The world's most authentic roller coaster and amusement park expert!

Theme Parks

Winterfest at Great America Gives a Shimmering Debut

It is rare in the amusement industry to meet expectations, especially for hardcore park fans. It is an even rarer event to exceed those expectations.

After I experienced Winterfest at California’s Great America this past Friday, I am happy to report that my expectations for this park have been forever shattered, in the most wonderful of ways.

Star Tower has been magically transformed into the North Pole, complete with decorations and a new ob-board spiel.

Star Tower has been magically transformed into the North Pole, complete with decorations and a new on-board spiel.

With a little help from local figure skating Olympian Polina Edmunds and Snoopy, the park lit it’s impressive 60 foot tall tree:

Winterfest Main Tree

Now, if you live in Santa Clara and find it difficult to get a Christmas Tree in Santa Clara – blame this park – as hundreds of Douglas Firs are spread throughout it. They’re used both as ambiance as well as effective barriers to closed-off sections of the park. The result is quite striking: not only does it look like Christmas, it SMELLS like it, too.

 

Snowflake Lake:

Arguably the most striking feature of Winterfest, this honest-to-goodness ice rink is in the middle of Carousel Columbia’s reflection pond.

unnamed-2

If you intend on going skating, check-in first at the Stroller Rental. That’s where you’ll have to fill out the waiver (thanks, California) and if you’re under 18, you’ll need a parental signature to hit the rink. When we first arrived, it was unclear where we had to go to first, so we lost skating time as a result.

Also, you CAN bring your own skates, but the additional fee to skate still applies (I.E. no discount). Just be prepared to get a locker to keep them safe, unless you want to lug them around the park the rest of the evening.

Finally, if you happen to be late for your scheduled ice skating time (it’s given in blocks of 30 minutes) you’ll be given the final skate of the night by default.

Santa’s Reindeer:

Winterfest Reindeer

Sitting on the site of the much-beloved “Triple Play” Huss Troika, the reindeer paddock saw consistent crowds all evening long. If you’ve never seen a real one up-close, it’s quite a treat. Listen for the snapping from their hoof tendons as they prance around. The site also provides unique (albeit dark) photo opportunities for the Patriot coaster (nee Vortex) due to open in 2017.

 

Entertainment / Shows:

img_2442

Under the brilliant management of Entertainment Director, Clayton Lawrence, the quality of shows in the park and overall experiences available to guests during Winterfest has met or exceeded those of the Marriott-era.

Yes, I said it. Because it’s true.

As during “Taste of Orleans” – there were characters everywhere – happy to interact with you and your family. There was always a show you could go and see, all with high production value and jaw-dropping visuals. The decorations and lighting around the park brought it to life in a away none of us have seen before. When Santa appeared at the end of the show, the kids in the audience legitimately GEEKED OUT. It was fully immersive entertainment – my God it was a THEME park again.

img_2440

 

Be sure to get to the shows you wish to see early, as the best seats go fast. Both theatres saw STANDING ROOM ONLY crowds – and that was on a Friday night. Just imagine how packed it could be once the word gets out!

“It’s Christmas, Snoopy” was so good – after Linus’ famous speech on the true meaning of Christmas…people applauded. That tells you a LOT. And to ensure complete inclusion in this holiday event – in addition to a nativity scene, there’s a Hanukkah menorah and Kwanzaa kinara in the park itself.

 

Merchandise:

I have made it no secret my disdain for the merchandise offerings from corporate parks (The 8-car Demon shirt, the California’s Great Adventure Gold Striker shirts) but, I’m willing to forgive my home park for ALL OF THAT, when I saw this:

 

THIS is what fans want to see in their local amusement park!

THIS is what fans want to see in their local amusement park!

 

And this…

CGA Winterfest Merch 2

 

And finally, this:

CGA Winterfest Merch 3

Ladies and gentlemen, that is park-specific merchandise (which is increasingly rare in the corporate park world). It took effort to create and it can only be sold in one park in the chain.

I bought the ornament immediately and look forward to it gracing my tree for decades to come.

