"This isn't Kentucky Kingdom!"
Okay, I was driving down IL-120, and a brown sign with an arrow on it directed me down IL-21. As I approached IR-94, I saw the park. Can't miss it. Another brown sign pointed down Washington St., and there was lots of traffic going that way. I pulled into the turn lane when I saw the sign for Great America, then encountered a closed gate, right next to the sign that says, "Open Daily."
I circled the park. I can see the place. How in the hell am I supposed to get there? I stopped off at the Gurnee Mills mall to have a cheesesteak in their food court before proceeding. Scratch one in-park meal.
After driving completely around the park property I finally found a driveway and pulled in. Down a non-trivial highway I drove until I came to a tollbooth. Parking: $10. I asked if it included a valet service or a wash-and-wax job or anything like that. It didn't. Just the permission to park in thre gigantic land buffer around the park that makes it impractical to park anywhere else and walk in for free. And it is a gigantic parking lot. Today it was mostly empty. Given what I saw in the park I would hate to be there if it were full!
I scanned my Wyandot Lake pass through the gate, and thanks to the precautions I took in the parking lot I breezed through the magnetometer once I convinced the operator that the large, very expensive chunk of aluminum and stainless steel I was trying to hand him was the only metal object I was carrying. No, don't try to hold it in the soup bowl, hold it in your hand so you don't drop it and end up owing me $1,500. Just then a confetti cannon went off on a nearby parade float causing a nearby security officer to duck and cover. Those of us who were more accustomed to amusement park activities, including the admissions person with the soup bowl [Footnote 1], didn't even flinch. 8-)
Six Flags Great America (hereafter simply "Great America" or "SFGAm") has an entrance plaza that reminds me of a squashed Kings Island. Opposite the gate is a large rectangular pool, at the far end of which is a visual centerpiece for the park, in this case a double-deck carousel. The pool is a lot smaller than PKI's Royal Fountains, and accordingly, it isn't surrounded with shops like International Street. Instead, this is as close as the park gets to a hub. From here there are exits back and to the left (to the parking lot), ahead and to the left, back and to the right, and ahead and to the right. I took a ride on the upper deck of the carousel, then exited the plaza ahead and to the right.
This took me down a crowded midway past the Scrambler and
past a theater, to a gateway covered with a banner. The banner indicated that
I should be certain to ride the coaster located beyond because it was scheduled
to be dismantled within 72 hours. I spent the next half-hour or so beneath the
Whizzer's loading platform waiting in the queue; finally I boarded the
back half of the last car of one of the trains. A kicker wheel kicked our train
out of the station, and we started up the spiral lift hill. Each car contains
an electric motor and drive wheel, located under the center of the car. This
means that the motor for my car was located just ahead of my feet. As we climbed
the lift hill, the air blowing off the motor and across my toes became noticeably
warmer. At the top, the motors kicked off and we began our cruise through the
course. The ride was not entirely unlike an enormous Jet Star, with the
same steep drops and highly banked, ground-hugging curves. This ride is actually
fun, and I can't imagine why the park would want to get rid of it. Perhaps the
lift mechanism is a little dodgy, but if that's such a problem, why not engineer
a solution rather than simply scrapping the ride? And from my perspective there
was no obvious problem with the lift. Coaster #221, and I thoroughly enjoyed
From Whizzer I continued counter-clockwise around the circle when I came to Southwest Territory. This is an area filled with adobe buildings and populated by two roller coasters. Viper was sporting a very long line in an unshaded queue, so I proceeded to the queue house for Raging Bull. It's one of these B&M speed coasters with the sort of train I wish they would use in place of their floorless and sit-down looper trains. I see no reason why they couldn't, and unlike the floorless train gimmick it would be a gimmick that actually added something to the ride.
Raging Bull is a tall ride, but it's squeezed into a comparatively small
site. This is not Apollo's Chariot that heads out and runs the full length
of the park and then comes back. In fact Raging Bull is completely contained
within the confines of the Southwest Territory, making it a relatively small
coaster. Unfortunately this means that instead of concentrating on the lackluster
airtime of Apollo's Chariot, Raging Bull is an extremely visual
ride featuring lots of highly-banked curves and tight turns. It really isn't
my kind of ride, and I found it to be unexpectedly dull.
