July 2006

Text and images copyright Jay Ducharme 2006

For our first vacation together in three years, Karen, our two daughters, Heather and Liz, and I went out to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to visit Karen's sister. Wisconsin is a beautiful state with plenty to offer. But for our first amusement-related excursion, we traveled a short distance south to Gurnee, Illinois, to visit Six Flags Great America. We went there six years ago but only had a few hours to spend. The park was mobbed with people then and we accomplished very little. But it impressed us enough that we wanted to return. Karen and I both had season passes to Six Flags New England. I purchased tickets for the girls online at quite a savings.

We chose a Monday, figuring that the park would be less crowded. The weather forecast was for hot and humid conditions with intermittent thunderstorms, which I though would also work in our favor. We arrived at the entrance at a little after 11 am. Parking cost $15, which had become standard at Six Flags parks. It cost more just to park there than it cost for a whole day of fun at Wisconsin's Little Amerricka. Five lanes of cars were already backed up, and the front parking area was completely filled. So much for my theory that gas prices (which were much higher in this area) were keeping people away....

We parked about 1/4 mile from the ticket booths. To the left was the new B&M flying coaster, Superman: Ultimate Flight. The old Arrow Shockwave coaster was a much more visually impressive sight, with greater height and a meandering footprint that occupied a great deal of land. Superman was a lot more compact, but certainly offered a much more interesting ride experience than the aging Shockwave.

This was the 45th anniversary of the Six Flags name, though the parks themselves had changed owners several times. It was also the 30th anniversary of Great America, originally owned by the Marriot hotel chain. We walked through the security checkpoint, sadly now also a standard feature at most amusement parks, and were in front of the park's visual signature: the stunning double-decker carousel spinning in front of the giant reflecting pool. Although we had more time to spend than on our last visit, the park was much more crowded than I had expected. So we decided to make a clockwise sweep of the entire park, focusing on rides that we didn't get to experience last time. I was particularly eager to ride Viper, which I heard was a really good wood coaster.

The park's layout was essentially a giant wheel (a design popularized by Disneyland), and was divided into seven areas reflecting different parts of the United States: Orleans Place, Mardi Gras, Yankee Harbor, Yukon Territory, County Fair, Southwest Territory and Hometown Square (which was located in the middle of the wheel). To the right of the Southwest Territory was also Hurricane Harbor, a large waterpark that was free with admission.

The most impressive thing about this park was the landscaping. Each area was themed just enough to make it feel like a unique place. The theming was certainly not as extensive as Disney or Busch Gardens, but it was more than I expected from a Six Flags park. There was authentic looking architecture and music that blended well from one area to another. Another thing evident was the emphasis by the new management on entertainment: Looney Tunes characters were everywhere (even Granny), as were DC comic characters.

I wanted to ride Superman, but the line at that point was spilling out down the midway. I'm not sure how Superman fit into the New Orleans theming. There wasn't even an attempt to make it fit. It looked like it belonged in a DC Comics area. We kept on walking through to the Mardis Gras section. The newer coaster there, Ragin' Cajun, was really well themed and blended in well with the surroundings. It was a stock Zamperla spinning coaster, similar to Kennywood's Exterminator (which I had already ridden). We continued our trek through to the Yankee Harbor section. One of the few coasters I had ridden on our last visit, Vertical Velocity, was there. It too seemed a bit out-of-place in an otherwise well-themed area. We passed by a Whac-A-Mole game named Lumberjack Smack. We gave it a shot and Liz won a big fuzzy elephant.

By then it was after noon, so we ducked into Angelo's Pizza and Pasta. No one named Angelo had anything to do with this cafeteria-style eatery. Like the rest of the Six Flags parks, the Papa John's Pizza chain had taken over many of the food service duties. The offerings looked pretty good. Karen got a salad, the girls got pizza and cheese sticks and I got pasta with marinara sauce. Our total outlay came to $52, a bit steep but expected in a Six Flags park. When I ordered my pasta, the guy behind the counter said, "Tell me when to stop." I'd never heard that before at any eatery, especially a park. He began heaping on the spaghetti. I told him to stop after two scoops. He then did the same for the sauce. The girls liked their large slices of pizza, which looked very appetizing, and their cheese sticks (which were like mini pizzas). And Karen's salad was good as well. Overall, even though it was a bit expensive, it was one of the tastiest meals we've had at a Six Flags park. Papa John's was a good choice.

