On a trip down south, we made a two-day stopover at one of the largest amusement parks in the US: Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey. This was our first park in nearly two years. It probably didn’t help that the first day of our trip was during the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Plus, people everywhere were stir-crazy from the long pandemic (though it wasn’t quite over) and were eager to get out of the house. At about noon, we approached within several miles of the park and traffic was backed up at a near standstill. Making it worse were drivers speeding through the breakdown lane and cutting their way into traffic far ahead. That was the main cause of the traffic jam: selfishness and impatience. It took us nearly an hour to get to the park along Monmouth Road. The wait gave us plenty of time to look at the surroundings, including a giant statue of Alfred E. Newman and a large construction site advertising a future adventure park.
When we finally got to the entrance for the parking area, all of the lanes were open and the attendants were just flagging people through without checking passes or collecting money. I think they just wanted to get cars off the highway. Fortunately for us, most of the cars were heading for either the separate Hurricane Harbor water park or the drive-thru safari. But that still left a lot of cars going toward the amusement park. The expansive lot was pretty full when we entered, so we just parked at the very back of the lot under the shade of some trees, facing the Superman and Green Lantern coasters. The day was bright and sunny, but humid and in the 90s.
It was a fairly long walk to the park entrance, but it felt good after nearly four hours of driving. Something that struck us immediately and felt strange was the mob of people, thousands of them in close quarters, something we hadn’t seen in a long time. A few were wearing masks, but the vast majority weren’t (including us, since we were fully vaccinated). It was as if life had returned to what it was before the pandemic, even though it really hadn’t. The entrance areas were a bit confusing. There were lots of hastily rigged queue lines leading nowhere, none of them being used. Gone were the topiary figures of Looney Tunes characters. There was a rather unkempt greenery display shaped like the Six Flags logo but that was it for visual interest, though they did have a humorous signpost displaying mileage to various east coast Six Flags parks, including Six Flags New England.
We followed the dense lines of guests to a makeshift set of white tents that contained the security checkpoints. Unlike other Six Flags parks we’d been to, this one had scanners with video screens that must have allowed security personnel to see what was in our pockets. So we were able to walk right through without having to empty them. Just past that were the ticket booths. We had our season passes from last year, which had been extended through this season for free. So we simply scanned our passes and entered.
All Six Flags parks had shifted over to a cashless system. They now accepted only debit or credit cards, or mobile payments (which was my preference). That was a huge win financially for the parks, since none of the employees had to handle cash. Money went into the park’s coffers electronically directly from the guests’ bank accounts. In the old days, security guards would have to escort special employees who would collect money from all the food and game booths throughout the day. All of that hassle (and payroll) was eliminated across the entire chain.
In the nearly 15 years since we last visited the park, a lot had changed. Six Flags had gone through several owners, and the branding in different areas of the park had changed. There were also a lot more rides. One of them, the Joker, was visible directly in front of us. It was identical to similarly named rides the chain had installed across the US. Some of the park’s signature attractions and architecture remained. One was the big fountain that acted as a sort of hub for the park. From there, the midway headed in three different directions. We headed to the right, which brought us to two of the park’s most iconic buildings: the whimsical carousel pavilion and the Yum Yum Cafe, which was designed to look like a giant ice cream sundae. The carousel, though it looked modern, was one of the oldest in the U.S., built in 1881 by Frederick Savage in Great Britain. It's one of the few carousels in the U.S. that spins clockwise.
It would have been futile to queue up for rides that day. Lines for nearly everything spilled out onto the midway. My main objective was to create a walk-thru video of the park. But first I wanted to do a dry run so I could get my bearings. So Karen waited patiently out of the heat in the Yum Yum Cafe while I wandered through the park.
It took me nearly an hour to cover the grounds. On my travels I discovered the locations of the new rides, in particular the brand new and intriguing single-track coaster Jersey Devil. But I also discovered landmarks that had been removed. In the old west section of the park, where the giant Saw Mill Log Flume was sadly inoperative, the huge teepee gift shop and the massive Conestoga wagon eatery were gone. In their place was Bugs Bunny National Park, a kiddie area. And nearby, the great El Toro wooden roller coaster (my favorite ride in the park) was also inoperative.