Want to make a park fan happy? Just keep making merchandise like this. Don’t keep pushing generic “I ride with Him / Her” shirts. I’ll never buy one of those. But I sure as hell will grab unique pieces like this – and happily hand over my credit card.

 

Coal in the Stocking:

But, much like Christmas morning, sometimes you don’t always get everything you want. For instance, with all the glitz and lighting around it, Carousel Columbia wasn’t very well lit or distinguishable once the sun set. Just leaving the regular white up-lights with those blue highlights would vastly improve everyone’s front entrance photos and ice-selfies.

Jaw dropping from Star Tower, but remarkably touch to spot from the ground, Carousel Columbia could use some more lights on the front to stand out better.

Speaking of Columbia, all of the park maps (paper, online and in-park poster) have three errors on them, including the misspelling of the iconic carousel (it’s misspelled “COLOMBIA,” like the country). It’s hard for die-hard park fans to ignore when someone misspells your signature attraction:

Insert head-slap here.

Insert head-slap here.

Gold Striker and Flight Deck are both on single train operation – which is understandable – given the three and-a-half weeks the park’s maintenance staff has had to do a complete winter rehabilitation (it’s usually several months). But, if you choose to go to Winterfest just to ride either of these e-tickets, expect longer than average wait times (you really shouldn’t be going for the rides, anyway).

Lines for food also seemed to be longer than usual. I’m chalking it up to having the main food service area (County Fair’s Food Festival) not open as part of the festivities. Also, because that and half of Planet Snoopy aren’t open for Winterfest (you’ll walk along a decorated part of the service road instead), the park can feel more crowded than usual, so just be sure to bring plenty of Christmas cheer on crowded nights.

Food lines CGA

Final Thoughts:

Despite these bits of coal, Winterfest isn’t just worth your time or money – it should be mandatory that every family in the greater Bay Area check it out sometime this holiday season. Winterfest combines everything that other holiday events do in the area (plus coasters and rides) in just one location. It’s worthy of “tradition” status and did I mention there’s a 100% chance of snow?

Winterfest Snow

Advertisements

The IAAPA Attractions Expo Experience

As I was looking at some of the park fan message boards online, a common theme emerged recently: people wanting to go to the IAAPA convention in Orlando, “because it looked like fun.” Another posted that, “It looks like Disney’s D23, only for the whole industry,” and another said, “…the website is written in business-speak…”

Well, of course it is, because IAAPA isn’t held for park fans. Don’t be confused by some of the coverage you see on park blogs, IAAPA is all about three things: buying goods, selling goods and networking for jobs. Orange County Convention Center IAAPA

Millions of dollars of purchases are done in just the four days the event is held. There’s a ton of business being done on the floor and if you decide to attend as a park fan, you have to know when to respect that boundary.

Barreling up to the B&M or RMC booth to swoon over Walter, Fred or Alan – while they’re trying to talk to park owners – is not going to go over very well. In some cases, a company’s livelihood can depend on the meetings they have at this show.

Also, snapping photos without permission is a BIG no-no here. ALWAYS ask vendors if it’s okay to take a photo or record part of the booth for a video.

If you’ve got actual business to discuss then go ahead and speak to them when they’re free. If you’re a fan and just taking in the convention for fun, grab some literature and just move on. Speaking of discussing business…

Standing next to one of my photos in the Great Coasters booth.

Standing next to one of my photos in the Great Coasters booth.

The amusement industry – despite being worldwide – is a very tight knit group of individuals. Everyone knows everyone and word gets around fast. That’s why IAAPA is the perfect event to go to if you’re looking to get a job in the industry. The show gives you the opportunity to meet with prospective employers face to face – as well as give them a copy of your resume.

Despite what you might think from some of the other bloggers out there – the dress code says a LOT about your purpose. Shorts and a t-shirt emblazoned with your blog’s logo are not commonplace nor looked upon well by attendees. If you want to make a good impression, stand out from the other “schlubs” and come in a suit and tie.

One of the least talked about parts of the Attractions Expo is the seminars they hold. As members of IAAPA, they’re free with an expo badge. From learning about the business from Disney legends, to how to properly curate social media for your brand, to symposiums on laser tag – these edu-sessions give attendees quite a bit of insight, but tend to not get the fanfare that the show floor does.