Southwest Territory is a very strange area in the park. I still don't know what all the rides are in that section as the rides are all hidden behind building facades. It's all got a pretty unified look, and then it's tied together by letting the weeds grow in the field surrounding the area. Parks love doing Old West theming because it's easy to do and maintain. 8-) I walked through the area and came out past something that looked a bit like an old mission, complete with bells playing in a bell tower. This took me past the Demon, though not past the ride's entrance. I could see one Arrow Corkscrew train sitting in pieces on the ground, hiding behind the coaster. Well, it is pretty late in the season, and as I understand it Demon is a pretty short ride so two trains are probably enough for it right now.
I walked through a crowded midway, saw the park's second carousel, and spotted a huge pavilion with a banner over the entrance proclaiming the American Eagle. Lord, I hope this whole space was never entirely used for this ride's queue! The ride queue and exit are side by side down the center of a very large pavilion that looks like it was once a live performance venue of some sort. An enormous but thankfully disused queue maze was available along the far right-hand side. The ride queue extended straight through this pavilion, all the way out to the Sno-Cone™ stand in the center of the pavilion. To the left side is the on-ride photo booth. The Sno Cone™ was tempting, and after spending $10 to park the car it seemed almost reasonable at $4 or $3 or whatever it was. What am I saying?? $10 to park the damn car?? Forget about it. If I'm that thirsty I can go get a Coke™ out of my cooler!
The line moved very slowly up a ramp and out of the park, over a bridge high above the railroad track and a service road, until I reached a decision point. I opted to ride forward for my first ride, and that put me in a slightly faster-moving line. I got my first look at the trains and could scarcely believe what I saw. I opted for a front-seat ride on this racing coaster.
As unbelievable as it may seem, I have found a set of PTC trains that are worse than the ones on the Kings Island Racer. Hard foam all around. Ratcheting lap bars that go all the way down. Ridiculous headrests. Lap bars with no kink in them to allow for additional thigh room. And those awful wings. On each side of the train, an upholstered wing sticks up well above my head, attached to the side of the car. It's easily one of the most ridiculous additions I have ever seen on a coaster train. I squeezed into the front seat, pulled down the lap bar, and we were off. The train squealed around the curve, but that is to be expected with a 3-bench train, even one with PTC's so-called articulated cars. Up the immense lift hill. Down the first drop. That wasn't too bad. Up the second hill and down the second drop. That wasn't too bad either. Up to the top of the helix and into the--OUCH!!! With a massive gut-check I was catapulted into the lap bar, and not in a good way either. The heavy train slowed to a mere crawl, and started meandering around the gigantic helix.
Now, when I rode, the two tracks were not racing. Not that it matters anyway. Who ever had the brilliant idea that a 540-degree downward helix could possibly be a good idea for a racing coaster? The helix is gigantic, meaning that the outside track is significantly longer than the inside track, so if the trains were racing when they started, the outside track loses big-time at this point. It felt like it took about a week to shuffle all the way around this ridiculous helix. And so slow! Finally, the train came out of the helix, plodded over a couple of hills, then stopped completely.
Man, I thought Mean Streak had its final holding brake high up on the ride...
Just then, the brake opened up and it became more obvious what was going on. The train dove into another helix, this one only a 360-degree model, not nearly as big as the first but a whole lot slower. It ended with a trip down the brake run. The ride was downright awful. No airtime to speak of, it didn't run well, the trains were terrible, the layout was uninspired (and silly, considering that this was built to be a racer)...it wasn't painful like the PKD Rebel Yell was last year, but I did get off wishing I could have my half-hour back. Because it's a dual track ride, I did opt to ride a second time, this time on the backward-running track, this time with only a 20-minute wait, and this time at the other end of the train...in the "front" seat which, because the train was turned backward, would be the last seat over the hill. Back here the ride proved to be no better. As expected, the only thing the backward running added to the ride was a greater chance of nausea. Again when I got off I wanted my 20 minutes back. I had undeniably earned my complete 223rd coaster credit, but it was the worst wood coaster of the trip thus far. I could scarcely believe that so many people were waiting in line for such a crummy coaster. In a word, it stunk.