After that meal, we walked over to Logger's Run, a giant Arrow flume ride from 1976. The station was tucked back into a corner and was thankfully shaded. The ride had a turntable station. It appeared to have two separate troughs at some time in the past, but one of them was unused and completely dry. We decided to all go in one log, with me and Karen in the front and the girls in the back. That made the log front-heavy. We drifted out of the station and up a small lift hill. When we rolled down the other side and into the trough, the nose dove under the water and came back up, cascading gallons of water down over me. This happened on every drop -- and there were three of them. Strangely, my feet stayed completely dry. The log also clattered along noisily during the first part of the course, bottoming out and rolling along on its wheels. The final drop was a unique and fun double-dip that gave us a little air time. As at Lake Compounce, the final splashdown was augmented by water spraying up through the trough (not that we needed it). It was a long and enjoyable ride with an interesting layout.

We passed by Vertical Velocity and the first-ever suspended looping coaster, Batman: The Ride. (What was Batman doing in Yankee Harbor?) As we rounded a corner, to our left was the Camp Cartoon Network with a Hanna-Barbera land at the back. Nearby was Bugs Bunny's National Park. Along with the DC characters, it was cartoon overload. I thought it odd to have so many different animation companies clumped together. But it did make a sort of de facto kiddie section in the park.

We walked across a covered bridge into the County Fair section at the back of the park. The theming in that area felt loosely like an old midway, like a Luna Park or Coney Island. The music there was a strange mix of obscure New Wave tunes, including The Fixx's "Built for the Future." Iron Wolf, an old B&M stand-up coaster was there. It didn't quite fit in. Next to it was one of the two stations for the Scenic Railway, a big locomotive that appeared to be powered by propane. While we were waiting, the girls got some Italian Ice that was absurdly sweet. I opted for a Churro from a nearby cart. The attendant behaved as if she wished I hadn't bothered her with my order. The Churro looked to be a large cinammon stick or cruller costing $3.50. Some were filled with chocolate, some with cream. I got a plain one, not knowing what to expect. It turned out to be a dried-up lump of deep-fried funnel cake batter. It was really terrible. I took just two bites and then threw it away. My stomach didn't appreciate it.... The train ride was pleasantly long, making a circuit around the entire park. It traveled next to and through the structures of several rides and was accompanied by a recording pointing out various park landmarks. The train made a stop at a station behind the carousel, and then continued back toward County Fair.

After that relaxing trip, Karen and I queued up for The American Eagle while the girls went off to play some more games. We loved the Eagle the last time we were at the park. At that time, one train ran backwards and one forwards. This time both were running forwards. The giant racing coaster built in 1981 had more wood in its helix than many coasters have over their entire structure. The queue was nearly empty. Four trains were running, but the operators were sending them off as they filled, rather than sending them together so they could "race." Since on our last trip we rode the blue train, this time we tried the red. The old-style 3-bench PTC trains were unusual because of the bizarre headrests on them, not only on the backs of the seats but on the sides as well. As always, Karen and I got in line for the front seat and within a few minutes were heading up the lift. The coaster briefly held records for the highest wooden lift (127 feet), longest drop (147 feet) and fastest speed (66 mph). But all records were meant to be broken, and the Eagle's stats are now just a footnote. I had heard that the track at the bottom of the first drop was retrofitted with steel I-beams. But I couldn't see any evidence of that. The ride itself was as much fun as I remembered it. The trim brakes weren't pulling as much. The train barreled through the giant helix and flew over the bunny hops back toward the station, delivering powerful air time. The only hard trim brake was entering the final low helix, which made it sort of an anti-climax. But overall the ride was still really enjoyable, and still was a joy to look at.

When we met back up with the girls, Heather had won a big green cat. There was a band performing on the County Fair stage. The last time we were at the park it was a really good Mariachi band. This time it was a rather generic rock band doing covers of The Eagles (appropriate because of the coaster, I guess) and Jimmy Buffett. Nearby, the infamous Deja Vu, the coaster that bankrupted Vekoma, was running steadily. Six years ago, it didn't run at all. But the ride cycle times seemed extremely long, about five or six minutes. I had no interest in riding it. Instead we opted for the Great American Raceway, an antique car ride similar to Busch Gardens' now-gone LeMans Raceway. This version had two tracks, one of which appeared to have been closed long ago. As with most antique car rides, the line moved very slowly. As we approached the gate, one of the cars died. The attendants (there were four of them) spent quite a bit of time figuring out how to get it out of the way. They finally used two cars combined, like train engines, to push the car off the track. The course was pretty boring and surprisingly short. The track for the most part was enclosed by thick hedges on both sides.

