Trip Review: California's Great America
Published: May 23, 2014 at 10:04 AM
California's Great America
Opened as Marriott's Great America in 1976 this park was at one time, believe it or not, a contender with Disney. Great America at one time had highly themed lands and offered much the same experience that Disneyland did back in the late 70's. While Disney managed to overcome its short comings within a decade with the addition of Michael Eisner, the Marriott parks were left stagnant. After less than 10 years the Marriott chain of parks were considered a disappointment despite making profits. They were soon sold off to Kings Entertainment and later purchased by Paramount. Paramount owned the park for several years and brought many familiar intellectual properties to the parks including Nickelodeon, Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and Crocodile Dundee. In 2006 Paramount sold its parks to Cedar Fair and slowly all of the intellectual properties began to disappear. Great America is in direct competition with Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo which is just an hour north of the park. Great America is also in the highly competitive California theme park industry, with Disney, Knott's, and Universal parks only 5 hours away. Limited significantly by the city of Santa Clara's height restrictions, zoning, and a brand new NFL stadium, what's left is a park that's just starting to emerge out of its stagnant 1990's state. Now we are in the 2014 season and I'm taking a look at the park now known as California's Great America.
This is our hometown park, just minutes away from where we live. In an effort not to lose money on the steep parking fees, since we plan on visiting more than once, we opted for a single gold season pass option. The season pass option will also help with getting into Gilroy Gardens later this year which is also owned and operated by Cedar Fair. Parking for the rest of you though is going to be the traditional 15 dollars every other theme park nickel and dimes you. That is subject to change throughout the year now that the San Francisco 49ers have placed their brand new stadium next door. The 2014 football season starts in August, and the Great America lot is the over flow parking for 49ers fans.
Heading into the park feels just like walking up to the old Disneyland. The chain link fence perimeter keeps you wandering past the parking lot until the entrance plaza is right in front of you. There isn't much room between the ticket booths and the turnstiles, but this is where the security check is, and it's a little awkward. The placement of the security check here causes a line of people that makes it's way all the way to the ticket booths and sometimes extends past it leading to the ever confusing "what line am I in for" experience. There really isn't any reason this couldn't be in front of the ticket booths just to improve efficiency. Overall though the line moves quick and into the park we go.
I love this entrance plaza. It's such a nice set up with the white rocks, crystal clear water jets, and the Carousel Columbia just behind it. It's just nice set up and props to the original creative minds behind it. It makes a carousel look much grander than it actually is, and the mist created by the water jets present a nice cool down after walking through the asphalt jungle outside the gates. Typical of most every theme park the large company store is to your immediate left, and several outdoor vendors line the street selling cotton candy, hats, and other various items you may need through out the day. The company store still has the old cut off supports where the Paramount branded sign was. The park experienced a sudden change in ownership and I realize the Paramount branding had to go quick, but that change in ownership was in 2006. It's 2014 and the cut exposed metal supports on the building just screams cheap. Otherwise it's a nice plaza, and I love it for its simple classic design.
Walking past the carousel into the central hub I think you enter the saddest part of the park. To left is the "in need of paint" Vortex and the Season Pass photo area. Behind is the classic Carousel Columbia and the most faded out run down wave swinger ride I've seen. To the right is the Star Tower, surrounded by the lumbering mass known as Gold Striker. Panda Express for some reason is in this area attached to the Gold Striker mine themed buildings. In front of you lies the saddest sight, the old Great American theater that now sits empty. There used to be nice dancing and show numbers held here that allowed people to escape the hot California summer heat, but no longer. Sadly this is just the most run down looking area of the park, despite it being the main hub. The colors used on the buildings here are dull and faded, which hurt the grand spectacle of the fountain entrance. Most people I feel won't notice this sad sight as Great America's newest roller coaster roars past in your face at the main hub in Cedar Fair fashion.