After familiarizing myself with the surroundings, I returned to check in with Karen at the Yum Yum Cafe, then headed over to the nearby Garden State Grill and to get us black bean veggie burgers with waffle fries. The girl behind the counter looked a bit frazzled, and I could understand why. The guests in front of me were asking questions that had little to do with her job. One guy asked about his season pass, and a woman with a baby asked if she could have a towel. The girl seemed relieved when I approached and actually asked for food. Karen and I ate on the Yum Yum Cafe’s spacious veranda.
After that filling lunch, Karen again waited patiently while I recorded the walk-thru. The park was blasting modern pop music everywhere. While it’s common practice at most amusement parks, I actually prefer either no additional audio or more generic instrumental music in the background. But then, I’m not the park’s target demographic. There was a somewhat amusing incident while I was recording the walk-thru: In the Golden Kingdom there were two girls at a booth. Evidently their job was to talk up the guests. On my first pass through the area, one of the girls noticed my Wooden Warrior baseball cap and asked me about it. As I made the video and walked past her again, she apparently didn't recognize me and called out in a fake British accent, "What have you got in your hand?" I told her it was a camera. She asked what I was doing with it. I called back that I was doing a video walk-thru. "A walk-thru?" she called out. "What's that?" I just kept walking as she kept calling after me. I normally would have stopped and made it part of the video, but I knew the walk-thru was going to be really long.
When I met back up with Karen, we headed over to one of the gift shops. I wanted to get a t-shirt for Nitro, another of my favorite coasters, but they didn’t have my size. I got one for my son-in-law and a few nicely themed magnets instead. We called it a day and headed for our hotel, a modern Holiday Inn in nearby East Windsor. As we left, traffic into the park was still backed up for miles. Fortunately, Siri took us to our hotel along quiet shady backroads. The Holiday Inn was really nice but apparently had been mobbed over the weekend. The staff was still struggling to clean up from the revelers.
The next morning we had breakfast at the hotel restaurant. We were the only guests there, which was a good thing because there was just a lone woman to manage the entire place. It was like that everywhere we went: "Help Wanted" signs and very little help. I got pancakes and Karen got scrambled eggs and home fries. Our orders were delivered really quickly, which suggested to me that they were pulled out of a freezer and microwaved. The food was decent though.
After that we headed back to the park. What a difference: there were hardly any cars on the road. We arrived at the park at 9:50. This time they were taking money at the parking gates, but all we needed to do was show our season passes. We were able to park right in front of the Superman coaster, a short walk from the entrance. As before, we were able to pass through the security checkpoint, then show our passes and walk into the park. The morning air was still cool but the temperature was supposed to reach into the 90s again. So we wanted to get any rides out of the way early.
The first order of business was the Jersey Devil, the park’s newest roller coaster and the first single-rail coaster on the east coast. The trains were bobsled-style with one rider per car. Each train had 12 cars. With the volume of riders the park had, I couldn’t understand how they were going to get many people on the ride. We took a right at the fountain and headed for the far southwest corner of the park. The midway was still fairly empty. We noticed a lot of concessions that were closed up, another sign of how difficult it was for the park to get help. And in another sign of the times, we noticed a LOT of alcohol being served in the park. There were beer, wine and margarita concessions seemingly everywhere.
We walked through the Safari Kids (formerly Wiggles) kiddie area in that section and crossed a long wood bridge into the new midway area created for the Jersey Devil. It was nicely landscaped, with lots of benches under trees along winding paths. The coaster itself was remarkably compact, long and narrow, running along the lakeside. The track (designed and built by Rocky Mountain Construction, the same company behind Wicked Cyclone and Steel Vengeance) was constructed from a single I-beam. It rose and dipped sinuously with seemingly impossible to navigate twists and turns. We watched the trains (there were four of them) snake around the course. During the previous day, the queue stretched back out onto the main midway. Today it looked like no one was in line. Karen passed on riding it, so I entered the empty queue line and walked right up into the station.
There was no choice of seats. The trains continuously moved through the station and attendants simply pointed at your seat, much like loading a flume ride. I ended up in the very back seat of a train. That made me a little nervous because I knew how violent the back seat of a coaster could be. I pulled down the restraint. It was a sort of over-the-shoulder lap bar with cloth shoulder straps. The seat was comfortable. An attendant was walking past the trains with a basket that had eyeglasses in it. He approached me, asking for mine. I showed him my strap and he gave me a thumbs up as we rolled toward the lift and engaged the chain.
