Giraffe encounters on an elevated walkway. The roar of nearby lions from a private veranda. Early morning game drives with elephants and rhinos. These experiences, typically reserved for safaris across the vast African continent, will soon be found at an amusement park in New Jersey, which also offers access to the world’s tallest roller coaster.

Six Flags Entertainment Corp. is venturing into luxury hospitality, with a 20-room safari hotel slated to open on June 14. Located just 15 miles from New York City, inside the safari park at Six Flags Great Adventure, the Savannah Sunset Resort & Spa will perch guests above Ankole cattle, wildebeests and black bears that roam the property’s 350-acre African-themed expanse.

The company’s first foray into luxury hotels comes amid its planned $1.88 billion acquisition by Cedar Fair LP, which owns 17 theme parks and 11 hotels, including Carowinds outside Charlotte and Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. 

Stays at Savannah Sunset begin at $599 per night during the summer season—with a two-night minimum—which puts it within range of some of Walt Disney World’s most high-end hotels. Here, that will include modern conveniences such as avocado toast and Starbucks chai lattes delivered to your canvas tent for breakfast, as well as tickets to Six Flags’ parks.

That adds to the attractions already bringing thrill-seekers to this corner of New Jersey, where Six Flags operates 510 acres filled with 14 hair-raising roller coasters, the Hurricane Harbor water park and the aforementioned Wild Safari Adventure. At the latter, guests are taken on 45-minute game drives to see 1,200 animals from six continents. While Six Flags does not release data for visitation to its individual parks, research from AECOM tracking attendance at global attractions shows that the New Jersey complex welcomed a record 3.5 million guests in 2019; in 2022, the most recent year for which AECOM data are available, that number was more than 2.1 million. 

The new hotel is a way to leverage the existing safari park for longer and more expensive stays, which in turn would drive spending in the rest of the parks. While the suites are modeled after the camps in, say, Botswana’s Okavango Delta or Tanzania’s Serengeti, the layouts feature kitchenettes and Keurig coffee machines to cater to American families.

“We needed to really deliver things that were special,” says Edithann Velez Ramey, chief marketing officer at Six Flags.

A Company in Transition

Six Flags’ expansion into hotels comes at a critical time. This year a survey of 3,491 US-based travelers by Bloomberg Intelligence showed that more than half planned to visit theme parks for trips of at least three days, the second-most-popular vacation choice, after all-inclusive resorts. 

Courting visitors for multiple days is an advantage that such companies as Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp.’s Universal have long held over Six Flags, which has historically been focused almost exclusively on day guests. The gap has only widened, as Universal Orlando Resort readies a trio of new hotels around the 2025 debut of its Epic Universe theme park, and Disney continues to refurbish and launch new accommodations for its loyal Disney Vacation Club members.

Until now, Six Flags has operated just one hotel: Great Escape Lodge, with 200 Adirondack-themed rooms surrounding an indoor water park in Queensbury, New York. Rooms start around $340 per night during prime summer weekends. 

The decision to experiment with luxury lodging was spurred by Chief Executive Officer Selim Bassoul, who took the helm in late 2021. It’s his most ambitious move as he shepherds the company ahead of its merger. (The close is expected to take place by the end of June, though some analysts and antitrust experts anticipate regulatory delays.) 

Marketing chief Ramey says the glamping concept was part of a strategy that encourages higher spending. The question Bassoul was asking, she says, is “How do we do things that allow us to elevate the price—and, by extension, revenues and profit?” 

In lieu of competing with Florida’s destination parks by building more attractions, Six Flags is using its proximity to the New York metro area as an advantage. Offering safari-like accommodations without a trip to the airport is unique, but as a one-off hotel, it’s a big idea that speaks to Six Flags’ current performance gaps. According to research by Bloomberg Intelligence, the company’s cash generation dropped in 2023 as per-person park spending decreased to $64 from $66, all while attendance remained lower than expected. Across all its 27 parks nationwide, Six Flags saw 22.2 million visitors last year—still far shy of 2019’s 32.8 million. 

What to Expect From a Six Flags Safari Stay

Savannah Sunset Resort & Spa is loaded with intriguing features and amenities—and also a heavy handful of contradictions. 

Nowhere else in the Northeast can you find rooms outfitted with genuine, handcrafted African wood furniture and vast savannah views. Daily giraffe feedings, made available exclusively to hotel guests, are the kind of thing some people associate with a bucket-list trip to Nairobi. An on-site restaurant, Mahaba Grill, will serve breakfast and dinner. Entrees, such as lobster ravioli or slow-roasted short rib, cost from $25 to $40. An on-site spa offers deep-tissue massages with a wooden African rungu stick. 

Each stay includes park admission, private transportation to the parks and expedited skip-the-line access on roller coasters and waterslides. Guests at Disney’s $300-a-night Animal Kingdom Lodge, which claims the largest African wine list outside the continent and provides in-room views of animals roaming nearby, have to pay extra for such perks.

But there are significant challenges. Savannah Sunset requires all guests to be age 5 or older—a serious caveat for families with animal-loving preschoolers—and a restriction that’s almost impossible to find anywhere online. 

Six Flags also has to build this new business without the help of its most core demographic: Most of its guests are local and arrive with season passes in hand, which means they don’t need a hotel. 

This location is also the only Six Flag theme park that includes a safari park, so it’s unclear if this strategy can expand. 

And then there’s the issue that Savannah Sunset’s most senior staff have little experience with luxury hotels. In charge is Elizabeth Bransky-Cannata, who most recently served as traveling interim general manager for Holiday Inn Club Vacations locations. 

She’ll need to establish the hotel as a must-visit locale quickly, given its short seasonality. Six Flags Great Adventure is only open daily in summer (meaning, until Labor Day), and the hotel will be open only on select dates in the offseason. That’s a logistical issue that neither Disney nor Universal, which benefit from sunny Florida weather year-round, has to contend with at their resorts. 

Despite those caveats, Six Flags still sees enormous opportunity. 

“It’s one of our biggest, largest properties, so we knew we wanted to invest,” says Ramey. “And we’re thrilled that it’s happening in New Jersey.” 

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