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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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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?!?

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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:


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’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!


California’s Great America announces The Patriot for 2017

With no fanfare or any buildup, California’s Great America announced a long-standing rumor that it will convert it’s Vortex roller coaster into a floorless model, dubbed The Patriot.

Now, I’m all for improving the ride experience for any coaster – and certainly Vortex fits the bill for that. But considering that a longer, faster, taller (and better) floorless coaster is an hour’s drive north from Santa Clara – why would they try to market the world’s shortest floorless coaster in the same media market? (An ultra-competitive media market at that).

The Patriot at CGA 1

The Patriot will convert Vortex into a floorless coaster, with new trains and paint. Graphic courtesy of California’s Great America.

The press release sent out by the park also erroneously claimed that Vortex is the oldest stand-up coaster in the United States (“Apocalypse,” formerly “Iron Wolf” is the oldest at Six Flags America). It also said the ride’s name was inspired by the “All American Corners” section of the park – even though the ride shares no entrance or exit to the area (It’s officially located in Hometown Square).

Vortex Oldest

Not quite, California’s Great America…

RCDB

Don’t get me wrong – this is still a good move by the park. But it’s no slam dunk. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom has the upper edge on this ride type with Medusa, so Great America must come with a really good angle to get their message heard.

Looking at the park’s social media feeds, members of the general public aren’t really sold on the idea:

Confusion

Park fans on CGA’s Facebook feed are a bit confused on the Vortex / Patriot conversion and sadly the park isn’t answering their questions…

For me, the park would have been better off converting the ride into a sit down coaster, such as Kumba, Wildfire or the Incredible Hulk. At least then it would have been unique to the area. But, it’s still a major improvement to a ride that desperately needed it.

Let’s hope the station is also improved, with actual shade and you know – a roof.

The Patriot 2

The Patriot will be one of the shortest floorless coasters when it opens in 2017. Graphic courtesy of California’s Great America.

But the one thing I can’t shake from all this is HOW it was announced. At least when Cedar Point converted Mantis into Rougarou – there was a fun teaser campaign (Squash the bug). You felt like you were a part of the park.

But the way The Patriot was announced this morning came off like a doctor giving you a bad prognosis: “This is coming. You’ve got two weeks. Buy a season pass.”

There’s no emotional connection to an announcement this big when it’s done via press release only. Honestly, I don’t feel compelled to buy a season pass at all. The two errors in the release certainly don’t help, either:

CGA Patriot Release Error

What lies “beneath their fee”? Isn’t that your admission? 😉

Overall though, the general public will welcome this change if it’s marketed well – and my hope is that it will be successful. But it will also be increasingly difficult to get the right message across – an emotional one – if the park does not connect better with the fans in the future.

What do you think of The Patriot? Leave a comment below with your thoughts!


Taste of Orleans Festival at California’s Great America Serves Up Food, Spirits and Nostalgia

 

Great-America-Taste-of-Orle

Rarely do I find myself speechless after coming home from a park. After hundreds of different parks, it’s difficult to impress me.

However, I am proud to report that after taking in the first day of “Taste of Orleans” at California’s Great America, this is one of those moments. Not only were all my expectations met, they were exceeded.

Let’s begin with a quick background: “Taste of Orleans” is a first-of-it’s-kind for Great America – a food and wine festival, themed with Cajun dishes and flavor. But, it is much more than that. In my eyes, it is the re-birth of both Orleans Place and of theme inside the park.

I’ll get into that a bit later – let’s head back to the food for now…

After picking up your tasting card for $25, you can visit six different food stations, which feature different, Cajun-inspired dishes. They are: Creole Meatballs, Bourbon House BBQ Chicken Wings, Crawfish Etoufee, Chicken-Andouille Gumbo, Red Beans and Ride and two Beignets for dessert:

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Portion sizes were quite liberal compared to other tasting events I’ve attended – and I found that I was quite satisfied after sampling everything (sans the beignets – I saved those for dessert later on in the day). All the food was fresh and full of flavor – definitely not your typical amusement park fare.

But where this event really took off for me was after sunset.

In what must be a “dry run” for their upcoming “Winterfest” in November and December, the park has placed quite a bit of LED lights throughout the area, similar to International Street at Kings Dominion. The effect is stunning – and the area once dark and dreary at night is now colorful and welcoming:

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The lighting has turned Orleans Place into it’s namesake – and we couldn’t be happier!