I continued down the midway. I skipped Iron Wolf this time around, knowing that because of my mutant thighs I generally can't ride stand-ups, and I didn't want to wait in a long line to find out I couldn't ride this one. On down the midway were two kiddie ghettos, the Looney Tunes National Park and Camp Cartoon Network. I was denied a ride on Spacely's Sprocket Rockets Roller Coaster (Vekoma Roller Skater) because I am too tall (I didn't try very hard, though). Each of the kiddie areas is clearly signed to indicate that the area contains only kiddie rides, that each area is a dead-end, and stops just short of saying, "You hooligans in our target demographic are not welcome in this area." Each of the areas is very nicely done (obviously I ignored the warning signs), though I really would have liked to ride Spacely's Sprocket Rockets. What I noticed is that the dual kiddie areas was almost like having two playgrounds separated by a commercial highway. Or something like that.
I proceeded through the Yukon Territory and Yankee Harbor, past the long lines for Vertical Velocity and Batman. I noticed some motion behind a fence where a track-mounted parade float was being readied. Looking around the area, I found what looked to be the base of a swinging-ship or looping-ship ride with its exit ramp terminating at the back of an arcade bowling machine. It seems that a recurring theme on this trip seems to be rides incompletely pulled out of service: this thing here, the Eli wheel at Worlds of Fun, and the teacup-like ride at Six Flags St. Louis.
The final themed area of the park is Orleans Place. A streetcar track runs in a tight loop from Yankee Harbor, through Orleans Place, behind the double-deck carousel and back into the central corridor. As I started down the midway, a parade had begun, presumably the same parade that had been going on as I walked in the gate. The parade consisted of several floats carrying Looney Tunes™ characters, and running on the streetcar track. This weekend the park was doing a "Mardi Gras celebration" and accordingly all of the floats had been redecorated to resemble Mardi Gras floats complete with confetti and streamer cannon, and people and characters throwing those useless beads. I think Six Flags must have gotten a great deal on Mardi Gras beads, as all their parks have been giving them away by the truckload this season, mostly as slum consolation prizes on midway games.
I was disappointed to find Shockwave closed, but I took a ride on the Condor. I like the Condor, but this particular one has a less elaborate program than the ones at Hersheypark and Marineland and spends almost no time at the top of the tower. Considering that it was the one ride in the park with nobody waiting to ride, it had a pretty disappointing cycle.
I wasn't feeling my best. I was hot and tired. It turns out my timing was perfect. I crossed the entrance plaza and took a quick ride on the observation tower, from which I could see what a small park Great America really is, especially compared to its enormous parking lot. As I exited I was just in time to catch a film in the IMAX theater. The theater was celebrating some significant anniversary this season and so was running the classic IMAX documentary, "To Fly." It's an old film, made back when space travel involved a Saturn V instead of a Space Shuttle ("Space Shuttle? What's that?"), but it is still one of the best IMAX films around.
Speaking of the Space Shuttle, that was my next stop, the Space Shuttle simulator right across the plaza from the IMAX theater. It was refreshing to try a simulator that was integrated into its preshow just a little, but it suffered from the same problems as most simulators. It just doesn't make a good major amusement park attraction.
What does make a very good attraction, though, is a good wooden roller coaster. Which isn't quite what I was expecting to find, particularly after my disappointing experience on the American Eagle. Nevertheless, I wanted Coaster #224, so I was off to Southwest Territory. The line for Viper was considerably shorter than it had been earlier, so I stood in line and waited it out. A few minutes later I was sitting in the back seat of the train, pulling out of the station. The train was a lot nicer than the one on American Eagle, but that isn't saying much. I mean, it still has hard foam seats. A particularly interesting item, though, was the itty bitty shock absorber attached to the bottom of the lap bar, much like the ones on the Gerstlauer trains. That thing meant that when I pulled my lap bar down to the second notch, that's where it stayed for the duration of the ride. I like that.
The ride got off to an interesting start with a couple of nice drops. We came around a turnaround across from the station. I glanced to my left and saw a neat little hump in the track. "Neat," I thought. "It even has a double-dip."