Speaking of the show floor – yes, it’s true – there are a few rides and attractions you can go on at the show. It’s just like purchasing a new car. Just remember that those vendors are there to sell that ride – not entertain you with an ERT session.

GCI Booth IAAPA

If you truly love this industry and want to make it part of your career, I would make it a point, nee a pilgrimage to visit the annual IAAPA Attractions Expo. However, if you’re going to the convention because you think it’ll be a giant version of D23 and you’ll get to play all day – save your money and don’t bother going.


Five completely offensive rides that should be closed immediately

In light of the closure of Fear:VR at Canada’s Wonderland, Great America and Knott’s – after a protest from the President of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance of Mental Health – a person who admitted he never actually experienced the attraction for himself – Great American Thrills is proud to present to you five more offensive rides that should be shut down, torn down and never spoken of again.

(If you haven’t already gathered, this is all sarcasm – please be offended if you did not get the joke already).

 

1.) Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Walt Disney World

Offends: Little People

As our good friend Eric the Actor from the Howard Stern Show always used to say, the correct term is “Little People.” Who thought to name a ride after seven height-challenged people, and then make then sing as if they were merry? Oh – it was a famous KIDS movie? So we’ve inoculated our children that it’s okay to say this, too?!?

 

2.) The Demon, Great America

Offends: Church-going folk

Sadly, this is the only one on our list that played out in real life. Turns out back in the 1980’s, people were not down with the idea of theming a coaster after a devil-like apparition that was eating guests randomly. Thankfully, people got over themselves and not only is the ride still around – but it tweets, too!

 

3.) All water rides

Offends: Aquaphobiacs

Seriously – how can you in good conscious place all that water around a log and let people float in it? What a disgusting insult to people who fear water…

 

4.) Gold Striker & Gold Rusher, Great America & Six Flags Magic Mountain

Offends: Mine Workers

 

How can either of these roller coasters accurately portray the savage life endured by miners, all in the search for rare minerals…they should be ashamed of themselves.

 

5.) Top Thrill Dragster, Cedar Point

Offends: Decent people

img_1811

Have you seen that thing? It looks like a giant wanker. A hot dog. A gentleman’s “special region.” We can’t have our kids grow up in a world like this…

You see how slippery this slope is? If you don’t like something about a park – just do what everyone else does – don’t support it. Don’t impose your beliefs on them, it only makes you part of the problem…


Great America and Knott’s pull Fear:VR from Haunt lineups after criticism from mental health advocates

After a name change before it opened to the public and just three days of operation, both California’s Great America and Knott’s Berry Farm removed their “Fear:VR” attractions from their Halloween Haunts after mental health advocates in Southern California cried foul.

In their letter to Cedar Fair, the President of the Orange County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness said, “The attraction adds to the hurtful, dehumanizing, discriminatory, prejudicial, insensitive, offensive and stigmatizing of mental illness. (We believe) it is in the poorest taste that mental illness stereotypes are being used by entertainment sources for commercial gain.”img_8719

Cedar Fair – corporate owner of both parks – issued a statement late Tuesday night:

“For nine years we have delivered unique and immersive haunted experiences to our fans and loyal guests. Our evening attractions are designed to be edgy, and are aimed at an adult-only audience. Over the past week we have heard from a number of people expressing their concern that one of our temporary, Halloween attractions – FearVR – is hurtful to those who suffer from mental illnesses. Contrary to some traditional and social media accounts, the attraction’s story and presentation were never intended to portray mental illness. As it is impossible to address both concerns and misconceptions in the Halloween time frame, at this time we have decided to close the attraction.”

For those of us who DID experience it, the consensus was clear: it WAS scary as all hell. It was a better, overall use of VR than on a coaster – because you didn’t know what to expect. It truly immersed you in the program. But – was it offensive, insensitive and stigmatizing? And more importantly, should that matter when it comes to a fantasy event like Halloween Haunt?

img_8732

On the one hand – it’s a Halloween event. It’s supposed to be a little “off.” Hell, Knott’s regularly MURDERS and HANGS celebrities (in effigy) twice a night in Calico Square. Yet, you don’t hear from those who decry the death penalty or for those wanting more gun control – because everyone knows it’s fake. It’s built into the event.

