In the midst of an American manufacturing collapse, Flint, Michigan, spent millions building a twisted monument to the very industry that was leaving its citizens high and dry. AutoWorld, the world’s first automotive theme park, was sold as the answer to Flint’s woes. It would turn around the city with the highest unemployment in the nation. It lasted all of six months.
While GM was busy slashing jobs in Flint, city leaders concocted a hare-brained scheme, hyped up by an army of consultants with support from elected officials and federal programs. The idea was destined for greatness, another way for the people of Flint to survive off of cars as they had done for decades. But from the start, the problems with AutoWorld were obvious.
“When you ask Flint residents about AutoWorld, they all say the same thing: Either ‘Oh, we never went,’ or ‘We only went one time — it was too expensive for our family,’” Flint historian, University of Michigan-Flint archivist (and my sister) Colleen Marquis told Jalopnik. She’s steward of all sorts of intriguing pieces of memorabilia from AutoWorld, Flint’s failed attempt at the world’s first automotive-themed amusement park.
(A special thanks to the University of Michigan-Flint and their archivist for allowing me time to comb through their boxes of documents and memorabilia pertaining to AutoWorld.)
“Have you ever seen so much ridiculous merch?” she said, as we went through the boxes of rocks glasses, personal grooming kits, coffee mugs and dollhouse furniture, all emblazoned proudly with the admittedly very cool Six Flags AutoWorld logo. All of it from a park that was open regular public hours for only six months.
The various pieces of flotsam validated my cynical belief that such places are built solely to absorb money from tourists lulled into spending by alcohol or nostalgia or mild brain trauma (or all three.) From that angle, a theme park in Flint, Michigan, in the ’80s, when unemployment was sometimes over 17 percent, clearly made no sense.
But there were moments of perverse, maybe desperate optimism. That or opportunism and grift. Maybe AutoWorld was some mix of them all. Looking back on it, to the days when theme parks were a big deal, the days of National Lampoon’s Vacation, it’s hard to tell how much was craven and how much was foolish.
Along with the tiny cups and ashtrays in the U of M-Flint archives are boxes and boxes of documents pertaining to the planning and development of AutoWorld. The University didn’t have much to do with the plans, except for allowing for a few lots to be designated as overflow parking for AutoWorld in the summer.
I really think “planning for overflow parking at AutoWorld,” could be the new “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.” It turns out, not a whole lot makes sense about the world’s first automotive themed amusement park. The entire thing was a blunder, and the people of Flint paid the price for it.
The idea to build the first automotive theme park in America’s Vehicle City didn’t originate from General Motors, but from C.S. Harding Mott and his foundation’s president, William White. Yes, that Mott, as in apple juice. His family came from beverage money, but this Mott invested in the automotive industry and was very active in Flint. The Mott Foundation would play a key role in getting AutoWorld built and eventually sharing in its ruinous demise. GM would actually mostly stay out of AutoWorld, except for a $1 million donation. Former General Motors Chairman Roger Smith told the Flint Journal back in 2009 that he could see the project was doomed from the start, but there was no stopping civic leaders.
What Mott originally envisioned was an Automotive Hall of Fame and visitors center, where the proud history of the automotive industry would be highlighted. Something more akin to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, which Ford himself designed to celebrate not just the Ford Motor Company and Detroit area achievements but industrial history in general. It would be a non-profit, hands-on museum or some sort of science museum. Detroit designer Minoru Yamasaki, designer of the original World Trade Center, was tapped to come came up with plans for the center in 1970. The final architect for the park would be Randall Duell Associates — a firm responsible for 22 theme parks across the U.S.
Flint just so happened to be in the middle of an urban revitalization project that was supposed to prop up an already struggling city. Millions of dollars of investment flowed into the surrounding area. There was $80 million spent on building the University of Michigan-Flint campus. A $61 million Hyatt hotel with 35,000-foot convention center and 400 rooms opened downtown. An industrial park in the former St. John’s neighborhood, a 54,000-square-foot marketplace with local shops and River Village — $40 million in residential planning — were almost done before the C.S. Mott Foundation even bought the space for AutoWorld. The space came in the form of the Industrial Mutual Aid Auditorium — a former UAW-owned facility that hosted concerts by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Billy Holiday for its members. The IMA would be absorbed into AutoWorld.
