You don’t forget the first place that banned you from riding the go-carts. Try as you might, it’s the kind of thing that sticks in your craw.  

After I drove a gas-powered go-cart a little too wildly — out of ineptitude, not recklessness — and slammed into the car in front of me at the finish line as a kid, a ride attendant told me "That’s it, you’re done" at Celebration Station. If you grew up in Austin in the 1990s, that South Austin amusement park and arcade might be sewn in the shimmery lining of your blurry childhood memories. Birthday parties, year-end field trips, extravagant weekends every now and then when Mom had the money. Like Pandamonium and Gattitown, it was the place to be. It had everything: mini-golf, bumper boats, batting cages, arcade games blinking in a manic tempo, unsettling animatronic characters caught in an unliving hell between man and beast. And go-carts, if you could still ride them. 

But when you drive down Interstate 35 across Texas 71 these days, those carts ain’t running no more. Where a generation of Austinites once dug into H-E-B sheet cakes for classmates’ birthdays and cashed their tickets in for Chinese finger traps, there’s now only a row of hotels. So, whatever happened to Celebration Station?

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As with any other question I need answering, I poked around the American-Statesman archives. My initial shock: When Celebration Station closed in 1999, it had only been open for 7 years. I suppose that when a joint opens when you’re 2 years old, seven years seems a lot longer than it is.

According to a Statesman report from that year, Celebration Station didn’t close due to a lack of business. In fact, it was bustling just three days before it shuttered. No, the entertainment complex’s owners razed it to make way for two Marriott hotels. The fun-plex was already surrounded by hotels, and with Austin-Bergstrom International Airport on the way in 1999, the decision to blow up the bumper boats was about dollars, cents and hotel occupancy rates.

Amber Place, left, and Kendra Zach, both students at Taylor Middle School, play Skeeball at Celebration Station in 1999.

Deborah Cannon

The tale of Celebration Station’s rise and fall is, in a way, a perfect metaphor for Austin’s explosive growth. As the 1999 report heralding its demise details, the amusement park "sprung up from a barren dirt field along Interstate 35." A 1991 Statesman story announcing Whiteco’s plans told of a $5 million entertainment park on seven acres that would serve more than 1,000 customers on a busy day. At the time, according to the Statesman archive, "Austin was just climbing out of the bust and there was little development south of the river. The planes flying overhead were usually headed toward Bergstrom Air Force Base."

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We all know how that went.

If you simply must celebrate at a station, you’ll have to take some time off of work. According to Celebration Station website (it was always a chain), the only remaining locations are in Mesquite; Oklahoma City; Baton Rouge; Clearwater, Florida; and Greensboro, North Carolina.

At least we still have Austin’s Park and Pizza.