The lift was really steep. I was amazed at how RMC was able to get a moving chain into a single I-beam. We reached the top with surprising speed and plunged down the first drop. I was sharply lifted out of my seat as the train dove down. The ride was remarkably smooth. I was glad I was in the back because I could see the direction the train was taking and could brace for it. At the bottom of the first drop I expected to be slammed down into my seat but there were only very light positive G forces. The next hill was a wildly disorienting move: after cresting the hill, the train immediately dove back down heading in the opposite direction. Next was a tall camelback hill followed by another but with a twisting inversion. It then headed for the tall turnaround that seemed impossibly tight, then down and up into another camelback inversion. There were a series of RMC’s "fake-out" turns, where it seems like you’re heading in one direction but suddenly shift to another. The ride ended with a couple of bunny hops back to the brake run. I was really impressed with the coaster. It was smooth yet thrilling. I was most impressed with how the back seat was so comfortable, even re-rideable. RMC had another winner on its hands (as did the park).
From there, Karen and I walked across the midway to Nitro, one of my favorite rides in the park. Since our last visit the venerable B&M hypercoaster looked a bit the worse for wear and could have used a fresh paint job. Like Jersey Devil, Nitro was a walk-on (after climbing a seemingly endless metal staircase). We were soon seated in the front of a train and were dispatched up the tall lift hill. I had forgotten how steep the first drop was, almost like an inversion. The ride wasn’t as smooth as the last time we rode it, but it was still pretty comfortable. The hills produced extremely powerful and sustained airtime. The final helix was really intense, and Karen didn’t enjoy that section. After a couple of bunny hops, we glided back into the station. Even though it was slightly rougher, Nitro was still a terrific coaster and still my favorite steel coaster at the park.
Karen was wiped out after that and decided to take it easy. We followed the midway east. Along the way, we passed a large dirt construction area surrounded by trees where a lone backhoe was sitting idle. There were several new concrete footers in place. They looked like footers for a new coaster, but it was hard to tell. Near that was Skull Mountain, an indoor coaster that I’d never ridden. The exterior was impressively themed, with artificial rock and waterfalls. So while Karen recovered from Nitro, I queued up. The queue line snaked through under the rock structure and was refreshingly cool. When I arrived at the station, once again no one was I line and I stepped into the front seat of the next train. It resembled a small mine train, with just a padded lap bar. The ride began by being propelled up a short lift, then around a right hand curve that skirted past "windows" in the exterior rock work. There was another short lift rising up into darkness. The track dropped away sharply, curving to the right. I could imagine that at night the ride would be pretty scary. But enough sunlight was leaking into the building that I could see the entire layout, which was slightly more intense than a kiddie coaster. The track twisted and turned, never much more than 30 feet off the ground. There weren’t any visible effects inside the building until the end, where there was a blacklit skull. Then we cruised back into the station. The coaster was okay, especially for kids. But I liked the building exterior a lot more than the ride experience.
We next walked over to the nearby station for Skyway, the long and relaxing sky ride. The day before, all but a few of the gondolas were in use. But now there were only a few gondolas on the route; most were stored in the station. The ride was another walk-on and we were soon gliding high above the midway en route to the east side of the park. The ride dropped us off in the rustic building that acted as the station for both the sky ride and the mine train. Country music was playing over the loudspeakers. One of the trains for the mine train was painted white and covered in colorful hand prints for a Coasters for Cancer fundraiser.
Across from the station was the still-closed entrance of the flume. To the left of that was a large new indoor eatery that proudly featured beer. We walked over to it to check it out, but it too was closed. So from there we walked past the still-silent El Toro, passed by the Bugs Bunny National Park kiddie area and then back toward the main midway. We stopped into one of the large arcades. It featured standard machines that required little maintenance (meaning, no pinball machines). There was no one else in there. We then headed over to the Garden State Grill. To the left of it was a concession that served black beans and rice with peppers and tomatoes. So we opted for that. It came in a small cardboard cup. We each got a drink. Six Flags was no longer using lids nor straws for drinks. And since there were also no trays, that made transporting meals a bit of a challenge. But we managed to make it back to the Yum Yum Cafe without spilling or dropping anything. We sat peacefully at the back of the veranda and ate. The rice and beans were good, a bit pasty but flavorful.
