The Odd History of Six Flags' First Dark Ride: Speelunker's Cave

The Odd History of Six Flags' First Dark Ride: Speelunker's Cave

The amusement industry forever changed when Disneyland welcomed its first guests in 1955.

Most amusement parks at the time had standard attractions lining the midway. They very much felt like you were at an amusement park. However, Disneyland was different because it transported guests to realistic lands of fantasy and lands far away. A park with that level of quality, storytelling, and theming was bound to inspire those who visited.

In Disneyland’s opening year, a Texas real estate developer, Angus G. Wynne, went to the newly opened Disney theme park and, with his ambitious mind, started thinking of ways he could bring this type of entertainment to his local area.

Following the foundation Walt laid down, Wynne envisioned a new park that was different than regional parks at the time. His idea would have a focus on design and theming mixed with family fun to create a complete experience beyond just rides plainly placed around the park.

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The First Six Flags is Created

Years later in 1959, Wynne along with a team of property developers and investors began planning a new amusement park eventually to be named Six Flags Over Texas.

The name “Six Flags” defined the park’s theme, as each flag symbolized the six dedicated lands in the park, each representing different nations that at one point had control over a portion of or all of Texas. These flags included Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States of America, and the Confederate States of America.

Much of the park was designed by Randall Duell, who had been a set designer on Hollywood productions. Duell implemented a winding pathway layout that encouraged guests to explore the park. This concept was intended to further separate guests from everyday life when at Six Flags Over Texas.

Six Flags Welcomes Guests

With a $10 million price tag, Six Flags Over Texas opened Aug. 5, 1961, as more than 8,000 guests experienced the brand-new theme park. The public loved the clean, family-friendly, and pleasantly presented theme park. Reviews were positive, and Six Flags would continue to make improvements over the coming years.

Profits for the growing park nearly tripled between its second and third seasons, leading management to invest in a new attraction. As for the type of attraction, well, new caves were being discovered around Texas throughout the decade, so someone suggested that a cave ride would be a nice fit for the park. However, that idea was turned down almost immediately because the park didn’t have faith it would turn into an exciting attraction.

Park founder Angus Wynne kept the idea in mind and thought it could be useful at some point.

As a part of the park’s process for developing the upcoming ride, production designer Randall Duell hired a fellow set designer from the entertainment industry, Walter McKeegan. While working for Six Flags, McKeegan created a set of original characters to be used on the upcoming attraction.

Angus Wynne still had the cave ride idea in his back pocket and knew it was the perfect match with these characters for the next Six Flags ride.

A New Attraction, New Characters

Randall Duell was, in a large part, responsible for the convincing and well-received atmosphere found around Six Flags Over Texas. His next challenge was to bring to life not only a new attraction, but also an entirely new species.

Introducing: The Speelunkers.

These strange yet cute alien creatures, as the story goes, crash-landed their spaceship on Earth. After failing to repair their only way home, the Speelunkers started a society along the banks of an underground, cavernous river. The Speelunkers, with their pointed ears and oversized eyes, were a tiny, busy bunch, occupying the underground caves with all their activities and work.

Their name, Speelunkers, was a play on the word for the act of exploring caves: “spelunking.”

The story of the Speelunkers was an out-of-this-world concept that made its way into Six Flags’ upcoming addition. The creative project was headed by Duell along with a team of 60 artists, carpenters, electricians, engineers, and special effects technicians.

The attraction, officially named The Cave, would use a slow-paced boat ride system produced by Arrow Development, traversing 600 feet of track through various show scenes featuring 28 animated Speelunker characters.

After a brisk eight-month development period and a $300,000 budget, The Cave opened on June 1, just in time for the summer of 1964.

Upon seeing a relatively nondescript sign simply reading “The Cave,” the ride’s first guests may not have known exactly what they were getting into. But, they would quickly learn what a special, lovable, and memorable ride experience this was—soon to be an integral part of the Six Flags Over Texas lineup.

Riders of the original 1964 version would start by boarding outdoors into round fiberglass bull boats, accommodating up to six people seated on a circular bench in the center. The boats would spin at the mercy of the flowing water. After passing scenic shrubbery outside the cave, the boats would disappear into the dark 3,000-square-foot show building filled with extraterrestrial surprises at every turn.

