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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.


California’s Great America Winterfest Details Slowly Emerge

Traditionally, the final day of operations at California’s Great America occurs in the last weekend of October (or on rare occasions, the first day of November). But this year will be different – markedly different. Details are now being released on the park’s first-annual “WinterFest” – only the second time in it’s history the park will remain open past the first weekend in November. And if there was any doubt as to whether or not the park would go “all-in” the first year of the event – those questions have been quickly answered. Let’s take a look at some of the highlights:

Snowflake Lake:winterfest-skating

This is shaping up to be the “signature” attraction of the event – and for good reason. The reflection pond in front of Carousel Columbia will be frozen over (real ice from what our park contacts say, not plastic faux-ice) to create arguably the Bay Area’s most beautiful skating rink. No word if S.J. Sharkie or Santa Clara native, (and Olympian) Polina Edmunds will make an appearance, but I’m sure as heck sharpening my skates for this.

tree-lighting-winterfest

As part of the entertainment, there will be an Snoopy-themed Ice show, several holiday themed shows, a min-trolley filled with carolers and a nightly tree lighting ceremony behind Carousel Columbia. Aren’t you glad you upgraded to a Gold or Platinum Pass so you can take it all in over a few weekends?

After a test-run with the “Taste of Orleans” food festival earlier this summer, the “lighting competition” that will be staged inside Orleans Place should blow away park-goers. I’m thinking that it’ll rival Gilroy Gardens’ spectacular nighttime event, “Lumination.”

In Hometown Square, you’ll be able to see it snow – meet real reindeer and even browse the famous Christmas tree lot to find your own fern that “just needs a little love.” It also appears many of the food locations will be re-tolled and re-themed to reflect the holidays.

I’m also very happy to see the park create and use it’s OWN photos for the promotion of the event. By that, I mean most collateral in park chains is re-used (I.E. even though it’s Great America’s TV commercial – you’re looking at a ride from Knott’s). That is not the case with WinterFest – because that’s most certainly Maggie Brown’s behind the trolley. And who else is excited that the trolley is (sort of) coming back?!?

winterfest-singers

Little rough on the ISO – but beautiful to see nonetheless! Photo credit: California’s Great America

It should be noted that the entire park will not be open as part of WinterFest. Everything from just about Planet Snoopy over to Hometown Square will be – but don’t expect to challenge the Demon, Drop Zone, Psycho Mouse or the rest of County Fair this winter. Also, some of these activities will require an additional fee to participate (mostly out of capacity concerns, I imagine).

There are two major challenges the park faces in order to make this event an annual tradition: the weather and 39 years of learned, guest behavior. First, let’s talk about rain. It’s always a threat here in Northern California (except the past 5 years thanks to drought) so hold off your rain dances on the weekend – otherwise the event could be a complete wash.

Coasters generally do not run as well in the cold, at least B&M’s tend to be like this. If temps are around 45 or so, I’d expect to see fairly short lines for most of the park’s bigger attractions.

The other big challenge the park must overcome is the public itself. Not since opening season in 1976 have guests been able to enjoy the park after October (and even then it was rained out most of the time and never re-attempted). In addition, the nearly four week closure (needed to move things around and set them up) between Haunt closing and WinterFest starting up will be crucial to keeping the park “front of mind” with guests. Remember, most people throw away their old passes after the last day – and many might still think that’s October 30th.

Also, the Bay Area is also a very crowded market when it comes to holiday events, with several very established events in the South Bay. The park will have to do a masterful job of building the awareness that they’re still open and ready for fun nearly all the way to the New Year. (Both the Boardwalk and Six Flags have already established

So, who’s ready for a little winter cheer in Santa Clara next month? Let me know what you think in the comments section below:


Could Great America’s Consulate become the next great season pass perk?

Hidden in plain sight above Bourbon Street in Orleans Place, lies a little bit of Disney magic inside the confines California’s Great America:

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The balcony of the Consulate as seen during the Taste of Orleans festival.

Known as “The Consulate” – it’s primary function is a meeting room, where some of the biggest decisions about the park have gone down.

Photo courtesy of The Coaster Guy - used with permission.

Some of the biggest deals in the park’s history have been signed at this table. Photo courtesy of The Coaster Guy – used with permission.

But that wasn’t always the intended purpose. In fact, it was originally built with the idea that the Marriott’s would use the space to stay during trips, a la the apartment above the firehouse at Disneyland. That is, until the Marriott’s realized they had nice hotels already near their properties with concierge service and a lack of crowds.