I had a few
seconds to contemplate this, then the significance of that observation slowly
began to sink in. "Yes, that's definitely a double-dip!" I thought.
Very matter-of-factly I noted this. Finally the train started down that double-dip,
and I reached for the lap bar only an instant before the train was unceremoniously
ripped out from under me. Yaaaah! Kinda like that drop on Cyclops
only a wee bit less-so. Viper was reminding me a lot of my one and only
ride on the Georgia Cyclone, in a way that made me want to get a second
ride on Viper. Which is what I did. Viper is an excellent ride,
in good shape, really hindered only by the nearly-unpadded seats. I'd question
how a park featuring a snooze-fest like American Eagle could also have
a great coaster like this one, except that my home park is Cedar Point which
has Mean Streak (lousy) and Blue Streak (great) in it. Here, at
least, it looks like the park is learning from its mistakes, as Viper
is the more recent ride!
I took different path out of Southwest Territory this time and stopped off at the Demon. It's an old Arrow double-loop and Corkscrew, a bit like Dragon Fyre at Canada's Wonderland. But Demon is a bit more than that. I noticed, but really couldn't hear the music as the train dove out of the station and into a tunnel lit with red chaser lights mounted in a spiral pattern. The tunnels and the "rock" formations add unusual interest to the double loop, although the distraction meant I was unprepared for the snap into the corkscrew, which meant a little gratuitous headbanging. But then, that's to be expected for an old Arrow looper.
Around the back of the park, I noticed that Iron Wolf was a walk-on. Back when I was in high school, I rode my bicycle to and from school every day and it left me with these gigantic thighs which seem to be incompatible with most stand-up coasters. But even though I can't ride Mantis anymore, I was able to ride Georgia Scorcher, so I thought I might give Iron Wolf a try. On the platform I proceeded to the back row, set the seat slightly above my knees (which is as high as I can put it thanks to those mutant thighs), pulled down the shoulder bar which tried to crush my shoulders, slouched and squeezed as hard as I could, and somehow managed to fit. "Comfortable?" asked the ride attendant. "No," I replied, "But it will have to do." The next few minutes were a poorly paced exercise in body wringing, headbanging, and other forms of discomfort. Why in the hell woould Six Flags even consider removing a good ride like the Whizzer when they could easily dispense with this pile of junk instead? When I returned to the platform, Iron Wolf gained the dubious distinction of being the only coaster ever to yank my eyeglasses from my face. The shoulder bar was under extreme tension and I had already unfastened the safety belt when the train stopped in the station. When the shoulder bar was released, it flew up with incredible force, catching my glasses in the ridges on the sides of the bar and taking them along for a ride. Luckily I caught them before they went over the back of the train. That would have ruined my evening.
My next stop was the original Batman. This may be the original, but most of my comments from St. Louis still apply...most notably, why does an escape vehicle bring you back to the same spot you were apparently escaping from. And why does a sewer pipe lead to a cave located 30' up in the air? But I suppose that's the logic of comic books, kind of like those ridiculous things we see all the time in movies that make no intellectual sense. That said, Batman is still a decent ride. I still like Alpengeist better, and I am still not a big B&M fan. They're just not my favorite kind of ride, which is unfortunate because Batman is a good ride, and I should point out that it's significantly better than just about any review it would get from me. 8-)
The day was winding down. Looking at the suddenly short line, I opted to take a ride on Vertical Velocity. With track the color of Wicked Twister and a ride theoretically identical to Superman: Ultimate Escape, I figured it would be a fun ride, and probably my last ride of the day. It just so happens that I was next in line for the next-to-last seat when the train took off with the usual screech, then came to an abrupt halt just past the boarding platform. Everything got really quiet as I had just witnessed an Impulse coaster E-stopping itself. I could tell it was an E-stop because the ride cycle didn't merely stop, the ride shut down completely, including the blowers over the station track intended to keep the motors cool. In fairly short order they got the ride running again, backed the train into the loading area and got everybody off. The train was launched through one full cycle without incident empty, then the lucky people who had experienced the aborted launch got to try again. Doggone it, I was off by one cycle! 8-) Finally, it was my turn. No aborted launch this time, only a ride very much like that of Geauga Lake's "Superman: Ultimate Escape." I still can't make up my mind whether I like the holding brake on the Six Flags rides better, or the extra twist on the backward spike on the Cedar Point ride. The difference in height and speed is pretty meaningless (and Wicked Twister ran slow much of this season anyway due to apparent structural issues), so the big difference is at the top of that back spike. I like both designs; I really don't think I have a particular preference for either one.
