It didn’t take Mike Apple long to get hooked on Six Flags over Texas. He was one of the more than 500,000 patrons in the theme park’s inaugural 45-day season of 1961.
Those were the first days of what would later become a 47-year career working at the park. Apple retired this year.
“I didn’t really know what to expect when I took that first job,” Apple said. “I certainly didn’t know I would spend most of my life out there.”
Apple grew up with Six Flags, one of the first theme parks in the nation and flagship of the Six Flags chain. The park hasn’t gained so much in territory — it still has around 200 acres — as it has in bigger and better things to do. Over the years, animal rides were scaled back and eventually eliminated to make room for more and more rides, currently 45, and other attractions.
As a Dallas teenager with limited transportation, Apple was able to visit the Arlington attraction only about once a year, he said. But In 1967, when he was 18 years old and working at Safeway, he took the advice of two high school buddies who worked at Six Flags the previous summer and applied for a job.
“I wanted to be in rides,” Apple said. “The times I had been out there, I enjoyed the Astrolift.”
That’s what he got, for $1.15 an hour. He spent five summers helping patrons in and out of the high-wire gondolas, which carried riders across the park at a breezy 5 mph and heights of up to 55 feet.
He moved to Arlington around 1970 and shared an apartment with two other renters to cut down on travel expenses, only to be subjected to the other costs of living independently — rent, food and, still, gas.
“Wasn’t much money left over after that,” he said.
But his finances improved as he began his rapid ascension through the ranks. Becoming the lead on the Astrolift earned him $1.75 an hour; when he was promoted to area supervisor, responsible for several rides, his pay jumped to $2.50.
His first full-time job was office messenger for human resources, delivering mail around the office and using a pre-copier printing press to print forms. Apple liked the job, but he was looking for management work now.
Which leads to a short gap in his Six Flags chronology in the mid-1970s, which started when he left for the position of operations manager at a small amusement park being built in Florida. After nearly a year there, he moved on to Carowinds Amusement and Water Park, a 398-acre park that straddles the North Carolina-South Carolina border. He served as assistant manager of human resources until he was laid off on Labor Day.
“A pasture is always greener on the other side of the fence,” said Apple, now 67. “But when you get there, it’s only greener for about 2 feet.”
In no time, though, he was back over the fence.
“I made some calls and on Tuesday” — after one day of joblessness — “I had a job back at Six Flags — full-time supervisor in the third shift of park services,” Apple recalled. Put more simply, he said, “I ran the janitorial crew, about a year and a half. I had just had a daughter born; you take what you can get.”
Apple impressed co-workers with his management skills that he developed on the job. He was Jim Brothers’ first supervisor when Brothers started in operations at the park in 1973.
“He was a great leader,” said Brothers, who started work there at age 17 and now is marketing director. “He would counsel you and show you the right way of doing things. But he was always calm — never panicked. And he wasn’t afraid to roll up his sleeves and get in the middle of any task.”
Unlike Apple, Brothers can’t see himself retiring, even from the vantage point of a 43-year career, and counting.
“I came to work here initially for because of a summer job then fell in love with the place,” he said. “Like we all do.”
Cal Brim, manager of security for Six Flags and Hurricane Harbor, started working for Apple about 10 years ago and is in his 37th season. They gradually became friends as they found some common interests, including gardening and talking about their dogs.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever known a time without Mike,” Brim said. “I’m going to have to get used to that new reality.”
It’s fitting that the most important romance of his life began at Six Flags. One day as he worked a double shift operating a tour boat, he saw a pretty girl who accompanied by a guy and his girlfriend. Apple struck up a conversation.
“I guess we had a hamburger after that,” he said. “As I was waving goodbye, I just had a feeling that I was going to be spending the rest of my life with her.”
They dated a year and a half and married in 1973, he said. Then it was back to work.
In 1977, Apple was named manager of games and attractions. In 1980, he became operations manager, settling in for a 25-year run before he was promoted to director of operations in 2007.
He retired in February and has found himself very busy, especially with his garden.
“I’m going to have to get a part-time job to relax a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “The first week I kind of took it easy. The second week I had to replace one side of the fence. Got that done, but I’ve got a lot of things planned.
First up was a nearly five-week cruise of the Greek islands.
“I’m an ancient-history nut,” Apple said. “It was a historically based cruise.”
Travel remains high on his to-do list. He said he never felt worried, or even sheepish, about being an American traveler overseas, at a time when some go as far as to present themselves as Canadians.
“We have no problem saying we’re from Texas,” he said. “Everyone over there has a notion of Texas. They use it in their sayings in conversation. They have one — if someone tries to talk tough, they say, ‘Now don’t try and go Texan on me.’”
Politics rarely comes up, he’s noticed.
“I’ve been to Russia, Japan, England, Italy” he said. “I’ve found that people are people, no matter where you go. It’s the politics and stuff that cause the issues, not the people.”
As far as returning to Six Flags as a civilian looking for fun — not so high on his list.
“Well, the urge may hit me later on,” he said. “Maybe later.”
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7186