By then the initial estimate for the cost of building AutoWorld had ballooned from $28 million in 1977 to $60 million. The park’s final costs would grow to $68 million before it opened on July 4, 1984. So who paid for it? According to the book No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan And The United States byTheodore J. Gilman, the original plan was for the city to pay for no part of the project but the use of federal funds in particular would come back to haunt Flint. By 1980, Flint Mayor James Rutherford entered discussions with the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development about applying housing grants to the building of AutoWorld. Seemingly with no self-awareness, Rutherford predicted success in winning grants due to Flint’s incredibly high unemployment and poverty rates. He was right and a little over $13 million in federal funds went into building AutoWorld, despite the significant need of the people living in the neighborhoods of Flint.
Historic Flint AutoWorld Foundation was founded to fund the building of the park via private investment. It would end up putting up $19.7 million to get the job done. The Mott Foundation also put up a hefty, $14 million chunk — a quarter of its yearly budget. The Mott Foundation admitted funding AutoWorld would severely curtail other good it did in the city. The state of Michigan tossed in nearly $5 million after Republican Governor William Grawn Milliken came around to eventually support the project. The city council also approved a tax-exempt bond to the tune of $7.5 million. With all this official backing, private donations from the city’s elite came flooding in. Even former president Gerald Ford kicked in for AutoWorld.
Of the $13 million in HUD funds, Flint took out a $4.5 million CDBG bond to fund AutoWorld. The problem with that bond is that Flint had to make payments of $727,000 every year. Later, if the city didn’t pay, the amount would be deducted from the total Community Development Block Grant funds HUD dispersed across the city. Organizations in Flint counted on the full amounts from these grants every year to keep their doors open. The city defaulted on the grant in 1987, forcing nonprofits in the city to reduce services or close altogether. The Mott Foundation gave Flint a $4.6 million grant, but a prepayment clause prevented the city from paying the grant off all at once. (Doing so would have incurred a $500,000 fee, which the city also didn’t have at the time.)
The enthusiasm of the consultants hired by Flint who previously worked in the theme park industry bordered on manic. You can almost hear them claiming how theme parks put Brockway, Ogdenville and North Haverbrook on the map! As building cost estimates rose so, too, did their predictions of revenue. AutoWorld was a two-hour drive from 2.8 million people, they reasoned. Surely a million visitors a year after five years wasn’t out of the question. And those who came to visit would stay in the park, on average five hours a visit. AutoWorld would provide 500 minimum wage jobs and 1,800 jobs in the surrounding area to handle the influx of visitors. Millions in profit would roll in immediately and the result would be a revitalized city full of hope again. It would be that easy.
Over a decade of development by a parade of consultants who pushed the city almost exclusively towards a theme park morphed the humble dream of a science museum into something unrecognizable. No Miracles Here cites consultants pushing the city to copy what others had done as the main cause of AutoWorld’s demise.
They certainly muddied the waters. Here’s what an 1982 prospectus described all that AutoWorld would entail by Randall Duell Associates after the Historic Flint AutoWorld Foundation green lit the project:
What Is AutoWorld?
AutoWord has audio-animatronics, it has Indians, Waterfalls, log jams, log cabins, forests, historical perspective, crafts, restaurants, a saw mills, fine dining and evening allure, shops, snack bars, theaters, a re-creation of Flint’s old Saginaw Street, a general store, a carousel, bumper cars, remote control race cars, a gigantic three story tall V-6 engine, an electrifying exploration of the industry’s technology today – new technology. AutoWord has arcade games, auto art, exhibitory, games, a collection of automobiles, carriages, carts and bicycles, a library and archives, live theater, an awesome IMAX movie, fantasia of the future, a moving sidewalk history of the assembly line, impertinent mechanical horses, monkeys, damsels in distress, menacing mechanical chickens, inventions of all sorts, pioneers, and even an automobile show from the next century, the great races of all time and a gallery of racing greats.
Impertinent mechanical horses? Menacing mechanical chickens? Wasn’t this supposed to be a car museum? Once the consultants had done millions in work, the tug of war became between the Mott Foundation and Six Flags itself. Six Flags wanted the site to be more of an entertainment venue while the Foundation struggled to keep the history aspect alive. It’d do it with static exhibits and no thrills.