First ride of the day is none other than Santa Clara's newest attraction harboring back to the days of California's gold rushing days, the menacing Gold Striker. Heading towards the entrance there is a small set of mining buildings that set the stage of the ride. It's nothing too elaborately themed, and the Panda Express attached to the tail end of it is awkward. It's directly adjacent to the Carousel Colombia, and it just clashes with the red white and blue entrance, as the light brown buildings can't be blended in anyway. Entering the queue you can also see another one of Great America's lost gems, the IMAX Pictorium theater which used to show short 15-20 minute movies which some were even in 3D. The building looks ancient with vines growing on it and beyond faded paint. It's shocking it wasn't removed during the construction of Gold Striker, but I suppose the park planners thought it'd make for a great sound barrier for the office buildings behind it. I'd also like to note that this is one ugly looking roller coaster. Unlike steel roller coasters, wood coasters usually tend to blend in nicely with parks and the mass of wooden supports can actually hide unwanted eyesores, such as say office buildings and Pictoriums. This coaster unfortunately got hit with noise complaints when it opened, so lots of sound shields were installed as well as styrofoam between the tracks to dampen the noise, and in turn damage the aesthetics.
What Gold Striker lacks in looks, it more than makes up for in thrills. This sucker is wild and feels like a rocket careening through masses of wood. Great Coasters International has really out done themselves with this ride. The coaster enthusiasts have got themselves another gem in this park. It takes the top crown in my book for the best wooden roller coaster in Northern California, perhaps all of California. Finally a wooden roller coaster in Nor Cal has trumped the 1924 Giant Dipper from its perch. Now the challenge for Cedar Fair is to keep Gold Striker in pristine condition which they usually aren't known to do. If the Boardwalk in Santa Cruz can keep a 90 year old wooden coaster in tip top shape, then by gosh so can Great America, in fact they have to. The market in California is way too competitive to lack on such a thing. This is a wonderful ride and we ended up running around to get back in line for it.
Across the hub is Vortex, an old Bolliger & Mabillard stand up roller coaster. This is actually the second roller coaster B&M ever built, and it shows it's age. The ride runs smooth, but is jerky on turns and the corkscrew inversion. It's not a bad ride, but it's a ride that's more than past it's prime. The short circuit and slow loading times built above a non dressed up backstage area, make for an underwhelming experience. A more immersive ride could be set up in its place, and the hills provide a nice opportunity to hide a show building.
After the exhilarating rush we just experienced on two rides we headed on towards the back side of the park passing by loads of midway games. There is a typical skycoaster attraction for an extra charge, taking up a huge chunk of land that could fit a nicer more themed attraction. Sadly skycoasters are basically pure profit since they are cheap to build, maintain, and every park charges extra for them. I will love the day these ugly steel behemoths are taken down for a more immersive experience. Just up a little past the skycoaster is another cheap attraction found everywhere, a shoot-the-chutes water ride with one drop. It's great to cool down on a hot day, but it's not all that fun. I do give props to the park for placing the ride on the complete opposite side of the rest of the water rides. It's nice when water rides like that are spread out as it doesn't flood people into one section of the park when things do start to get hot. Rounding out this section of the park is an old Bayern Curve ride called Berserker with a barn like tunnel attached to it. You typically see Bayern Curves with traveling fairs so it's strange to see one at a theme park, granted it looks nice for what it is.
Next up you get to the Invertigo gardens. This is my favorite part of the park, it's neat to walk under the hanging plants and vine tunnel. It's just a neat little garden area that is quite charming and really pretty when it's in bloom. To the left of this area is a large grassy area with nothing around it. It was home to a Vekoma inverted boomerang once known as Invertigo which was removed in the 2011 season. I can't say I miss the ride as it was a rough headache inducing experience which is typical of just about every coaster built by Vekoma. It'll be nice to see when a new ride gets placed here as it is definitely a dead area of the park.
To the right of the gardens is The Demon, a very old Arrow Dynamics looping roller coaster. The first half of this ride starts off with a chain lift through a rock formation and turns into an extremely bumpy headache inducing ride. Strangely the second half of this coaster is extremely smooth as you do two corkscrew inversions through a demonic rock face. It's not typical of most Arrow looping coasters, where the loops are smooth section and the corkscrews beat up the riders. The Demon decides to take its punishment on riders early from the first drop and through the first two loops before becoming enjoyable. Theming wise it's ok. It's a ride of its decade, like the rest of the park , it's stagnated. The large trees and the rock tunnels help immerse the ride keeping it hidden from plain sight. It's not anything like a Disney ride taking you away to a different place or time, but it works. If only they could improve the first half of the ride, then I'd see it in a more positive light.
