A year after announcing its closure, what it’s like at Great America

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When I told friends I was going to Great America, everyone had the same reaction: “Great America! I haven’t been there since I was 13!”

Neither had I. It seems most Bay Area kids’ memories of Great America are permanently locked in at adolescence. It was the first “cool” place where you were allowed to run wild, the first tummy ache from slurping frozen lemonades and getting rattled by a roller coaster, the worst headache you’d ever had when you were dehydrated in the blazing South Bay sun.

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In June 2022, Cedar Fair, a regional theme park conglomerate that owns Great America, announced the park was closing forever. But it’s been an odd sort of death. At the time, Cedar Fair said it had sold the ground underneath the park, but the buyer wouldn’t evict Great America for up to 11 years. It’s been in limbo ever since, operating mostly on Fridays and Saturdays (it can’t be open on Sundays when the 49ers are home because they share a parking lot). 

Curious, I booked two tickets for one of the busiest days of the season: the Saturday before Halloween. Was this theme park destined for the wrecking ball falling into disrepair? It was time to find out.

Within moments of arriving at the sprawling complex off a business park in Santa Clara, the tone was set. A security guard waved me through the entrance. I was clearly wearing a backpack. No one checked it. 

“Should we be worried about that?” I asked my friend as we watched only one family with a stroller get stopped for a bag check. Ah well, we decided. The teens who fill the ranks of Great America employees probably didn’t get paid enough for TSA-level security. 

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Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023.Katie Dowd/SFGATE
Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023.Katie Dowd/SFGATE

Once inside the gates, we were delighted to see how many Halloween decorations there were. Every inch was festooned with ghosts, twinkly orange lights and fun, animal-shaped pumpkins. The park was buzzing with kids in costumes queued up to trick-or-treat in the candy trail, teens waiting in two-hour lines for the marquee coasters and people like us reliving our suburban youths. It didn’t feel like a theme park in the decline — and only one ride, the Berserker, was closed entirely. 

We hung a left and entered Orleans Place, a truly bold choice by Great America to willingly put itself in direct comparison to Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. Generic Brand New Orleans Square was, at least, also overflowing with decor. It was shabby — which was especially noticeable inside the shops when you looked up and saw water-stained ceiling tiles — but the Halloween decrepitude helped make it seem intentional. Up on a veranda, a transfixingly odd trio of singers, dressed as zombie 1920s flappers, sang a bossa nova-style cover of “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” The fever dream feeling was setting in. 

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Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023.Katie Dowd/SFGATE
Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023.Katie Dowd/SFGATE

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After taking a photo with a hearse — alarmingly, it had real California license plates with registration stickers current to 2020 — we decided to hop on the Delta Flyer ride. One incredibly hard-working young woman was running the attraction basically by herself. While two male co-workers loitered around, she ran from gondola to gondola, throwing her whole body weight against the individual buckets to both slow them down for riders to exit and push them up the ramp into flight. 

Although I briefly wondered if sailing above Santa Clara in a ride with all the technology of an 1890s World’s Fair attraction was a good idea, I was soon reminded that the real danger, as always, was other guests. In a scene of slow-motion horror, I watched as two women, with their children, ignored the ride operator and strode out into the line of moving gondolas. They were inches from being leveled. They, of course, acted like their carelessness was the worker’s fault. My friend and I agreed that we would have happily served as witnesses for the defense if those women tried to sue for negligence. 

After about a 20-minute wait, it was our time to fly. We thanked the nice, slightly frazzled employee as our gondola caught the cable up above and started ascending. The view was delightful: You could see across the park, into the closed South Bay Shores water park next door and, nicest of all, toward Mount Hamilton to the east. Jetliners on their way to and from San Jose Airport kept passing overhead, adding a plane-spotting element to the adventure. I tried not to think about how the funniest thing on earth to an unsupervised middle schooler would be dropping something onto a passerby down below. I made a mental note of the gondola track. No 12-year-old was dousing me with a cup of Sprite today. 

Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023. The Delta Flyer attraction can be seen on the left.

Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023. The Delta Flyer attraction can be seen on the left.

Katie Dowd/SFGATE

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We alighted on the other side of the park, agreeing that the ride had earned its 2 out of 5 “thrill level” designation on the sign. Confusingly, the adjacent bumper car ride got a 4, but presumably that’s due to the whiplash from your least-favorite cousin repeatedly slamming into your inevitably stalled-out car. From bumper cars, the thrill level abruptly tops out at 5 — which is the designation most roller coasters have. There is a problem of magnitude happening on the thrill level chart.

That, you quickly realize, is Great America’s issue on the whole. There just aren’t a lot of activities in the middle. By my count, no fewer than 17 attractions were spinning rides — they either rotated toddlers slowly in a circle, like the carousel, or they violently whipped guests into submission, like Delirium. Almost half the park consists of Peanuts-themed rides; some are so small that adults aren’t allowed on at all. One land over, there’s a house DJ and blood-splattered Halloween gore. “What IS the vibe?” you often find yourself wondering aloud.

By this point in the excursion, we were ready for a snack. At about $50 per adult ticket, I hadn’t felt the usual theme park wallet sting until I saw a single sprinkles-covered caramel apple was an astonishing $17.99. The Panda Express inside the park was also marked up: $16.99 for a plate for orange chicken, broccoli beef and fried rice or chow mein; if you place that order at a regular Panda right now, it’ll set you back about $10.

For a minute, Great America almost convinced me I wanted to shell out $31.99 for its all-day dining package — but the advertisement told me I could get an entree and a side every 90 minutes, which sent ripples of terror through my colon. For $18.99, I could add on a drink package that allowed refills every 15 minutes. If you drank water, let alone Coke, every 15 minutes, I’m pretty sure you’d die. Nonetheless, it was the deal of the century for unchaperoned teens, who passed around one drink and food ticket to share. Pretty sure that’s not how the package was intended, but I support their ingenuity nonetheless. 

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Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023.

Halloween decorations at Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif., on Oct. 28, 2023.

Katie Dowd/SFGATE

As we ate our $16 funnel cake (which was surprisingly good), we took in the excellent people watching. There were countless groups of preteen and teen friends, establishing their presence with the too-loud chatter that comes from nervous kids on their own. Seeing them take in the freedom of the moment reminded me of the value of places like Great America.

Each year, young people lose more hubs to congregate. As malls and regional theme parks close, there are fewer and fewer places where teenagers can safely learn how to be adults — to cultivate independence, practice social interaction and figure out how to order at Subway without pissing off everyone else. As we push kids indoors and out of communal spaces, we doom them to miss these critical life lessons. 

As we left the park that evening, we didn’t know that Great America was on the eve of another big announcement. A few days later, its parent company Cedar Fair announced a merger with Six Flags. It’s not clear what this will mean for Great America’s closure timeline; a request to Cedar Fair for more information was not returned by publication time. But theme parks don’t always fully disappear. Roller coasters are expensive, and many are built with patented ride designs. Often, they’re taken apart and shipped to a different park where they’re reassembled like Lego bricks. So if you love RailBlazer, it might end up at another park someday. 

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Guests on a ride at Great America theme park in Santa Clara.

Guests on a ride at Great America theme park in Santa Clara.

Renelyn Cunanan-Dinh/Getty Images

Places like Six Flags in Vallejo and Great America aren’t incredible theme parks. Sometimes they’re not even very good ones. But for a 14-year-old, they’re a slice of freedom and fun that doesn’t exist in many Bay Area towns. Their worlds are narrowing because of adults who make all the decisions that impact them. I hope we make a different decision next time around.

At the very least, we’ll be losing a little piece of suburbia. Because nothing screams the greatness of America like eating a slice of greasy pizza every 90 minutes until you’re ready to puke on the Centrifuge.

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