Californiaís Great America
Sunday, September 13th, 2009
Weather: Sunny turning cloudy, mid-70s
Itís something of a shame that the closest park I have ever lived near has so little to offer in the way of noteworthy thrills. Not only that, but its legal and developmental limbo has led to sparse improvements over the last several years. Considering this, itís with little guilt that I admit this is only the second time Iíve been to this park in the three years Iíve lived barely 10 miles from it.
On the whole, Great America is a perfectly lovely park. Along with its Six Flags sister park in Illinois, it was built and operated by Marriott in the mid-1970s and has had decades to develop into major theme park. In fact, itís got more rides than any park on the west coast north of MagicMountain. But the reality is, thatís not actually saying that much.
Currently the park is the least desirable of the drastically expanded Cedar Fair Empire. Their battles with the city of Santa Clara, local business and the potentially new 49er neighbors belie a park that has an uncertain future, and nothing stagnates investment and improvement like uncertainty. One need only look to the dismantling of the historic GeaugaLake to see the lengths Cedar Fair will go to in the interest of the bottom line.
Not that Cedar Fair isnít in a tough spot Ė turning a profit in the expensive and entertainment rich Bay Area is no easy task. Just look up the road at SixFlagsDiscoveryKingdom, which first moved an entire park across the bay to cheaper land because of escalating property taxes, and then became property of the city it moved to after defaulting on public debts. And that was all before Six Flags came to town, so no blaming them.
In the spirit of full disclosure, Great America has been headed downhill long before Paramount got out of the amusement park business in 2006. Over the past 7 seasons, the net number of roller coasters at the park has decreased by two. An aging but beloved shuttle loop was removed in 2002, and Stealth, the groundbreaking flying coaster prototype was moved to another park in 2003, only three years after its ballyhooed premier. That leaves the most recent major attraction still standing as Invertigo, built way back in 1998. And even that ride isnít running these days.
With all that going against it, proximity to our living room sofa is its primary appeal. That, and some out-of-town first time visitors interested in checking it out was enough motivation. With a surprisingly reasonable online deal for $30 tickets for groups of four or more (we had six), we couldnít even complain about being overcharged. This park is not worth the gate admission price, so keep that in mind when you consider a visit.
Without having to make a long trip, and not at all worried about crowds, we left home not too long after 9:30am for the 10am opening, leisurely arriving at 10:15 or so. A breakfast stop for bagels had us missing the official opening, but the thought of lining up at the gate for some sort of rope drop is funny. I donít even know where I would go. About 15 minutes after opening we made it to the third row of the parking lot and finished the meal as we entered the park.
The view of the two story carousel behind the reflecting pool is certainly a unique sight, even if it screams of 1976. Itís actually a very nice scene, and many of the older areas of the park have matured quite nicely. If only the same thing could be said for the rides. With Invertigo down for maintenance after a widely publicized train stall on the lift hill, the marquee attraction became Flight Deck (formerly Top Gun), the 1993 runt of B&M inverted coaster litter.
At a scant 2260 feet long, itís about two-thirds the size of the next smallest of its kind. The 3 inversions are also the least you can find on an inverted coaster. That being said, itís not actually a bad coaster. If anything, it just comes up short and is better described as the ďleast goodĒ of its breed. It has aged quite well actually, as weíre beginning to notice as the trend for B&M inverted coasters. The maneuvers, while limited in number, are forceful, reasonably smooth, and as intense as anything out there. Itís just a shame you have to get off and go around to go again to feel like you rode a full-length coaster.
Between that, the completely empty queue, and unnecessary two train operation, we were able to stay on for three rides in a row. I suppose the DorneyPark policy to require all riders to exit isnít a mandate from corporate. However, the annoying policy they do replicate is that glasses arenít allowed on the ride. Hey Cedar Fair, I assure you my sunglasses are safer on my face than they are in my hand. So stupid.
The park is essentially a big loop, so we continued on our way, figuring we could see most of the park before our friends arrived around lunchtime. We skipped a bunch of flat rides knowing weíd be more thorough later, but didnít want to pass on Delirium, a fun Chance Revolution. Iíve found this thing looks a lot worse than it rides, and offers a nice level of thrill without being over the top.
Making our way to the back of the park, we also found no wait for Psycho Mouse Ė a rare Arrow wild mouse. It offers a fun, almost unique take on the classic layout, actually incorporating some trick track and great banked turns. The cars seem a bit over-engineered, but itís a solid mouse for sure.
Again skipping rides we would fill in later, we didnít want to miss a chance to ride their freefall, a second generation Intamin model. Losing the Paramount licensing, Drop Zone has now become the awkward and suspicious DropTower: Scream Zone. No brain cells damaged coming up with that gem, eh? Regardless, the drop is fantastic Ė giving you a nice if hazy view of Silicon Valley and providing a gut-wrenching fall. We stayed on for multiple drops.