The Cave was truly a ride for the senses. Once inside, riders were overwhelmed with vibrant fluorescent colors, mystifying lighting effects, and dramatic echoing sounds. Impressive for its time, The Cave had at least 20 audio channels playing on a continuous loop that created an enchanting environment. Drips, howling wind, and much more resonated through the cave thanks to the detailed sound design of Jean Patrick.

Inside The Cave

The Cave didn’t have a continuous storyline, but its strange assortment of show scenes was a snapshot of the curious everyday lives of the Speelunkers. Here are many of the highlights.

Riders were first met by a tinkering Speelunker who’s seen chiseling away on a stone tablet. Further down the cave, an organist contributed to the uncanny soundtrack as a small Speelunker helped by pumping the pipe organ.

The boat continued to spiral down the river while Speelunkers were riding on the backs of turtles circling in and out of underground tunnels. The boat, now in the recesses of the cave, passed under two smaller Spees throwing a boulder back and forth to each other over the heads of riders.

From this point, the boat approached a talented band of Spees playing pop music. The river came to an opening in the cave, though it was still shrouded with darkness. As the beat of the band faded away, the roar of a waterfall drowned out all the other noise. The boat ascended a small lift and fell with the turbulence of the overpowering waterfall. In the midst of the intensity, a Speelunker dressed as Benjamin Franklin stood along the banks flying a kite.

The powerful noises calmed as a group of Speelunker harpists up ahead swooned riders with hypnotizing classical music that reverberated throughout. Around the bend, a few dancing Spees livened the mood with their upbeat music before the crash of lightning brought upon some of the more memorable moments of the ride.

Riders then found themselves in the midst of a nighttime storm. The creaking of a sinking wooden ship could be heard as the boat wandered through a sea vessel where some Speelunkers were held as prisoners, and others played cards.

The adventure was nearing an end, but not before a few unforgettable scenes and effects. Nearing the finale, riders drifted through a straightaway tunnel that rotated around the waterway, making the mesmerizing journey, so far, even more disorienting.

Before riders returned to the Texas summer heat, they were blasted with stark yet welcoming crisp wintry air as Spees all around made the most of the surrounding blizzard.

The boat, at last, exited the show building, and riders would then get back to dry land and enjoy the rest of Six Flags Over Texas.

Reception and Updates

The Cave was an instant classic—so much so that guests lovingly or mistakenly gave the ride its unofficial name, Speelunker’s Cave, which would later be the ride’s semi-official name as included on park maps and other promotional materials.

After its first season, The Cave received its first major update: The sign was upgraded with nice thematic rockwork lettering.

Two years after Speelunker’s Cave opened, Six Flags Over Texas decided to upgrade the boats to increase capacity so more guests could enjoy the increasingly popular attraction. The new oval-shaped boats were designed for riders to straddle a bench down the center, which better allowed guests to face forward and look around at all the scenes. The elongated boats would not spin in the current, facing riders forward to see all the scenes and minimizing the chance of nausea caused by the former rotating motion.

Over time, the ride received many other updates—most notably, around 1980, Speelunker’s Cave underwent a major refurbishment that included an entirely new finale. The icy cold blizzard was completely changed and replaced with a new scene with Spees—from the six real-life settlements represented in the park’s six themed lands—all gathered in harmony.

Other updates included new pop songs for a few scenes and general makeovers for many of the Speelunkers.

Aside from a few changes, The Cave would continue on as a staple at Six Flags Over Texas. Fans and locals grew a deep connection to the ride, making it a part of what made Six Flags Over Texas so special for years to come.

Generations of kids, families, and friends could call Speelunker’s Cave their own. For some, it’s where they had their first kiss. For others, it’s where they sparked an inspiration and adoration for the cuddly Spees. Whatever the reason, millions of theme park guests connected to this dark, musty, and mystical attraction.

No other theme park in the world had Speelunker’s Cave. It was undoubtedly a defining attraction at Six Flags Over Texas.

Six Flags: A Growing Chain

By 1984, Six Flags had become a chain beyond the original Texas theme park. Two new ground-up Six Flags parks were built, both opening with boat-style rides like Speelunker’s Cave, and the company had acquired other theme parks as well. Six Flags was becoming a true national competitor in the North American amusement industry.