So while the Consulate is still used today for business – what if it’s wrought iron gates were opened to a select few park-goers as a VIP lounge? And what if you could upgrade your Platinum Pass to a “Consulate Pass?”

Photo courtesy of The Coaster Guy - used with permission.

Photo courtesy of The Coaster Guy – used with permission.

The idea isn’t that far fetched – several parks have hosted hospitality centers for bloggers and other influencers, where they could store items and get free refills and snacks, all away from the crowds. Why not give guests the opportunity to pay for that same, sweet access?

Plus, the pass could add a few other perks, maybe higher discounts for food and merchandise – or even a single fast lane per visit. It’s a Platinum, Platinum Pass.

Since upgrading to a Platinum Pass isn’t worth the cost for most Bay Area folks, with the exception of those who want to go to Knott’s (and I’ve covered that in a previous article) and considering an upgrade from a Gold Pass to a Platinum Pass doesn’t add any more value to a visit at CGA, maybe this benefit might be the incentive people need to pony up those extra bucks. And since we’re here in Silicon Valley, receiving that “premium” experience is not a hard sell.

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The Consulate seems frozen in time. Photo courtesy of The Coaster Guy – used with permission

Should it be by invite only? Probably to start. Parks tend to (or should) know their heaviest users and could easily identify probable candidates from common knowledge – or just looking at pass usage data.

What do you think? Would you pay up to get access to the Consulate? How much would you be willing to shell out to step up to the second floor? Let me know in the comments below.

Again, special thanks to Kurt (The Coaster Guy) for permission to use his photos of the Consulate during ACE’s Coaster Con XXXVII!


Amusement parks are not trying to purposely hurt or kill you

It seems like every week this summer, the news has stories of horrific injuries or deaths at an amusement park. With that, comes the predictable “I knew that ride wasn’t safe. They should have never opened it,” chatter online.

But, as hard to believe as it is: Amusement parks are not trying to hurt or kill you.

Around the turn of the century, things were different. Rides were a new concept and safety systems were, well – non-existent. In fact, a ride with a “killer” reputation was actually MORE popular, as people were willing to test their mettle against the machine.

The Revere Beach Lightning was one of Harry Traver's "Terrifying Triplets" and it earned that moniker by killing a rider on the first day of operation. Today a ride like this would never make it past the drawing board.

The Revere Beach Lightning was one of Harry Traver’s “Terrifying Triplets” and it earned that moniker by killing a rider on the first day of operation.

But as the industry matured, so also did it’s guests – and the demand went from a killer coaster to a safer one. Manufacturers responded with the lap bar, seat belt and over the shoulder restraint.

It’s no longer in the best interest of a park to have a ride that’s not safe – and that’s been the case since the 1920’s. Coasters and flat rides can be millions of dollars of investment – and one accident could turn that investment into a fancy lawn ornament. 

Yeah, there’s always the exceptions to the rule, but thankfully in this industry – they tend to be easy to spot. If a ride doesn’t “look” right – it probably isn’t. And if you don’t like the way it looks, you don’t have to ride.

So, with this rash of incidents across the country – could better oversight lead to safer rides? I’m not sure. Currently, the states regulate amusement rides, to varying degrees depending on location. Could a uniform standard be better? Maybe. But uniform rules have their drawbacks, too.

It’s hard to create a “one size fits all” methodology for the entire United States. If we can’t agree on anything in Washington, it would be tough to push through legislation that would work fairly for everyone.

I repeat this stat often, because it’s worth repeating: You have better odds of being injured driving to an amusement park than you do while inside. You may hear about a deadly crash on the freeway, only mentioned as a “Sig Alert” in a traffic update. A death on a coaster, however will cause the news choppers to be summoned to the scene.

So go to your local amusement or theme park with confidence – just follow the safety rules. A park doesn’t want to hurt or kill you, despite what the internet says. Because if they did – you wouldn’t be able to go back and spend more money there…


Social Media Strategies and Best Practices for Amusement Parks

Social media use has exploded over the past decade. Its presence is so big, many companies are hiring people solely based on their experience with these new, direct marketing channels.

But while a “like” can be earned quickly, those bonds can also be lost just as fast if the user has a poor experience with it.

So, if you follow these simple tips, you’ll be well on your way to having a superior social media experience for your guests, which will lead to more of those turnstiles rotating:

STEP ONE: KEEP IT UPDATED!

