This has been a long time coming – but I’m proud to introduce the first in a series of videos on the lost amusement parks of Northern California.
Special thanks to Nick Laschkewitsch for his excellent camera work on this intro.
After observing and working in this industry for over 15 years, I’ve found there to be two types of people that enjoy amusement / theme parks in this country: those who visit to enjoy themselves with their friends and families; and those who visit the park to criticize every facet of the park or people who enjoy attractions that they do not.
I’ve dubbed them, “enthusiasts and enthusi-asses,” respectably.
I bring this up because there is an event occurring over the next few weekends along the Jersey shore that highlights this disparity within the ranks of those who consider themselves as “fans” of amusement parks – and has re-affirmed my belief in humanity.
First, a little background –
Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, with millions affected. Some of the most visible victims were the traditional, seaside amusement parks of New Jersey. When the first photos of the damage came in, the striking photo of a pleasure pier – with rides partially submerged in the surf – became one of the many iconic photos of the disaster. Several other seaside amusement parks, including Keansburg Amusement Park fell victim to the same fate along the East Coast’s shore.
It was a dark time for the owners of these traditional parks, many of which have been in the family for generations. With the storm still wreaking havoc, some people took to the internet to thank the hurricane for destroying certain rides, as if they somehow deserved this fate.
They never seemed to post anything about the families who had invested so much of their personal savings to purchase and install the rides; Let alone the incredible financial burden that was sure to follow.
A person who “enjoys” a specific hobby and who seems to only care about themselves and not others – I’d describe that person as an “enthusi-ass,” wouldn’t you?
So now, we come to the other side of the spectrum, to the “enthusiast.” Once the damage was fully accounted for and insurance issues resolved – the New Jersey region of the American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE) decided that they were not going to stand for stupidity. They took to the internet, not to flame, troll or degrade an already bad situation…
No – they sprang into action.
The region created a repeating event they dubbed, “Dig out the Wildcat.” Its purpose: to assist the family owned Keansburg Amusement Park in removing deposited sand around their Wildcat roller coaster.
People helping people. Via the internet. Not yelling or flaming one another.
What a novel concept.
What will happen in the small, family owned amusement park on the Keansburg shore over the next few weekends is proof-positive that there still are good people in this world. Over 20 people have expressed interest in the event.
Even better, that group of people – who share the common bond of enjoying amusement parks – can unite to help out the very people that allow them to enjoy life to the fullest.
They know that there’s no opportunities for rides, or the coveted “exclusive ride time,” no – they simply want to help out their fellow human beings.
True “enthusiasts” in every sense of the word. True enthusiasts talk with action. In this case, it’s with buckets and shovels.
At least now we can see the true enthusiasts use their hands for good.
I only wish that I could get out there myself and assist them.
October 18, 1945 – January 7, 2013
Huell Howser is the reason I created / relaunched the “Great American Thrills” brand as a television concept. When I first saw him on television about five years ago, it gave me inspiration – to come up with my own concept in a vein similar to his – and to begin the search for a career where I could have as much fun as he seemed to be having. If I could live vicariously through a 65+ yr. old man on television, well damn it, that’s what I was going to do!
His myriad of series on public television covered state parks, fairs and quirky attractions – everything you wanted to do with your free time, but never seemed to have the commitment.
But Huell did. All 440 episodes.
His folksy attitude and seemingly endless excitement over what most of us would consider benign things, made him a popular target to be lampooned. But you know what they say – “…imitation is the highest form of flattery” and I guarantee any one of those lampooners would have killed to have a 20+ year career in television.
Hell, I sure would!
But, behind the twangy accent and endless enthusiasm, laid the brains of a businessman. Huell was brilliant at marketing his show beyond traditional mediums, even going so far as to manage the distribution of his DVD’s personally. He was a businessman, through and through. I defy you to find a grandparent of yours who doesn’t know the name “Huell Howser” or “California’s Gold.” That’s good marketing, my friends.
And that’s what I admire about him the most – this guy knew exactly what he was doing – and executed his plan perfectly.
I could only hope to have a career so inspiring and meaningful as his.
Rest in peace, Huell. You’ll always be “golden” in my book.
Being a lifelong devotee of the amusement park,* I have always been fascinated with the historical aspects of the parks my family visited – especially while we were there.
