Great America, the Bay Area’s answer to Disneyland, is now gone


That was the title of the San Francisco Chronicle’s first article on Marriott’s Greater America, when the Santa Clara amusement park was announced in 1973.

For decades, the Bay Area had seaside parks that were laden with ambiance but few thrill rides and capital improvements. It was an international hotel company, which bought 65 acres of cheap land in the South Bay (before “cheap land” and “South Bay” became a contradiction), budgeting $40 million and the treating it like a blank canvas for family fun.

“We don’t object to the Disneyland comparison at all,” JW Marriott Jr. said at that first press conference, flanked by mascots Bugs Bunny and Yosemite Sam. nostalgia, a memory of the past.”

The corporate owners of the park (now called California’s Great America) announced on Monday that they had sold the land to developers for $310 million and would close the park in 11 years at most, possibly much sooner. It was sad news for generations of Bay Area residents who drove past America Great, noses pressed against the window of a station wagon, gazing at the roller coaster visible from the 101 freeway.

March 14, 1978: An aerial view of the two-story carousel at Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara.

Terry Schmitt / The Chronicle 1978

Greater America never quite became Disneyland North. It’s changed business owners multiple times, changing brand partnerships faster than I could ever keep up. (How many people reading this still call the Flight Deck roller coaster “Top Gun,” from the park’s brief marriage to Paramount Pictures?)

But at a time when Silicon Valley was still filled with orchards and Marc Benioff hadn’t bought his first computer, Big America was South Bay’s biggest thing.

My first trips to Greater America as a resident of Burlingame took place in elementary school, shortly after it opened in 1976. The trio of roller coasters – Willard’s Whizzer, Tidal Wave and Turn of the Century – operated as a kind of progression ladder to conquer my young fears.

In the 1980s, the Turn of the Century coaster was renamed Demon, giving the ride a horror-movie upgrade with glowing red eyes peering out of a cave as passengers approach (while adding two loops after the big carousel drop). The Edge was a freefall ride added in 1986 with a big drop and a bigger advertising campaign. During this time, the Tidal Wave was scrapped, and the park built the Grizzly, renowned among roller coaster enthusiasts as one of the “worst wooden roller coasters in the world.”

The park experienced a strong descent in the 1990s and early 2000s, seemingly chasing trends while moving away from its roots. Among other random events, rock legend Lou Reed and teen rap group Kris Kross performed there, just a few years apart in the late 80s and early 90s.

At the start of the 21st century, the park developed a dying shopping center vibe. The original themed “lands,” including Yankee Harbour, the Yukon Territory, the County Fair, and New Orleans Square, became an afterthought. A water park was hastily added to the map as a tumor.

March 14, 1978: Guests play carnival games on the opening day of Marriott's Great America in Santa Clara.

March 14, 1978: Guests play carnival games on the opening day of Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara.

Terry Schmitt/The Chronicle

Great America has always been a premier viewing park, with the Sky Whirl tri-claw Ferris wheel and Sky Trek rotating tower both providing excellent vantage points to see the park decline as office buildings swarmed around him. The Silicon Valley land, once bought for next to nothing by Marriott, had become one of the most valuable in the country.

There was another throwback in the 2010s, when the park added its first big 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.

When I brought my own kids in 2015, it was virtually impossible to see the Greater America with your nose pressed against a car window. New tech industry office buildings blocked the view of the roller coaster; a Bay Area metaphor for something. When Levi’s Stadium opened in 2013, Big America wasn’t even the biggest thing using its own parking lot.

June 18, 2008: Teen worker Razeem Saheed oversees the Star Trek Tower at California's Great America in Santa Clara.  The amusement park is Northern California's largest employer of young people.

June 18, 2008: Teen worker Razeem Saheed oversees the Star Trek Tower at California’s Great America in Santa Clara. The amusement park is Northern California’s largest employer of young people.

Kurt Rogers / The Chronicle

Soon the Great America will be just another memory of a time long gone. When you grow up in a place that started a technological revolution, there aren’t many square feet left for fun.

Will I be sad to see him go? Sure. Was I expecting to take my grandchildren there? Definitely not.

Those of us who grew up on the Peninsula and the South Bay are used to disappointment. We lost Marine World Africa USA, Frontier Village, Castle Golf & Games, the Circle Star Theater and almost all the local ice rinks and cool old cinemas in the area. No one knows how the Winchester Mystery House still operates.

Once built to instill nostalgia in its hosts, Great America has become nostalgia. Who knew The Chronicle’s first headline would also serve as the perfect eulogy for his demise?

“A kind of Disneyland for the peninsula.”

Peter Hartlaub (he/him) is the cultural critic of the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected]: @PeterHartlaub


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