Having grown up near Gurnee, Illinois, Great America has always held a special place in my heart. I have fuzzy childhood memories of visiting the park during the Marriott days, I grew up as part of a season pass-holding family (once the Six Flags era began) and I even worked there for a summer during high school.
After taking a remote job at a Silicon Valley-based company years ago, I was perplexed when I saw signs on the 101 freeway promoting what looked like a California theme park also called Great America. This could not stand, man.
I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat, which led me to the following discovery:
“In 1976, the Marriott Corporation opened two Marriott’s GREAT AMERICA parks. The two parks represented the state of the art in theme park design and attractions at that time. First to open was Marriott’s GREAT AMERICA in Santa Clara, California. Shortly after the Santa Clara park began operations, Marriott’s GREAT AMERICA in Gurnee, Illinois celebrated its grand opening. A third park in the Washington, DC metropolitan area was also to have opened in 1976. Local opposition, however, at two proposed sites prevented the third park from becoming a reality.”
Woah. Twin parks. Even more interesting was the fact that one Great America park (in Illinois) ended up selling to Six Flags, while the other (in California) changed hands a few times, eventually landing in the hands of Cedar Fair Entertainment (which also now controls Knott’s Berry Farm). It’s the theme park equivalent of long-separated brothers that reunite years later and discover that while they have the same nose, one became a doctor and one became a pro surfer. I have yet to visit California’s Great America, but when I do, I suspect it may trigger an uncanny valley reaction and drive me to madness. Time will tell!
I think it’s extremely cool that people around my age can have shared memories of regional attractions like the Demon, the Whizzer, the Columbia Carousel and the Sky Whirl, despite having grown up thousands of miles apart. There are big cultural differences between the Midwest and the Bay Area, but we remain bonded in shared Marriott history. It’s theme park feelgoodery, folks.
Interested in learning more? This is an amazing resource.