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A former Astroworld employee reminisces about the most coveted summer job in Houston

How serving ice cream at Astroworld became a lesson in magical thinking

Photo: Josh Burdick
Photo: Josh Burdick

This article first appeared on Texas Highways. Click here to view the article in its original format.

I lied about my age on the job application. I even doctored a Xerox copy of my birth certificate with zero regard for any possible fines or imprisonment. I had to get this job—but I was 15, too young. The minimum age to work at AstroWorld was 16. Who could blame me, though? A job at AstroWorld was the hottest thing a teenager could do in Houston in the ’80s.

I sat in the personnel reception area, waiting for my name to be called. My mother waited in her car in the parking lot listening to Luther Vandross, windows down and managing the humidity and heat with a hand fan depicting Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. It didn’t take long. I got the job. A week later, I put on the blue and yellow uniform with the nametag. I had arrived. I was officially part of the dream.

AstroWorld was an amusement park owned by Six Flags of America located between Kirby and Fannin drives, south of the 610 Loop. It was built to complement the famed Astrodome, affectionately known as the “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and opened in 1968 as part of the Astrodomain envisioned by former Houston Mayor Roy Hofheinz. The park sat in the middle of urban sprawl, unlike most amusement parks across the country that were sequestered in small neighboring towns and suburbs of larger cities. Thus, access to AstroWorld was very democratic.

On any given day, you could take the Metro bus from any part of the city and get delivered right to the doorstep of this magical land. A paved overpass crossed the bustling 610 Loop from the Astrodome parking area, leading to a fanciful gated entrance. Behind the gate, various rides made of wood and steel painted in bright colors or metallic shades jolted in the air, twisting and turning. Their names only elevated their majesty: the Texas Cyclone, the largest roller coaster at AstroWorld, with its intricate matrix of white wood supporting brick-red steel tracks; or Greezed Lightnin’, which was one large blue steel circle that sent riders in dizzying loops both backward and forward; or Excalibur, the coral-colored mine-train coaster that anchored the park on the opposite side of the Texas Cyclone.

You could see all of this from the Loop. It wasn’t far. As a middle schooler, I rode the yellow school bus from the rough-and-tumble neighborhood of South Park to T.H. Rogers Middle School in the glitzy Tanglewood area near River Oaks. Along the way, I navigated my expectations of a better life with the odd dichotomy of the haves and have-nots on display Monday through Friday. But when our school bus passed by AstroWorld, I often stared at the spectacular rides tucked behind the gate. Somehow that brief glimpse reaffirmed an idea that anything was possible, any desire could be fulfilled, any want met, any reality changed. This was the promise of AstroWorld: thrill and jubilation if you pull over, park your car by the Astrodome, and walk over the Loop.

Beyond the entrance were various themed areas with particular designs, costumes, and rides. There was the Alpine Valley with its Swiss chocolate kiosks and sleigh-ride roller coaster; European Village with the Astro Needle and French taxis; Nottingham Village, a truncated Renaissance Fair with smoked turkey legs, the Excalibur roller coaster, and plenty more. One might say it was a larger version of Disneyland’s “It’s a Small World.” But Disneyland it was not. Nor was it Six Flags, in Arlington. AstroWorld was ours; it belonged to the children of Houston, not the world or even Texas at large, although we were willing to share. AstroWorld was a distinctly Houston destination.

As a child, I remember the sights, sounds, and smells at AstroWorld constantly changing with each new turn in the park. One minute you’d smell caramel candy, the next strawberry slushies, while walking from a medieval village to an Old West town. Mandolins turned to banjos. Turkey legs turned to beef jerky. More sugar, more rides. It was nonstop. Once when I was 3 years old, my older sister held me as we waited in line for the prop-plane carousel. My first sugar rush of the day was on the decline, but cotton candy wasn’t far—I could smell it. I watched the miniature planes go up and down with kids in the cockpit.

“Who’s gonna fly the plane?” I wondered nervously. I looked at the AstroWorld worker manning the ride, but he wasn’t flying the planes. I got scared. I didn’t know how to fly a plane, and I sure as hell didn’t believe my sister knew either. But, as my turn came and my sister had to drag me into the plane because I was crying and didn’t want to crash, the AstroWorld worker strolled over and told me I wouldn’t have to fly the plane by myself. He would help me. He promised. I believed him. And he was right. I could fly that plane. I just had to believe.

In addition to manning the games and rides, AstroWorld workers were constantly hawking some candy or treat for a few bucks. Kids were caught between distractions while standing in long lines. Sensory overload. If you were with your parents, then you heard the constant rattle of instructions from them: “Wait there,” “Don’t touch that,” and the inevitable “Stop right there!” This was before timeouts and attempts to reason with a 6-year-old. A kid or two were bound to get a quick spanking followed by cries and screams, but it never lasted long. There was always something to redirect a child, whether a new ride or costumed character prancing about to keep the energy up.