The girls wanted to take in a show. So we headed down to the Hometown Square area, the section of the park that really didn't have any theming. The arch at the entrance actually read, "Hometown Park." That made a bit more sense. The plaza at the center of Hometown Square was a wonderful burst of color, with lots of flowers, benches, a gazebo and a small elevated stage in front of the train station. The background music featured lots of early Beatles tunes. The Grand Music Hall was presenting "A Tribute to the Stars." Performers imitating Prince, Britney Spears, Madonna and Tina Turner presented some of their hits. I didn't have any interest in the show, so while the ladies relaxed in the theater I wandered the park taking in the sights. I was really glad to see that The Whizzer was still running, and still had a crowd lined up to ride it. The venerable Schwartzkopf ride, one of the last of its kind, had been threatened with demolition a few years back.

I took a left alongside The Whizzer and headed into the Southwest Territory. This was the most thoroughly themed area in the entire park, complete with a king-sized recreation of the Alamo. I first headed for Viper, a slightly larger mirror image of the Coney Island Cyclone built in 1995. But I was greeted at the entrance by a plain white sign announcing that the ride was closed for the entire day. So I wandered deeper into the Southwest Territory, finally coming to the Demon, one of the best-themed coasters I've ever seen. It was a modified Arrow 4-inversion ride surrounded by fake rocks and caves. It blended in beautifully with the landscape. This coaster really should have been named Viper; it looked much more like a snake than the Cyclone knock-off. About the only eyesore in the area was the Southwest Territory Amphitheater. Although they did attempt to theme it by painting it and adding fake rocks, it still looked like a giant ugly metal building.

I headed back to Hometown Square and met up with Karen and the girls. They said the show was okay, with the Tina Turner performer being the best. We were ready for some ice cream, so we stopped into Firehouse Pizza, another Papa John establishment that also served Edy's hard ice cream. Pizza was in a line to the left, and Edy's was to the right. So we got in the ice cream line behind three people. The workers behind the counter seemed confused about something. After about fifteen minutes of waiting, we were told that the cash register was broken and we'd have to place our order in the other line. I don't know why we couldn't just order there and pay at the other register. But we dutifully moved to the other line, in which about ten people were already waiting. After another long wait we placed our order. I went to the cash register to pay, and the clerk stood there smiling at me as he cracked open coin rolls into the cash drawer. One...two...three rolls of pennies. One...two rolls of nickles. One...two...three rolls of quarters. My ice cream started melting. Finally he was ready. He certainly had enough change. It was about $4.50 for each small cone. The ice cream was tasty. We headed back out onto the midway.

The Looney Tunes trolley was passing by, so we followed it. As it got near the bridge by the Carousel Plaza, it stopped, the characters all disembarked and then launched into a dance to the pre-recorded tune of "Every Day's a Party at Six Flags." It was cute, but should the synthetic pop cry of, "Sylvester! Get down and party!" be the anthem of a chain trying to change its image into a family park?

I didn't want to leave Great America without getting a ride on Superman, so we walked back to the Orleans section. The line had diminished, so I queued up. Karen and the girls both passed on it. The queue appeared short from the entrance but was deceptively long. Naturally, the park's Flash Pass system (which allowed guests to cut the line by forking over extra money) slowed things down a bit. But a good part of the queue line was shaded, which helped. There were cheesy plywood cutouts along the line illustrating various Superman characters. A guy behind me spent most of the wait repeatedly whistling or humming the Superman theme as it played over the PA system. One thing that struck me about the park was how polite all of the guests seemed to be. I never saw any line jumping or smoking (which was now against Six Flags policy). Everyone seemed to be quite civil.

After about a half an hour, I had progressed to the station, which was placed about two stories above the ground. The stairs were split between the front car of the train, and all other seats. I'm not quite sure why the front would be so popular. Since I'm a front seat kind of guy, I lined up for it. But as I watched the coaster go through its motioned, I questioned myself. For one thing, B&M's trains were a bit strange. They were an attempt to better Vekoma's attempt at a flying coaster. With Vekoma's version, passengers were held in place while basically lying down facing backward. But on Superman, the trains were fairly standard B&M coaster seats. Right before the train would leave the station, though, the seats would rotate until the passengers were facing down. Looking forward to see where you were going was not an option, at least not a very comfortable one.

Another thing I noticed was that the ride's loop was essentially upside down. Normally, a loop would be entered at the bottom. The smallest part of the loop would be at the top, when the train had lost momentum. The positive G forces would be minimal at that point. But on Superman, the train entered the loop at the top, when it was slowest. With the apex of the loop actually on the ground, the tightest turn was taken at the fastest speed. The G forces would be tremendous.

It was amusing to hear the screams of the passengers when the seats tilted down. Everyone standing in line could see it happen. The mechanism was pretty clever and surprisingly simple. But when I finally sat in the comfortable seats and experienced it for myself, I understood the reaction. The over-the-shoulder harnesses on the ride actually didn't touch my body at all. I was held in place by two comfortable foam-filled straps. My feet trailed behind me and my ankles were locked between two comfortable restraints. But when the seats rotated, it just felt very unnatural. Even though I was thoroughly restrained, it felt like I was going to fall flat down onto the station deck.