Correction: I was not made AWARE of the incredible, historical aspects of the parks, until 1993.
For a wide-eyed ten year old, it was an ethereal moment to discover from your father that “the Demon” at Great America used to be sans loops. Or, that a ride could be called “Whizzer” and not have to do with a bodily function.
Even as I close in on the big three-oh, it always gives me a giddy feeling when I discover something new about the amusement parks I grew up with as a child.
In a way, it’s like an oral tradition that someday, God willing, I could pass along to my children.
Fast forward a decade and change, and the company I was working for was part of a battle for historic preservation. In that battle, the passion and spark for yearning to know more about how we all got here was re-ignited.
It certainly helped the project along when the company went under suddenly, too…
So in this new series, I hope to bring all of you on a journey – a journey back in time; to a place where time went by just a little bit slower; where people didn’t run into you on the sidewalk as they were texting on their cell phones; where the family outing to an amusement park was much more than just flashing your season pass – it was an adventure in and of itself.
Join me, as I try to seek out and re-discover the “lost” amusement parks of the San Francisco Bay Area and in the process, reclaim our colorful, amusement history. “Let’s ride!”
*Lifelong fan since my father forced me on the Tidal Wave at Great America in July of 1993.
First off, my apologies for the delay in updating lately. Unlike some others in the theme park fandom community – I actually hold down full-time employment in a separate career…
In only it’s fifth year of existence, California’s Great America has taken their “Halloween Haunt” from a paltry offering that used “long retired” mazes from other parks – to a bona fide, macabre extravaganza worthy of a separate gate admission.
After parking the car and meeting up with my group for the night, I immediately noticed the attention to theme and detail. Carousel Plaza was lit up (and so were the teenagers I was surrounded by).
In Hometown Square my fellow “scared-y cats” and I gathered, awaiting the Overlord (the de facto leader of the monsters) to rise up from the depths and “plug” all the fun activities for the evening (literally as if he was plugging a product on the Howard Stern show) as well as command his minions to go forth, “…and terrorize!” The ropes were dropped and the night of fright officially began.
Figuring the front mazes would be crowded at first, I made my way to the back of the park, where the familiar sounds of “Toy Factory” could be heard.
“Toy Factory” is set in it’s namesake – a not so abandoned factory inhabited by deranged dolls and other toys, who were more than willing to help unsuspecting guests join their ranks. Some of the best effects are found in the the strobe rooms, but if you’re claustrophobic – this is not the maze for you.
“Werewolf Canyon” was sadly at the bottom of my list this year, mostly because it was practically empty by all standards. While most of the mazes will will up nicely as we get closer to Halloween, I didn’t get one good fright out of the entire attraction – which is a sharp contrast from last years maze in the same location.
Next up was arguably the best of the mazes at this event, for several years now, “Cornstalkers”. Set in the back of the park, through the Picnic Grove and under the Grizzly, this maze had the best scares of the night, by far.
Not only does it feel like the longest of the mazes, but it’s use of open air and lack of soundtrack gives you the false sense of safety – which the talent in the maze use perfectly to their advantage. The addition of actors blending perfectly into the corn maize walls towards the end of the attraction adds to the suspense and fright.
“Madame Marie’s Massacre Mansion” is a new addition to the maze lineup this year. Built into it’s own building (ironically next to First Aid) “Mansion” is one of the best themed mazes I’ve walked through in quite some time. It also commanded the longest line of the night.
It was clear there was attention to detail at every level – it truly made you FEEL as though you were in a 1920’s (or so) mansion, that is, if you didn’t look up to the ceiling and see the shed you were actually in! This is in sharp contrast to most of the mazes at events like this, where it’s just painted particle board.
The effects were nothing short of impressive and the costumes were excellent, to boot. It’s clear that this maze took some serious investment to get it right – and in my opinion it was well worth the time and effort put into it. One can only hope we see it return next year.
Vegans beware! “Slaughterhouse Annihilation” just might make you sick. Based around an abandoned meat processing facility, this maze is one of the more gruesome of the bunch – and rightfully so. Expect to be thrown in a meat grinder in this maze at some point – and whatever you do – don’t show the pigs any fear!