I don’t remember the “hospital” in Fear:VR focusing on mental health in the storyline. We went into the room for an “ocular” exam. There was a backstory about a young girl who was possessed in some way, but it was never made clear that the facility we were at was anything more than a regular hospital.

On the other hand, is mental health a huge stigma in our society? Absolutely. Could this attraction possibly play into those stigmas? I suppose you could say, “yes” given the reality many interpreted it as. But then again, the whole Haunt experience is one big stigma / stereotype when you think about it. Are all farmers murderous, un-educated hicks? Then Cornstalkers must go. Are all clowns homicidal maniacs? Killer Klown Town has to go too – it could be offensive to genuine, circus performers. Is a hospital full of half-dead zombies going to trying and kill you if you check into a mental clinic? No, it isn’t.

Cedar Point tried a similar attraction a few year ago – and it met the exact same criticism and ultimate demise. How the company thought that in CALIFORNIA of all places that this would fly, is a question for someone above my pay grade. One must also wonder if the park’s “INsanitarium” maze might be in the cross-hairs as a result of all this activity.

The other question that I don’t think we can answer is this: Where do we stop with this? I don’t claim to have the answer – I don’t think any of us do.

Recently, a lot of people were pretty “upset” that In N’ Out Burger didn’t offer a vegetarian burger. They made a petition that got a ton of play online and loads of media attention. Yet, do you see meat eaters going into vegan or vegetarian restaurants, demanding beef? But I digress, let’s get back to the parks…

There is one thing I think that we CAN agree on: there is difference between fantasy and reality – and there’s no reality in a park’s Halloween event.

None.

The chainsaws don’t have chains, the monsters have no magical powers and all of the blood is fake. Are we laughing at the dead, the murderers among us or the worst of our society by celebrating Halloween like this? Of course not. It’s just fantasy.

What do you think? Should the parks have shut down the attraction, or is this just a massive blow up for nothing? Let me know in the comments section below – but please keep it civil:


Great America’s Halloween Haunt 2016 Proves It’s Still The Best in the Bay Area

Northern California’s marquee morbid event, Halloween Haunt, returns to California’s Great America in 2016 with a few tweaks and added shrieks.

I don’t want to give a blow-by-blow review of each and every maze – you really should go out and explore them for yourselves. However, I will be giving you an overall picture, with some detailed insight.

The marquee attraction for 2016 is “Fear:VR” a virtual reality experience using Samsung phones and the Oculus headset. They are the same headsets used by Six Flags for their VR coasters – but that’s where the comparison ends.

Fear: 5150 seat

The seats used in “Fear: 5150.” NOTE: Photo taken with park representative present. Photos inside mazes and other attractions are NOT ALLOWED.

Fear: 5150 at California's Great America

Guests of Fear:VR experience a simulated hospital – and lose all sense of the real world for a few brief, terrifying minutes.

Fear:VR (the name was changed due to complaints from mental health advocates) uses 8 stationary “wheelchairs” set up in one of two rooms, dressed just like a doctors office. The “nurses” allow you to get comfortable, then quite literally strap you in. The “Nurses” then place on the VR headset and earphones. The simulation (they call it an ocular exam) proceeds and uses several extra-sensory tricks, similar to a 4D theater in addition to the VR screen.

Overall, it is a fascinating, psychological trip that shows the potential of VR without having to strap you into a moving coaster. But, it will also set you back $10 per person. Normally, I’d be against this – but once I saw the slow capacity, I understood the necessity of making it an “upcharge” attraction. The ability to schedule your “doctor’s appointment” and realistic looking ID wristband you get to take with you are very nice touches.

Fear: 5150 at California's Great America

It’s been a bad day at the hospital…

One of the biggest changes that Haunt fans will notice is the separation of the Skeleton Key rooms from the mazes. Now they are in their own, individual sites (mostly stores). This has alleviated one of the chief criticisms of last year’s Haunt, in which Skeleton Room patrons waited LONGER to experience the maze than those who had not purchased an upgrade.

