California’s Great America Struggles Against Mediocrity

Written by Marc Ricketts. Posted in Features, Weekend Update

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Published on June 14, 2014 at 12:30 am with 20 Comments

Weekend Update contributor Marc Ricketts takes us to California’s Great America amusement park located in Santa Clara, California. A product of the Marriott Company’s ill-fated foray into the theme park business and now operated by Cedar Fair Entertainment Company, Great America has struggled for decades to attract crowds to its mediocre offerings. ~~Rick

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California’s Great America
by Marc Ricketts

Back in the Bicentennial of 1976 Marriott (yes, the hotel people) opened two regional theme parks called Great America, one outside of Chicago and one in the San Francisco Bay Area. The two parks were similar if not identical in many respects featuring duplicate rides and minimalist themes. For instance, a “land” themed to New Orleans was distinguished by little more than some iron work on 2nd floor balconies.

Marriott never built a planned third park, indeed they got out of that particular pursuit completely, and since their departure the parks have taken divergent paths. Six Flags has taken over the Illinois park, while in California, Great America has had a series of owners including the city of Santa Clara, Paramount, and currently, Cedar Fair. First impressions with the latter were not positive for your humble narrator, starting with a sudden banishment of all glasses on rides regardless of how securely they were attached. Then an “island” appeared in the middle of what had been one of the best bumper car rides around, turning a frantic free for all into an ordinary representation.

That’s really been the mark of this park too often, ordinary. Even though they’ve had two ground breaking coasters, the first flying Coaster with Stealth, and first American inverted face to face coaster with Invertigo, both are now in other parks. But then former Disneyland president Matt Ouimet came to Cedar Fair. Steps are being taken in the right direction. California’s Great America has never had the themed environments of Knott’s Ghost Town, and making the kind of investment required to build something like that from scratch would be unusual if not unrealistic for what is essentially a regional park. So let’s see how the park is looking, what they have planned for the summer, what has been changed and what is new.

OK, That’s new right off the bat…or..er…what, punt?

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Once upon a time there was a football team that played in a frigid windswept land called Candlestick Park. And lo the team did seek to build a new kingdom betwixt the practice facility to the east, and what can only be called California’s Great America to the west. Cedar Fair seemed uncertain of whether to play ball, play obstructionists or sell the park and wipe their hands of the whole affair. In the end they’ve decided to treat it all as a positive, and another chapter is added to the convoluted history of the park. Still, I would suggest avoiding the park on days when the home team is in town, at least until a few have been played and patterns emerge.

It is always a good idea to purchase tickets in advance to avoid wasting time at the park, but buying online will also save a significant amount of money; don’t be a chump.

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The big metal detectors have been removed, so instead of feeling like you’re in the airport, you can spread for a wanding and feel like you’re being arrested.

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Entering the park there is a lovely view of the signature double decker carousel. This visit came on the heels of the Memorial Day weekend, so extra bunting was present as well as a promotion for military families. On a busier day, some of the Peanuts’ gang was out to meet the arrivals.

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Soon after entering, just off there beyond the Celebration Swings, is the newest and biggest step forward: Gold Striker.

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The screens in the queue are like those that have appeared at all the Cedar Fair parks, playing a random assortment of music and trivia. As can be seen in the second photo, taken on a busier day, the screens are far apart, and you’re more likely to find Waldo than find someone watching Fun TV.

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This new wooden coaster is a home run, maintaining a high speed from start to finish. After the initial drop, the track stays low to the ground, speeding past those waiting as a blur. The tunnel which encloses that drop, as well as the wooden walls along the west side of the track and soundproofing underneath, is to dampen the sound; mustn’t disturb the offices nearby (that’s them to the left off the lift). The solid walls are already a magnet for graffiti.

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There are few if any places where the two track rails are parallel to the ground, lots of sudden moments of airtime and the shakiness of lumber without the battering that can occur in lesser efforts. Can’t think of a single weakness.

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Continuing around the park (and with backstage literally in the middle of the park, there is no choice but to go around) there are some shady spots, but despite numerous trees, they often seem to be on the periphery, leaving many wide expanses of open asphalt. The only big expanse of green only exists due to Invertigo’s removal. A few scattered themed buildings remain, but with no context to their existence, there is not much sense of place.

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There are a lot of these, though.

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A Lot.

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Seriously, A LOT!

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Many of the game operators are given access to vocal amplification (that means there are annoying individuals with microphones).

So moving on, most regional parks live and die with their coasters, so what’s available besides Gold Striker? Vortex is a B&M standup that really doesn’t have a big enough footprint for this type of train. The days of the new stand up are likely gone, and the successful ones had lots of room to maneuver; the tight turns on Vortex aren’t as gentle on the joints as the long turns on Riddler’s Revenge in Magic Mountain.

