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.