Along with this success, Six Flags partnered with Warner Bros., bringing the timeless Looney Tunes characters into the parks. Six Flags now had the rights to household names they could use to attract more visitors, meaning more ticket sales and merchandise. With the partnership, Looney Tunes theme park attractions were inevitably on the way.

Speelunker’s Cave at this time was two decades old. Its age combined with its family-friendly ride type made The Cave a prime candidate for a Looney Tunes addition. Speelunker’s Cave, though a longtime favorite, had only a short time left in the park.

Speelunker Swan Song, Make Way for Looney Tunes

In 1991, after more than a quarter-century of operation, Speelunker’s Cave closed to the general public. The park gutted The Cave of all its cherished characters and theming that off-season. The building was being transformed into a new Looney Tunes attraction that would make use of the old boat ride system.

In 1992, Yosemite Sam's Gold River Adventure opened at Six Flags Over Texas in place of the recently defunct Speelunker’s Cave. All that remained from The Cave was the original ride path.

The new $5 million ride put guests in a cartoon come to life, featuring more than 125 special effects and 24 scenes with fully animated characters. Riders joined the chase with the help of the Looney Tunes cast in pursuit of Yosemite Sam.

The Old West sets and recognizable characters made the Looney Tunes ride a worthwhile replacement, but longtime visitors of Six Flags Over Texas weren’t quick to forget the Speelunkers.

And the park didn’t entirely forget them either. In fact, they could be found in the new Looney Tunes ride if you knew where to look. Some “wanted” posters could be seen in Yosemite Sam's Gold River Adventure advertising a warrant for a Speelunker organist, picturing the same character from the late attraction. But, loyal Six Flags guests truly wanted one thing: for the Speelunker ride to return.

End of a Looney Era

The Looney Tunes ride lasted through the ‘90s, into the 2000s, and near the end of the 2010s. It was around nearly as long as the original Speelunker ride until 2018 when the building experienced severe flooding. The incident resulted in irreparable damage to the animatronics and effects throughout the attraction, not to mention the ride’s poor condition after 25 years of operation.

Speelunker’s Cave was gone, and now its replacement had unexpectedly shut down permanently. Following the damage, Yosemite Sam's Gold River Adventure would not reopen, and the park had no plans to revive the ride, leaving it dormant for the unforeseeable future.

Pirates Take Over The Cave

As the years passed by, the boat ride sat abandoned. The very building was where generations of kids, friends, and families made memories. Guests walked by but couldn’t go in as they had in summers before. The skeleton of The Cave sat in the middle of the park.

But, in 2021, activity started in the building. Work was being done to heavily refurbish the historic ride, restoring the building from its flood damage.

Six Flags took this opportunity to bring back a classic in a fresh way.

Pirates of Speelunker Cave opened for the 2022 season at Six Flags Over Texas. While this ride isn’t an exact recreation of the beloved Speelunker’s Cave from decades past, the new dark ride followed the same track and reintroduced the Spees in a reimagined way.

Six Flags used an original Spee character from the National Roller Coaster Museum so that the new models were as accurate and as faithful to the original as possible. The nautical underground voyage is a true tribute to the original Speelunker’s Cave, including 64 Spee characters—64 specifically as a reference to the original ride’s opening year of 1964.

The story-driven attraction starts off in the midst of chaos caused by pirates. The scenic environment, custom soundtrack, and pumped in scents transport riders into another world. In ways, it’s reminiscent of the original Speelunker’s Cave with the sound of harps ringing through one of the scenes.

Toward the second half of the ride, guests approach the land of the Speelunk Caves, adorned with astonishing colors in all directions and sparkling visuals. The Speelunkers are out and about, just as busy as they were when they were last seen three decades ago.

They’re whistling away just like the Seven Dwarfs mining for glowing gems. All is well until the Spees have to defend their treasure from the pirates.

This story has a happy ending, though, especially for fans of the original Speelunker’s Cave, as one Spee is seen playing the organ, and they all gather for the final scene just as they did years before.

The Spees have made an impression on countless theme-park-goers as a community of Speelunker fans bond over their shared love for the little creatures. From refurbishment projects of the old Spees to taking them to NASCAR events, the love for Speelunkers is just as strong now as it ever has been.

The Spees once again live on at Six Flags Over Texas, but the impact they’ve made on fans will live on forever.

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