The history of California’s Great America and its path to sustainability
by Joe Kleiman
When Marriott Corporation opened its Great America theme park in the agricultural fields of suburban Santa Clara, CA, in May 1976, Apple Computer had not yet been incorporated and its first computer was months away from going on the market. Now entering its forty-first season, California’s Great America lies in the center of California’s famed Silicon Valley, surrounded by the global headquarters of technology powerhouses like Intel and Cisco Systems. Inside the park, Apple iPhones can be found everywhere, with guests chatting on Facetime, snapping photos, and using the park’s unique app. Positioning itself as a showcase of Silicon Valley, California’s Great America has embarked on a number of tech and green initiatives as it prepares to redefine itself for the future.
ABOVE: California’s Great America’s newest coaster, Patriot. Photo: Joe Kleiman for InPark
The future comes into question
In 1983, Marriott put the park up for sale and it was eventually purchased by the city. The City of Santa Clara owned Great America until 1989, when Kings Entertainment purchased the park. However, the city retained ownership of the land.
Fast forward to 2006, when after a series of acquisitions, the park became part of the Cedar Fair portfolio. Shortly thereafter, the 49ers of the National Football League announced that they were considering leaving their home stadium in San Francisco and constructing a new one in Santa Clara. On June 8, 2010, Santa Clara voters passed a ballot measure approving construction and financing of the stadium, which would be known as Levi’s Stadium. The location chosen was an overflow parking lot for California’s Great America, placing the park’s future in jeopardy.
On September 19, 2011, Cedar Fair announced that a deal had been reached for the sale of California’s Great America to a partnership of real estate firm JMA Ventures and the York Family, owners of the 49ers, for $70 million. Cedar Fair announced the proceeds would be used to reduce the company’s debt.
On December 6, 2011, Matt Ouimet, a former Disney executive who was at that time Cedar Fair’s President and incoming CEO, announced that JMA Ventures had backed out of the deal and Cedar Fair would retain ownership of the park. Almost immediately, plans were set in motion for a number of initiatives designed to position the park as a good neighbor to the 49ers, the city, and the surrounding Silicon Valley.
Good fences (and tech) make good neighbors
In 2013, Gold Striker, a 3,200 foot long wooden roller coaster dramatically changed the look of the park’s entrance plaza. To address noise pollution concerns, wooden acoustic barriers were placed at various stages along the track, resulting in its 103 foot, 50 degree initial drop taking place inside a tunnel.
As with the rest of the Cedar Fair chain, technology initiatives can be found throughout the park – in its newest attractions, shops, and online. In 2016, a partnership between Cedar Fair and video game company Electronic Arts resulted in the unique Mass Effect: New Earth attraction (see InPark issue #65), a simulated and rambunctious ride through space featuring a live actor interacting with the largest 3D LED screen ever installed in a permanent attraction, a unique near-field audio system, motion seats, and in-theater effects.
During its 2016 Halloween Haunt, the park briefly offered a virtual reality experience where guests were able to experience a film in 360 degree VR, synched to environmental effects. According to the park’s Vice President and General Manager, Raul Rehnborg, “We still own the VR headsets and the facility, so we’re looking at different options for bringing a new VR program for this year’s Haunt.” Rehnborg also points out that the park plans to open an interactive VR center similar to the VR Showdown in Ghost Town that opened this year at sister park Knott’s Berry Farm near Los Angeles.
On the retail and food & beverage fronts, the park is expanding two existing programs for 2017. FunPix allows guests to download or purchase ride photos. This year, the program is being expanded to include photos taken by park staff. Guests can access their photos via the park’s app, which also allows them to photograph QR codes at specially designated photo spots in order to unlock special themed photo borders. In addition to FunPix, the park’s app allows guests to locate their car, their friends, and even purchase tickets and amenities.
The park is also expanding touch screen ordering to three dining locations. According to Wilf Seymour, Director of Food and Beverage at California’s Great America, “Our guests can order using either a credit card or their all day dining pass. We’ve reassigned the cast that would normally be working as cashiers, so it’s not eliminating any positions, and we’ve kept someone at the ordering area in case people need assistance. Overall, it expedites the entire process.” According to Seymour, one of the most difficult aspects of making the new system successfully operate was to integrate its software, provided by micros, with the existing front gate POS and CRM system, which was developed in house under Paramount. This connection was essential, given that a number of different dining plans are sold through the ticketing office, each with their own restrictions.
Red, white, blue…and green!
Since 2003, California’s Great America has been using recycled water for irrigation, cleaning, and fire suppression systems. This year, the park announced another big green initiative – a partnership with Silicon Valley Power to purchase 100% wind energy for powering the park. According to Tom Mertens of Silicon Valley Power, the park will not have to make any infrastructure changes, as the power company will be able to direct batches of energy directly from wind turbines to the park. As one of the first theme parks in the United States to convert fully to green power, California’s Great America will utilize the equivalent of four large scale wind turbines per year. At the same time, it will eliminate seven million pounds of carbon dioxide annually from the park’s carbon footprint.
Wind power is not less expensive, in fact it’s more. Raul Rehnborg points out, “We want to make sure that we embrace our responsibility to be good stewards of the environment. We’ve already been doing that in a number of ways. We’ve been working on water conservation initiatives for a number of years and have been working with VTA, the Valley Transportation Authority, to promote alternative means of transportation to the park. This is the next step.” Rehnborg adds that the park is looking at other green options for the future, including solar energy. • • •