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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’s Winterfest forgot New Year’s Eve

Yesterday, California’s Great America made their official announcement on Winterfest – a holiday-themed event that will extend the season nearly to the end of the calendar year.

And yet, the park appears to have missed out on a major marketing and event opportunity…New Year’s Eve.

For decades, the South Bay has tried to find its identity, beyond the shadow of San Francisco. For those of you not from the area, it’s actually a big deal to South Bay people, especially considering we’re the larger population area. One only has to look at the coverage for the recent Super Bowl for evidence of that. San Francisco also has a tradition of a massive fireworks show at midnight to commemorate the New Year.

In sharp contrast, the South Bay does not have a marquee New Year’s Eve show. Instead, we have to remind our residents not to shoot their firearms into the sky.

So, it was a bit shocking to me to see in the park press release yesterday that Winterfest festivities will end the day before New Year’s Eve, which this year falls on Saturday night.

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Are you catching my drift yet?

Simply put – how can you put on a first-time holiday event and not throw a New Year’s Eve celebration – especially if you’re already open the day before and more importantly, in an area DESPERATE to find such a tradition? Just imagine for a moment: an evening of fun capped off with one of the coolest new traditions in the South Bay – falling into 2017.

Wait, what?

You heard me right. New York says they “drop the ball” in Times Square, when in reality a computer controlled winch slowly lowers that ball down a flagpole. Why can’t California’s Great America use the park’s tallest “flagpole” – Drop Tower – and give 24 lucky people the opportunity to leave the ground in 2016, and “drop in” to 2017, all at the stroke of midnight?

But Kris – how are you going to ensure they drop precisely at midnight?

Easy! The ride has a manual mode – which allows the operator to release the cabins manually from the ground. When the clock strikes 12, all they have to do is push the button on the control panel and wheeeee here comes 2017, complete with fireworks going off in the distance (or even better – off the top of the tower itself).

And here’s the best part – the 24 seats could be auctioned off, with the benefactor being local charities.

Okay Kris, but what if the weather isn’t conducive to riding Drop Tower and what about families who may want to come? (I.E. rain and wind)

No problem – you simply move to the other “ball drop” – or in this case – “ball raise” – the Star Tower. It’s enclosed, also able to do manual modes and breaks down maybe once every other season.

That same auction could take place, albeit with more participants – and anyone can ride (with chaperone, of course).

To me, this seems like a no-brainer, probably because I proposed this very event all the way back in 2003. I was much younger then; a wide-eyed, new employee of the park who didn’t understand how corporations worked. The idea never made it past the suggestion box and I didn’t make it past my second season.

Nonetheless, if you’re going to make a new event stick in this industry, you have to go big that first year to make it beyond memorable. Otherwise, it won’t warrant additional capital for the next year and worse – people won’t come back.

Discovery Kingdom did it their first year by bringing in the world’s largest Christmas tree – what will CGA’s big selling point be?

To sum up – without a New Year’s Eve celebration to cap it off, Winterfest at California’s Great America isn’t really as good of an event as it could or more importantly SHOULD be.

Oh and since I’ve been giving away so much free advice in this article, CGA folks – you may want to A.) just hire me to do this full time for you or B.) check out several other ways how you can score big points for your 40th anniversary.


The Demon Song and Soundtrack

In honor of Halloween’s approach, what better way to theme your own, personal Haunt than by using the complete, original 1980 soundtrack from the line of the Demon at both Great America’s.

Yes, the “Demon Song” has been online for some time – but not the whole, nearly 30 minute queue recording, so enjoy!

A word of warning – this track is seriously corny!


Halloween Haunt 2013 at California’s Great America

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In only a few, short years, Halloween Haunt at California’s Great America has gone from two “hand me down” mazes from Knott’s Berry Farm to easily the de facto Halloween event in Northern California.

Now with eight (8) mazes, three dedicated “scare zones” and enough fog machines and tinted lighting to make any rock concert jealous – the Haunt is now worthy of being up for comparison to the event that initially spawned it in Southern California.

