Columbia Carousel

Six Flags Great America and California's Great America, two amusement parks located in different corners of the United States, share a common origin as part of Marriot’s foray into the theme park industry. Yet, as their histories have unfolded, these two parks have taken very different paths, each evolving into a unique destination with one thriving and the other with an expiration date. What happened to these two parks to set them down such different paths?

Let’s look at the divergent histories of the Great America theme parks.

Marriott’s Great Americas

Image: Six Flags Great America

Marriott's venture into the amusement park business began in the 1970s. The company had a vision to create high-quality theme parks that focused on providing a family-friendly experience for guests of all ages. Their initial plans included three parks: one on the West Coast, one on the East Coast, and one in the Midwest.

However, due to overwhelming local protests, the East Coast park, which was to be located near Washington DC never came to be. However, Marriot was able to follow through with their Midwest park located between Chicago and Milwaukee, and their West Coast park located near San Francisco.

California's Great America, situated in Santa Clara, California, opened its doors in March 1976, and Six Flags Great America, located in Gurnee, Illinois, opened its gates in May 1976. Both parks were initially called "Marriott's Great America.” The parks were nearly identical in design and emphasized an American-themed experience, with sections of the park representing different eras of the Americas.

Areas of the park were themed based on the Midwest, the Canadian Yukon, New England, and New Orleans. In fact, while both parks have rethemed some lands, they both retain some of the same themed areas such as Orleans Place and Hometown Square. You can still see many similarities between the two parks if you were to visit both, or even just by looking at their maps.

Image: California's Great America

Under the ownership of Marriot in the late 70s and early 80s, both parks featured unique and innovative rides, a variety of entertainment options, and beautifully landscaped grounds. They both received steel multiple steel coasters, a railway, water rides, and several identical flat rides including unique triple Ferris wheels. The icons of these parks, however, were the double-decker Columbia Carousels that greeted guests at the front of each of the parks. Both parks also featured the use of the Looney Tunes characters.

Diverging Paths

Batman: The Ride
Image: Six Flags

However, the paths of these two parks diverged when Marriott decided to sell the parks in the 1980s. The Illinois park was sold to Six Flags in 1984, and with this sale, Six Flags also gained the rights to the use of the Looney Tunes characters. While Six Flags has changed ownership over the years, the park has continued to operate within the Six Flags chain since 1984.

Conversely, the California park was sold to the City of Santa Clara at the same time, and the park’s name was shortened to simply Great America. The City of Santa Clara hired Kings Entertainment Company (the owner of Kings Island and Kings Dominion at the time) to manage the park, and by 1989 the city sold the park to Kings Entertainment Company. Just a few years later, Kings Entertainment Company would be acquired by Paramount Communications and would become Paramount Parks. At this time, the park went by the name Paramount’s Great America.

Later in 2006, the park changed hands again when Paramount Parks was acquired by Cedar Fair. After this acquisition, the park’s name was changed a fourth time, and it would henceforth be known as California’s Great America. It is very possible that this recurring change in ownership and lack of stability in management led to the park not receiving as much investment as its former sister park.

Over the years, the two parks continued to evolve independently. Six Flags Great America continued to add more world-class roller coasters such as Ragin Bull and X-Flight, while California's Great America seems to have invested more in family attractions and flat rides. Currently, Six Flags Great America ranks fourth in the United States for their number of coasters with 15 coasters (tied with Cedar Point). Six Flags Great America’s coaster line-up is also quite diverse ranging from wooden coasters like Rocky Mountain Construction’s Goliath to Bolliger & Mabillard steel giants.

Image: California's Great America

They also have multiple historical coasters including two ACE Coaster Landmark coasters: Batman: The Ride and Whizzer (formerly Willard’s Whizzer). California’s Great America only has 9 coasters. The standouts among them are the wooden coaster, Gold Striker, RMC single-rail coaster, RailBlazer, and the B&M inverted coaster, Flight Deck. California’s Great America unfortunately removed its version of Willard’s Whizzer back in the late 1980s.

Contrasting Futures

Great America Park maps
Image: California's Great America and Six Flags Great America

While both parks have maintained some of the same themed areas over the years, some areas have been changed. Both parks seem to lack some of the immersion of these themed areas today. However, Six Flags seems as if they may be beginning to invest more into these areas as evidenced by the addition of DC Universe in 2022.

This is a big step toward incorporating more cohesive theming within the different areas of the park. California’s Great America has seen some retheming of some of their areas, however, overall, the areas seem to lack cohesion and immersion. It is difficult to tell when you have entered one area or another. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that we will see this change as the park is set to close.

In 2022, it was announced that Cedar Fair had sold the land that California’s Great America sits on. Under this deal, the park can operate through 2033. While we did see the addition of a new flat ride this year, it is unlikely that Cedar Fair would invest a large amount of money into a park that is set to close. Likely, the park may see some new flat rides that can be easily relocated to other Cedar Fair parks.

However, it does not seem that California’s Great America will ever get the attention and investment that it has deserved so much over the years. California’s Great America could have been so much more, had it received the same stability and investment as its Midwest counterpart.

These two Great America parks, united at one time under Marriot’s ownership, are now heading into entirely different futures. While Six Flags Great America seems destined to continue to progress and improve, California’s Great America will be closing its doors within the next decade. It is a shame that these two parks have taken such different paths, and California’s Great America will be sorely missed.


Add new comment

About Theme Park Tourist

Theme Park Tourist is one of the web’s leading sources of essential information and entertaining articles about theme parks in Orlando and beyond.

We are one of the world’s largest theme park guide sites, hosting detailed guides to more than 80 theme parks around the globe.

Find Out More About Us...

Plan Your Trip

Our theme park guides contain reviews and ratings of rides, restaurants and hotels at more than 80 theme parks worldwide.

You can even print them.

Start Planning Now...