When one thinks of regional theme parks, Six Flags is a name that often comes to mind. With fifteen parks scattered across North America, the company prides itself on being within day trip distance for a large percentage of the US population. Their parks vary in size, ranging from a coaster Mecca like Magic Mountain, to a small family retreat like Great Escape. On this tour, we visited not one but two Six Flags properties, both of which I'd visited on previous travels. The first was the first major park of the tour...Six Flags Great America.
Show Me The Coasters
Part 2: A Great Day at Great America
Six Flags Great America is located halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, making it the primary Six Flags property for much of the Midwest. It is one of the larger parks in the chain, covering over 300 acres and featuring over 50 attractions, 15 of which are roller coasters. Originally opened as Marriott's Great America, the park shares many similarities with California's Great America in the San Francisco area, but both parks have gone in different directions since being sold to rival chains. Unlike Cedar Fair, who owns the latter park, Six Flags consistently invests in new attractions for SFGAm, and they have built it up into one of their flagship properties.
The first trip that I chronicled on this site was a 2014 tour with Theme Park Review called the Mini New Hotness tour. On that trip, we began in Cincinnati and worked our way to Chicago. On that tour, SFGAm was the last day of the tour, and unfortunately it was perhaps the worst of the trip. Our visit was plagued by insane crowds and inefficient operations, leading to 90+ minute waits for most major coasters. Fortunately, we had Flash Pass on that visit and were able to ride all the noteworthy rides, but it was a frustrating day. However, I will never dismiss a park for one poor visit, especially a park like this that held potential to be quite good, so since then I've been waiting for an opportunity to give the park a second chance. With a trip covering the region this year, it was finally time to return, and the new for 2019 Maxx Force was just icing on the cake.
Sadly, about two weeks before my visit, it was confirmed that Maxx Force would not be operating until July, eliminating one of my most anticipated attractions for the visit. However, I still wanted to try the park again, so we decided to keep it in the itinerary and just trim our 1.5 day visit to a single day. The extra half-day allowed for Little Amerricka and Bay Beach the previous day, two parks that weren't planned to be included on the tour.
As luck would have it, we arrived in Gurnee around 9 P.M. the night before, so we headed into the park to grab a night ride on Goliath before they closed for the day. This enabled me to get a total of three rides on the coaster during the course of my visit, and although the wait for the ride was nearly an hour I thought it was worth it. But more on that later.
Sunday, June 23rd, 2019, at 10 A.M., Rob and I stood outside the gates of SFGAm for our official day at the park. Both of us had been here during that 2014 visit, and despite a cost of $100 per person we had budgeted for a Flash Pass should it be necessary. However, the relatively small number of cars in the parking lot gave us hope it wouldn't be necessary. About 10 minutes later, the gates opened and we proceeded inside, took a left, and headed to join the queue for our first ride of the day, Superman-Ultimate Flight.
I am a huge fan of B&M's Flying Coasters. In my opinion, they are the second-best model the company produces after their hyper coasters, and I even consider Tatsu at SFMM a top ten steel on my list of over four hundred. Sadly, Superman doesn't compare to that in the slightest. Other than the pretzel loop, it mostly meanders over flat terrain, giving a great sensation of flight but holding little in the thrills category. I enjoyed the coaster, but given that it quickly developed the longest line in the park (about 45 minutes), there was no need to return.
Instead, we headed onward to Yankee Harbor, home to one of two new credits I would receive today. Joker, an S&S Free Spin, had been installed since my previous visit, and after riding three other installations of this model I was curious to give it a try. To my surprise, this one had quite a bit of action, riding much closer to SFGAdv's installation I experienced in 2018 rather than the SFOT installation with very few flips. Many enthusiasts look down upon these rides because they are small cloned coasters, but I find them fun if the wait isn't bad.
Next door was Batman The Ride, the world's first inverted coaster. Built by B&M in 1992, this ride has stood the test of time and still runs superior to almost all of the clones that have been built since. It is a short ride that packs a punch, and is a bit more intense than I personally prefer, but I'll never turn down a ride on a Batman. Sadly, it was here that we discovered Rob couldn't fit in a standard B&M seat, but fortunately this was a ride he had experienced back in 2014.
Across the walkway was my next coaster, Vertical Velocity (Rob once again couldn't fit). An Intamin Impulse, this is a basic shuttle coaster that still offers quite a bit of a thrill. The launch is fairly strong and the twisting up the front spike is more intense than it appears from the ground. Shuttle coasters aren't my favorite, but this is among the better installations of the type that I've experienced.