Not wanting to leave everything for later in the day, we bypassed Grizzly and settled for Demon. No ride is better integrated into the parksí natural setting. Itís actually quite well hidden, leaving its inversions and tunnels something of a surprise. The surprise, however, quickly turns to anguish as you are exposed to one of the most brutal coaster experiences around. Classic Arrow aging is not something to be proud of. I donít specifically remember roughness issues back in 2006, but the pain was vivid this time around. Not just head-banging, but jarring execution of the double loop and double corkscrew maneuvers leaving your back and your neck likely assailed as well. Iím all for nostalgia, this being the parkís original coaster, but a classic becomes nothing more than outdated after a ride like that. Needless to say, we would not be participating the next time around.
Now suddenly wary, we didnít think things would be remarkably better over at Vortex, the second coaster Bolliger and Mabillard put together by their own firm. Believe it or not, 1991 is officially a long time ago now, and this stand up has not aged the same way its inverted cousin has (i.e., gracefully). Case in point, even Wikipedia cites its head-banging! Itís not torturous to an especially noteworthy level, just all-around unpleasant. I canít even say itís worth the one ride, even if itís a subtle improvement over Demon.
Hoping to alleviate some brain swelling, we took a breather on the swings. Here we saw some of the sub-par clientele this park can get. Throughout the entire course of the ride, a father sitting in front of me proceeded to kick and sway the seat of his child. Beyond the implications for danger, this was more than blatantly a violation of a pretty basic park rule Ė donít screw around on ride. Iíve figured out why there are so many stupid kids out there, itís because there are so many stupid parents dooming their children to idiocy. Not that the ride operator even seemed to notice.
We found a less rowdy crowd on the StarTower, and old fashioned slow-rotating observation tower ride. I mildy prefer the oil derrick/free standing platform versions where you can sightsee at your own pace, but this still offered a nice view. The unfortunately grimy windows made for sub par photographs, but the strong gust of air conditioning made the experience more than tolerable.
Stopping for lunch, we ended up splitting a pretty generic order of chicken strips and fries at something themed like a diner. Nothing remarkable, but anything fried and covered in barbecue sauce is fine by me. Unfortunately we went without a drink, as the sodas and bottled water were almost four bucks and the soda fountains didnít have water. I suppose the options are overpay or die of thirst. We ate just outside and tried not to be rude to the karaoke singers trying their best at the stage across the way. God bless people willing to make fools of themselves in public.
We had to stall a bit before the rest of our group would be arriving, so we headed into the Sports Bar. How was this place not packed? The opening day for the NFL, and more flat-screens than I ever thought an amusement park would pay for. We had the place to ourselves, along with a couple of beers, a pretzel, and finally those ice waters.
Our friends had finally made it to the park just after lunchtime, and we were off to show them around. Of course the first stop would be Top Gun, though we had to settle for a single ride thanks to a breakdown. We moved onto Firefall, which enticed us with its fog and fire effects. The ride itself was pretty unremarkable, your standard Huss TopSpin with an average program, but it was nice to see the special effects running so late in the season, and for such a small audience.
Across the midway was your classic Schwarzkopf Enterprise, Orbit. These are a personal favorite of mine, probably my first attempt at a serious flat ride going all the way back to the late 80s or early 90s. Granted, I spent most of the ride cycle attempting to send a text message to the non-riders, but it was still a fun ride. Just ignore that awful clanging noise as the ride is coming to an end. Itís totally supposed to sound like that.
The group wanted to give Delirium a try, and we were happy to ride a second time. Unfortunately we seemed to once again be stuck in the area of seats that never spun around the peak of arc. Still a fun ride, but we spent most of the time trying to figure out how that was even possible. The Santa Cruz Boardwalk version seems to be much more evenhanded.
To humor the less thrill-inclined among us, some of us hopped on the 3D simulator theater attraction showing SpongeBob. I am absolutely certain I had seen this attraction before, though I struggled to remember where. Either way, it was a tolerable experience, given my mild appreciation for SpongeBob et. al., the story is fine, though the motion is a little on the manic side.
No visit is complete without a trip on the log ride. Oddly, it seemed as though it was just opening, as guests were just being allowed into the queue from a line forming outside the entrance. Either way, it resulted in a short wait, save for the annoying line jumpers who wedged themselves in the middle of our group of six. I know some people choose to just ignore the basic rule: you canít hold a place in line and have someone join you later. Instead, I think these people were just morons.
Aside from up our group being split up, we enjoyed the ride as much as one could. The terrain is quite flat, so a small lift to start provided the momentum to travel at ground level, through the decently sized water park. A large lift led to the second half of the ride, which was as much bobsled as it was log ride, thanks to a low water level. The double down drop was a nice change of pace, and no one exited in any sort of dampness-fueled tantrum.
Getting to the back of the park requires cutting through a childrenís area, and as we had seen from the log ride, there was apparently a junior coaster that had somehow previously eluded my coaster count. Runaway Reptar is an aging Intamin creation, and once we crammed into the undersized cars, it offered a surprisingly tolerable ride. No doubt worth getting the credit, and something Iíd even consider taking an eventual child on. Usually kiddie rides are rougher than your average full-sized coaster.
