There’s excitement in the air at California’s Great America on this mild July afternoon.
The Orbit, one of a handful of original attractions from the Santa Clara theme park’s 1976 opening season that still remain, is back in action after three years, and it hasn’t looked this good since the Ford administration.
Gone is the drab purple and black color scheme, and the ancient fluorescent lighting. Now, new LED lights sparkle on the ride’s patriotic red, white and blue color scheme, while its previously sagging foam seats and chewed-up headrests have been completely replaced.
The Orbit’s overflow queue is actually in use, with eager riders still spilling out of the entrance. The ride experience itself hasn’t changed—it still resembles a Ferris wheel that almost-but-not-quite goes upside down as riders get spun around counter-clockwise and raised on a hydraulic arm. Much to the dismay of the neighborhoods across San Tomas Aquino Creek and to the shock of first-time riders, the Orbit’s iconic ear-splitting horn at dispatch is still as loud as it’s ever been (protip: do not sit in the car closest to the ride’s arm).
People aren’t piling into the queue because they think it’s a hot new attraction. Rather, they’re revisiting an old friend almost lost to time, taking Instagram-worthy photos of the ride’s brilliant new color scheme.
Across from the Orbit, a new scrambler ride, Liberty Twirler, opened later in August, clearing out the awkward remnants of an attraction that was dismantled in 2017. The rides are part of the revitalized All-American Corners area of the park, which includes a complete remodel of a horribly dated bar and restaurant.
But there’s another feeling that permeates the crowd, and throughout the park in general. Something different, a confusing itch that should have no place in this joyous atmosphere. In the back of many minds is a lingering question: why is Great America putting in this effort into upgrades, when the park itself won’t live to see the 2030s?
Toward the end of June, park owner Cedar Fair announced it sold the land Great America sits on to mega industrial developer Prologis for $310 million, more than double what it paid for it in 2019, and will be winding down operations in “up to” 11 years.
It’s a simultaneously baffling and unsurprising decision for those who have followed Great America’s embattled past and Cedar Fair’s history of similar moves.
A ‘Generational Opportunity’
In 2020, Cedar Fair was burning cash, forced to shut down its 12 parks and other properties and lock its turnstiles nationwide due to local and state Covid-19 guidelines. That year, Cedar Fair’s parks were collectively open for only 487 days total, compared to 2,224 in 2019, according to the company.
The company’s net revenues in 2020 were a relatively measly $182 million, versus its record $1.47 billion in 2019, a result primarily because of 25.3 million fewer visitors, while it operated at a loss of $572 million for the year.
Cedar Fair’s stocks dipped steeper than the first drop of most of its roller coasters, falling from $54 a share in February 2020 to $16 in late March 2020, and it currently sits around $42.
It fended off a $3.58 billion takeover attempt from rival SeaWorld Entertainment earlier this year, and despite a strong start to 2022, was still mired in pandemic-related debt.
So when the opportunity arose to sell arguably the most valuable land in the company’s portfolio and pay down some of its debt, Cedar Fair jumped at the opportunity.
Cedar Fair President and CEO Richard Zimmerman, in a phone call on Aug. 3 with investors about the company’s financial results, called Great America’s land sale a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.”
“While a difficult decision, selling the land of Great America was a generational opportunity to capitalize on a very attractive real estate market, while at the same time allowing us to continue to operate the park for the foreseeable future,” he said. “We get to continue to operate that property for a number of years, maintain our relationship with the community, maintain our relationship with our customers. So we just thought that it was a very unique moment in time in terms of real estate values within Silicon Valley.”
Santa Clara County’s property values continue to be unfazed by pandemic uncertainties, as the total value shows a record $619.9 billion, a 7.46% bump over the prior year, which is the fourth highest percentage increase in the last 10 years, according to the Santa Clara County Assessor’s Office’s 2022-2023 assessment roll, released July 1.
But for longtime, non-seasonal employees who will be wondering when they’ll be out of a job, the fact that Cedar Fair has improved its financial picture is cold comfort.
According to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission describing the transaction, Cedar Fair’s lease has a six-year term with an option to extend for another five years. Prologis also has the ability to terminate the lease early by giving a two-year notice. Cedar Fair will lease the land for $12,247,500 annually, with a 2.5% increase every year.
In a letter dated June 27 that was reportedly sent to employees and signed by Zimmerman, Cedar Fair Chief Operating Officer Tim Fisher and Great America Vice President Barb Granter, park officials assured their associates that they should expect “no immediate changes.”
“Like any successful business, we are always looking for opportunities to maximize the value from our extensive asset portfolio,” the letter states. “We recently found an opportunity to do just that with the land at Great America.”
