|Trip Report: |
I had a game plan. There was a method to my madness. Thursday I had gone to Great America and nailed that credit on Superman, and I rode Viper and Whizzer again. So while I hadn't spent a lot of time there, I did all the things I really wanted to do this trip. But Great America is a big park, and I would have liked to do more of it. Admittedly, Saturday in July at the only major park within an hour's drive of Chicago seemed like one of the stupidest things I could possibly consider. But I figured I could start out early, and if things got too crowded and nasty, I could leave and go somewhere else. Santa's Village came to mind, for instance, where they have a coaster I have never heard anything good abot...but I haven't ridden it, either. So I had a contingency plan all worked out, and at 10:00, I was paying my $10 to park my car. $10 for parking, huh? I think I will have dinner outside the park, and settle for my Darien Lake "Superman" shirt. Worst of all I had to sit in a block-long traffic jam to do it. You know something, I know a trick that can make that traffic mess disappear...!
The line to get through the me_al detectors and into the park was ridiculous. At the very least, these parks ought to institute a "nothing to declare" lane for those of us who had the foresight to dump our keys, loose change, Pocket Super Tools, and other metal junk in the car, or at least for those of us who aren't carrying (or pushing) enough equipment to provision (except for meals, of course) a week-long expedition (or a single pre-ambulatory kid). Ugh! Almost a half-hour gone and I'm barely inside the gate! This is one area where Kings Island has the right idea, and Six Flags St. Louis actually does it right...if you're going to do a magnetometer search, do it away from the park entrance gate where you have more room to work.
Once inside, I turned left towards Orleans. Ugh. The line for Superman filled the queue house and backed up almost all the way back to the carousel. On around the corner, Batman was using his long entrance. I kept right on going. Iron Wolf had just come up and was a walk-on, but why would I subject myself to that appropriately-rust-covered torture machine? I kept on going, but the situation failed to improve, although the difficulty changed. Camp Cartoon Network was...closed?! Looney Tunes National Park was...closed? American Eagle...closed. Demon...Closed. Carousel...Closed. Deja'Vu...Closed. Did I miss something somewhere? I thought the park was supposed to open at 10:00! Where I come from, when they say the park opens at 10:00, they mean the park opens at 10:00! Not Noon, 10:00! I continued on around the circle, and finally reached Raging Bull. Apparently Southwest Territory is "close enough" to the front of the park. It was open, so I opted to take a ride, pausing for a moment to get a chuckle out of the kid who had secured himself in the test seat, then discovered his leg was 2" too short to reach the release pedal. He sat there for a few minutes with an "I meant to do that" expression before somebody let him out. Anyway, I proceeded through the queue and within a few moments joined a couple of NAPHA members, Dave and Brian, in the last row of the train.
Just as last year, Raging Bull was a perfectly adequate ride that, for all the deep dips, does surprisingly little, and features a total of three trim brakes on the course including one oddly placed at the top of the third hill. I don't know what it is, but for some reason these B&M speed coasters just don't do anything for me compared to the Arrow, Morgan and Intamin "hypercoasters". Part of it is probably the high seat back, and the odd train geometry where the train pivots on a point directly below the seat. This makes it so that when the train should be dropping out from under you, the seat is rocking forward and the seatback is thwacking you gently in the back of the head. Compared to more traditional train designs, that extra rotation at the top of the hill just seems odd. The more I think about it, the more I think the B&M speed coasters would be better if the seats were between the axles instead of directly above them.
As I exited the ride, a young kid came up to me and asked one of my favorite questions. "Could you tell me what time it is?" he asked.
"Certainly," I replied immediately. This gave me a moment to consider the fact that I was effectively being asked this question in Chicago, which leaves open the possibility of all kinds of philosophical responses [Footnote 1]. But this kid was quick.
"What time is it, then?" he responded, not missing a step...in fact, not even giving me the usual expectant look.
True to my word, I told him. "11:25." I went on around for another ride on Raging Bull. This time I was closer to the front of the train, riding with a young man who had logged more than 30 rides on Raging Bull this season, and was narrating his way through it not unlike those people you see on the Discovery Channel shows, only he was less annoying about it. He was right about at least one thing: Further forward in the train there is a nice airtime kick as the train comes off the block brake.
From Raging Bull, I avoided the long line for the freefall, and rode Demon instead. I noticed something interesting as I exited. It appears that each axle on the Demon has been modified with the addition of a single shock-absorber, connected to the back right-hand end of the axle and to the car spine. It's a bit like the shock Chance-Morgan uses on their Runaway Train copy, but it's the first time I've seen this on an Arrow coaster. As for the ride itself, I just think the Demon is neat. It's just a basic double-loop-and-Corkscrew, but the rockwork around the ride adds some unexpected twists, and the waterfall is simply inspired. And more effective than the one on Lightning Racer.
Across from Demon is a gigantic blue and green lawn ornament called Deja'Vu. Today it had a smll sign hanging from the chain across the entrance.
"This ride will open at Noon today."
