Stay out of the Marsh: A Brief History of Monster Mansion
As a child growing up in Georgia, a highlight of every summer was visiting Six Flags Over Georgia. Unfortunately, the Georgia summer is brutal, but the park had one ride that was a welcome reprieve from the heat. Monster Mansion (then known as Monster Plantation) was an indoor, air-conditioned boat ride. However, air conditioning is not all the ride has to offer, and though I didn’t know it at the time, Monster Mansion is quite special. Let’s go back to the beginning and see how the ride came to be, starting in 1961, with the opening of Six Flags Over Texas.
The Beginning of Six Flags Over Georgia
After Angus Wynne opened his successful theme park, Six Flags Over Texas, in 1961, he soon began looking for a good location to build a second park. He ended up selecting some land west of Atlanta along the Chattahoochee River, and design work on what was to become Six Flags Over Georgia began in 1964. Six Flags Over Georgia opened in 1967, making Six Flags the first theme park operator in the United States with multiple gates. Six Flags managed to even beat out Disney, which wouldn’t open Walt Disney World until 1971.
Six Flags Over Georgia opened at a time when there was nothing else like it in the area. Originally, the park had six themed areas - the United States, Spain, France, England, the Confederacy, and Georgia - meant to represent the nations that had controlled Georgia throughout the state’s history. Each area had at least one major attraction as a draw, and over in the Confederacy section, that big draw was a dark ride called Tales of the Okefenokee.
Tales of the Okefenokee
The Tales of the Okefenokee ride was based on Joel Chandler Harris’s Uncle Remus stories, though no character names from the stories were actually used in the ride. Based on early art for the park, it appears that the ride was meant to be part of a much larger Southern plantation theming, with visitors entering the queue through Uncle Remus’s cabin. However, for whatever reason, these plans did not come to fruition, and instead the ride building was decorated very simply, with only signs and wooden cutouts.
During its first year of operation, Tales of the Okefenokee was a significantly different ride than it would be for the rest of its lifespan. The original characters in the ride were reportedly small and primitive. Unfortunately, hardly anything remains of the original ride outside of concepts and a short ride video, so it’s difficult to really pin down a full picture of what it looked like.
After Six Flags Over Georgia closed out its 1967 season, a refurbishment of the ride began. Sid and Marty Krofft, who were already working on Six Flags Over Texas, were brought in to redesign the ride before the opening of the park’s 1968 season. The Krofft brothers kept the painted mural backdrops of the original version of the ride, but changed just about everything else. The new version of the ride featured characters that were large and cartoonish, and they composed new music and added voice tracks for the animals. The new ride appeared to take large inspiration from Disney’s Song of the South, a 1946 movie adaptation of the Uncle Remus stories.
Unfortunately for Tales of the Okefenokee, 12 years later, at the close of the 1980 season, the ride was in poor condition, and it was only getting worse as it continued operation. When the park closed for the season, Six Flags immediately began tearing down the ride to begin construction on the new attraction that would occupy the same building.
Former Disney Imagineers Gary Goddard and Al Bertino were hired to work on Monster Plantation, the ride which would replace Tales of the Okefenokee. Astoundingly, the project was completed in time for the opening of Six Flags Over Georgia’s 1981 season opening. Monster Plantation used the same ride system, but replaced all of the characters and scenery from Tales of the Okefenokee.
The new ride was true to the area’s original theming, with the exterior of the building designed to look like an antebellum Southern plantation. Riders would enter the flooded home and find monsters having a picnic, which they have graciously allowed their human guests to join. Towards the end of the leisurely boat ride, riders end up taking a wrong turn and end up in the Marsh, a dark swamp filled with scary monsters who are unfriendly to humans. Riders eventually make it out of the Marsh and return to the picnic, and they are eventually able to safely exit the house.
Any child who grew up in Georgia is more than likely familiar with the above story, and “Stay out of the marsh!” is such an iconic line that many people reading this can probably hear the warning in their heads exactly the way it sounded. They likely can also hear the theme song, which played endlessly on repeat in every part of the ride except the Marsh. These are certainly the things I remember when I think about the moments of my childhood that were spent on this ride.
Unfortunately by 2008, like Tales of the Okefenokee before it, Monster Plantation was becoming worn out after over 25 years of operation. There was supposedly some talk of replacing the ride, but instead, in April 2008, Six Flags approached Gary Goddard to renew Monster Plantation. And so this version of the ride closed on September 27, 2008 for remodeling. Over the fall and winter of 2008, the Goddard Group completely overhauled the ride.
The renewal of Monster Plantation - which would be renamed Monster Mansion upon its reopening - included many people who originally worked on the ride in its process. In addition to Goddard, this included original character designer Phil Mendez and theme song writer Dick Hamilton.
Though the basic story of the ride would remain unchanged, the ride itself was completely stripped down. Every character was rebuilt, and even a few new ones were added. The old murals and every light and speaker within the ride were replaced as well. Despite essentially being rebuilt from the ground up, this massive refurbishment of the ride would not take all that long, as Monster Mansion was able to be opened to the public on May 16, 2009, with a press event showing it off two days before.
On May 14, 2009, a press preview of the new ride was given. Invited guests were treated to a Dixieland band and a picnic lunch. At a certain point during the day, a local third grade class would perform the ride’s theme song, each holding their own monster puppet during the performance. Gary Goddard made a heartfelt speech where he reminisced about the original ride, including how it was so special to him due to the fact that it was his first major project after leaving Disney Imagineering.
The invited guests - and two days later, the public - were able to experience the ride in a way that no one had for nearly 30 years. It was like seeing the ride when it was brand new, but with a few slight additions. This included some additional character animatronics, bringing the grand total up to 107, with one of the new characters, Papa Razzi, taking guests’ pictures at the beginning of the ride. There were also 4D effects added, including a new smoke monster character who beckons riders into the Marsh.
After this renewal, in addition to being the world’s largest animatronic-based family dark ride outside of a Disney park, Monster Mansion also set the record for the most 4D effects on a ride, boasting thirteen of them, and beating out the previous holder, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man in Universal’s Islands of Adventure, which only had eight.
Though it is easy to miss for those not looking, the ride renewal also included a little nod to the old Tales of the Okefenokee ride in the form of a little picture featuring animal characters and singing watermelons.
Six Flags Over Georgia has gone through many changes over the years, but Monster Mansion has been a constant for most of its lifespan. Given that Six Flags opted to rebuild the ride rather than replace it with something newer and cheaper, it’s safe to say that the company realizes how iconic it is to the image many guests have of the park. They even chose to showcase the ride’s history with a mini-museum in the new MonStore, a nearby gift shop that reopened with the ride in 2009, and for the first time sold ride-specific souvenirs rather than generic toys or Looney Tunes merchandise.
Hopefully, Monster Mansion will remain a staple of Six Flags Over Georgia for many years to come, and a new generation of children can have the same fond memories of it that I have, of escaping the hot Georgia summer with a leisurely boat ride through a monster picnic.