The Demon, however, is holding up amazingly well for a 1976 Arrow looper with a double corkscrew into a large rock skull that still looks like it will scalp your skull. That’s the park’s other woodie, The Grizzly, in the background. It is a coaster that has sometimes topped Worst Coaster lists; would make a great bonfire.

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There is also a mad mouse coaster, plus a lot of familiar sights to any veteran park aficionado.

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But a couple of more recent additions have included a bit of setting to go along with the physical thrill. Top Spin rides have been around for years, but few have the added music, water and fire effects (which were all working this visit, a first for me) of Fire Fall.

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Tiki Twirl has been spinning since it opened as Survivor the ride in 2006, but here the standard Disk-O is in a tropical setting with banners honoring the various tikis in a queue that even has leaf impressions in the ground.

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Part two of my report on California’s Great America can be read HERE.

About Marc Ricketts

Marc Ricketts is a writer/photographer who has not yet outgrown roller coasters, and provides news and information about San Francisco Bay Area destinations. Mark's columns can frequently be found on MiceChat in our Weekend Updates.

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20 Comments

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  1. That park was used as “Wonderworld” in the 1994 movie Beverly Hills Cop 3!

  2. Thanks for that review!

    I haven’t been here for a loooooong time and–after reading your review–wouldn’t return unless we had a day to kill and had Cedar Fair passes that got us in. We will get those if we go to the great Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

    I highly recommend a trip around Lake Erie for a week-off (8 or 9 day) summer holiday. Fly into Cleveland, rent a car, than make stops at;
    Cedar Point–arguably the world’s best non-Disney theme park,
    the Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Canada,
    Niagara Falls & its delightfully touristy haunted houses on the Canada side,
    then the slightly overpriced Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and great free art museum in Cleveland. You can eat White Castle burgers throughout this trip!

    So how does Cedar Fair’s Santa Clara Great America contrast with the Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois?

    • I love me some Cedar Point – but a theme park? I’m thinking no.

  3. $63?? I was not expecting that. I know I can get tickets cheaper online, but if I happened to stop by while visiting the area, that would probably make me turn around and go somewhere else based on what I know about the park.

    Although the park was never heavily themed, the original park did have distinct areas that were built around the original attractions. That vine covered trellis you pictured made much more sense when it was next to an attraction titled Turn of the Century. There was also Yankee Clipper with it’s lighthouse for a eastern seashore and a wooden bridge welcoming you to the Yukon Territory. Once Turn of the Century became the Demon, I don’t think the park tried to maintain a theme anymore. Of course, things only became worse when Paramount turned everything into a movie theme.

    In any case, great article. Looking forward to the part 2 especially since it contains my favorite attraction Top Gun or whatever they are calling it these days.

  4. This park has definitely seen its best days behind it. I used to visit Marriott’s Great America as a teenager in the 1970s and went to the park’s opening week in the spring of 1976. I remember all the classic rides, like the giant Sky Whirl (Intamin Triple-Arm Ferris Wheel), Willard’s Whizzer (Intamin Speedracer), Turn of the Century (Arrrow corkscrew coaster) and the two Arrow flume rides (Yankee Clipper in Yankee Harbor and Logger’s Run in Yukon Territory). The original six theme areas of the park were Carousel Plaza, Hometown Square, Midwest County Fair, Yukon Territory, Yankee Harbor and Orleans Place. There was also the Great America Scenic Railroad which went around the park and had a train station above the Hometown Square area very similar to Disneyland. In addition there were a couple of great live musical shows and an animal aquatic show.

    Randall Duell and Associates designed the Great America theme parks and the firm avoided trying to imitate Disney and actually set themselves apart in certain design concepts. Randall Duell felt that while Disney based their design on the hub and spoke, he thought it relied on saturation and that people would miss certain things if they didn’t go to the various corners or dead ends of the park. Duell used the loop design to ensure every visitor would pass by every area of the park, so nothing would be missed. As far as thematic detail, they used specific color pallets for each theme area to suggest a different era or sense of place. The color palette also extended to the “iron” rides for the specific theme area. It was never intended to be authentic to the level of detail like Disney is known for. The Duell firm also designed Magic Mountain, AstroWorld, Worlds of Fun and the first Six Flags theme parks among several others.

    Most of the park doesn’t make sense thematically anymore because it’s been sliced and diced and the original themes removed or obliterated. As for the ton of games, that area used to be known as the “Games Gallery” in the Midwest County Fair section, so it fit thematically.
    Of all the parks of my youth, this one has left me the saddest. I knew when Marriot sold the parks, it would lose its original vision. It was a wonderful park with a stronger theme in those early years. I miss the days of the Sky Whirl motors humming in the air above Marriott’s Great America.

    • I remember that Great America used to be the only place in Northern California to see IMAX movies (or was it a format other than IMAX?).

      Now that you can find IMAX in malls all over the place, what has become of the large format movie theater that used to be at Great America?