“CarnEvil” is the reigning patriarch of the mazes at this event. Originally a maze down at Knott’s Berry Farm, “CarnEvil was the first maze to make it’s way to Great America when the Halloween Haunt debuted five years ago.
This maze is by far, the most light-hearted of them all, which attracts the multitude of fans to it. That is, of course, if you’re not afraid of clowns.
Built into the Rue le Dodge bumper car arena, “CarnEvil” is also a 3D maze – used to brilliant effect in the opening room. Just don’t walk too quickly or you just might run into a wall or three.
Herein again, I found the lack of talent inside to be the only disappointment. At previous events, it would have been impossible to throw a pie and NOT hit a homicidal clown. Instead, I was hard pressed to see more than 7-10 actors inside!
“Club Blood ReVamp’d” was sadly the one maze I was unable to get to in my time at the park. Though, from the scantily-clad zombie and vampire ladies that were going inside – I’m certainly regretting not making the time to get in!
As the night progressed and the temperature dropped, the scare zones (and the fog) only warmed up in terms of action. The purposely dimmed lighting certainly did its part as well. Nothing beats walking through the arbor arch at the back of the park and seeing about three feet in front of you!
“Blood Drums” is a high energy, outdoor show that’s best described as “Stomp” meets “zombie apocalypse.”
Set in the premium venue at the park (directly behind the Carousel Columbia) “Blood Drums” is a 3-4 member band in full zombie attire that uses metal objects and “industrial tools” to create music.
If you’re into loud, ear-splitting music – this is definitely the show for you. If you’re not – steer clear, hombre. Many times, I found myself reaching to plug my ears, as the volume was up so high it physically hurt – and I was standing about 100 feet away from the stage. How the guests standing at the front of the stage are not deaf today, is beyond me.
In fact, the best music the team played during their set, again in my opinion, was when they TURNED OFF the backup bass and drumbeats – and simply played live.
“CULTure Pop” is in the Showtime Theatre – and can best be described as “The Hanging” without the blood, stunts or punch of the actual hanging.
Cedar Fair Entertainment certainly seems to have a fascination with pop culture, to the point of being painful to watch. Expect to see pop culture “icons” appear throughout the show, with many of them that just don’t work. Cedar Fair also seems to have a fascination with effeminate men playing the supporting role to the “straight man” in the show…go figure.
There were some good moments though, including a cameo by a hairy “Honey Boo Boo” and a dismissal of the band, “New Direction.”
But the lack of a “finale” (I.E. someone has to die at these types of shows) and several VERY adult themed dance numbers (We’re talking full on groping and humping!) really hurt the overall entertainment value, especially for an event marketed to kids ages 13+. Have your scantily clad ladies, that’s fine – but tone down the sexual overtones – it’s shock value and really does not add to the show.
But what REALLY shocks me, is something that’s completely out of the parks’ control – the lack of understanding about what these events are all about. I’m talking about how I lost count of the number of STROLLERS and CHILDREN who were clearly too young to be at such a mentally-intense event as this.
The park certainly does their part to curb this; warnings abound on park literature and signage. Heck, even the security guards were warning parents – but it didn’t seem to dissuade the “Parents of the Year” from continuing their march towards the inevitable child psychologist appointments.
So, overall – I see nothing but good things for this event in the future. While it may not have the star power of the original Halloween Haunt at Knott’s Berry Farm, if it continues on this path that it’s on, I see no reason why it should not have the same staying power and clout as it’s namesake does.
If you have not already purchased a Season Pass for this park, what exactly are you waiting for? In addition to admission to Halloween Haunt (depending on the level of pass you purchase) you can receive free parking, free admission to Gilroy Gardens, as well as merchandise and food discounts in-park. (We saved $20 collectively on our dinner!)
Oh, not to mention Gold Striker, CGA’s first roller coaster in over a DECADE (yes, it’s been that long, people) and second wooden coaster!
- If you don’t like being scared – save yourself the trouble and don’t go.
- Friday nights tend to be a younger crowd than Saturday nights.
- Arrive at the front gate at opening to maximize your stay. You’re going to need as much time as possible to experience everything.
- Take on the outdoor mazes AFTER the sun sets, focus on indoor mazes during the twilight.
- Try to find the pockets of people and then avoid them – to keep lines to a minimum.