We queued up for Psycho Mouse, looking at a 15 minute wait. As we approached the station, the ride was shut down because of rain. I kid you not, about 4 drops had fallen on me the entire time we were waiting. Itís unbelievably frustrating when parks outright lie when they say they canít operate rides in the rain. Yes, you can Ė you just chose not to. Lightning is one thing, a downpour is as well. Clouds and a modest sprinkle are not an adequate reason to attempt to save some money and give your crew a break.
Confounding logic, DropTower was performing the impossible by staying operational. We gave it a ride and then eyed Grizzly, knowing weíd have to subject ourselves to it eventually. It was down (though testing, and not related to the rain), so we figured we would head back to the front of the park and then use the Sky Ride to catch Grizzly before leaving.
Continuing the loop, I talked everyone into Berserker, a rare Schwarzkopf Bayern Kurve. I had never ridden this old school flat ride, which is something like a powered coaster on a circular track simulating the layout of a Himalaya. It was oddly overbanked in some areas, and then underbanked in others, not providing a smooth or really a fun ride. I apologized.
Heading back to the front of the park, the others wanted to ride Vortex, and did so while we enjoyed a trip to the candy store. In addition to a caramel apple (sans peanuts), I picked up a gigantic pickle. By far the best purchase of the day, a great value at $1.39, and something I wish I saw more of at amusement parks, whether oddly located in candy stores or not.
Top Gun was back up again, though this time not surprisingly with only one train Ė which seems kind of backwards seeing as the park had filled in a bit by this point in the afternoon. Not that we had a wait for the second row, and then again for the back, it just seemed a little unnecessary to have two trains in the first place. I guess they took advantage of the breakdown.
Ever since the Sky Ride at the San Diego Zoo, Iíve had a renewed appreciation for these old-fashioned gondola rides. It wasnít nearly as scenic, but did offer some nice views and a refreshing way to get some quiet, not to mention cross the park. Psycho Mouse was fortunately back up, and we gave it a ride.
Across the plaza is Centrifuge, a Schwarzkopf Calypso which feels a lot like a Scrambler. Fun I suppose, most mostly just a heck of a lot of lateral Gs. Akin to Spongebob, we reluctantly lined up for Survivor, the hyper-themed extended Zamperla Disk-O. While the foliage is nice, the queue is mostly just an advertisement for the show, and the tribe versus tribe contest is just annoying, and dubiously effective. Here we have some unique restraints which actually come from behind you as you face the outside of the disk. I could definitely do without the unrelenting pressure on my kidneys. If you can ignore the discomfort, youíll get a unique ride, though definitely more breezy than forceful.
iting the proverbial bullet, we made our way to Grizzly. The Morgan trains were not especially inviting, and they had us longing for the Giant Dipper not 40 miles away. Not wanting to press our luck, or wait for the next train, we ended up towards the middle. I imagine it wouldnít have made much of a difference if we had seated somewhere else. Out the station and halfway up the lift, we came to a disconcerting stop. We lingered long enough for visions of Invertigo with cherry pickers and firefighters, but moments later a stern voice came over the PA strongly reminding riders to keep their arms inside the ride at all times. Apparently some fool was reaching out and attempting to touch the railing on the lift outside the train. Itís the kind of idiotic thing that makes you wish for natural selection, so long as you donít get any blood on yourself.
Having exceedingly low expectations really helped. Yes, the ride was awful. Amazingly bumpy, vibration from beginning to end, and an exceedingly boring layout. I was a little surprised that it wasnít nearly as painful or jarring as I remember, but it was still a long way from pleasant, let alone fun. One ride was plenty, and we were all pretty much ready to end our day.
We took a much smoother ride back to the front on the Sky Ride, walked past some cool themeing for the upcoming Haunt event, and we hit the Carousel on the way out Ė upstairs of course. The horses are unimpressive fiberglass replicas, but thereís something about riding one of the (two) largest Carousels in the world. While exiting, we hit another clientele low as a child was violently thrashing one of the horses back and forth, probably not doing any permanent damage but obviously doing something that the ride was not designed for. The parent in question here stood right next to him and didnít even acknowledge the behavior. Itís hard to blame a child when a parent is so blatantly irresponsible. All we could do was shake our heads.
That would do it for our visit. With the discount admission and the light crowds, it was definitely a nice day. The park has a decent variety of flat rides, though many are beyond outdated. The same can unfortunately be said for the coasters as well. The real sad thing about this park is, given its challenging circumstances Ė an owner who appears not to want it and on land far more profitable as almost anything besides an amusement park Ė thereís almost no chance it will get the kind of attention it needs, and given its history and place in the amusement industry, the attention it deserves.
Iím not holding out much hope for the park. Itís hard to imagine it staying in this somewhat stagnant state for too long. Either we see an owner than works to fulfill the parkís potential, or we see it become another footnote in amusement history. Both are possible, but it clearly depends on the motives of whoseverís hands it ends up in.