I exited the ride and prepared to make my way back to the car when I heard someone ask, "Are you Dave Althoff?" I responded in the affirmative, and noted that my questioner was not merely wearing Six Flags regalia, he was also carrying a radio and a telephone. I've often joked that there are probably posters in the Operations offices at Kings Island and Cedar Point with my photo and a caption warning employees to "watch out for this man". But it's Great America where I get picked out of the crowd. Now it's been a long time between my visit to the park and the composition of this narrative, and at this point I don't even remember the man's name. But it was a pleasant conversation, not to mention useful, as he talked me into taking a ride on De(lay)ja'Vu. The sign posted at the gate said it would run until 4pm or something like that, and I had seen it run, but I assumed I had missed its window. Turns out it ran until park closing, and I made it into the queue just as the park closed for the day. I ended up riding with my new acquaintance on the very last train of the night.
Deja'Vu is an interesting ride. It has a more cumbersome loading procedure than most rides at Great America, made worse by the strange train design with the offset seats. I have a feeling that if Vekoma ever makes any more of these things they'll go with a more conventional design. I didn't get a chance to study the ride in any great detail, but it appears that the mechanism is not entirely unlike that used on the Invertigo coasters, only with wire rope instead of chain drives for the lifts. I wonder if there is some concern about using a chain on a 90-degree lift with an overhead track. For my ride the thing performed flawlessly, giving a ride not significantly unlike the Invertigo, except for the entirely vertical position on the lifts. It's a neat ride.
As I was leaving, my host made certain that I got a picture of the banner over the Whizzer's entrance and said that there was a "shocking announcement" coming. He didn't say what, though I had some ideas. I knew better than to ask "what", so I asked "when" instead. "Possibly as soon as tomorrow," he replied.
That night I got caught in a gigantic traffic jam trying to get out of Chicago. Way too tired, I pulled into the first cheap motel I found in a smelly suburb in Northern Indiana. I went directly to bed, not checking my email until the next morning. In the morning I checked my email. The previous evening, while I was riding Vertical Velocity, Brian Plenchner had broken the shocking news that the Whizzer had been spared and that the SBNO Shock Wave had not. What a good decision. Personally I have never ridden Shock Wave so I don't know if it is any good or not. But even excluding Shock Wave, if a coaster has to come out of the park, the Whizzer isn't the best choice for removal. The park has, if I am counting correctly, ten adult coasters. Of those, Whizzer is a lot of fun, Viper is an excellent wood coaster, Raging Bull is a unique and fun speed coaster, Demon is a lot more fun than it looks like it ought to be, Deja'Vu was actually a good ride and it ran all day without a hitch (although I guess it valleyed the following day). American Eagle is a very large, poorly paced, badly designed wood coaster that doesn't run well, Iron Wolf ought to be taken as scrap iron, Vertical Velocity is a neat ride with no footprint, Batman is a coaster that launched a revolution in steel coasters and still manages to hold its own. Er, I can't tell you much about Shock Wave as it wasn't running when I was there. But Whizzer was a poor choice for removal when the park has at least one other coaster with practically no redeeming qualities.
Luckily that only applies to one, or at most two, coasters at Great America. The park itself is well deserving of its position as the Six Flags park I was most looking forward to visiting. It's a nice park, and I wish I could get there more often. I know I had a good time, but I know I left the park mostly exhausted and unprepared for the massive traffic jam that awaited me on IR-80 at midnight...
--Dave Althoff, Jr.
Footnote 1: Parks using magnetometers tend to arm their attendants with little plastic bowls to hold change and keys and such. The idea is that the park employee doesn't touch your stuff when you come through, that way your stuff doesn't get "lost" as you come through the gate. Thing is, as small as it is, a DV camcorder is a bit big for the bowl. [Return to text]
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