The next ride we jumped on was the Barney Oldfield Speedway which is a nice little ride. Don't expect a story or any theming what so ever on this ride. The HD TV's with a generic "Great America Network" playing further taking away from the ride. It's your typical turn of the century looking cars on a tracked course. Kids like these since they get to drive their own car, and thankfully it's not as hard to hold down the pedal as the Autopia at Disneyland. You get some nice views of both The Demon and Grizzly coasters, and you even get to go into the wood work of Grizzly which is neat. The addition of some scenes to go along with the ride would be nice, and would add some more character to this rather generic ride.
The next ride we would head towards is the Grizzly. You work your way into the mass of wood and... Closed. The ride was undergoing morning tests still, so in the mean time Drop Tower it is. This ride is a remnant of the "extreme" 90's era. All the fake flames and netting scream of this rides old theme Drop Zone: Stunt Tower based on the lame movie of the same name. It's a cheesy theme and in need of a refresh, because there isn't anything "cool" or " edgy" about the 90's. The ride itself isn't anything spectacular either. There are far taller versions of these drop rides just 5 hours away in Southern California at Knott's Berry Farm, Magic Mountain, and the much more immersive Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure.
This back section of the park is home to a large arcade and midway carnival games area. I think carnival games are crappy, but I also know why theme parks love them. They are huge money makers, and can fill "dead" sections of a park till a ride takes its place. Which leads me to my complaint about this area. It's been a dead section in the park for years, and there is no drive to walk through the midway area. It's always empty and I only ever see a handful of families in this area. All the attractions are on the perimeter of the breezeway and you can walk right past without ever having to enter the midway. The only draw to this back area is an arcade if you want to even call it that is an arcade. If theme parks want to make money off of midways they need to draw guests through the midways. The only way to do that is to put an attraction on the opposite side of the midway. In the current form there is no reason to walk through this area, nor is there a reason to go to an arcade anymore for that matter now that everyone has iPhones and Android devices these days. Theme parks, including Disney and Cedar Fair, need to start losing the arcades and updating these lame and dated sections.
Tiki Twirl was the next ride in our park loop. I have no idea why they placed this ride in this location, it'd fit somewhat better by the Boomerang Bay area, if only for the fact they filmed a Survivor show in Australia once. This is a Zamperla Disk-O Coaster, that was previously themed to the Survivor television show. No idea what the tiki masks had to do with the show, but it is themed nicely for what the ride is. They have fire effects, water spritzer tiki heads, and jungle like foliage surrounding it. It also makes the most use of the generic "Great America Network" on all the TV's throughout the queue. These used to play a really lame video related to the Survivor show that tried to use some lame audience participation, but the TVs that have no relation to the ride aren't really all that much better. The ride itself is fun and unique when all the effects are working properly. The small fire bursts you can feel, and then the tiki masks spritzing water is always fun as it randomly hits various sections of the ride.
Walking under the sky ride we headed over to Psycho Mouse. This is an Arrow Wild Mouse coaster, which is themed as a wild mouse coaster. You enter a giant mouse head with cheese hole cut outs. The ride isn't really themed beyond the entrance, though the cars are shaped like mice. It's the least intense wild mouse I've been on, but it also results in a more fluid less jolty ride. It's also the smoothest one I've been on which is surprising cause it's an Arrow built ride.
Now we are going to wander over into the two kid areas at the park, Planet Snoopy and Kidsville. Planet Snoopy was the former Nickelodeon area, and boy did they strip the theming. All the rides in the area are just stripped down or reworked rides. No longer is there a "Runaway Reptar" with neat giant dinosaurs or the misters on the first drop. The vibrant splash of over the top colors from the "orange splat" are missing. Granted this was all very well dated even when Paramount sold off the parks. What's replaced it is the primary color heavy and classic styled Peanuts gang. Notice I used the word classic and not timeless. This is what Cedar Fair brought in to replace the dated Rugrats and Wild Thornberry characters, another dated and tired intellectual property. With a Peanuts movie on the horizon, one can hope that these characters are revitalized and can connect with today's children. In their current incarnation they don't though. Hopefully with a movie on the horizon we can get a look at the Peanuts gang neighborhood and possibly a revitalization of this section of the park. It's a bit open, and offers lots of views outside the park, which I feel could be hidden by character meet and greets, at say Charlie Browns house. The Peanuts comic strip was minimalism at its best, but minimalism doesn't work in such a competitive theme park market as California. Would it be too much to ask for a Snoopy dark ride? They are worthy investments, and it's all existing technology that Cedar Fair could pull from.