But this was also a place where young children were discovering courage. The huge roller coasters and spinning Ferris wheels presented a challenge, a moment to let go of their parents’ hands and take a belted seat in an iron monstrosity. Many wouldn’t accept the dare, deciding to stand on the sidelines in their guardians’ safety nets. Others would muster up the courage, fear on their faces until the buzzer sounded and the ride took off.

Hands in the air, screaming at the top of their lungs, kids discovered the fear was in their minds and all they had to do was let go. What started out as something to be avoided turned into something to be desired. Ask anyone who’s addicted to roller coasters and they will tell you, “I thought I was going to die, but then it was fun.” A rite of passage? Maybe. But sensory stimulation helps you overcome fear and many times delivers joy. Between sugary treats and long lines, I was conquering my fear of roller coasters and human-size cartoon characters. Farewell to childhood.

As a teenager, the nature and reason for going to AstroWorld changed. Your parents dropped you and your friends off. You brought a Coke can for a discounted ticket, or you held the highly coveted season pass. You met friends and you made new friends, particularly of the opposite sex. For teenagers in the ’80s, AstroWorld was like the mall: a place to see and be seen. There were teenagers from all over the city, and this huge melting pot was perfect for romance. AstroWorld had a few arcades that set the stage for flirting and making small talk. “What school you go to?” “He thinks you’re cute.” “Her boyfriend is here.” And what was more important than reaching the high score on Galaxian? A clean napkin with a phone number and a heart.

Perhaps even more exciting than the arcade, Videocity near Alpine Village offered a teen nightclub experience complete with a local radio DJ and a TV dance show called Videocity Live. This was in an era when boys and girls danced with each other, which meant a teenage boy had to muster enough courage to ask, “You wanna dance with me?” Or if you were lucky, a girl’s friend would walk over to you and say, “My friend wanna dance with you.” If you were really lucky, you’d find a quiet dark area in the park to kiss.

It was almost an unwritten rule that at a certain age you stayed at AstroWorld well into the evening as younger kids would leave, having exhausted themselves and their parents. During these evening hours, AstroWorld offered specialty themes like Fright Night around Halloween and Holiday in The Park during Christmastime with manufactured snow. Near the rear of the park was the Southern Star Amphitheater, which hosted concerts from groups like Run DMC and AC/DC.

At 15 years old, my friends and I were convinced that working at AstroWorld was beyond cool. Access to rides, games, and girls for a wage? You couldn’t beat that. Every AstroWorld moment in my life up to that point had been filled with excitement, intrigue, and joy. Surely those feelings would exponentially increase if I was on the inside. So, I didn’t hesitate to present a carefully completed job application to the personnel office, including my altered birth certificate. My mom didn’t care. A job at AstroWorld would keep me out of trouble. Little did I know that while I was filling out my first job application, she was filing for divorce from my father. Things were about to change in more ways than one.

For now I had to report for duty. Job selection was determined by upper management. I got stuck with food services, which was better than being a parking lot attendant, but not as good as the coveted ride operator jobs. My assignment was an ice cream shop in Alpine Village that also hosted a Popeye’s Louisiana Fried Chicken across the walkaway. Odd, I thought, unable to make the cultural connection between the Swiss Alps and deep-fried chicken. But the ice cream shop was charming. Its conceit was its homemade waffle cones, which required constant batter mixing, burnt fingers on the waffle iron, and the persistent smell of vanilla.

The job was pretty involved for someone my age. After a few weeks of polite greetings, timely attendance, and passing all trainings with flying colors, the supervisor decided to make me the manager of the shop. All of my employees were older than me, but they didn’t know that. I made the work schedules, ordered supplies, took inventory, collected the till, and kept the peace among the staff. With a little guidance from my boss, I was developing leadership skills and small-business acumen. I could feel myself changing. I felt older wearing the special manager nametag, which offered a bit of deference from the other workers. Initially, I liked it.

Months later, my mother and I moved into a patio home across town from South Park, where I had grown up. I was too engaged with work and school to process this new development. The hours were long, and I took as many extra shifts as were available because I had discovered that I really liked making money. The entire park operated with precision. Multiple moving parts behind the scenes delivered a consistent entertainment experience. Standing in the ice cream shop, I watched the kids, the teenagers, and the parents, remembering my not-too-distant past as one of them.

But this place that held so much excitement for me when I was younger had become a job to do. Not a day would go by that I didn’t see some kid who reminded me of myself at that age. I knew which rides they were waiting on. I knew which rides they feared. I recognized the anticipant faces, rushing to get in line again and those resolute faces that refused to let go of fear.

Of course, the entire place was fueled by sugar. So, many of the kids were constantly running all over the place, bumping into each other with a smile or a laugh. Watching from the ice cream shop after working over 12 hours, I envied their freedom. I felt like a chaperone wearing the uniform, which meant anybody could and would ask a question, usually parents. Even teens who were my age would approach me for directions. The uniform came with inherent authority, and we were encouraged to be helpful and pleasant anytime we wore that uniform in the park. Still, I wanted to skip the line and ride Excalibur with the other courageous faces. But my second shift of a double didn’t end for another six hours.