This separation keeps the uniqueness of the rooms, while preserving the Fast Lane that comes with it. The five rooms are: Bone Crusher, Dominated, Vanity, Sorority Slaughter and Hoarder House. Their experiences vary from standard “walk-though” maze to full-on “escape from the room.”

Cornstalkers received a much-needed refresh – and it paid off nicely. Great to see the older mazes get some love here, too.

However, the event is not without it’s wrinkles to iron out. For example, the Fast Lane entrance for Insanitarium was difficult to find – and when I did find it, it wasn’t separated from the other guests, which led to some confusion. Thankfully, crowds were very light for a Friday night.

Also, the area around “Fear: 5150” is quite bleak – and not in the good, “Haunt-ish” sort of way. It’s actually quite difficult to FIND or even SEE the attraction as you’re walking past it. With Planet Snoopy completely dark, I struggled to see the sign for the attraction – and many guests probably walked right past it without even realizing it was there. Maybe some extra “nurses” could be stationed around the area, and used like carnival barkers to ask if people have made their appointments” to see the good doctor.

Fear: 5150 at California's Great America

It’s easy to miss “Fear:VR” if you don’t know it’s there. The area is very dark and the signage is nearly impossible to see.

Now, I know I’ve written at length before about this last gripe, but it bears repeating: How can a park, with a ride themed after a demonic creature, not do ANYTHING to plus the ride during a Halloween event? Of course, I’m referring to “The Demon” – and it befuddles me each and every Haunt to ride it, only to find nothing has been added, changed or put into it. Heck, at least the other Demon at Six Flags Great America brings back the kitschy theme song that used to play in the queue during their Fright Fest! Here’s the complete soundtrack, in case anyone at the park is reading this:

The event still suffers from a lack of talent, both in the scare zones and mazes. Hopefully, it will fill out as the event progresses.

Finally – this is something that I’ve watched become more and more of an issue with each Haunt season: parking control.
While I realize that security is more focused on the guests inside the park, it may be time to address the parents picking up their kids outside the gates.

You see, this isn’t the line to get into the park for Haunt – these are all parked vehicles, blocking the entrance to the parking lot. It extends all the way onto Great America Parkway. If I were a guest who didn’t know better, I’d assume it was the line to get into the park – and promptly change my mind about going that evening:

Haunt Parking Mess 1

This is a line of parked cars, blocking the entry to Great America – they’re all waiting to pick up their kids, when the drop off spot is less than a block away.

Haunt Parking Mess 2

If I were driving on GAP and saw this line of cars headed to the park – I’d promptly keep driving, assuming the park was packed.

What’s more frustrating, is that in addition to all of that roadway being a red zone, the drop off / pick up area is right across the way, designed for easy entry and exit. It was only about half-full when I took these photos. But, come peak Haunt season, it will be full and overflowing. It would be nice to see the park and city come up with a better, higher capacity waiting area, so that more people would use it. Where’s Stanley Roberts when you need him?

So is Halloween Haunt a good bet for you and your friends in 2016? Absolutely.

Should you pony up a few extra bucks for the unique, Skeleton Rooms and Fear:VR? Yes. You probably had a Gold Pass anyway, so why not spend a few bucks every now and then to “plus” your experience? I know I’ll be returning to the fog…


Six Flags Discovery Kingdom unveils Rage of the Gargoyles VR Coaster for Fright Fest

Being the closest Six Flags park to Silicon Valley, it seems strange to have it receive the virtual reality add-on to one of its coasters so late in the game.

maxresdefault

However, with time comes improvement and those lessons learned at other Six Flags parks were on full display at the media preview aboard Kong for “Rage of the Gargoyles” – a virtual reality experience powered by Samsung and Oculus.

The headsets have been completely re-designed, with a simple click wheel for tightening in the back and bungee straps with a single adjustment point. The phones themselves still have the occasional hiccup, which does add to dispatch times. But overall, it’s faster than other installations I’ve seen.

The newer headsets are easier to clean and adjust, which should speed up dispatches.

The newer headsets are easier to clean and adjust, which should speed up dispatches.

