I eventually closed the stand because attendance was light in the park year round to justify having us there all year. I re-opened the stand 10 years later with the hope I would do just as good as the best years. Although the park was breaking attendance records compared to 10 years prior, we barely got by. The park was louder and had more rides crammed in the spac with more stuff competing for the visitors attention. The people we encountered wanted to haggle the prices down as though we were swap meet vendors or in TJ. After almost a year, I shut the stand down, not to return. Although my operation was much smaller, it was the end of an era for me too.

  12. Rich Kaman says:

    Sad day. I could not of said it better.


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