Next Karen wanted to ride the Giant Ferris wheel. This had the longest line we encountered that day. For some reason, the park had removed every sixth cab, leaving five at the loading platform. They were loading just ten cabs total (at the top and bottom), which seemed to make sense given the relatively small crowd. In about ten minutes we were seated and were treated to panoramic views of the park.
After that relaxing trip, we headed down a path I missed on the previous day, thinking it was a dead end. There were some major rides there, including the new and awkwardly-named Wonder Woman: Lasso of Truth, which was a giant Frisbee ride. After crossing a suspension bridge that oddly spanned nothing, we entered an otherwise hidden section of midway that featured a rare spin-and-barf ride, Cyborg, which was essentially a gigantic gyroscope that spun passengers along every axis. I could see the extensive collection of lights on the ride. It must have looked spectacular at night. The ride creaked and groaned loudly as it went through its paces. To the left was the Showcase theatre, which was closed. On the right was the giant domed edifice which used to be part of the infamous Chiller coaster that had been removed several years earlier. Next to that was Justice League: Battle for Metropolis, a hi-tech interactive dark ride. (Six Flags seems to love having colons in its ride names.) We bypassed those and followed a path back toward the main midway.
We headed over to the air-conditioned comfort of Granny’s Kitchen, one the larger eateries in the park. It advertised sweet corn and salads. So we got in line. The salads were of course pre-packaged, with just lettuce, sliced carrots and a little bit of cheese. When we reached the food counter, I asked for sweet corn and mashed potatoes, which were shown on the marquee as sides. The woman behind the counter said, "So you want the chicken dinner?" I told her no, I just wanted sweet corn and mashed potatoes. She told me I couldn’t have that. I had to get chicken with it. They had macaroni and cheese as well. So I asked if I could have that instead of the chicken. She refused. I had to get chicken. So I left with just a half-pint of milk. Karen got her salad. At the cash register, Karen mentioned to the clerk what had happened. He responded, "You should have just told them that you’re vegan; they would have given you the meal without the chicken." Why didn’t the woman behind me food counter tell us that? Karen’s salad was okay. As we sat there, the previously empty restaurant filled up.
We ventured back outside into the increasing heat. There was only one working water ride left in the park. So we walked back to the southwest section of the park near Nitro to ride the Congo Rapids. There were lockers next to the entrance that charged a reasonable $1 for 2 hours of storage. So we stashed the stuff we wanted to keep dry. The nicely themed ride was hidden behind a long and winding shaded queue flanked by live bamboo. It didn’t take long to board the large circular raft and strap ourselves in. This was the type of rapids ride I enjoyed: not a lot of spinning, no gimmicks like water cannons — just lots of rapids that splashed water everywhere. One disturbing thing was a group of young girls in our raft who unbuckled their belts and began jumping from seat to seat all the way through. If the raft had suddenly jostled unexpectedly, any of them could have been tossed overboard like a rag doll. None of the ride attendants seemed to notice. I was hoping to get my head drenched, but just my shorts got soaked. The waterfalls on the tall stone wall near the end of the ride were turned off, bringing the ride to an anticlimactic finish. It was then about 2:30 and the heat in the park was getting oppressive. We decided to head back to our hotel.
Six Flags Great Adventure was still one of the best parks in the chain. I no longer crave thrill rides but as with the music, I’m not their target demographic. There are still plenty of rides and shows to occupy most families for a few days. It was disheartening to see so many alcohol concessions in a teen thrill park. More alcohol means more drunken guests who are more prone to accidents and brawls. But alcohol has a high profit margin and I guess that trumps the other concerns. Even with a shortage of help, the park seemed well-run. Given how people are desperate to return to normal after the pandemic, I expect the park will have a stellar season. Outside of a few quirks, it provided an enjoyable escape for two recent retirees. That’s pretty good for a park made for youngsters (or the young at heart).
Return to Karen and Jay's Excursions