The letter’s rhetoric has been bashed over social media as “tone-deaf” and “lacking compassion.”
Nicholas Laschkewitsch has been a regular at Great America nearly every year since 1999, when he was 5 years old.
It was during those years under Paramount’s ownership of the park where Laschkewitsch developed his life-long love of theme parks, which has resulted in a career in the industry, including an earlier stint at Great America as a mechanic.
“I have so many fond memories of seeing SpongeBob SquarePants in the park, the huge slime geyser in Splat City, and especially the Nickelodeon Celebration Parade,” he recalled.
Laschkewitsch heads up the Northern California Region of the American Coaster Enthusiasts, a nationwide organization that shares a mutual love of theme parks while working to preserve roller coasters as architectural landmarks.
He was also one of many community members who showed up and spoke during a January 2017 Santa Clara City Council meeting, where the council approved Great America’s 20-year Master Plan that included a rezoning of the 112-acre property to allow for new rides to be installed as well as expanded operating hours. The meeting, which extended into the early morning hours of the next day, also drew then-Cedar Fair CEO Matt Ouimet, who flew in from Ohio to witness the council’s decision.
So when Laschkewitsch read the news of the park’s impending closure, he was in shock.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the announcement from Cedar Fair that they had flipped the land that California’s Great America sits on to Prologis,” he said. “As someone who physically attended the Santa Clara City Council meeting in January 2017 where the Master Plan was approved, which I fully supported at the podium that night as a community member, I felt that the future of Great America had finally been secured after years of turmoil and uncertainty. I never would have expected Cedar Fair to just over five years later sell the land they fought so hard to get.”
Laschkewitsch pointed to the Covid-19 pandemic and Cedar Fair’s subsequent debt as the likely culprit.
“After the Master Plan was approved by the city, I didn’t foresee any additional issues holding back Cedar Fair from finally taking that park to its full potential,” he said.
Revenue Ups and Downs
The City of Santa Clara receives about $550,000 in annual tax revenue from Great America, which includes property, sales and transient occupancy taxes, according to city spokesperson Michelle Templeton.
The approved Master Plan and rezoning was expected to grow those numbers once it was fully realized in 20 years. In addition to new rides and expanded operating hours, the plan called for a new commercial and entertainment district in front of the park, similar to the Downtown Disney District in Anaheim.
Details of the plan caused coaster enthusiasts to drool: over the next 20 years, Cedar Fair proposed to add eight new rides that each hit a height of more than 200 feet, up from only two currently.
City officials also seemed pretty excited too, stating in a 2017 report that the project would “create vitality and year-round economic benefits for the City beyond normal business enterprises” and add up to 350 new jobs to what was already one of the city’s and county’s top private employers.
Santa Clara Mayor Lisa Gillmor said the city learned about the “surprise announcement” when the news of the sale broke on June 27.
“Great America is a beloved community asset and is the largest employer of our youth,” she said, adding that her first job in high school was at the park when it was known as Marriott’s Great America. “It’s a devastating loss for the city of Santa Clara and the Bay Area.”
Gillmor noted that the city cannot comment on the economic impacts of the park’s closure, as it does not know the new property owner’s plans.
She invited Prologis to a series of community meetings to “share their vision for the Great America property,” and said the property is currently zoned for a theme park, with any changes subject to approval by the Santa Clara City Council.
“On the surface, it appears California’s Great America will not change in the short term,” Gillmor said. “My hope and goal is to keep California’s Great America there as long as possible in the long term.”
A Rocky History
Great America has experienced plenty of ownership turnover and staved off closure threats ever since the late actor Fess Parker (of Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone fame) first envisioned the theme park five decades ago on a pear tree orchard.
According to Steven Wilson’s historical outline in his 2014 book, Images of Modern America: California’s Great America, Parker announced the park in 1972 as Fess Parker’s Frontier Worlds. A year later, Parker sold the 419 acres to Marriott Corporation, and it opened in 1976 as Marriott’s Great America. Marriott also opened another nearly identical park in Gurnee, Ill., two months later, which is now known as Six Flags Great America.
Toward the end of 1983, Marriott was reportedly in talks with a developer to convert Great America into an office park. The city of Santa Clara stepped in to buy the park, inking the deal in 1985, but by 1992 the park had a new owner: Paramount Communications. As Paramount’s Great America, the park added new attractions—such as the Top Gun steel coaster and 224-foot-tall Drop Zone—that tied into Paramount’s latest films.
In 2006, Cedar Fair purchased the quintet of properties owned by Paramount Parks, pushing SpongeBob SquarePants aside for Snoopy and Charlie Brown as Great America’s new mascots.