- Go in late September or early October to avoid the expected, larger crowds as Halloween approaches.
For more information, visit: www.cagreatamerica.com/haunt2012
1001 Fairgrounds Drive
Originally started as an oceanarium inRedwood Cityback in 1968, this hybrid park has not forgotten its roots as an educational outlet for the animal kingdom. Today, hundreds of species of birds, fish, tigers, sea lions, dolphins and orca live at the park, giving guests a stark contrast to its larger thrill rides.
Built next to the bay along Redwood Shores, Marine World was a small oceanarium whose mission was to educate as well as entertain. In the mid 1970’s, the park merged with the fledgling Africa USA fromLos Angeles. By doing so, it infused many more species of animals that guests could only dream about seeing on an African safari.
Rising land prices eventually forced the park to search for other locations and found one at it’s current site,Vallejo,CA. Today, the park has grown quite a bit since its inception. There are now eight roller coasters to its colorful collection. However, the park keeps a firm hold on its mission to provide a thrilling, memorable experience while taking away a greater appreciation of the animal world.
The Three Areas of Six Flags DiscoveryKingdom
The park has recently spent several million dollars upgrading the interior of the park, most notably in themeing each third of the park for easier navigation. For the casual visitor, this makes navigation much more simple.
Land – This area is where most of the animal species reside in the park, and is the oldest section of the park. Don’t miss: Odin’sTemple of the Tiger, Elephant Encounter, Giraffe Dock and the Butterfly Encounter.
A quick side note on the Butterfly Encounter: if you’re not a fan of flying insects or extremely squeamish, I suggest you just visit the gift shop. Butterflies (although perfectly harmless) grow quite large in here and can get very friendly with guests. Plus, they don’t like being swatted or smushed.
Sea – Home to most of the park’s aquatic species, attractions here include:
Sea Lion Stadium: Let Odin & Seasil bring smiles to everyone’s face with their wild and wacky antics.
StingRayBay: Pet a real Sting Ray.
Dolphin Encounter: See and feed Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins.
Walrus Experience: Them tusks are big!!!
Penguin Encounter: These adorable flightless birds show their true talent, “flying” through the water.
For the thrill seekers, three of the park’s coaster’s reside here:
V2– Vertical Velocity: A unique inverted shuttle coaster, it takes passengers from 0-70mph in just a few seconds through a barrel roll and then backwards up a vertical spike. The ride will perform three “circuits” before coming to a stop back in the station.
Roar: A throwback to the classic wooden twister coasters of the 1920’s, Roar is a powerful and intense wooden coaster that is not for the faint of heart.
Superman, Ultimate Escape (OPENING SUMMER 2012): Discovery Kingdom shocked the coaster world in late 2011 with the surprise announcement of this prototype attraction from Premier Rides, the innovator of the linear induction or LIM launch. While the park already has a LSM launching coaster in V2, Superman is a complete circuit coaster complete with a NON-inverting loop.
Sky – Aptly named area of the park; this is where you’ll find most of the larger thrill rides in the park, literally right up front.
Boomerang: Shuttle forward and backward through three mind bending loops. This coaster is very intense – all the inversions (loops) are one after the other, with only a small pause in-between.
Medusa: The park’s signature attraction; riders are whisked 150 feet up, only to flip through eight different inversions, all while riding above the track, with no floor below! Don’t look down, she could turn you to stone…
Kong: This inverted coaster packs a punch not many other coasters can. Five dizzying inversions will leave you speechless; it’s all done while hanging below the track!
Where to Eat –
Besides the usual theme park fare found in the food court (which is located just past the games areas) the park offers several unique food options to parks, including: Gordon Biersch Oasis Club, Panda Express, Johnny Rockets, Subway and a Cold Stone Creamery.
Six Flags recently began an “Online Meal Voucher” program, which claims to save you both time and money by purchasing your meals ahead of time, and redeeming your vouchers for food the day of your trip. Although innovative, I’ve found it really doesn’t save you much time. The only way it really saves you money is by preventing you from eating more food at other locations.
This is a good idea for those who love to have everything planned about their trip well ahead of time. (Even what you may feel like eating that day!) Be advised, if you feel like eating something else when you’re at the park – there are no refunds or exchanges on your meal vouchers.
