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California’s Great America won’t become a “lost park”

California’s Great America has been a fixture of the City of Santa Clara and for that matter the entirety of Northern California since late 1975.  But a recent story by SanJoseInside.com pointed to several sources inside Santa Clara City Hall, that said they don’t expect the park to be around for much longer.

Now, I know something about “Lost Parks” and this story doesn’t feel like the pattern that those parks have followed.

Specifically, the story claims that Mayor Jamie Matthews, along with Councilwoman Lisa Gillmor oversaw a presentation by the Irvine Company (who have ties to the 49ers) that showed the Great America site replaced by an office complex and high density housing (condos).

I reached out to Mayor Matthews, who told me he, “…did not recall any such presentation,” and added that his preference, “…would be to see the park stay. I was there opening day.”

Repeated calls to Councilwoman Gillmor were not returned.

So why are we even entertaining this idea that the park land is being sold off?

Well, when the City of Santa Clara bought the park and land from Marriott’s back in the 1980’s, it was to stop the hotel chain from building – you guessed it – an office park. Santa Clara purchased the park via it’s redevelopment agency and wrote into the city’s master plan that the land was to be used for an amusement park/ The park would be owned by the city but assets (I.E. rides and improvements) would be owned and operated by an established amusement park operator.

Fast forward to the 2000’s, and California’s legislature effectively raids redevelopment agencies coffers to pay down the defect – and eventually disbands them, forcing them to sell off all their assets. The land under Great America, along with the golf course and convention center in Santa Clara are part of the redevelopment agencies’ assets.

Indeed, the park does sit in the middle of a real estate buying boom (where the average household rent is in excess of $2300 for a one bedroom apartment). Commercial real estate is just as in-demand.

However, several sources tell Great American Thrills an entirely different story. They say that Cedar Fair is indeed, committed to keeping Great America around for the long haul, citing the length of the current lease – which was recently extended to 2074 – a recent re-zoning application, which will allow for newer attractions and several clauses in the lease itself that give the park the upper hand.

Here’s the full statement from the corporate office in Sandusky, OH:

“We believe that Great America has compelling potential for future development as an amusement park and entertainment venue.  Consistent with our long-term vision for Great America we have filed a rezoning application with the City of Santa Clara that would allow for the addition of new attractions, shows and events that will enhance the guest experience.  In light of the fact that our ground lease runs through 2074 we have the necessary control of the property to pursue our long-term vision.  In addition, we have also created enough financial flexibility to exercise our right of first refusal for the purchase of the property and that option will be considered as the land sale process moves forward.”

So what does this all mean? To me, it says the park isn’t going anywhere. Cedar Fair has already spent too much to NOT buy the park land for themselves – and breaking a lease with over half a century still left on it will be tied up in court for years.

This isn’t the Kinzel-era, anymore. His obsession with garbage cans is not the top priority anymore. It’s claimed that current CEO Matt Ouimet (who comes form Disney) said after touring Great America for the first time, that it was, “…a diamond in the rough,” and, “Why did we treat this park so badly?”

Yes, the park hasn’t received that monster attraction in recent years – but neither has several other parks in the Cedar Fair chain. The investments that have come in the past few years over the LONG TERM are going to keep the park in far healthier shape fiscally than any one coaster would. And the key words there are “long term.”

Now, if the park DOESN’T buy the land underneigh it – that’s something to watch for. There’s still the lease to break AND the master plan, which would need a vote by the residents of Santa Clara in order to change…

To sum it up: Don’t write off Great America just yet – keep enjoying it.

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Gold Striker Closed Only Temporarily for Modifications

After two weeks of soft testing, a lavish grand opening ceremony and over a month of regular operation, the Gold Striker wooden roller coaster at California’s Great America is closed temporarily to allow for additional sound mitigation to be placed on the ride. But don’t hit your panic buttons – published news reports say the ride is expected to be back up and running by the July 4th holiday – NOT an extended, unknown period.

According to the City of Santa Clara’s “Smart Permit” website, Gold Striker had several criteria to meet in order for it to open permanently, the biggest of which states: “Should the additional testing reveal that the coaster is not in compliance with Condition 23 (amount of sound coming from the ride) or any applicable City ordinances, Cedar Fair shall undertake Remedial Measures, as defined in the Settlement Agt Agreement.” Apparently, the ride was just shy of making all those criteria.

Many industry watchers and local boosters see this addition to the park (and the subsequent work to ensure everyone is satisfied) as a serious commitment from corporate owner Cedar Fair, LP to both the park and the local economy.

“Cedar Fair elected to close the ride to install additional sound mitigation upgrades,” said Santa Clara Mayor, Jamie Matthews. “Those upgrades should bring the ride into full compliance with the previous settlement. I’m hoping to see it open here for the 4th of July.”

He added, “I am very happy with the way this is situation is working out – it shows responsible citizenship – that we can all work together and come to a solution.”

Noise Tests at California's Great America. Photo (C) 2013, Kris Rowberry and Great American Thrills. All rights reserved.

A man with recording equipment and headphones monitors the noise coming from Gold Striker from one of Prudential’s buildings.

Since “soft-opening” in May, Gold Striker has seen major additions, most notably the addition of plywood walls and white foam along the sides and underside of the track. By coincidence, these spots pass closest to or face the buildings located on Great America Parkway. During initial construction, the park added what was dubbed an, “initial descent tunnel” onto the first drop of the ride. This feature was presumably added to mitigate the sound from the first drop of the ride.

Trying to build this ride has been quite the roller coaster ride in and of itself – the plans go back to 2007, when the park first began the permitting process. In addition to the standard permits, three hearings were held on potential noise levels – all of which were initiated by appeals from the owners of the buildings closest to the proposed ride.

Billy D’Anjou, a local roller coaster enthusiast, has logged 80 circuits on the coaster since it opened in May and is hoping to hit his 100th ride in July.

“I personally don’t mind more enhancements (to the ride) but I think the whole noise mitigation issue has gotten out out of control,” he said. “In the end it makes me worry what limitations Great America will have in the future. (Prudential) should expect noise from a theme park. It’s not a library or fine art museum.”

Gold Striker at California's Great America. Photo (C) 2013 Kris Rowberry & Great American Thrills. All rights reserved.

Gold Striker thrills riders on a recent operating day.

Gold Striker is the first wooden roller coaster built in Northern California since 1999. It boasts the tallest and fastest drop in Northern California and is the largest capital investment in the park in over a decade. The ride was built partially on the footprint of another ride, Willard’s Whizzer – a steel coaster that operated from 1976 to 1988.

The land that Prudential’s buildings sit on was originally an auxiliary parking lot for Great America. The land was sold in the late 90’s during the dot com boom. Prudential acquired the buildings in early 2002, according to a press release on their website.

Marriott’s Great America opened in 1976, as a celebration of America’s bi-centennial. The concept was to create a chain of parks to become an answer to Disney’s theme park empire.