Consider just a few years ago, park employees had to fight to get the lettering of “ORLEANS PLACE” back on the brick entrance to the area. Now, it’s full-on Mardi Gras. Did I mention the stilt-walkers handing out beads to everyone; the live bands playing zydeco music or the theme-appropriate employee uniforms? It doesn’t just evoke New Orleans – it SCREAMS it.

Then for the highlight of the night – a Cajun-themed fireworks show. I must have spotted three or four fire marshals in the park, with extinguishers at their side – that’s when you KNOW it’s going to be one hell of a show.

And was it ever.

While difficult to capture perfectly, these two shots say it all – California’s Great America went FULL-ON DISNEY with their first attempt at what they call, “Immersive Fireworks.”

Sign me up. Permanently:

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Note the fireworks in FRONT of Flight Deck…

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Fireworks line the Rue in Orleans Place and surround the audience a la a Disney show.

Now, one of the benefits I can see of events like this: All the decor and lighting CAN STAY UP throughout the season. Move it earlier in the season (say to a traditionally non-busy day) and you’ve themed the area for the rest of the season.

In essence, “Taste of Orleans” has un-done decades of de-theming at this park and brought back the magic and majesty of the Marriott-era…and I do not say that lightly.

The “Paramount Blue” benches in the area are being swapped out for more traditional black iron, brown wood models. The “Girl Space” store was changed to the new location of the Great America Outlet and both it and the “Trending Now” shop sport more authentic, theme-appropriate signage.

Photo credit: Kris Rowberry

Street performers dance in front of the newly re-themed “Trending Now” store.

Zydeco and jazz permeated the area on new speakers – a much-needed upgrade from the ground box models (that sounded worse than a subway announcement) found elsewhere in the park. And when that music wasn’t playing, live performers were – either a local group of high schoolers, marching through the Rue and eventually making their way to the top of the Consulate balcony, where they drew quite the crowd.

Anyone who says people go to parks for just the coasters does not understand the industry. Guests go to be ENTERTAINED. And was I and thousands of others ENTERTAINED at this event? Oh hell yeah:

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A live marching band continued their show atop the Consulate’s balcony, much to the delight of the crowd below.

When you see people openly dancing in the streets to the music being played – you have hit that perfect nerve inside them that only theme parks can do: make a guest forget they’re in Santa Clara, CA – and transport them to a completely different place.

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The stilt walking ladies were already popular; when they started giving away beads they were MOBBED!

After seeing just how spectacular this event was, I was surprised to not see any promotion about the event on any media that I saw or heard (TV or radio). The Bay Area has quite a “foodie” culture – and I can easily see hundreds, if not thousands of “foodiphiles” showing up to see what all the hub bub was about – so long as they knew about it. Maybe I just missed the spots…

My only real gripes from the event itself were minor: a lack of water cups at the food booths, lack of dedicated seating areas to sit and relax and no dedicated line for beignets at Sweet Tooth. But that’s about it.

Knott’s has the Boysenberry Festival. Carowinds has a Taste of Carolina. And now, NorCal’s Cedar Fair park finally has a marquee foodie event to call it’s own.

If events such as “Taste of Orleans” is (pardon the pun) a taste of the future of this park, then the future smells pretty good from where I stand. Do yourself a favor and plan to visit California’s Great America on July 24th, 30th or 31st and experience the earnest revival of a legendary theme park.

 

“TASTE OF ORLEANS” FOOD & WINE FESTIVAL TIPS:

Don’t wait in line for a food or wine card in Pizza Orleans or Sweet Treats – the tasting cards are available at the smaller merchandise booths as well.

Watch out for chalk art along the Rue – you might be stepping on a Picasso and not realize it!

Best spot for fireworks viewing is along the Rue in Orleans Place.


Mass Effect ride at California’s Great America Review (Soft Opening)

California’s Great America this “soft opened” their latest offering: a 4D holographic experience called, “Mass Effect” – themed after the popular video game series from Redwood City, CA based Electronic Arts.

After being lucky enough to experience it for myself this past weekend, does it live up to the pre-opening hype?

Well, yes…and no.