The eventually estimated that 930,000 attendees would be needed to keep the park operating in its first year when the most hopeful real-world estimates put the number of expected attendees at 600,000. Even from those who supposedly knew the biz and were directing the decisions from behind the scenes, AutoWorld was a lost cause. But by now, it was too big to stop.
On July 4, 1984, AutoWorld opened after a decade of development and millions of dollars in investments and it looked incredibly lame:
At 300,000 square feet, AutoWorld was also the largest indoor theme park in the world, filled with tropical plants that also somehow “recreated the banks of the Flint river.” Under its 70-ft wide dome were, carnival rides, freaky animatronics, performers and virtual tours, shops, restaurants, a three-story model of a V6 engine, an IMAX theater and a whole host of other attractions—but mostly shopping and stores full of branded merch. There wasn’t the thrill of a Busch Gardens or Six Flags theme park. Your options were fairly soporific rides, like a carousel and bumper cars, or sitting and watching a movie or some nightmarish “humorous” history.
Or you could spend money. Go shopping. Dine out. Spending money was the number one attraction at AutoWorld it seems. All this shopping was on top $8.95 for an adult ticket—about $28 in today’s dollars. Attendees were spending money, to spend money, in one of the fastest fading cities in America with the highest unemployment rate in the nation at that time.
Today, we know educational entertainment is often neither. The clumsy blurring of the two soured AutoWorld’s essence right from the start. Was it a place you could take kids to on field trips? Was it a place for families to let loose? By trying to be both, AutoWorld ended up as neither. The developers became too enamored with their vision as it grew and lost sight of what makes theme parks attractive. As one expert told Vox for a 2021 article :
“Theme parks are all about us,” says Margaret King, who has studied and written about theme parks throughout her career and is the director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, a market research institute. “It’s a museum of us, of America. It’s a distillation of the qualities we most value and like about ourselves.”
We are nostalgic for places that never really were, she says. Disney’s Main Street USA, the thoroughfares themed to the early-20th century that serve as gateways to the rest of Disneyland and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, are idealized portrayals of a more genteel, if unrealistic America. They are spotlessly clean, impeccably landscaped, and overflowing with cheery optimism (as well as plenty of keepsake merch). Visiting the Disney parks is “like going back to your hometown,” King says. “It’s the hometown that’s shared by everyone in the country.”
The very predictable trouble started almost immediately after the parks July 4 grand opening. In a memo from Senator Donald Riegle Jr. from his Flint office to William White, president of the Mott Foundation and spokesperson for the private investors in AutoWorld, Riegle was worried about the low attendance as early as July 27.
“Attendance during the evening has averaged between 200-300 people; there does not appear to be an attraction or incentive for individuals to return to the facility; there is some confusion as to whether AutoWorld is educational or recreational, and lastly, although there has been no mention of it made publicly, the $8.95 entrance fee presents a problem for many people.”
To fix attendance problems, as well as empty seats in the restaurants at night, AutoWorld dropped entrance fees after 6 p.m. to $5.95 and dinner reservations began to include a tour of the facility to try and draw in guests. As the numbers fell further and further behind, everyone began to panic. Investors soon began to flee AutoWorld.
It was concerning when just 2,500 visitors walked through its halls on the unofficial opening day, discounted especially for the citizens of Flint. It was alarming when, by the first week, attendance had only reached 38,000. By the end of July, 100,000 people visited, well below the 110,000 expected. The 600,000 needed in the first six months to stay in the black ended up at only 439,000.
So what happened? Riegle, who had also supported the project, nailed every problem with AutoWorld right on the head just a few weeks after its opening.
AutoWorld was opening at a time when Flint’s largest employer, General Motors, was beginning to wind down production in the industrial city. In 1978, GM employed more than 80,000 Flint-area residents, according to a study by Michigan State University. By 2015, that figure plummeted, to nearly 7,000, and this wind down was ramping up right when AutoWorld opened. From Ryan Felton’s story What General Motors Did To Flint:
Following World War II, the automaker pursued a corporate strategy that centered on shifting the means of production to the suburbs and away from urban cores, according to Andrew Highsmith, a University of California-Irvine assistant history professor who has extensively researched Flint.