Transitioning from Yankee Harbor to Yukon Territory, we arrived at my second new credit of the day...Little Dipper. A junior woodie, this ride is the surviving twin to Little Amerricka's Meteor. Sadly, this coaster doesn't run nearly as well, consisting of only one lap with barely enough speed to complete the circuit rather than three or four laps with mild floater airtime. I'm glad I rode for the credit, but I unfortunately walked away with a new least favorite wood coaster.
It was at this point I received a couple text messages from a couple invited guests. One was JoAnna, a friend of mine who lives near the park and decided to meet up with us for the day. The other was Amanda (and her partner Andrew), who was writing a story on the tour.
Left: JoAnna, Center: Rob, Right: AJ, Photo by: Amanda
Time for a little background. A few weeks before the trip, I was contacted by the editor of Roadtrippers, a travel website with articles on all sorts of interesting places from around the world. They had seen my Facebook post advertising this tour, and also read some of my previous trip reports. Initially, they wanted to do a phone interview, but after sending them my itinerary it turned out that they'd be able to have a writer meet up with me for a day of the tour. Amanda, who is based in Chicago, was assigned to the story, so she and Andrew came out to the park to meet up with the group. (You can read the article that resulted by clicking here).
Once everyone was properly introduced, we made our way back to Goliath, the park's record-breaking wood coaster. On my previous visit, Goliath was the park's brand new coaster, and it became my first experience with a RMC. Unfortunately, on that day the ride boasted an hour and forty-five minute wait and was restricted on Flash Pass, so I only got a couple rides on it. While it still had a wait this time, it was an extremely manageable 20 minute wait. While in line, I chatted with Amanda and learned that it was her and Andrew's first visit to the park, so I walked them through my plan for the day and hyped them up for the best coaster in Illinois.
Now, by RMC standards, Goliath is a bit on the tamer side. It has an outstanding first drop, but after that it lacks the crazy intensity and ridiculous airtime RMC coasters are known for. That said, it is still a very good ride, and features some elements not seen on other RMC rides (such as a dive loop) as well as the best version of the Zero-G Stall I have seen anywhere. If you need a ride that will make you fear for your life, Goliath will be a tad underwhelming. However, if you want to experience a RMC without insane intensity, this is the perfect ride for you. Truthfully, I'm a bit surprised Six Flags never ordered a clone of the ride for another of their parks.
Moving on, we headed from modern wood to old-school wood, taking on American Eagle. A classic racing coaster, the ride only held a 10 minute wait at this point and was therefore only operating with one track (my previous visit saw 70 minute waits for this one). Sadly, this ride has not withstood the test of time, and it is quite rough and uncomfortable. There are a few moments with some floater airtime, but trim brakes kill a lot of the speed and render this one to skip if the wait is much more than 15-20 minutes. JoAnna was so battered by the experience she sat out the next couple coasters. Amanda and Andrew both remarked that it certainly wasn't a favorite. Rob voted it the worst woodie of the trip so far (excluding Pegasus).
American Eagle also possesses an extremely long entrance and exit path, so long that the weather can change whilst walking along it. When we left the station, a gentle mist was in the air. By the time we reached the main walkway, we were hit by a torrential downpour. Cowering under an overhang by the exit, I scoured the map for a covered place to chill for a bit, and during a momentary lessening of the rain we quickly crossed County Fair to Johnny Rockets. With the rides down for the moment, we took a lunch break at one of the better dining options in a Six Flags park.
It was at this point that I started to reflect on how the day was going. We had ridden a total of seven roller coasters in under three hours at the park. There had been no need for a Flash Pass, no need to rush around, and no wait over 20 minutes. In addition, operations at the park seemed a slight bit better than they had been in 2014, though still below par for a Six Flags property. Food service was much better as well. All in all, I was having a great time, and the park had already somewhat redeemed itself from my previous visit.
Once the rain cleared and rides began opening, we made our way over to X-Flight, the park's B&M wing coaster. A queue had developed during testing, so this ended up being about a 25 minute wait...the longest yet. In 2014, this was my second experience with a wing coaster (after Cedar Point's GateKeeper), and I was a bit disappointed by the ride.
I'm sad to say that my opinion has not changed, and I'd rank it last of the four wing coasters in the US. The coaster is very smooth and graceful as it navigates the course, but it is fairly forceless and consists of a rather uninspired layout full of rolling maneuver after rolling maneuver. To the casual rider, it is no doubt an awesome ride (Amanda and Andrew both enjoyed this immensely, especially the keyhole element). For seasoned enthusiasts like Rob and I, it falls into the category of fine...not a must ride, but not a bad one either.