I checked my watch again. It was a quarter-till and a line had started to form. From the midway I could see activity in the station. I opted to stick it out. Not more than 90 minutes later, I was sitting in the lead car on the third public train of the day. I later learned that it was the third public train of the season. Apparently there *is* a ride which has suffered more downtime this season than Top Thrill Dragster.
I had ridden De(lay)ja'Vu once before, on my visit to Great America last season. That day, the sign at the park entrance indicated that the ride would operate from Noon to 4:00pm; that day I rode it just after 10:00pm. Perhaps my presence is somehow good for this ride... 8-) Anyway, my first ride, a year ago, was in the back row, this time I was up front. If you are bothered by that feeling of dangling face-down in the restraint on the first lift, then my advice to you is to sit in the front of the train, which barely gets past the top of the pull-out curve. It's a neat ride, but I can't understand why they have had so much trouble with it. It doesn't appear to be that complicated, as coasters go...
We took a ride on the Ricochet, a Huss Swing Around, then parted company as Dave wanted to go see a show, and I wanted to ride Viper. The bell in the Southwest Territory chimed 56:00 again. Does anybody know why this bell tolls 56 times every half-hour?
Viper was a not-unreasonable wait for what is still easily the best coaster in the park. Do I really need to say more? After exiting, I headed on back to the back corner of the park for a ride on the American Eagle. Remember, last year when I rode this coaster, it absolutely stunk. This year it is running a bit better, with the retracking of the helix a noticeable improvement. But it still doesn't do much, for all of its size, and again, whoever thought that a 540-degree helix at the midpoint of a racing coaster could possibly be a good idea at the very least needs to have his head examined. Why a 540 helix? Why not a big figure-8 so that the track lengths are approximately equal? Anyway, they only re-tracked about half of the big helix, and having ridden the difference between the old and new, the rest of the ride could use a similar treatment. It's not as dramatic as the old-to-new shift on Raging Wolf Bobs, but it is about as noticeable. And still, the amount of braking on the Eagle is...well, it's right in league with The Beast. At least they let the Eagle fly down its first drop.
I did notice a few other things about the ride. First of all, in case anybody was wondering, they reversed the trains on one side by simply reversing (perhaps also relocating) the chain clutch assembly and turning the cars around. This is obvious because when you are riding forward up the lift hill, you can see on the other train that the articulated axle is leading the train up the hill. I thought 3-bench articulated PTC cars were rare, but Great America has them on both Viper and American Eagle. Also, does anybody know what the metal brackets are (were?) for, rusting away at the top of the Eagle's lift hill?
Ah, well, the questions build. So did the crowd. The park was getting packed. Batman and Vertical Velocity had full queues. Superman, oddly enough, did not. The end of the line was at the entrance to the queue house, and I noticed that three or four short rows of the maze were "shut off" meaning a shorter wait than I had on Thursday! So, of course I took a ride. Superman is a different sort of ride, it's a good ride, but really not spectacular. I like it a lot, and that big round thing is really neat. Superman complements the park very nicely, far better than their last two coasters. But it's the sort of ride that I don't think a park should consider unless it already has a good coaster package. Luckily, Great America does, and the ride fits very well. Actually, it fits better than I thought, but I'll get to that soon enough...
I took a ride on the Condor, where I saw another of those inscruitable Six Flags ride warning signs. This one said, "Children may not sit on lap." Okay...Does that mean the adult has to sit on the kid's lap? Remember, the ride has in-line tandem seating...! I went over to the Sky Tower, where I couldn't hear much of the recorded spiel. I did hear the operator note that on a clear day you can see Chicago and Milwaukee...but today was not one of those days. The view from up there is quite stunning even if you can't see from Milwaukee to Chicago, particularly if you are a ride geek like me getting a chance to see Shock Wave spread out in kit form on the park's far berm. At least that's what I think all that blue and white steel is. Funny thing is, Shock Wave has a much larger footprint now than it had last year!
Speaking of footprints, it was from the tower that I noticed something very clever in the parking lot. Superman: Ultimate Flight and its landscaping is almost totally hidden from the park, which is almost understandable as I don't remember seeing roller coasters towering over Bourbon St. when I was in New Orleans. So it really is only from the Sky Tower that you can appreciate that the Superman ride and its landscaping fits into a distinctive generally-triangular 5-sided irregular polygon. I failed to notice whether the ride elements trace a gigantic stylized letter "S".
By this time I was getting hungry, so I thought about finding some dinner. Then I remembered the $10 I had paid to park this morning and the $10 I had paid to park Thursday. I decided it was time to leave.
I went over to Gurnee Mills and found a place where for a couple of bucks I was able to read my email, something I was unable to do at the motel because while I remembered the modem and cables, I had forgotten the power supply (oops!). While I was there I looked up a couple of local park web sites and determined that once I got dinner it was going to be too late to visit another park. I grabbed dinner at an unremarkable local establishment and returned to Great America.