      • The new Gold Striker butts up against it, and all the exit paths, ramps, and staircases were cut off so they could build the coaster right up against it. The prior exit doors now lead off to tall drops into nothingness…. Sure doesn’t look like that building factors into any future plans. Too bad, I have fond memories of watching some great NASA films in that space.

    • The railroad!! I knew there used to be something blocking the view of the Vortex from the front of the park, but could never remember what used to be there. Now I remember it was the elevated train station. Thanks for that.

      Also, if I remember correctly, wasn’t the IMAX theater gutted to change it into a Days of Thunder motion simulator? I’m pretty sure the screen was still the original IMAX screen, but the standard seats were removed and replaced with violent la-z-boy recliners (as a friend liked to call them).

      • The motion simulator is in the Action theater which has had a variety of films over the years including James Bond, Sponge Bob and, currently, Happy Feet. It was hard for me to judge fairly with 3D glasses over prescription shades. Story is your basic “penguins are playing then something goes wrong”. Being able to hear the hydraulic system does not contribute positively.

        Cheers,

        Marc

  5. I can imagine why Disney copied it for California Adventure. It’s virtually a clone, except Disney added to the concept with more restaurants, shops and a Parade Corridor. Can’t wait to never go to Great America. But I still have the same feeling about DCA. Even with all of the bluster of Carsland, it’s still Great America South.

    NEXT!

    • Cars Land by itself is better than most post-60′s disney parks. I must admit though that the original Hollywood Land, San Francisco Area, and Cannery Row areas reminded me of Great America. Bueana Vista St., Cars Land and new Paradise Pier Dark rides puts DCA2.0 in a new league.

      Great America with its ever increasing focus on roller coasters has its days numbered. Its only(and sad) contribution the area will be the shutting down of Frontier Village.

      • At first, I really didn’t understand why they were rebuilding the entrance to DCA, but then I realized how similar it was to GA’s, and it made perfect sense.

        Cheers,

        Marc

  6. I spent a few days at Great America last year, since we opted for the Cedar Fair pass. It was rarely a full day affair. Gold Striker is great, but the rest of the park just isn’t. I agree with many of the comments and points in the article.
    I always find it frustrating when parks, and Cedar Fair is especially guilty of this, staff their coasters with a minimal crew that leads to long load and unload times, but then you walk out and see dozens of employees staffing Boardwalk games.
    The rides are mostly heartless, and save for the aforementioned Gold Striker and the prior Top Gun there isn’t much here that would maintain the attention of a family for a full day.
    Instead, we found Gilroy Gardens to be a much better experience. The grounds are gorgeous, the rides perfect for our 4-year old, the food better, and the staff much more pleasant. if you haven’t been, make a day out of it. Their Autopia ride puts Disneyland’s, and all other similar rides to shame.

    • I’m actually taking us to Gilroy Gardens next; spending Father’s Day there with the boy today.

      Cheers,

      Marc

  7. They literally took out every rides (save the double decker merry-go-round and IMAX) that I ever went on. The triple-wheel was their signature ride(featured in Beverly Hillls Cop 3) and was replaced by a lame mini coster. The train and cars left too, along with the stage productions.

    They jam packed the park with dull teen coasters and a urine filled water park for kids. There is NO reason to even go there anymore. $70 for a ride on the bumper cars and the rapids ride? I don’t mind the extra drive to easygoing well themed rides at gillroy gardens and Santa Cruz Boardwalk(the new Haunted House is AMAZING).

  8. Six Flags Great America has changed a lot over the years, too. And while it hasn’t all been for the better, it still has some of the classic rides and the original themed areas, (although a lot of theming has been lost).. They still have the train, the Wizzer (still quite popular), the Demon, the Loggers Run and Yankee Clipper and many of the original flat rides. But I do miss the Sky Whirl.

  9. I think this Great America is one of the weirdest parks in the world, due to the amazing amounts of blah everything there entails. It’s fascinating how generic it is and how little uniqueness there is to it. Oh, and the coaster collection is…well.

  10. My first experience with this park was seeing the model for it on display at the Hillsdale mall a few months before it opened. The second was shortly after it did open. Even as a teen I thought the plain-jane design if the buildings was pretty bad (compared to Disneyland) and it still is! I know it attracted a very rough crowd at one time but I’ve heard Cedar Fair has worked hard to get it back to a good family park.
    I have a lot if family still up in that area and they go a few times a year and seem to enjoy it.

    • There was some incident when I worked there briefly in 1986 involving rowdy teens. Wasn’t a full scale riot or anything, but we suddenly got told to take all the cash drawers into the back areas. If I recall correctly, the metal detectors appeared shortly afterwards.

      Cheers,

      Marc

  11. Having grown up in that park through the 80′s-90′s, you could see the slow downhill slide over the years. The metal detectors arived after the rash of gang-bangers that flooded the park. For a while, they even had dress code. If 2 or more people tried to enter the park wearing similar clothing, they were turned away. The family went back in 2012 and couldn’t believe how dirty the park was.