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.