It’s not very difficult to find the major coasters here, as they stick out predominantly on the park’s skyline. If the park looks or even feels crowded, the best course of action is to hit every major coaster as if you’re circuit training. Start at one end of the park, and work your way to the other. If time is a significant issue, consider investing in a “FlashPass.” For $15 per person, you can reserve your space in line, while you visit other attractions. When your predetermined time comes up, simply enter through the “FlashPass” entrance and your wait will be significantly reduced if there’s a wait at all.
Families with Children:
When you arrive, make sure to pick up a park map and show schedule. Try to convince the kids to save the rides until later on in the day and see every show you can. Your kids will thank you when they get to play tug of war with an elephant. (Spoiler alert: The elephants have never lost!) Another must-see show is the Shouka Spectacular. If you want to stay dry, stay away from the lower bowl of seats. The kids on the other hand, should experience what it’s like to be hit with several hundred gallons of cold salt water at least once in their lifetime. Try to keep the rides to a minimum until later in the day, when most of the shows are no longer scheduled. If you have time flexibility, be sure to check out Thomas Town and Looney Tunes Seaport. This can also be the same plan used to tackle the park if you’re bringing grandkids.
Other Tips –
When walking to or from the parking lot, be mindful it’s a long ½ mile walk. To get the juices flowing at the start of your day, you should make the walk to the park from the lot. But definitely wait for the tram when you head back out, no matter how long the line appears.
Once inside the park, jet on over to the all-day use locker pavilion past Guest Relations and behind the funnel cake restaurant. Make sure to bring along anything you might want for the rest of the day, to avoid the long trip back out to the car and back. This includes pants and a sweatshirt if the weather is expected to be cool later in the night. This way, you’ll have more time and energy to spend in the park, rather than walking back and forth that ½ mile to your car and back. These time-costly trips can easily take 30 minutes away from your day inside the park.
Final Tips –
If at all possible, avoid visiting this park on weekends during the summer as well as during any Cheerleader Competition or live concert by Lake Chabot. The park can be quickly overwhelmed with people and crowding can become an issue in smaller pathway areas.
If you’re a fan of being scared or really love Halloween, be sure to experience Fright Fest. Zombies take over the midway, haunted mazes pop up inside the park. You might even catch an authentic “freak show.” This spooktacular event begins around 4p.m. each October operating day and is not recommended for those under 14 years old. You have been warned!
Also, make sure to try and visit during the winter “Holiday in the Park” event, as this is one of only two parks open for significant periods of time in the winter here in Northern California.
Today is a good day – yet another step forward in the quest to see this concept go from simply blog to television show.
Ladies and gentlemen, the payments are made, and the bills processed – we officially own http://www.greatamericanthrills.net! Dare I say, this thing is looking more and more professional by the week.
Who knows, maybe some park PR personnel will actually call us back…
It should be noted, that we originally wanted the “.com” address. But at over $1600, it’s still way out of our budget.
Plus, we like .net – it has a nice feeling to it.
It’s here! It’s here! After all your pre-planning, hype and waiting – the big day has finally arrived! You’ve walking up to the entrance right now and you’re ready for a day of fun and excitement. But, like all good theme park fans, you’ve also got a plan to execute. It starts with when you’re going to refuel your body…
“When should we eat?”
The traditional eating times (11am – 2pm, 5pm – 7pm) are some of the best to ride the park’s bigger and more popular attractions. If you can offset your meals by a few hours you’ll find yourself going on more attractions and having much more fun.
Water rides traditionally get large lines during the hottest part of the day. If you don’t mind it being a little cooler, you can hop on these attractions just as the park opens. Night time or the half-hour before closing is also a perfect opportunity to tackle the water rides…but just be mindful that you might be driving home a bit moist!
“What should we ride when?”
This can vary with each park, and when you visit. Check out each individual park’s section for a more detailed plan on tackling the, “big ticket attractions” of each park. General rule of thumb is that the newest, latest and greatest ride is best to ride at the start or very end of the day.
Should I purchase a season pass or just purchase my tickets at the gate?
A season pass is a good idea only if you’re going to visit the park multiple times a year (or are planning a trip to several parks in a national chain).