As we clattered up the lift, I noticed the mechanism to get people off the lift in case of an emergency. It would have ruined the effect to have passengers staring down at a stair unit as they ascended the lift, so instead there was a moveable platform with a raiseable fence that could roll up under the train when needed. It was an odd feeling, staring down at the grass as we crested the lift. I kept wanting to raise my head, to see what was in front of me. But it just wasn't possible. We turned right off the lift, plunging down to the ground. Then we rose up to the top of the next hill, slowing slightly, then dove down into the loop. My head felt like it was getting squeezed. The pressure wasn't as bad as my ride on Kennywood's old Steel Phantom, where I blacked out in the loop. But the positive Gs were pretty extreme. We came out of the loop and whipped around the rest of the course in typically convoluted B&M fashion. The final barrel roll was good. The brakes were really smooth. The ride was really short. When we were finally back in the station and the seats righted themselves, I could feel the blood rush out of my head. It felt good to get back on solid ground again. Overall, I'm glad I rode Superman, but I wouldn't do it again. The experience didn't match my expectations. It didn't feel like flying. Superman: Ride of Steel at Six Flags New England gives a much better feeling of flight -- and it's a standard sit-down coaster. Ultimate Flight felt like...well...a coaster with the seats tipped down. I think it would have been much more enjoyable without the "flying" gimmick. By then it was after six o'clock. A lot of guests had already left. We decided to leave too.

I think Six Flags has a real gem with this park. It was beautiful, with lots of attention to detail from the ornate iron trellises in the Orleans section to the ox skull in the Southwest Territory. But the park, like the chain, was having an identity crisis. Was it a family park, like Disney? Was it a teen thrill park, the kind Six Flags developed under the old management? Was it a theme park in the tradition of Busch Gardens Williamsburg? Or was it more like Cedar Point, a traditional midway? Evidently most people didn't seem to care at all about the answer to those questions. They seemed to just be having a good time. The park can draw from a huge population base -- Chicago and Milwaukee. No other competition exists within easy reach of that market. So perhaps that's all the park will need.

Now that we've been to the park for a second time, we don't feel a great need to return. We saw all we wanted to see and did all we wanted to do. American Eagle was fun, as was Raging Bull (which we avoided on this trip since last time it had a 3 hour wait). But those two coasters wouldn't bring us back. We would return to Busch Gardens time and time again, even if there were no new rides at the park. Canobie Lake, Knoebel's -- there are so many places that we'd go out of our way for. Why not Six Flags Great America? The park was clean, but not overly so. There was a charm to it. But there was something about it that felt haphazard, like a bulletin board in the kitchen that keeps accruing more and more tacked-up notes until everything is obscured. At Busch, everything in the park felt as if it belonged there. At Six Flags, it felt more like the park bought a ride and dropped it down wherever there was room. The vestiges of the "old" Great America didn't feel that way, like the flume and the Demon and the theming in some of the sections. But as I wondered before, what was Batman doing in Yankee Harbor? It's that kind of obliviousness to details that kept me from regarding Six Flags as a truly world-class park. When they get it right, as with the DC Comics and Crackaxle Canyon areas of Six Flags New England, it can be truly wonderful. But then they allow some areas to go carelessly unthemed, or worse add elements that ruin the theme. Mark Shapiro, Six Flags' CEO, said he wanted the chain to emulate Disney. Perhaps a more realistic goal would be to emulate Busch Gardens. Great America is about half-way there. But there was still a lot of work that needed to be done. I agreed with his assessment that roller coasters acted "like a drug" for the chain. But what will it take to reform the addict? For us, it didn't cost a lot to get in the park. But for guests paying full price, would they have $65 worth of fun at Great America?

When I was a kid, my parents brought me to parks to let me run wild. They would relax in a picnic grove for free with a lunch they brought, and they'd buy me ride tickets to keep me occupied. A family outing there would cost them very little. And those parks survived just fine. But what could a parent do today? I guess they could get a package of season passes, if they could afford it. But if an average family wanted to go to Six Flags just for a day, it would cost close to a week's salary for many people. And the extreme pricing of food and drinks wouldn't help. (Yeah, the food was a bit better this time -- but not $52 worth of better.)

As I said, all these thoughts didn't seem to enter the minds of the thousands of guests we saw at Great America that day. The outlook for the park might be very good indeed. I think Shapiro is steering in the right direction. There just seems to be so much work left to do in order to fulfill his vision. I hope Six Flags, a Titanic-sized amusement company, can steer quickly enough to avoid any icebergs that may be floating in its path.

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