“A Sort of Disneyland for the Peninsula”
That was the headline for the first San Francisco Chronicle article about Marriott’s Great America, when the Santa Clara amusement park was announced in 1973.
For decades the Bay Area had seaside parks that were heavy on vibes but low on thrill rides and capital improvements. Here was an international hotel company, buying a 65-acre chunk of cheap land in the South Bay (before “cheap land” and “South Bay” became a contradiction), budgeting $40 million and treating it like a blank canvas for family fun.
“We don’t object to the Disneyland comparison at all,” J.W. Marriott Jr. said at that first press conference, flanked by Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam mascots. “It’ll be red, white and blue, a bit of nostalgia, a remembrance of things past.”
The corporate owners of the park (now called California’s Great America) announced Monday that they sold the land to developers for $310 million , and will shutter the park in no more than 11 years, possibly much earlier. It was sad news to generations of Bay Area residents who drove past Great America with their noses pressed against the glass of a station wagon, peering at the roller coasters visible from Highway 101.
Great America never quite became Disneyland North. It changed corporate owners multiple times, switching branding partnerships faster than I could ever keep track. (How many people reading this still call the Flight Deck roller coaster “Top Gun,” from the park’s brief marriage to Paramount Pictures?)
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But at a time when Silicon Valley was still filled with orchards and Marc Benioff hadn’t bought his first computer, Great America was the biggest thing in the South Bay.
My first trips to Great America as a Burlingame resident were in elementary school, not long after it opened in 1976. The trifecta of roller coasters — Willard’s Whizzer, Tidal Wave and Turn of the Century — worked as sort of a progression ladder for conquering my young fears.
In the 1980s, the Turn of the Century coaster rebranded as the Demon, giving the ride a horror film upgrade with glowing red eyes peering out of a cave as passengers approached (while adding two loops after the ride’s big drop). The Edge was a freefall ride added in 1986 with a big drop and bigger ad campaign. Meanwhile, the Tidal Wave was removed, and the park built the Grizzly, renown among coaster enthusiasts as one of the “worst wooden roller coasters in the world.”
The park tracked steeply downhill in the 1990s and early 2000s, seemingly chasing trends while getting further away from its roots. Among other random events, rock legend Lou Reed and teen rap group Kris Kross performed there , within a few years of each other in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
In the early 21st Century, the park developed a dying mall vibe. The original themed “lands,” including Yankee Harbor, Yukon Territory, County Fair and New Orleans Place, became an afterthought. A water park was hastily added to the map like a tumor.
Great America was always a top-notch observation deck park, with the alien-looking Sky Whirl triple-claw ferris wheel and the rotating Sky Trek Tower both providing great vantage points to see the park declining as the office buildings multiplied around it. The Silicon Valley land, once bought for next to nothing by Marriott, had become some of the most valuable in the nation.
There was one more comeback in the 2010s, when the park added its first great roller coaster in years (the wooden Gold Striker), launched the annual WinterFest event and seemed to rediscover its hospitality roots, or at least hired a few more gardeners.
By the time I brought my own kids in 2015, it was all but impossible to see Great America with your nose pressed to the glass of a car. New tech industry office buildings blocked the roller coasters from view; a Bay Area metaphor for something. When Levi’s Stadium opened in 2013, Great America was no longer even the biggest thing using its own parking lot.
Soon Great America will be just another memory from a very distant time. When you grow up in the place that launched a technology revolution, there’s not a lot of square footage left for fun.
Will I be sad to see it go? Sure. Did I expect to take my grandchildren there? Definitely not.
Those of us who grew up on the Peninsula and in the South Bay are used to the disappointment. We lost Marine World Africa U.S.A. , Frontier Village , Castle Golf & Games, the Circle Star Theatre and almost every local roller rink and cool old movie theater in the area. How the Winchester Mystery House is still operating is anyone’s guess.
Once built to stir nostalgia for its guests, Great America has become the nostalgia. Who knew that the first headline in The Chronicle would also serve as the perfect eulogy for when it’s gone?
“A sort of Disneyland for the Peninsula.”