Kidsville used to be all Hanna-Barbera characters. The little kids section was never really themed well to begin with. They just had Scooby-Doo and QuickDraw McGraw plastered on random buildings or rides. That is now all gone with no theming now. The Taxi Jam roller coaster is about the only themed attraction back here and I suppose it's ok for such a tiny ride. Nothing really stands out here, and the park has closed off what was once one of the more charming aspects of the park. Way back before Paramount brought in the Nickelodeon and Hanna-Barbera characters, there were inflatable boats you could send down a little river stream. They passed by miniature buildings and you followed the boat as it took different paths and got stuck in whirlpools. It would finally reach the bottom where the next child patiently waited for their chance to run the boat down the course. It was "updated" with a haunted Scooby-Doo river theme and gone were the inflatable boats, replaced by cheap hard plastic boats that no longer could make it down the river without sinking. What's there now is a wall that blocks the view of the area. The little river was a unique, interactive, and enjoyable attraction to watch, but now the kids attending the park get a wall. It'd be nice if this area was absorbed by Planet Snoopy, bringing back some color and character to the area.
Across the tunneled bridge and you're hit by a barrage of rides. You have Logger's Run, a swinging inverter ship, a massive entrance to the Boomerang Bay water park, a giant spinning swing, FireFall, and the Action Theater. Logger's Run is a bland log ride with no theme what so ever. It weaves in and out of Boomerang Bay showing off some nice views both of the water park and of the rest of the park once you are at the top of the lift hill. You actually get to see old ripped out concrete footers from Stealth the old Vekoma flying coaster that was in the park for all of 3 years. Boomerang Bay I'll make a separate review for since it's not yet open. The swinging ship and giant swing are at other competing parks and fairs, offering nothing unique. FireFall on the other hand is a unique experience. The ride is nothing special, it's a standard Top Spin ride, but what makes it unique is the fire show that takes place in front of the ride. I'm not sure what the theme is, but let's just assume it's a ride mimicking rotisserie chicken. As the ride is flipping, it passes it's riders over a pond with water jets in it. About midway through the ride the water jets stop, and the pond catches on fire. Now you are being cooked as the ride flips around making sure each side of the body is equally seasoned and roasted.
Now the Action Theater is an interesting attraction. When it opened it had a NASCAR theme and Days of Thunder played. There was even a replica of the NASCAR used in the film on a turn table in the center between the two theater entrances. It was fun and pulled in the crowds thanks to the ability to swap films when popularity waned. Paramounts large collection of movies and tv shows including James Bond and Spongebob helped connect guests with familiar intellectual properties. The theater also used to show two different shows concurrently helping draw even more guests to the attraction. With the loss of Paramount the park held onto the Spongebob movie far too long without a refresh and running only one theater. Now there is a Happy Feet video that plays that seems far too short with a story that's very hard to follow. Perhaps if the outdoor video monitors set up the context of the ride, like the attraction used to in the past, it would be a lot easier to follow. Sadly that is no longer the case, and once inside you'll notice the wear and tear on the seats and handles. With over 20 years running without a proper refurbishment, the theater looks bad to say the least. This ride needs a refresh big time, and it doesn't even need to be from a family friendly franchise. This theater used to house James Bond and Days of Thunder which weren't kids movies, and all Cedar Fair needs to do is buy a licensing right to say Inception or Godzilla or plenty of other fun movies. They have the rights to Snoopy, make a Red Baron film if they don't want to deal with licensing fees. Even just an explanation of the Happy Feet plot at the exterior of the attraction would help immensely in the mean time.