In the evening I rode American Eagle and Viper again, and I noticed how neat it is as the sun goes down. I think we miss out on a lot because of Daylight Savings Time and the fact that it doesn't get dark until so incredibly late at night in the mid-summer. Add to that the slow shift to parks closing earlier in the evening (no big park in this area ever closed before 10:00pm a decade ago, now Cedar Point and Kings Island have both done 7:00 closings!) and we really miss out on amusement parks at night, when in some ways they really start to come alive. That's particularly true at Great America back in the County Fair, Yukon Territory, and Orleans Place sections. One thing that irritated me, though...next to the games joints, their Dentzel carousel sat dark and quiet. I understand only running it part of the day, but they ought to at least leave the lights on so that it doesn't sit there like a black hole trying to suck the energy out of the County Fair.
Almost entirely by accident, I ended up at the back of the Hometown Square plaza, having just come through Yankee Harbor and Orleans Place, (I'm not certain which one I was watching the glass artist in) which were clearly the most crowded bits of the park, while the evening "spectacular" show was going on. It's a formula designed to draw people out of the park. They start with a short music/dancing/fireworks show on the stage in front of the train station, and the show wraps up with everybody jumping onto the streetcars and parade floats that come out of the service core right there in Hometown Square, and follow the trolley tracks through the midway out of hometown square, along between the big carousel and the railroad track, through Orleans Place, and back into the service corridor behind Batman. The parade includes a number of streetcars, which makes me wonder if they once ran as an attraction. The parade floats were interesting in that they were "driven" by operators who walked alongside, holding go/no-go switch boxes. A sensible arrangement, I think.
Anyway, as the parade left Hometown Square, taking most of the assembled crowd with it, I made a beeline for Southwest Territory and started up the Viper queue ramp to encounter a line of people coming the other way. Uh-oh. The ride had gone down mechanical. I made a quick decision. I headed for American Eagle. Only running backwards. AAAUGH! Now what? Whizzer! I whizzed over, saying hello to Dave and Brian (remember them from Raging Bull and Delayja-Vu?) as I approached the station platform. We rode Whizzer, then had just enough time for a ride on the upper deck of the big carousel before the park closed. That was where, while standing on the steps waiting for the ride cycle to end so we could board, a tiny little girl of a single-digit age went charging past us, determined to get on to the ride. To be fair, she probably didn't even see us, even when her mother pointed us out and called her back. I had to laugh when her Mom called out, "Patience! Come back here!"
As the ride ended I slowly made my way out of the park, noticing the closing music on the PA that sounded like the cheezy 1970's upbeat corporate pop that has probably been playing here since the park opened in 1976. I confess, I actually appreciate that stuff in small doses. Hey, I was born in 1970, gimme a break here. 8-) I knew I had a potentially difficult drive of indeterminate length ahead of me, but I was in no hurry. I could sleep in tomorrow, and it will take a while to get everybody out of the Great America parking lot.
It turns out I had underestimated both the length and the difficulty of my drive. But that's a tale for another story. For now I'll conclude by noting that Great America is a fine park, with one serious problem. It lacks total ride capacity. I mean, it has rides like American Eagle and Batman and Raging Bull that can move a lot of people, but it isn't enough. It's a major park, but it really is a small park compared with its population. In all honesty, what would help Great America more than anything else in terms of being a great park to visit would be if another park of similar caliber were to open elsewhere in the region. Not because of the competition, but because of the load sharing. The market could support another Great America. The park just gets too packed with too many people, with not enough places with not enough for them to do. The park generally handles the crowd well, but it has some nasty choke points. Its strict circular layout (with a couple of odd dead-ends cleverly adapted for kiddie ghettoes [Footnote 2]) has its aesthetic and mechanical advantages, particularly the central service corridor. But it quite frankly does a lousy job of distributing the people load around the park. It also has the infuriating quality of putting you in obvious spitting distance of rides that you simply can't get to without walking the entire perimeter of the park, a situation exacerbated by the zig-zagging of the basic loop, intended to make it feel less like a loop and to reduce the sight lines. Trouble is, it makes it more difficult to judge the spatial relationships between rides, sometimes making attractions harder to find. If people really visited parks the way Duell intended, the design would work fine. But people don't visit parks that way. They stay longer, and they return to their favorite attractions. Then they get annoyed because the show they want to see in ten minutes is just yards away, but only accessible by walking all the way around the park.
Anyway, the setup at Great America sort of works, and Six Flags has done good things with it over the years. In fact, of the Six Flags parks I have visited, Great America and Saint Louis are my favorites. Great America is a great park, and so far it is a park that Premier Parks doesn't seem to have messed up too badly. I had a great time, far better than I expected given the potentially nasty conditions [Footnote 3] going in. And I think that says more for the park than almost anything else.
--Dave Althoff, Jr.
Footnote 1: Does anybody really know what time it is? Does anybody care? (Chicago Transit Authority, 1969)
Footnote 2: Going back to the original connotation as the place where you segregate all the undesirables. Although in this case I think the intent is to keep the undesirables *out*... Anyway, the idea isn't to cast aspersions on the condition or quality of the kiddielands, only the style.
Footnote 3: Nice day, Saturday, in the park, I think it was the 26th of July.