In Flint’s suburbs, Highsmith wrote in a 2013 paper, GM constructed eight factories, all forming “an arc around the city.”
As the 1970s and 80s approached, GM’s plant closures in Flint ticked upward, compounding the city’s growing financial duress, forcing it to the brink of bankruptcy, according to Highsmith. To keep GM in town, city officials approved numerous tax abatements for the automaker, which “coincided with a net loss of nearly 15,000 local positions at GM,” Highsmith wrote.
The thriving company town wasn’t such any longer.
Theme parks had saved other cities, but copying and pasting that solution on to Flint was never going to make sense. Sure, nearly 3 million people lived within a two hour drive of Flint, but once you’re done with AutoWorld you’re now in Flint; a city that works for a living, without the attraction of fair weather or additional sites to visit like say, Orlando, Florida or Anaheim, California. The people living three hours from AutoWorld would be people from Michigan, and the state at large wasn’t doing so hot in the ’80s with unemployment at 11 percent. Flint is also over an hour’s drive from Michigan’s largest city, Detroit, and its largest airport, Detroit Metro. It’s flat, so the snowy winters don’t even provide the charm of seasonal outdoor recreation, and Flint is surrounded by factories. It’s just not in a spot where you’d think “yeah, vacation!”
Flint, much like Detroit, is experiencing a resurgence, especially in hometown pride. The city may not be the bustling center of industry of the ’40s and ’50s, but it’s being reformed into something new and beautiful by the people who remain through things like the Flint Public Art Project, cultural events and new investments.
AutoWorld went to five days a week in an effort to shore up attendance numbers. Often there were more employees than visitors on some weekdays, leading to a less than festive atmosphere.
By January 1985, the park closed to regular attendance. This closure would prove only temporary, but the park was never open full time again, with long periods of closure making the site less and less of a destination. Several attempts were made to reopen the park with new investors, but none managed to keep the doors open full time. It closed for good in 1986 and was knocked down in 1997 to build more space for the University of Michigan-Flint campus.
AutoWorld is such a strange moment in American history. The only thing I can relate it to is the fictional Ice Town in the TV show Parks & Rec that sank a then-teenage Ben Wyatt’s mayoral career, only it’s not as funny when it happens in real life. AutoWorld became a symbol of Flint’s decline until the Flint Water Crisis picked up the mantle. It would even be featured in Michael Moore’s Roger and Me, which introduced the world to the shitshow that was GM’s actions in Flint.
The Charles H. Mott Foundation, the main philanthropic institution in the city to this day, would lose $50 million on AutoWorld, when all was said and done. All organizers, planners and developers later claimed they saw the failure coming from a mile away. From the Flint Journal:
Foundation President William S. White said even before construction started, long before the grand opening, he “had a bad feeling” about what the theme park was growing into and he wasn’t alone.
“A lot of people blame (former GM Chairman) Roger Smith for this,” White told The Journal. “(But) he sat in my office and said, ‘It’s not going to work. What can I do to stop it?’’’
White said in the end, the project couldn’t be stopped because civic and business leaders were so committed to bringing the idea to life.
“It had a life of its own,” said White, who became a de facto spokesman for AutoWorld because private investors were scattered all over the country. “People were just sold on this dream.’’
When the dream is over, only reality remains. Today, on the former spot of AutoWorld, stands the William White building, ironically named for one of the main architects of the failed theme park. Flint continues to struggle with its complicated relationship with automotive history. The city wouldn’t exist today without the auto plants, but the loss of those plants decades later spelled devastation for the region. Flint has the highest concentration of people living in poverty in the state of Michigan and constantly rates as one of the poorest in the nation. It then came out that when GM had early indications that Flint’s water was dangerous, the automaker was allowed to quietly switch water sources with no testing being done on water that was corroding engines. It would be years before officials would take public complaints seriously however, compounding the horror of the Flint Water Crisis and distrust of GM.
No half-baked rides or eccentric bobble can make up for the loss of the dignity of a living wage and basic necessities like clean water. AutoWorld is now nothing more than a retro logo on some dusty mugs in the back of a University archive. A fitting end, to an ill-fitting theme park.