Next up are two more flat rides found at plenty of carnivals and a fairly solid river rapids. The rapid ride isn't themed really, but you get soaked on it, with some strategically placed waterfalls. The Orbit is an enterprise type ride, and the always fun and interactive flying scooter ride that uses a solid sail to catch wind to move the vehicle up and down. Both are found at carnivals like I said, but they seem to be kept in excellent condition compared to some of the other flat rides in the park. This area also houses an antique costume photo area, and unfortunately another arcade.
Rounding out the park is the "New Orleans" themed area. There's nothing really here that makes you feel like you're in a New Orleans setting. It's not that the buildings are totally generic or bad looking, they just don't capture the detail or spirit of any city in the south. Hidden in two of these buildings is a bumper car ride, and the sky ride. This area is also home to the parks former star attraction Top Gun. With Paramount out of the picture the generic labeling comes into play, and we are left with Flight Deck. The theming was never that great when it was owned by Paramount. You're supposed to be in the inner workings of an aircraft carrier, heading into battle. The queue is just battered and run down. Light bulbs don't work correctly. Old standard definition TVs are still in the queue not operating. New HD TVs play the generic "Great America Network" and the tattered and faded tarps that used to have F-14s painted on it need some love. Thankfully the ride is still smooth, thrilling, and beyond intense. The helix right after the first loop still induces near white outs on its riders and the coaster never let's up. The finally is a helix over the water with a nice water jet effect. It's a short coaster and was built by B&M when they were still in the infancy, but it is a little monster of a ride.
Now we rounded out the park, but there were still two more big attractions we wanted to hit up to finish out our day. The sky ride had been looming over us all day and what better way to cut to the opposite end of the park than to take a ride over there. I miss these rides, and it just reminds me of my younger days when I was lucky enough to ride the old Disney sky rides when they existed. It's a nice break, and you get great views of the park. It does take a while to get on due to the low capacity, and is why it most likely disappeared at so many other theme parks throughout the years. From here we could see Grizzly operating and we for sure we're going to make that our next destination.
Grizzly was one of those roller coasters years ago I wanted to take a torch too and watch the ride come burning down. It was a rough piece of crap at its best. But it was "retracked" a few years ago, and wanted to see if it was as painful and boring as it had previously been. So as I said earlier, you work your way into the mass of wood to enter this ride. The trains don't look much different but I could tell just by looking at the track on the turn to the lift hill that this was going to be a different experience. Well it's still a boring ride, it doesn't offer any speed, or airtime really, but it also may make for a solid "first big coaster" for a new thrill seeker. It's smooth now, and the painful experiences I had when I was younger are finally redeemed. With a quick ride on the Star Tower and Gold Striker one last time we finally rounded out the day and headed home.
So California's Great America is a nice park, with some nicely themed and unique areas, but it also has other areas that need a total make over. The stagnation that set into the park due to laws, plans to sell the park, and ownership changes have crippled it. It'll be interesting to see what happens to this park now that a brand new NFL stadium has been built right next door. I can't help but imagine camera panning out past the stadium for a shot of the theme park that's right there. With the new stadium you even open up the possibility of transforming this seasonal park into a year round park thanks to the fall-winter schedule of football. It's in the South Bay which has some of the most desirable weather year round too top all this off. At one time there were even some Blue Sky plans to build a downtown area between the stadium and park, sort of like a CityWalk entertainment area which would be a fantastic addition. Maybe if the park wasn't owned by Cedar Fair and had some money pumped into it by say one of the numerous tech companies in the area it would be more impactful. It has charm in some places but I feel like Cedar Fair is sucking what little charm this park has left in to another one of their thrill amusement parks. Lots of folks like Cedar Fair management and the thrill rides they bring, but the Roller Coaster Tycoon method doesn't work in California. When you have Disney and Magic Mountain just hours away it's hard to consider a visit to an inferior park that isn't offering anything unique. As I mentioned before, this park sits in the heart of the largest tech firms in the world. I always wondered what Google, Facebook, or Ebay could do with a park that is salvageable and could become sort of a playground for their employees and their families. All this park needs is some paint, some decent food, and a little bit of money pumped into it, all of which Cedar Fair doesn't have a tremendous amount of currently.
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