Needing a break from coasters, we headed to Metropolis Plaza, a new section of the park that didn't exist on my previous visit. It is here that SFGAm's installation of Justice League: Battle for Metropolis can be found. Seven Six Flags properties feature this dark ride, and while the attraction is quite similar everywhere it is among the best dark rides found outside of the Disney and Universal parks. Sadly, SFGAm's upkeep on this attraction is somewhat lacking, with faded screens and static animatronics throughout portions of the attraction. Still, it was a fun ride, and the three of us who had not experienced a Justice League previously all left with a thumbs up. This one also ended up being the longest wait of the day...about 30 minutes.
Continuing into Southwest Territory, it was time to tackle the bull. Unfortunately, this park doesn't feature El Toro, my current #1 coaster, but they do have Raging Bull, a very unique B&M hyper. With a focus on twister elements rather than straight airtime hills, this coaster packs nearly a mile of track into a footprint much smaller than most 200+ ft coasters.
Six Flags likes to turn up the trims on their rides, and this coaster suffers from a bit of over trimming as well, but I still find that I enjoy this coaster more than the typical enthusiast. Sure, it's a middle tier hyper, but I'd take it over three or four others in the category as well as any non-B&M or Intamin hyper. In fact, given how well it was running, it might just edge out Goliath for my favorite at the park (especially when the line was just 15 minutes).
Next door was the mighty Viper, a clone of the historic Coney Island Cyclone. Sometimes overlooked, this is a reasonably smooth wood coaster with several decent airtime moments and more thrills than American Eagle in a smaller ride. At one point, Cyclone clones were popular, but this is the last one operating within the Six Flags chain.
Once we finished Viper, Amanda informed me that she and Andrew needed to head out. We took a group picture and exchanged contact information, then the group parted ways.
JoAnna, Rob, and I made our way to Whizzer, the last coaster I had on my to-do list for the park (I got the credits for Dark Knight and Demon in 2014 and had no desire to re-ride them). This old Schwarzkopf is among the last of its kind, yet remains an excellent ride for families to this day.
A seven story spiral lift leads to a graceful ride of swooping curves, small dips, and helixes, with enough intensity to entertain thrill seekers yet gentle enough not to frighten children. JoAnna considers this one of the best coasters in the park. I'm not as big of fan of the ride, but it's an enjoyable attraction that is different from most coasters operating today.
I also love seeing this stated as an official policy on a family coaster that routinely gets 45+ minute waits. Way to go Six Flags!
Since we were near the front of the park, we headed over to Maxx Force to check out the construction.
Despite hope that it would be ready, we were a couple weeks too early to check out this unique S&S Air Launch coaster. Reviews since opening have been ecstatic, with many calling this the park's best coaster despite an extremely short ride length of less than 30 seconds. I hope to get back to the park in the next year or two to check it out for myself.
With the core coasters completed, JoAnna decided to head out for the day. Rob and I began a second lap of the park, hitting a couple flats and going for re-rides on Goliath and Raging Bull.
Then, around 5:30, as we were in line for Logger's Run, the announcement came in: "Due to inclement weather in the area, operation of this attraction has been temporarily suspended." A thunderstorm had arrived, and within minutes it would likely be time for a second torrential downpour. With everything we cared about complete, Rob and I headed out of the park, closing out a very successful day at the first major park of the tour.
In 2014, I enjoyed Six Flags Great America, but I felt that the park had too many issues to fit into the top tier of Six Flags parks. Operations were poor, lines were not managed well, crowds were overwhelming, and the ride lineup just didn't stand out. I'm happy to report that three of these four negatives were not present (or at least much lessened) on this visit to the park. Yes, operations could still use some improvement, but they are more "Six Flags slow" than "two train ops with one train capacities." Upkeep of most areas within the park has improved, though sadly there are still problem spots that need addressed.
One lingering issue, however, is the attraction selection. SFGAm has great variety among their lineup, and within the chain I would probably rank them second after SFMM in that regard. The issue is more quality, especially among coasters. Goliath and Raging Bull are great rides, but they're supported by rides that are merely average.
This park really needs something like a B&M floorless or Premier launch coaster to round out their collection, though perhaps Maxx Force fits that bill. In any case, the non-coaster lineup is extremely strong here for a regional theme park, theming is passable in most areas, and it's an all-around nice place to visit when not overrun by crowds. Best in the chain? I wouldn't go quite that far. Top three? I'd probably agree with that.
Six Flags Great America Coaster Ranking:
1. Raging Bull
3. Batman The Ride
5. Vertical Velocity
6. Superman - Ultimate Flight
8. American Eagle
11. Little Dipper
Fortunately, every cloud has a silver lining, and those that ended our day prematurely also helped on this tour. The day after SFGAm was intended as a drive day from Chicago to St. Louis, with no park planned for that day. However, by getting to bed early, Rob and I were able to rise early and squeeze in a bonus park. What park was it? You'll have to wait until next time to find out.Tweet
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