The entertainment begins just as you enter the front gate to the park. Fire cannons (yes, you read that correctly) have been installed along the reflecting pool of Carousel Columbia. Never did I think I would feel the heat of flames on a relaxing ride like Columbia – then again, this IS Haunt. Consider walking into Carousel Plaza your “baptism by fire” to Haunt. The only thing that would make it better would be to run the carousel backwards.

To the right of the carousel, lies the first of two new mazes this year, “Dia de los Muertos.” As you can imagine, it’s a Latin themed maze, complete with Spanish-talking zombies and dizzying effects. The artwork alone makes the maze worth going into (and we STRONGLY recommend getting a pair of 3D glasses for $1.00 at the entrance). Those 3D glasses can also be used in the “CarnEVIL” maze in Orleans Place.

At the back of the park lies Zombie High, the other new maze for 2013. The building, which lies behind the Grizzly roller coaster, was built specifically for this maze, but I imagine it will double as a Haunt storage warehouse in the off-season. Considering all the material necessary to pull this event off now – it would make sense to expand the “backlot storage” the park currently has.

“Zombie High” is modeled after Shows Director, Clayton Lawrence’s old high school, down to the mascot. Of course, I’m guessing he didn’t have all the zombies and blood, there. See if you can catch all the inside jokes and macabre humor – just don’t upset the Principal.

The eight mazes and elaborate theming in the park would have been enough to placate most Halloween fans – but then California’s Great America did something celebrated by park fans and observers…they didn’t stop there.

Back in March, Park Spokesperson Roger Ross stressed that, “Cedar Fair is committed to California’s Great America. We’re replacing roofs…there’s fresh paint everywhere.” And you know what? He wasn’t kidding. That same spirit and drive to revive the park to it’s former glory and true potential is clearly evident in all aspects of the Haunt this year. Did you really need fire cannons at the front entrance? Not really – but who the hell cares – they’re freaking awesome!

In addition to the two new mazes and amazing theming throughout the park, Great America now offers a pre-scare meal, dubbed “Madame Maries Voodoo Chophouse.” The $22.99 add-on to your admission includes: early entry to the park, an all-you-can-eat, cajun-themed buffet, single “Fright Lane” entry to a maze of your choice and apparently very exclusive ride time on Gold Striker!

Now, most buffets at amusement parks are well – not worth writing home about. But, this meal included: fried catfish, creole, biscuits, prime rib(!) and soft drinks among other items. There’s even a chocolate fountain, complete with fruit and other dessert options. It shattered my notion of what I could eat an an amusement park outside of the Disneyland Resort. The park also offers a “Fright Feast” for $13.99, with more standard, picnic grove food options.

But the two new mazes, elaborately-themed buffet and exclusive ride time on Gold Striker was NOT the highlight of the night. That honor was reserved for the masterfully choreographed ice show, “Blades of Horror.”

Yes, you read right – an ICE show at a Halloween event. Stay with me, people…

A combination “Cirque” style show with an intriguing storyline, “Blades of Horror” is easily the best show I have seen at California’s Great America, going back to the KECO days of the late 1980’s.

The talent is largely local and according to many staff members, the show was largely driven by the performers simply wanting to keep performing. It has the look and feel of a large budget show you’d catch in any Las Vegas resort – and yet it’s right here, in the middle of Haunt. The acrobatics, aerials stunts and exhibitions of these actors is nothing short of spectacular. The grand finale alone is something that simply cannot be missed and may never be duplicated again.

There you have it – not one, but no less than five incredible reasons to visit California’s Great America and their burgeoning Halloween Haunt event.

As the days get closer to Halloween, it’s best to schedule your visit on either a Sunday or better still – visit as soon as possible. The crowds will only get larger as the holiday approaches, and so does the cost of admission.

Oh, and don’t show up to the park on Halloween – Haunt runs through October 27th.

Halloween Heads – it’s time to get out to California’s Great America – and get your scream on.

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Learn more about Haunt and it’s incredible entertainment and food options here: https://www.cagreatamerica.com/haunt


“Won’t You Come and Play With Us?”

Longtime residents of the South Bay remember this park by a much different theme.

Howdy, partner! Can you name this ‘dem here lost amusement park of San Jose, CA?

We’re hoping to have the video completed for this park by July (fingers crossed!)

Frontier Village site