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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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Carousel Columbia at California’s Great America is a part of Hollywood

Carousel Columbia is a stunning park icon. It’s taller than Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle by 33 feet!

But, has it been living a lie for nearly four decades? No, it really is the tallest carousel in the world (by one foot).

You see, since Marriott’s Great America opened up back in 1976, its been considered fact that the base of the ornate spire on the roof is actually a potbellied stove from the 1938 film, “Marie Antoinette” while the column caps are from “The Swan” in 1956.

So, having no social life on a Saturday night, I decided to see if I could spot the future carousel bits in some photos or video online. That’s when my jaw hit the floor – which if you know me well, is ACTUALLY a possibility.

Check out these screengrabs from the Swan’s theatrical trailer, via YouTube:

While we see what looks like the column caps in the sketch here:

Carousel Top 2

 

Look what also shows up in the actual film:

Carousel Pinnacle The Swan

 

Need a better angle? Here you go:

Carousel Top 3

Now, for a comparison – here’s two shots from this week (2014) thanks to the magic of a 400mm lens with a 1.4x crop sensor:

Photo by Kris Rowberry

The pot bellied stove that sits atop Carousel Columbia

Photo by Kris Rowberry

The two Hollywood props that make up the ornate detail of Carousel Columbia.

Then, I was able to find a clip of “Marie Antoinette” and saw this, what appeared to be the capstone of the columns, but not quite:

Can you spot one of the caps from Carousel Columbia in the background?

That being said, has the park been getting it wrong for nearly 40 years?

Well, that’s where it gets tough. Hollywood is notorious for re-using props and sets. It’s very possible that the props could have been used and recycled in both films. Considering the artistry that went into building them, wouldn’t YOU want to recycle them to lower costs?

So, did the park get it wrong 40 years ago – what do YOU think? Watch the trailers and check out the photos for yourself – see if you can spot a piece of Carousel Columbia!


North Korea’s Great America?

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? Well, sometimes it’s not flattering – it’s just blatantly ripping off. Case in point: Kaeson Youth park in North Korea. Now, I’m pretty familiar with both entrances to the two Great America’s here in the United States (they were built as twin parks after all, back in the mid 1970’s…) They both feature a unique, double-decker carousel, which is actually just one carousel with two individual decks.

World's Tallest Carousels

Santa Clara’s (left) and Gurnee’s (right) nearly twin carousels. Santa Clara’s is a foot higher, but the perspective is off due to non-matching focal lengths. Photos © 2008 & 2013, Kris Rowberry.

And apparently, someone who was allowed to make decisions in North Korea was familiar with the (almost) twin carousels, too. So much so, they decided to pluck it . The similarities are just uncanny – and with the worn-down look of the Korean park, it’s downright EERIE:

Kaeson Youth Park Carousel Columbia

This is why knock-offs are never better than the original – no matter what the price!

Kaeson Youth Park Carousel Columbia

At least they got the staircases right – albeit, they put them in the front instead of the rear…wait – where IS the front?!?

This just goes to show the impact of Randall Duell’s design – a ride as iconic as Carousel Columbia was actually copied (albeit badly) thousands of miles away. Just don’t get me started on the abnormally long first drop of the coaster next to it – that’ll be for another post!


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Photo of the Day: Carousel Columbia at “Blue Hour”

Carousel Columbia at California's Great America. Photo (c) copyright 2013 - Great American Thrills and Kris Rowberry

Quite simply, this is one of the best long exposures I’ve ever taken. Done with a Nikon D7100, 24-70mm lens and NO tripod – just stayed as still as possible. Columbia is still the World’s Tallest Carousel as recognized by Guinness World Records at just over 101 feet tall.

Carousel Columbia at California's Great America. Photo (c) copyright 2013 - Great American Thrills and Kris Rowberry

Still the tallest carousel in the world, Carousel Columbia makes for a stunning subject at night. Now, if only all the accent lighting were working…

As always, a big thanks to my friends at BorrowLenses for allowing me to capture such beautiful photos with their gear.

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