Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip: Six Flags Great America
Written by Robert Niles
GURNEE, Illinois - The 2010 edition of the Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip rolled into northern Chicago this week, for my first visit to Six Flags Great America in 20-some years.Tweet
It might as well have been my first visit to the park, given all its changes since I last visited, as a Northwestern undergraduate. The iconic double-decker carousel remains at the front of the park, but beyond that you'll now find a strong collection of Six Flags' roller coasters.
We started the day at the Dark Knight Coaster, a ride I typically would never consider, given its low average rating from Theme Park Insider readers. But since the Dark Knight, with its various dupes around the country, is currently the single lowest rated ride on the website, I figured that I needed to take a look, to see why readers seem to loathe this attraction so much.
Let's consider that question answered.
Give Six Flags credit for trying. Unlike its other coasters, where "theme" means simply the name slapped on the queue entrance, DKC attempts to engage visitors within the story of the hit film. But the pace of the Aaron Eckhart press conference video in the pre-ride show drags like six-year-old told to clean his room. I wondered if I could hit the remote and see what was on ESPN instead. The Joker interlude's fun, but why are we getting on a roller coaster now?
Listen carefully as you exit the pre-ride show, and you can hear an audio spiel about "evacuating the city." And here's my biggest pet peeve with Six Flags' attempts at roller coaster storytelling: Whether it's the Dark Knight Coaster, Batman or Terminator: Salvation, we're always "evacuating." To heck with that! I want to stand and fight. Just like I get to on Spider-Man or Dragon Challenge. No, on Six Flags' coasters, we run away, scared. We're told to begin the ride in resignation and defeat instead of with the adrenaline rush of impending battle. Bleeh.
The Dark Knight Coaster compounds that failure with the "wild mouse" back-and-forth track (Disney fans will be reminded of Mulholland Madness) that's contained in a warehouse-like room not dark enough to conceal the track design. The track design wouldn't be fatal, but add on a few non-sensical visual effects, culminating in a weird colored light that I first thought might be an oncoming train gag but turned out to be - I don't know what. And then we exited, right back where we boarded. Huh? What about the evacuation?
How much more frustrating it feels to experience something that tries, and fails, to tell a compelling story than a ride that never attempts a story at all. That's why I think riders punish the Dark Ride Coaster so severely. Unfortunately, you don't always get credit for trying. In fact, failure often brings extra penalty instead.
Yet as Theme Park Insider readers take away, they also give. TPI readers have voted Great America's Raging Bull among the top coasters in the nation. Working my way though its queue, though, I began to question your judgment. (Sorry!) The setting for this Bolliger & Mabillard mega coaster ain't nothing worth noting: no water element, as on Kings Island's Diamondback, or spectacular river views, as on Apollo's Chariot at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Just track twisting around a scrubby plot of weeds, grass and dirt. What's the appeal?
Just get on and ride - you'll soon find out.
Never have I ridden a coaster that blends smoothness with airtime so brilliantly. Often, great airtime comes from vertically whipping riders up and over hills. Raging Bull earns its airtime from perfect timing of turns and drops as well, leaving me feeling as if I were floating above my seat for many seconds at a time. Until we hit a series of s-curves at the end of the ride, where we scrubbed off our speed before the final brake, I felt as if I spent more time out of my seat than in it. Natalie and I agreed that Raging Bull won our honors as the best ride of the day.
Great America reflects much of the improvement within the Six Flags chain over the past years: All rides were open and the big coasters were running multiple trains. Employees are keeping the park immaculate. Workers greeted us with enthusiasm throughout the day, taking initiative to ask if we needed help finding our way. Use foul language or light up a ciggie in the wrong place, and they'll toss you out of the park without hesitation. Or a refund.
Unfortunately, frustrations remain. Six Flags nickels-and-dimes you like no other theme park chain. Parking cost $15, a dollar more than at Disneyland or Walt Disney World. And that puts you in the remote parking lot, leaving you to hike across the sea of asphalt reserved for those who paid even more for the premium parking fee. (And seasonal passholders who bought the extra parking pass.) What about a tram to the front gate, you ask? Hah!
Inside the park, expect to pay a buck to rent each locker you'll need, since no one can bring backsacks or purses on any of the coasters. (There are no free storage bins, as you'll find at Kings Island, Holiday World or other Midwestern parks.)
Here's what $25 gets you at lunch: A cheeseburger with rings and fries, a chocolate shake and two bottles of water. Tasty, but ouch.
Want a Papa John's pizza, advertised all over the park? You can't buy a slice, or even an individual pie. No, you have to buy a $10 combo meal, which includes either a side salad or couple of extra cheesesticks, along with the individual-sized pizza. (The drink remains extra, of course.) It's just another one of the ways that Six Flags earns back its various admission discounts.
I'm not a cheapskate when it comes to theme parks. Far from it. I'll drop $100-plus on a meal, if a park delivers value worthy of that amount. But to eat fast-food-chain food on metal outdoor tables while commercials blare over loudspeakers? Better cut the price way down for that. Six Flags jacks it up, though.
So skip the food. I love my local Six Flags park, Magic Mountain, but I never spend an entire day there. And that's how to get the best value from a Six Flags park. If you live in the same city as a Six Flags park, buy a pass early in the season when the best deals are available. (Get the parking add-on, too.) Then drop in and enjoy some great coasters and other rides whenever you want, throughout the summer. Don't bother eating in the park, save for the occasional splurge on a funnel cake sundae or some other treat you can find only in the park. Leave your stuff in the car and avoid the locker charge. Don't get nickel-and-dimed.
While the chain's improved greatly over the years, due to the nickel-and-diming and general lack of unique and original narrative attractions, Six Flags still aren't destination parks, like Disney and Universal. (Unless you're a coaster fanatic who has to bag every version of every model, no matter where. You know who you are.) But having Great America nearby provides a great perk for any roller coaster or theme park fan living in the Chicago area. Don't be afraid of an out-of-date reputation. Come out and ride.
By the way, Brian enthusiastically endorses the chili cheese dog anyway.
Next up: Cedar Point.
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