Six Flags/Applebee’s Tornado Lockdown

by ANDREW HICKS

This is about as close as I got to the action at Six Flags pre-tornado sirens.

It was too good to be true. We got to Six Flags at 1:30 — me, my wife, my stepson and my two kids in diapers — and there were only three rows of cars in the entire parking lot. There were only like 20 yellow school buses, which I knew would mean a tiny fraction of the usual multitude of high school kids dribbling prize basketballs in roller coaster lines.

We got a spot in the front row, four spaces from the aisle. My older kid had fallen asleep as we entered the parking lot, so we hatched a quick scheme. I’d stay at the car with the little girl sleeping and the little boy chewing on toys, while my wife and stepson would go in the park, ride the amazing compact wooden roller coaster just inside the entrance and come back out to tag-team me in to go ride the same. In theory, by the time that cycle was complete, the little girl would wake up from her power nap, and we’d all go in together.

That cycle did not reach completion. Wife and stepson rode the wooden coaster — they were the only ones on the ride, and they had the option to stay on and ride again and again — but when they got back to the car, the Six Flags P.A. system was crackling about tornado watches and storm shelters. The only attraction I got to experience was the Talk To The Fat Security Guard In The Parking Lot ride.

It started sprinkling, but they were fat drops, and chubby rain is always a bad omen. The few guests left in the park came streaming out the entrance, so we hatched a new scheme. We’d go have lunch somewhere nearby, let this spring storm run its quick course, then come back to Six Flags and enjoy an even more ghost-towny amusement park experience.

So that’s how we found our way to Applebee’s at 3 pm on a Wednesday. I just started working at a fine-dining restaurant, and during a week of training, I got to eat everything on the menu. Going from that to Applebee’s doesn’t just lower the bar, it smashes it to the ground like Stephen Hawking in a limbo contest. But I’m a sucker for a cheap deal, I can eat a lot, and I love soup and salad. Applebee’s has an all-you-can-eat deal for $5.99.

Stormin' good in the neighborhood.

It was routine casual dining. We got sat, we got our drinks, and the server took our order. Then the to-go door flew open, and in burst a kid in a Pizza Hut uniform. “Walmart’s on lockdown!” he yelled. “Tornadoes are headed this way! We have to evacuate!”

Our first reaction was, Evacuating from a building to a car during a tornado sounds like a really bad idea. Our second reaction was, If this guy is so convinced of rapid, impending doom, why did he stop at Applebee’s to warn eight customers?

He was gone seconds later, but I was left to wonder if he popped his head into every store in the neighboring strip mall to tell them the sky was about to fall. I could picture the dude dying in the storm because he felt compelled to be a Weather Channel version of Paul Revere in a souped-up 1999 Dodge Neon. A tornado martyr.

This pop-in was enough to make Applebee’s management evaluate the situation. Should they close? Should they evacuate? Should they take us to the shelter of the back of house? My wife singlehandedly convinced them evacuation was a bad idea, but she was unable to persuade them to make our food before they shoved us in their walk-in cooler for safekeeping.

The second the tornado sirens went off, we were up from our table and into that walk-in. It was my family and four elderly diners, one with a walker. It had all the makings of a bad sitcom setup: A baby, a toddler, some hungry adults, some retirees and a nervous but extremely courteous restaurant manager in a giant refrigerator full of food. Yet it was orderly, not too cramped and not as funny or dramatic a situation as it should’ve been, considering I’m sitting here writing about it.

I took the opportunity to be nosy. I found out the Applebee’s mashed potatoes come in a bag. Well, of course. But I was unable to verify my favorite rumor of all — that Applebee’s serves microwaved precooked steaks with grill marks already branded onto them when they enter the restaurant. I saw some shelves with steaks, and they were brown, and they didn’t look too good, but I couldn’t tell if they were precooked or just old. Neither of which is a virtue.

We were in that walk-in for about five minutes, then we milled around the fenced-in outdoor Dumpster area for a few more. My oldest kid loved running circles around the giant metal trash receptacle, then she started wanting to pick up broken plateware that was strewn around the Dumpster. Which brought an abrupt end to that party.

Tornado sirens stopped, we sat back at our table, waited about 20 minutes for the Applebee’s folks to turn all their kitchen equipment back on and get stuff running again. (Best thing about that — all you have to do is plug the microwave back in to make it operational.) Got my soup and salad. Ate it.

Tornado sirens went off again. Back into the walk-in with the babies for another ten minutes or so. Back to the dining room. Got another round of soup and salad. Ate that. Got a third round of soup and salad. It was a 2 1/2-hour quick lunch, and we drove home in the rain. Never made it back to Six Flags.

Did I forget to mention that, during all this, my 10 month old choked on a foil piece of fruit snack wrapper and almost died? Because, yeah, that happened, too.

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