AUSTELL — Melinda Ashcraft, park president of Six Flags Over Georgia, has accomplished an unusual feat in today’s culture, working for the same company for 45 years. And she has done it in a quintessentially American — she started young, remained loyal and worked her way to the top.
When Six Flags opened in Austell in 1967, Ashcraft was a 16-year-old student at Pebblebrook High School in need of a part-time job.
“I started on my birthday that year as a ride operator for the Jean Ribaut’s Riverboat ride,” Ashcraft said. “Six Flags was the new thing in town. There was nothing like it here — it was the place to be and the premier place to work. All my friends were here.”
Ashcraft, now 60, never worked for another company. Throughout high school and her college years at North Georgia College, she returned home every summer, holiday and spring and fall weekends to work at the park. She majored in biology and said her long-range career plans at the time did not include Six Flags.
“I planned to go into pre-med,” she said. “I never dreamed I would be here long-term.”
After graduation, Ashcraft said the company asked her to come to work full-time, and the rest is history.
“I’ve loved it since I started, and I still love it today,” she said.
Although Ashcraft stayed with the company, she did not stay put in Atlanta. In 1981, she went to Six Flags St. Louis as food-service director, then to Hollywood, Fla., to help open Six Flags Atlantis, a water park. She next took a management role at Six Flags Magic Mountain, outside Los Angeles, before coming back to Georgia for 13 years.
In 1998, the company bought the White Water park in Marietta from the Silver Dollar City Company. As vice president of retail operations, Ashcraft was involved in the transition. In 1999, she became general manager at Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville, Ky., and then from 2000 until 2003, she was park president at Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio.
“At this point I had moved six times and never dreamed that I would have the opportunity to get back to my home park,” Ashcraft said. But when her predecessor, John Odum, joined the corporate office, she got the call to return to Atlanta.
“He asked me to come back (as park president) in January of 2004,” Ashcraft said. “That truly was an honor for me.”
Six Flags Over Georgia marked its 45th anniversary in June, and Ashcraft said the company and her parks have fared well in recent years, despite the down economy.
“It has been my experience that people will give up other things before they cut out entertainment with their family,” she said. “We do very well when people stay closer to home.”
The two parks combined employ 3,500 people during the peak summer months. Ashcraft manages 123 full-time, year-round employees at the park.
While there are package and season package prices available, the standard admission price is $54.99.
Ashcraft said her park has added a new ride or show every year, and will continue to do so in 2013.
On Thursday, the company announced that next spring, Six Flags Over Georgia will add the “SkyScreamer,” an extreme swing ride that will be four stories taller than the park’s mega coaster, Goliath. White Water will debut the “Typhoon Twister,” the first of its kind in the state.
Holly A. Bass, CEO of Cobb Travel & Tourism, is well acquainted with Ashcraft and said her leadership and dedication are an inspiration throughout the hospitality industry.
“Melinda makes a difference every day, and Six Flags and Cobb County are fortunate to have her to continue to lead the way,” Bass said.
Ashcraft, meanwhile, is sometimes spotted inside the parks doing such mundane tasks as picking up trash.
“I hope that I am always leading by example,” she said.
EXECUTIVE PROFILE: MELINDA ANN ASHCRAFT
* TITLE: Park President, Six Flags Over Georgia and White Water
* AGE: 60
* EDUCATION: Pebblebrook High School, 1969; North Georgia College, 1974
* FAMILY: Single
* FIRST JOB: Six Flags ride operator, Jean Ribaut’s Riverboat Ride, 1967
* BEST JOB: Six Flags is the best job, because it is the only job I have ever had!
* LESSON LEARNED THE HARD WAY: (I was) told in the 1970s that as a woman, I would not progress in the company. That comment did not deter me, as you can see!
* ADVICE TO THE NEXT GENERATION: Whatever you decide to do in life, do it with passion every single day!