If you are a fan of the video game series or a serious tech nerd, this will probably be a mind-blowing experience for you. The amount of technology behind the screen alone is unlike anything that has been placed inside an amusement or theme park – ever.

But, if you’re not really into “geeking out” on technology, or playing the video game that inspired the attraction, you may end up passing on this attraction if the line is too long.

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Let’s begin with the positives:

Upon walking inside the theater, you might think the screen up front is a prop – but no – that’s a massive LED screen you’re looking at. The resolution is incredibly high and feels like you’re looking at real pod bay doors.

A live actor / actress at the ship’s helm instructs you to place all loose belongings in the ample area in front of your seats, which are bundled 4-abreast. That captain will stay with us throughout the ride.

When you sit down, you’ll immediately notice the first bit of the 4D experience – vibration synced to sound effects – as your ship goes through pre-flight checks. It definitely adds to the realism.

After placing on our 3D safety goggles (which ALL real commercial flights have you do, of course) we embark on our space journey to a resort. The holograms are VERY impressive and are even customized for the park, which is a nice touch in an era of generic attraction films.

The experience plays out much like other motion simulator experiences – a fairly routine flight suddenly has everything go wrong – and guests are soon wrapped up in a fight for their figurative lives. Along the way, the film is accompanied by appropriate visuals, sounds, feelings and smells.

Yes, SMELLS. Suddenly, Soarin’ over the World has some decent competition…

Of course, the good guys eventually win and we limp to our original, intended destination, albeit a little worse for wear.

In the main gift shop at the front of the park, you’ll find Mass Effect models, jackets and even a custom display case – which really stands out from the rest of the generic stuff the park currently offers.

So, what could the park do better before officially opening the ride to the public later this month?

There were some moments where I had trouble following the action on-screen. It moved too quickly in spots for my taste and the audio was tough to process at points, especially coming from the holographic interface.

The capacity for this ride is going to be bad, period. The cycle lasts four minutes and thirty seconds, and only one side of the former Action Theater was renovated. Translation: expect to wait in long lines on the busiest days. Speaking of waiting…

The outside queue has no shading in a majority of the switchbacks (some of which were added anticipating larger crowds). If you plan to get in line before 4-5:00 p.m. this summer, expect to be out in the direct sunlight until you get to the final grouping section.

Why this park is so adverse to shade structures, I will never know. It would be nice to get that shade up, especially if they’ve already anticipated long waits with that extended queue.

No shade means you'll need to hydrate before taking on this long line.

Note the level of misery on those waiting in the un-shaded queue. And this was a mild day…

There are some things to look at in the line, but not much, considering the subject matter. Original plans called for a line with tons of plexiglass in it, but after seeing what guests already do to Star Tower’s windows and Gold Striker’s wooden queue, those plans were thankfully abandoned.

Also, the unique seats that hide all the fun 4D effects have one noticeable feature that’s missing – a restraint.

Take that, CalOSHA!

It turns out that the motions of the seats are not violent enough to warrant a restraint system, such as a seatbelt. Only time will tell if this becomes an issue with guests who try to exploit this and ruin the ride for others. I hope it doesn’t occur. But if it does – you heard it here, first.

I was also let down by the exit from the ride. Before, it housed an arcade with a myriad of games. This weekend, it was just empty. While it was a soft opening (and not everything may be finished) I do hope they fill that space with actual gaming consoles, so that guests can experience the game that inspired the ride they were just on.

Despite the potential for guest stupidity, lack of shade and taking into account this was only a soft opening, Mass Effect is still a VERY GOOD and SOLID attraction for California’s Great America.

But, it’s not 40th anniversary GREAT.

Yes, it is a much needed refresh of an under-utilized and outdated motion theater – and yes, Cedar Fair spent a LOT of time, effort and moolah to spruce it up. All are admirable coming from a park that most people had written off just four years ago.

However – at the end of the day – it is still just a motion theater.

Mass Effect at California’s Great America is fun and worth a trip to experience for yourself. But as a “repeat ridership” attraction or “destination ride,” I cannot see it having the pull that Gold Striker did in 2013 or that the Joker at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom will become when it opens later this month.

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Did you experience “Mass Effect” yet – if so, what did you think? Tell me in the comments section below or on our social media links!