One of the best ways to save time and money at amusement parks is to check their website. Most now offer the option to purchase discounted tickets online, which will almost always save you money versus paying for tickets at the main gate. Be sure to also check if any promotions are being run, such as bring a soda can in for discounts.
Well, there you have it. The complete pre-planning guide to all theme parks, regardless of location. If you follow these steps and suggestions, you will not only save yourself money, but also get more for your money.
With all that generic planning complete, let’s now take a weekly look at the California parks, starting in the North and working our way down South…
Be sure to check Great American Thrills each week for these updates. You can even send us your ideas or thoughts too via WordPress!
Alas, you’re one step closer to enjoying a day out in your local amusement or thrill park – but there’s still a bit more pre-planning that you must accomplish…exactly what are you going to bring to the park with you? If you’ve read my blog thus far, the answer shouldn’t surprise you…
It goes without saying, but if the weather report says the high temperature is expected to be above 70 degrees – pass on the pants.
Too often, people misjudge the weather and end up passing out in line because of a heat stroke or exhaustion. The $3.50 bottles of water in the queue lines certainly don’t help the situation, either! So do yourself a favor, go with shorts when the weather’s over 70F.
If you absolutely have to, pack a jacket and pair of pants and leave them in the car! You can always go back to the car if you or anyonein your party gets too cold. There is no reason to lug all that, for lack of a better term – CRAP – around all day. It will inevitably tire you out much faster than a quick walk to the parking lot.
There’s also the option of a multiple-use day locker within the park boundaries, which is a good investment if the parking lot is a significant distance away from the entrance. An example of this would be Six Flags Discoery Kingdom, where even a brisk walk from your car to the entrance is fifteen minutes.
Nearly all parks today do not allow loose articles on their larger rides and attractions. The reasoning behind it is simple – it’s a major safety issue, as flying objects can seriously injure patrons or disrupt safe operation of the ride. In fact, on Knott’s Berry Farms’ “Jaguar!” roller coaster, a loose jacket jammed the wheels of the coaster, stalling it midway through the circuit.
That being said, if you absolutely have to bring loose items into the park, make sure they’re just the absolute bare necessities: your wallet, possibly a small camera, sunglasses and maybe a cell phone. That’s it.
Purses, backpacks and bags – although convenient – will only add to your wait times getting into the park, as security will be poking, prodding and rummaging through them, looking for unsafe items. It will also inevitably raise your stress levels as you attempt to keep track of all your stuff as you leave it on the ride platform while on the larger attractions.
Plus, there’s no reason to bring your iPod, iPad (seen it twice now) or any other iDevice unless you’re using it to keep track of others in your group. Even then, a tablet computer at a theme park makes for a tempting steal even for the casual thief.
Besides, those green pigs will still be there to knock down with those exploding birds…
So let’s say you still didn’t listen to my insider tips and tricks, and you STILL brought all your crap with you inside the park. To help with the glut of loose items you might still have despite our warnings, the best parks offer semi-secure bins or shelves to place your items in while riding. But beware! The parks’ are not responsible for anything lost, stolen or damaged. It’s a gamble every time you ride – whether or not you come back to find your items all still there.
Even worse, several park chains are now requiring that you place all your loose items in PAY PER USE lockers just before you ride. Personally, I feel like if that’s the case, why not just charge guests for each time they ride, rather than a flat admission at the front of the park. But, there’s a little trick to save you a few bucks each time you ride.
In order to “beat” these systems, and save you a handful of money that you shouldn’t have to have spent in the first place, I recommend that you wear cargo shorts, preferably with zippered or double buttoned pockets.
As silly as it sounds, these pants can be a real money-saver at parks. They allow you to ride any attraction knowing your items are safe and secure, while at the same time not forcing you to put items in a $1.00 single use locker! On our last trip to Six Flags Great America, we saved nearly $10.00 in locker fees per person, saving our group nearly $50.00 for the day. (That’s more than the price of a single admission!)
Wearing sandals of any kind is also a big no-no, despite how hot the day might become. Sandals are easily lost on rides, extremely painful to walk several miles around a park in and expose you to all sorts of nasty things found on park pathways. A good pair of sneakers will keep you comfortable (and clean) all day.
In our next adventure…the big day finally arrives – now what?!?