We’ll wrap up our trip down memory lane with a short post-Marriott summary. You can find the first two parts here and here, and more regional park history can be found at www.rivershorecreative.com (along with an abundant supply of tissues). Thanks for reading.
Unfortunately for the Marriott company, attendance figures didn’t meet their expectations and the parks became a burden on the company’s bottom line. They also remembered they were in the hotel business, so they decided to concentrate on that. Both parks would be sold off in 1984, the Gurnee property to Six Flags, the Santa Clara park to the city itself. Six Flags Great America would go on to several changes in ownership and management with a few ups and downs, but overall would come out performing quite well.
The California site has an interesting saga after the Marriott sale. A local developer wanted to bulldoze everything and build an office complex. The city wanted to preserve the park, first of all because it’s generally a good thing for the social fabric of the area, but secondly because it provides thousands of jobs, particularly for young people, and stimulates economic activity. The city won the bid, a few years later selling the park itself, minus the land, to Kings Entertainment, which operated several other parks including Kings Island, Kings Dominion, and Carowinds. Paramount bought the entire chain in 1992 before eventually selling to Cedar Fair in 2006. The property is landlocked and has had to make aggressive changes in order to add new attractions. In 2011 the park was slated to be sold, again, to the owners of the 49ers football team. Cedar Fair was looking to reduce their corporate debt and had been sparring with the team for several years over a proposed stadium to be built right next door. In the end Cedar Fair kept the park, made an arrangement with the 49ers to solve the parking issues, and has focused attention on developing the property. Unlike the tragic endings of Opryland and Astroworld, Great America has gritted its teeth and survived to go on making memories for new generations.
In the end, Marriott got the last word in Virginia. Late in 1978, as the company was shaking the dust off their boots after the long ordeal, a regional Howard County historical group asked to borrow a “Tom Thumb” replica steam engine that was on display at the Gurnee park. The original locomotive was locally famous for an 1830 race against a horse-driven stagecoach between Baltimore and the Ellicott City terminal. The replica had recently been on-site at the local railroad museum as promotion for the planned park. The response?
“Unfortunately, the people of Howard County expressed their belief, through their elected officials, that Great America would be an unsatisfactory neighbor—on not one, but two occasions. I hope you can understand, then, our reluctance to share the fruits of our labor by way of providing our Tom Thumb replica. It was to have operated daily, carrying people, had we been able to build our park in the county.”
I understand the business side of the decision. What’s so hard is that once a park like this gets bulldozed, nothing ever replaces it. Just ask the still-mourning locals of Nashville, twenty-five years after they lost Opryland, another Randall Duell park. Or the good folks in Houston when Astroworld (Duell) was transformed into a pile of dirt (it’s still a pile of dirt). Or the Memphis citizenry who to this day drive past the blank lot where they used to ride Elvis’ beloved Pippin in Libertyland. Or those who grew up with Geauga Lake/Seaworld/Six Flags Ohio. Once they’re gone, they’re gone. It’s too expensive to build anything like them these days (unless your name sounds like Disney or Universal).
These parks are a part of Americana, engrained in the social experiences of millions of people who made treasured memories with friends and family. Yes, I understand the business angle, but please, let’s do what we can to preserve these parks. I believe we need places like these, especially in such times as we find ourselves in.