We teenage AstroWorld employees could only bear witness to the excitement and possibilities the park promised. It was like being a DJ at a nightclub—everyone was there to party except you. The park began to lose a bit of its charm. I knew too many of its secrets. I was the wizard behind the curtain in Emerald City, pulling the levers, pushing the buttons, making the ice cream cones. When my shift ended, I didn’t want to run to Videocity or wait in line for the Texas Cyclone. I wanted to go to bed. The hours were grueling, the customers impatient, and the heat and humidity nonstop.

Knowing their young workers would need to blow off steam, AstroWorld held weekly events called “section parties” where the park would stay open after hours just for employees. It was a time to commiserate with coworkers, quaff alcohol (illegally, of course), indulge romantic pursuits, and ride all the rides you wanted without a long line. But you know what happened? Nobody really rode the rides. I mean, why would we? We spent the entire weekend manning the rides, overseeing the arcades, preparing and selling the food. It got old, too familiar. That curiosity and charm became a metal blur with dizzying splashes of color during the course of the workday. And as the months passed, I, like many others, was over it. And then there was the rain.

Rain is part of the Houston experience. No event or holiday is granted a reprieve. It will rain when it wants. And for AstroWorld, once the rain fell, no amount of garish canopies, overhangs, or gazebos would preserve the promise of the park. Sometimes it was a brief 15 minutes of sprinkles; other times a biblical deluge. Park patrons would run for cover, and if the rain didn’t stop, they would leave. No lines, no laughter, just the constant plunk of raindrops hitting various metals and plastics. We were ecstatic! Everything came to a standstill, and rarely did the park close because of weather. We spent our extended break praying the rain wouldn’t let up until our shifts ended. I would hope to be sent home, back to my bed, my homework, and my video games. But that rarely happened.

What did happen was a moment to take a breath and look at the empty park. We heard the echoes of arcade games, ride buzzers, event announcements—a cacophony of enticements and lures that you really didn’t pay attention to when the park was packed with patrons. In the wet hours, all of those echoing sounds fell flat without those delightful faces waiting on their turn at joy.

One rainy afternoon, the manager at the Popeye’s waved and held up four fingers. He didn’t have a line. Neither did I. It had been pouring for at least an hour. I waved back and sent him four 5-gallon containers of ice cream. (Food services had an underground barter system, but that’s all I’ll say on that.) Then the rain stopped, and the dream resumed.

After nine months of waffle-cone burns, section parties, and minimum wage, I’d had enough. Maybe it was the monotonous sounds, constantly demanding attention. Maybe it was the endless double shifts. Maybe it was the realization that there was no magic, no dream—just a job with colorful uniforms.

My mother picked me up at 1:30 a.m. on the last night of a Fright Night event. Her divorce was complete, she told me, but I was too tired to respond. I had worked almost 20 hours that day. I took a deep breath and fanned off the October humidity with her Jesus fan, then looked at her. She had dropped me off and picked me up from work for all nine months because I couldn’t legally drive yet. My 16th birthday was still days away.

That night I told my mother I would never return to an amusement park until I was taking my own child. And I kept that promise. Thirty years later, in 2018, I took my 3-year-old daughter to Disneyland for her birthday. It was my first time entering an amusement park since I removed the blue and yellow uniform. The sights, sounds, and smells rushed back to me like a kid running to his mom for money as the ice cream truck neared.

Although this was my first time at Disneyland, it felt so familiar. The faces of children negotiating fear and courage, the busy kids, exhausted parents, garish ballyhoos hawking sugar and joy, the brightly colored rides with exotic names. All of it had remained unchanged.

I looked at my daughter, face covered in cotton candy and a big smile. I wondered how she would feel when she realizes Santa isn’t a real person or that amusement parks hold only the magic and promise that’s already inside of you. I wanted her to remember this moment for the rest of her life, unfiltered by the reality that ruined it for me. While we sat spinning in the teacups, I petitioned God to ensure her image of an amusement park would never be corrupted, that the dreams and the joyous memories would always live inside her.

On Oct. 30, 2005, exactly 17 years from the night I removed my AstroWorld uniform forever, the park closed its gates for the last time. The rides, games, and equipment were sold at auction. Two months later, it was demolished into a flat tract of land. Now the 102 acres of cleared land serves as a seasonal parking lot for the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo.

Today, when I’m in Houston visiting friends and family, and find myself driving on the 610 Loop between Kirby and Fannin as I have done so many times, I will roll down my window and listen with the gentle hope that I might hear the sound of children’s laughter; the buzzing, bleeping games; the barking ballyhoos; the banjo; the mandolin; and the click, click of the roller coaster—all of the sounds that kept the promise.