I can’t tell you the number of parks that leave their social media without updated content for weeks, even months on end. Common errors here can include outdated cover photos, profile photos and information. While one of the easiest to fix, this is also one of the most common mistakes many parks and FEC’s make on social media.

RMC Before and After Comparison

Keeping your content fresh on the landing page will encourage visitors to return to see what’s new and stay engaged with your company or property.

 

STEP TWO: STOP POSTING CRAP UPDATES!

Treating social media like a direct billboard or commercial to the fans of your park is instant poison for your social media. Consider a park with 400,000 fans, yet only receives 100 likes on average on their posts. Something’s wrong there – and it’s the content.

Mask the ad for your park or event in great content – make a cool video or post a beautiful photo that’s sure to be shared. Direct calls to action will turn off park visitors faster than an hour long wait in an un-shaded queue.

And don’t forget about video – it’s the best way to tell a story – and one of the most underutilized mediums on social media.

CGA Capture

Video is good – but when you can see the cell phone being used to capture said video in a reflection – that’s not good enough anymore for social audiences.

STEP THREE: INTERACT WITH YOUR FANS!

It should go without saying, but many parks neglect the “social” part of social media – that is, they post something to their account – and simply leave it there. That’s akin in the digital age of throwing crap on a wall and seeing if it sticks.

Social media allows guests to experience things they may have missed on their last trip, post about how much fun they had – or in some cases – complain about a negative experience they had while at your facility.

Not responding or interacting with guests on social media is no longer an acceptable practice. It never was acceptable, period. One can easily gain back a potential repeat customer simply by interacting with them, acknowledging their concerns or eventually resolving them.

Dollywood No Show

Dollywood was notably absent from social media; not answering questions of people who were led to believe their latest ride was going to open on time. It was not well received.

Yes, it IS a lot of work and yes, it CAN be frustrating at times with a never-ending deluge of comments – but that’s the world we live in. Consider it “job security.”

Plus, when a park or facility responds to a guest, they guest feels important – because they ARE! Remember who pays for the bills, folks…

By answering questions on social media, you’re also contributing to a higher engagement rating on many of the mathematical algorithms which dictate who sees what. Translation: responding on social media means more people see your post FOR FREE.

So, if you follow these simple steps, your amusement park or family entertainment center should see a nice bump in social media metrics – which should lead to more butts through those gates.

Got any other good suggestions? Leave a comment below or post on our social media channels. Don’t worry, we’ll actually interact with you!


Cedar Point announces Mean Streak wooden roller coaster to close in September

Never has a wooden roller coaster closure announcement been more gleefully celebrated by the ride enthusiast community…

On Monday, Cedar Point announced that they would be “giving the axe” to their once record-breaking wooden roller coaster, Mean Streak. There was no blowback; no online petitions; no hashtag activists. Quite simply, people were ready to let Mean Streak go. But why? Aren’t we supposed to celebrate and try to preserve the wooden coaster in America? After all, we invented them back in 1884 at Coney Island.

Photo credit: Cedar Point

Photo credit: Cedar Point

Mean Streak was part of a trio of massive wooden roller coasters built in the late 1980’s to early 1990’s. They were designed and built by Charles Dinn of Ohio and each (Hercules at Dorney Park, The Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas and Mean Streak at Cedar Point) were record breakers.

Photo credit: Wikipedia

They were also neck breakers. While the rides were massively popular their first year, the parks they sat in simply could not allocate enough man-hours or maintenance time to keep them running as smooth as when they opened. They quickly fell out of favor with not only ride enthusiasts, but also the general public due to their rough rides.

Of the 11 wooden coasters that Dinn designed and built – four have been demolished, one has been renovated into a steel coaster and now we await the eventual fate of Mean Streak.

The other massive woodies of the era (not built by Dinn) did not fare well, either. The Rattler at Fiesta Texas was renovated into a steel coaster in 2013 while Son of Beast at Kings Island was eventually torn down.

New Texas Giant at Six Flags Over Texas. Photo (c) 2013 Great American Thrills and Kris Rowberry.

The Texas Giant (one of Dinn’s designs) was converted into a steel coaster by Rocky Mountain Construction in 2011.

The closure of Mean Streak is a bookend to a unique era in the amusement industry, where we discovered there is an upper limit to what wooden coasters can do, bigger was not always better and sacrificing ride quality for records does not make for a good, long-term investment. Let us hope that we never see an era like it again.