WARNING – SPOILERS AHEAD:

The experience itself is fairly straightforward. You’re a gunner in a helicopter, slowly climbing to do battle with gargoyles – because, why not? At the top of the lift, a giant gargoyle appears and rips the top off your helicopter, rendering your gun useless.

During the ride, the gargoyles still come at you, move your head around to target them with missiles.

At the end of the ride, the “boss” gargoyle appears once again, so you have to do battle with him as the train slowly navigates back to the station. If you don’t do battle with him at the end – you actually end up losing the game!

END OF SPOILERS…

My biggest concerns going into the event today were shared by many others: how could a ride known for rough, jerky transitions be suitable for a “blinded” VR experience? I have to say, I did not experience significant headbanging on my two trips (it was far from smooth, however). On the second trip, however my headset did become loose and began bouncing around on my head, which was not pleasant.

Kong VR Instructions

With the large, Vekoma over the shoulder restraint, I also found it difficult to reach the side button to shoot during the game. It also limited my reach when the headset came loose.

Dispatch times were improved over what I saw this past summer at other Six Flags parks. At this special media event, they were averaging around 4-5 minutes. That is a vast improvement over the 7-10 minute dispatches I saw at Six Flags St. Louis, Over Georgia and Over Texas this past summer.

So, is it worth a trip to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom to experience Northern California’s first Virtual Reality coaster? Yes, if you’ve never done it before. Just be prepared for long waits and slow dispatches. I’ll predict that the general public will eat this sort of thing up, while coaster fans (who already weren’t too hot on Kong) might give it a second look.

If you’ve been on a VR coaster before, it’s not much different from what you’ve already experienced. A ride on the Joker or Medusa might be a better bet if the lines are as long as predicted.

Understatement of the century when it comes to VR coasters!

Understatement of the century when it comes to VR coasters!

Overall, I still don’t like the idea of VR on rides, at least on the rides that they’ve been installed on in the United States. While the idea is there, the execution just isn’t worth the wait. At least, not yet. All that being said, this is one of the better VR installations that I’ve experienced.

Have you done battle with the gargoyles aboard Kong? Let me know what you think in the comments section below:


Six Flags Discovery Kingdom’s New for 2017 attraction is a real headscratcher

It’s the best time of the year for park fans – time to find out what that 2017 season pass will get you at your local or favorite bemusement and theme parks.

Early this morning, Six Flags fans got up early to see what was coming their way – and it was a lot of DC Comics-themed clones.

A lot of them. Several “Justice League” dark rides and Joker-themed 4D Free Fly coasters dominated the announcements, which isn’t surprising – considering the larger investments in parks last year across the chain.

But the real headscratcher in this chain-wide announcement is my local park, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Here’s why:

The park is adding a Zamperla Giant Discovery – a large pendulum ride that swings riders while the disc spins around:

There’s just one thing – the park already has something just like it – a very intense Huss Frisbee known as “Tazmanian Devil.”

Tazmanian Devil at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Call me crazy – but I think many would agree a better addition would have been a Zamperla Endeavour; the same model seen at Six Flags Over Texas:

Of course, Tax could also be having some serious maintenance challenges – and might not be there next year. But if it is – better get some Scalpicin shampoo to cut down on the irritation to your head.

Even more amazing – despite all the issues surrounding the closure of Vortex and subsequent communications afterwards – California’s Great America STILL has an opportunity to not only trump Discovery Kingdom’s announcement – but completely usurp the Vallejo parks’ new addition – if they play it right. Betcha did see that coming last week…

Personally – the biggest and most exciting news out of Six Flags this year – wasn’t even part of the annual announcement – it was released the day before it.

Jeffrey Siebert – long time Public Relations and Marketing manager for Paramount’s Kings Island, Schlitterbahn and Fiesta Texas was promoted to the role of General Manager of the San Antonio park. Anyone who has been to one of his events knows he is the prototype for all communications / public relations employees at an amusement or theme park. He isn’t just another employee – he IS the park. Lives, eats, sleeps and breathes it. It could not have happened to a better person – and I look forward to seeing what he does now that he’s his own boss (sort of).

What did you think of the Six Flags announcements for 2017? Leave a comment below and let’s chat!