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Originally published July 17, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 17, 2007 at 12:39 PM

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Flight to Mars amusement ride was rite of passage

The Flight to Mars at Seattle Center's Fun Forest amusement park was a rite of passage for kids. The ride was sold in 1996. And now the Fun Forest itself may find its days numbered.

Seattle Times reporter

Flight to Mars.

If you were a kid around here between the late 1960s and mid-1990s, those three words conjure a very specific image. It's not a rocket, but a face, an alien with a fedora, eye patch and missing teeth, its bottom jaw rising and lowering, silently laughing at those foolish enough to come near.

The gargoyle hung from the facade of the Flight to Mars ride, a creaky, campy fright show that became a rite of passage for a generation at Seattle Center's Fun Forest. By the time you finally mustered the courage to buy a ticket, you probably were too old to be scared.

More than a decade ago, Flight to Mars was sold and dismantled to make way for Experience Music Project, and that could have been the end to it.

While the ride is gone, the phrase lives on. A local arts group adopted the name Flight to Mars, and for his solo band, so did Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready. It was a homage, McCready wrote in an e-mail, to "a more innocent time in Seattle's history."

These days, change is in the air around Seattle Center. A city task force recently proposed turning the Fun Forest into open space and forcing the longtime tenants to sell off the remaining roller coasters, bumper cars and kiddie rides.

With longtime Seattle landmarks disappearing almost daily, it's impossible to know what will be missed and what will simply evaporate from the collective memory.

But with every lost icon, there is a story. Same, too, with Flight to Mars.

A move to Texas

Flight to Mars was one of the original attractions of the 1962 World's Fair, when the swath of amusements near the Space Needle was called Gayway. It was a "dark ride" where passengers climbed into cars and traveled on rails through passageways, past scary figures and scenes, like a funhouse on tracks.

After the fair ended and Gayway dismantled, a concessionaire took over the area and renamed it the Fun Forest.

In the summer of 1968, Steve Robertson landed a job there taking tickets. At the time, he was dating the owner's daughter. He later married her and became vice president and general manager.

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Robertson said Flight to Mars returned to the Fun Forest in 1968 or 1969 but it might not have been the same ride that was part of the World's Fair.

Located where the western steps of Experience Music Project are now, Flight to Mars was always popular, Robertson said. He hated to let it go, selling it for about $100,000 in 1996 to a ride operator named Bill Hensley.

Moving from fair to fair, Hensley isn't easy to find. But a little digging led to his cellphone number, and he picked up while driving along a freeway in San Diego.

Hensley said he still owned Flight to Mars and had put a lot of work into it, redoing the wiring, fixing the roof and painting a new facade. He keeps it at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, and it's still a thrill. One woman even called to complain that her kid was terrified after the experience.

And the alien Jolly Roger, the centerpiece of the whole thing, what did Hensley make of that?

He never received it, he said, although Robertson said the complete ride was shipped as far as he knows.

After Hensley bought Flight to Mars, the ride was taken apart and put on rail cars to Denver. When he opened the crates, the laughing space pirate wasn't there.

"I'd like to know where it is, sure," he said.

Emotional power

The Museum of History & Industry is Seattle's attic, stuffed with things that some may consider junk, like the giant red "R" that once graced the Rainier Beer brewery.

It's hard to know what to keep and what to discard, said Leonard Garfield, executive director. That's especially true when dealing with items intended to be frivolous and geared toward children. "Things that dominated the landscape as a kid don't have historical value, but they retain their emotional power," he said.

That explains why Flight to Mars has endured, at least as a three-word concept. One day it's there and you are a kid, the next it's gone and you're all grown up.

Same, too, could be said for old Seattle, a sleepy place that didn't offer much in the way of entertainment.

"I remember going on eighth-grade double dates with friends to the Fun Forest," wrote McCready. "On the Flight to Mars we all tried to make out with our dates. This was all before the music explosion and Microsoft, so the city was much more provincial, from what I can recall."

Occasionally, the museum fields calls from people cleaning out a house or business, wondering whether something might be of interest to curators.

So far, no one has offered the gap-toothed alien of Flight to Mars, but Garfield joked that his staff will be on the lookout.

Re-creating the facade

The Flight to Mars arts organization came about after a group of friends wanted to do something special for the Burning Man festival, the annual counterculture celebration in the desert, said Jeff Larson, 38, a co-founder.

"Flight to Mars was the lamest ride as an adult, but as a kid it was fantastic," Larson said. "A lot of us wanted to do art. As soon as someone said they got rid of Flight to Mars, we said, 'Let's do something like that.' "

In a Seattle backyard and the woods of Duvall, the artists got to work, building a structure that would withstand the high desert winds. They hired a driver to truck it down to Nevada, and it was one of the festival highlights from 2001 to 2005.

Their re-creation didn't have little rail cars. Instead, the interior was an evolving mix of dance floors and mazes with DJ's pumping out music.

Did Larson have the original Jolly Roger head?

No, he said, but he built a bang-up copy, a Styrofoam model with a moving jaw.

Putting up the giant Burning Man display got tiresome after a few years. The friends put their Flight to Mars on eBay last summer but received not a single bid.

The parts are now on Vashon Island, waiting to be turned into a goat shed.

"Locked in 1960s past"

When it comes to the Fun Forest today, city officials don't mince words. The 5-acre complex of rides and games has "outlived its useful life," Mayor Greg Nickels has said.

Other reports on the future of Seattle Center say the Fun Forest "has lost its relevance" and suffers from being "locked in its 1960s past."

"Past its pull date, I heard that one, too. Whatever," said Robertson, standing on the grounds he's worked for almost 40 years. "That's what's fun about it. We're proud of this little place."

Still, it hasn't been easy financially, with tourism dipping after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Monorail out of service for months at a time in recent years.

Family-owned, the Fun Forest was expected to stay put until its lease with the city expires in 2019. But Robertson said he is negotiating to revamp the financial terms in exchange for a lease that would end in 2010.

Unless there's a groundswell of opposition to the city's redevelopment plans, Robertson said the family is prepared to auction the remaining rides and leave.

"I know there's a lot of people who'll be upset when we're gone. That's the disappointing part," he said.

So why does Robertson think Flight to Mars has reverberated years after it disappeared?

"It was just part of growing up."

Alex Fryer: 206-464-8124 or afryer@seattletimes.com

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