Coasting Into Retirement

When Dave McMichael followed his father into the construction industry, he could not have known the impact their company would have on the amusement park industry. Even as McMichael’s Construction Company begins the process of shuttering its doors, its fingerprints can be found all across Six Flags Over Georgia.

by Kari Apted

Filled with anticipation—and perhaps an ounce of dread—you climb into the rollercoaster car. As the chest harness locks into place, your pulse rises and your palms sweat. Hands locked tightly onto the bars, you smile as the coaster glides out of the station and clicks onto the first incline. The jarring sound of metal clinking fills your ears as you inch ever higher, fear rising as you peer over the side and see the ground dropping far away. 

Suspense peaks as the coaster pauses at its pinnacle. The seconds tick as gravity slowly tugs. Suddenly, in one fell swoop, you fall back to earth at neck-breaking speed as a scream involuntarily explodes from your throat. Rattling, racing, rising and diving, a minute flies by, and before you know it, you are gliding back into the station, exhilarated, relieved and ready to ride again. 

It seems likely that at no point in those breathtaking 90 seconds did you think about what went into building the ride. You trusted the park’s safety standards and simply enjoyed your day, jumping from coaster to coaster well into the night. However, if you did give it a thought, you would undoubtedly find it reassuring to learn about the complexity of rollercoaster construction. 

When Dave McMichael followed his father’s footsteps into the construction industry, he could not have known the impact his work would have on Georgia’s amusement park industry. If you have visited Six Flags Over Georgia in Austell, you have likely enjoyed several of the structures his company helped to create. J.D. McMichael founded McMichael’s Construction Company in 1950, building homes and apartments in the Lithonia area. When Dave took the helm in 1983, he shifted the focus to commercial construction. In the years since, the company has operated as a commercial general contractor in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas. 

“Our work was foundational. We did the land clearing and grading, and we built the ride foundations. We also built the stations park guests use to embark and exit the rides.”

Dave McMichael

MCM has built and renovated churches, assisted living facilities, restaurants, grocery stores and a variety of other businesses. At the company’s height, it had 22 employees and successfully completed projects totaling $28 million in just one year. In 1990, McMichael accepted his first contract with Six Flags Over Georgia to replace an aging log flume ride. That project went well, and shortly after, the company was invited back to help construct the Ninja rollercoaster. 

“We enjoyed quite a good run at Six Flags from 1990 to 2016,” McMichael said. “They were a very good client, and we tried really hard to keep them happy and satisfied. They were very good people.” 

From working on the legendary Ninja, Goliath, Batman and Superman rollercoasters to renovating the classic Dahlonega Mine Train, McMichael’s company was a major contributor to over a dozen major attractions at the Georgia theme park. While it played a vital role in each ride’s safety and stability, McMichael does not want people to assume that he personally designed each coaster. Special steel erector contractors were in charge of building the coasters’ signature hills, loops and turns.

“Our work was foundational,” he said. “We did the land clearing and grading, and we built the ride foundations. We also built the stations park guests use to embark and exit the rides.”

What sounds like basic construction work actually requires a high level of precision. 

“We made auger cast concrete piles, where you drill down into the earth anywhere from 30 to 60 feet, then fill the hole with rebar and concrete,” McMichael said. “Each pile comes up into a pile cap, and every pile had to be at the right location on the planet and set at the right rotation.”

Previous slide
Next slide

Each ride’s foundation was constructed using a global positioning system that provided the exact coordinates for every support column. 

“It was rare to have even three columns in a straight line,” McMichael said. “Every piling had to be set by northern and easterly coordinates.” 

MCM also played a major role in constructing Six Flags’ Hurricane Harbor water attraction. Completed on a design build basis, the company contributed to several water slides and the wave pool. It also built four buildings, two of them pump houses that required 11 building permits alone. MCM’s success at Hurricane Harbor led to work at Six Flags White Water in Marietta. The company helped construct the Typhoon Twister, Tornado and other water slides. McMichael credits MCM’s values when reflecting on its long partnership with Six Flags and other major clients.

“We focus on the work, making sure all work is done the way we’d be proud of it, with minimum callbacks,” he said. 

McMichael also gives credit to his family for their support, as each of them worked for the business at different times through the years. 

“My family all worked in the business … and enjoyed the notoriety that we were known for our work there [at Six Flags],” he said. “I’ve been so blessed by my family. My wife Peb and I have been married for 46 years. Our son David is a cowboy in Montana and our daughter Danna is a math teacher and coach at Locust Grove High School. Our grand-girl McKay is a student at the University of Georgia, and our other grand-girl Logan is in ninth grade and plays softball at Locust Grove High.”

After 70 years in business, McMichael’s Construction Company decided to close its doors. McMichael indicated it was the right time to retire. 

“At present, I’m selling off pieces of equipment, tools and materials, and we’ll soon have our entire office property at 90 Almon Road [in Covington] for sale,” he said. “It has over 11 acres of land and borders I-20.”

After spending decades creating attractions to draw visitors to Atlanta, Dave and Peb McMichael plan to spend their retirement years traveling cross-country. 

“We want to visit all the major sites American is known for, including the Grand Canyon,” he said. “We also want to see the Canadian border and visit our son in Montana.” 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted. 

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