Gary Kyriazi traces the development of this classic waterfront amusement park, one of several Texas attractions operated by the Landry’s restaurant, hospitality and entertainment group.
It’s simple: the mystic, infinite attraction of water. It’s human: we’re drawn to water. It’s worldwide: on any body of water – lake, river, or ocean – you erect a pier, a wharf or a boardwalk, and as human beings we flock there. It’s our nature.
As amusement parks proliferated and prospered in the early 20th Century, wherever there was a body of water, there was an amusement park. The water was first, the amusement park second. Trolley companies built their tracks from the cities to the water, the weekend crowds hopped on the trollies and went to the water, where they swam and spent their money on food and amusements.
Today, those traditional waterfront parks that have been spared the wrecking ball and not replaced by condominiums continue to thrive on this basis, be it California’s seaside parks, New York’s Coney Island, New Jersey’s seashore, Blackpool Pleasure Beach in England or the few other remaining oceanside, riverside or lakeside parks. The industry adage is “you can’t go wrong with water.” You go in the water, stroll the boardwalk, wharf, pier or promenade, and the amusements are secondary, albeit necessary.
“In our case, we tell people to come to Kemah Boardwalk to have a great meal, stroll the boardwalk, and then the amusements are third,” says 43-year-old James Doering, general manager of amusements at the Kemah Boardwalk, south of Houston, Texas. Jim has spent all his life in the amusement industry, starting at 17 as a ride operator for Six Flags St Louis (Six Flags Mid-America at the time) and spending 25 years with Six Flags, the last eight with Six Flags Fiesta Texas, until his transfer in 2011 to Kemah Boardwalk. “From San Antonio, Texas, to Kemah was an easy move for me and my family. And then again,” he adds with a smile, “there’s the attraction of the water.”
Restaurants and rides
Kemah Boardwalk is essentially a small, regional park, though it manages to get its share of visitors to the state of Texas. Its marketing is generally in the nearby greater Houston area, with print advertising in San Antonio and Dallas, and occasional Louisiana travel guides.
“Our restaurants are the real magnet,” Doering explains, “for locals and for visitors. They’re all arranged along the boardwalk, and all tables have views of Galveston Bay (off the Gulf of Mexico). Even in our hotel, every room faces the bay.”
It’s a draw that is not only timeless, but encourages the “stay-cation” that is replacing “vacation” for most families in today’s economy. The Boardwalk is affordably drivable from the greater Houston area, and there’s enough diversity of amusement to satisfy the entire family. There’s no gate fee, and the family can pick and choose their pleasures between the restaurants, food stands, games and rides, topped by the Boardwalk Bullet – a wooden coaster from the Gravity Group – and Boardwalk Beast, a speed board that thrills 138 happily-soaked passengers on a wild 25-minute tour of Galveston Bay.
Kemah’s growth was essentially through acquisition and expansion. Landry’s Seafood House opened in 1990, joining other high-level restaurants along the waterfront. Landry’s methodically began purchasing the other seafood and steak restaurants which included The Flying Dutchman, Saltgrass Steak House, the Chart House, Lighthouse Buffet and Red Sushi Hibachi Grill. By 1997, Landry’s owned all the larger restaurants and smaller eateries, and proceeded to build the 52-room Boardwalk Inn Hotel, complete with retail. Landry’s opened the Stingray Reef Aquarium in 1998, its main attraction allowing guests and children to pet and feed a tankful of stingrays. In 2001, the pedestrian boardwalk was built along the water, along with three rides from Chance – a Ferris Wheel, Carousel and CP Huntington train – and the Kemah Boardwalk as an amusement park was born.
Sights and Sounds
Subsequent growth was rapid, and today Kemah Boardwalk is artfully crammed with 40 rides, games and attractions. At every location, guests are met with the sights and sounds of a classic waterfront amusement park, the sound and smell of the water meshing with the screams from the rides. The train winds throughout the entire park, with railroad signals, gates on the walkways and many crossings. Guests who may not take a single ride will enjoy exhilaration similar to the thrill-seekers.
As with any water-locked amusement park, space is an issue, but Kemah Boardwalk is meeting the challenge. For Kemah’s major wooden coaster in 2007, the Gravity Group had its work cut out, and necessarily designed a twister to end all twisters, a triple-layer, tightly banked ride that includes 42 track crossovers. After Hurricane Ike of 2008 damaged much of the park, it replaced its original carousel with a space-saving bouble-decker carousel, again from Chance.
“We’re pretty much maxed out on our horizontal space now,” Doering concedes, “so the creative juices are flowing on how to grow.”
Yet since Kemah Boardwalk’s fine restaurants are its magnet, they are not locked into a public expectation of requiring a new thrill ride every year.
“We’re in a good position,” Jim Doering smiles, “and we have a strong foundation. We’ve got the water, the restaurants, the boardwalk and the rides. But we’re not complacent either, we can’t be. This is the amusement industry after all, and we’re always thinking and planning, taking it one season at a time.”
Gary Kyriazi is author of The Great American Amusement Parks, and the writer/producer of America Screams, the first pictorial history and television special about American amusement parks. He has been a researcher and historian on American amusement parks for more than four decades.
Boardwalk rides and attractions
As at other Landry’s amusement outlets, Chance rides feature strongly in the line-up of rides and attractions at Kemah Boardwalk:
•Boardwalk Bullet (Gravity Group wooden coaster)
•Drop Zone (Larson drop tower)
•Boardwalk Tower (Chance observation tower)
•Ferris Wheel (Chance)
•Double-decker Carousel (Chance)
•CP Huntingdon Train (Chance)
•Balloon Wheel (Zamperla)
•Pharoah’s Fury (Chance pirate ship)
•Boardwalk Bouncer (Moser tower)
•Boardwalk Beast (speedboat)
•Stingray Reef & Rainforest