The early days of Cedar Fair’s ownership were hit-and-miss with fans. The company added a relocated ride from one of its Ohio parks and began a popular Halloween Haunt event in 2008, which ended in 2021. But at the same time, new attractions were few and far between and one of the most popular roller coasters was removed in 2010 and replaced with a grass field.
In 2011, the company reportedly sold the park to JMA Ventures for $70 million, but the real estate investment firm backed out of the deal.
Under new management, Cedar Fair showed a renewed interest in Great America. It opened a new roller coaster in 2013 and expanded its multi-purpose facility near the parking lot to create synergy between the park and Levi’s Stadium, which opened next door in 2014.
Shortly after, Cedar Fair announced a capital improvement campaign that would renovate the park, as part of the aforementioned Master Plan.
Cedar Fair purchased the land in 2019 for $150 million from the city, with Zimmerman citing the company’s “long-term commitment” to Great America in a press release.
Work on implementing the 2017 master plan had been going swimmingly—Great America resembled a construction site over the next few years, with buildings and walkways getting refreshed, old attractions receiving a new lease on life, a new first-of-its-kind single-rail coaster in 2018 called RailBlazer, and a $30 million expansion of its water park, which opened in 2021 as South Bay Shores.
Prominent in the master plan were drawings of a proposed hyper coaster, a title given to those rides that stand between 200-300 feet tall. Excitement began to grow when Cedar Fair filed documents in 2017 with the Federal Aviation Administration for a 210-foot-tall ride, a requirement due to its proximity to the San Jose International Airport. The company had also applied for a permit with the city and begun removing older attractions to make room for the monstrous addition.
But in July 2018, Cedar Fair canceled its application for the coaster for unknown reasons, according to city permit records.
In his 2021 book, Kings Island: A Ride Through Time, Evan Ponstingle quotes a Cedar Fair executive who says the coaster was shifted to the company’s Kings Island park in Ohio, citing soaring construction costs in California.
A source familiar with park management said Great America officials were disappointed that the additions of RailBlazer and South Bay Shores didn’t deliver the hoped-for attendance boost, even though the coaster was open for only a year and a half before the 2020 pandemic shutdown, while the water park opened in mid-2021, when many guests were hesitant to return to crowded areas.
According to Cedar Fair investor reports, Great America averages about 1.5 million visitors a year, running in the middle of the company’s pack despite being located in one of the chain’s most populous markets.
A hyper coaster, which would have been the tallest such ride in Northern California, could have pushed those numbers skyward.
End Date: 2027?
Cedar Fair’s investor reports hint that Great America will shut down permanently at the end of 2027.
“Upon termination of the lease, we will remove the rides and attractions from the land,” an Aug. 3 report states. “As a result, during the second quarter of 2022, we changed the estimated useful lives of the remaining property and equipment at California’s Great America to an approximate 5.5-year period, or through December 31, 2027. We may dispose of the remaining property and equipment at California’s Great America significantly before the end of their previously estimated useful lives if the assets are not sold to a third party or transferred for an alternate use.”
Cedar Fair is also “amortizing” the “California’s Great America” trade name through 2027, the report further states.
It’s difficult to predict what the Great America property could look like in the next 15 years, but many have opinions of what it will become.
Some suggest building high-density housing to alleviate the affordability crunch, but such a proposal could be difficult because the property is smack in the middle of San Jose International Airport’s flight path.
Others say the new property owner should spare the front-of-the-park attractions, such as Carousel Columbia and Gold Striker, and take advantage of the already-approved plans for an entertainment district that ties into Levi’s Stadium.
Many, mostly theme park enthusiasts, are holding out hope that another operator will swoop in and save Great America from destruction. An inquiry to SeaWorld, which attempted a takeover of Cedar Fair earlier in 2022, to gauge its interest in buying the park went unanswered.
After its closure, the park will likely remain a wasteland of decaying rides as the city and the new property owner engage in a years-long rezoning and planning process, not unlike Cedar Fair’s Geauga Lake park in Ohio, which has sat empty since 2016 and was purchased by a housing developer in 2020.
Prologis owns and operates 62 buildings in Santa Clara County, according to the company, as well as many others worldwide.
Prologis spokesperson Jennifer Nelson said the company currently doesn’t have a plan for the future of the property, saying Great America will continue to operate under the lease with Cedar Fair.
“As we look past the lease expiration, we look forward to working with local government on the long-term plan, which we’ll do through collaborative discussions with the city and local community,” she said.
There is a blip of good news for theme park enthusiasts, however. On Aug. 11, Cedar Fair announced Great America will now be open weekends year-round, after being closed in January, February and most of March throughout much of the park’s existence.
Laschkewitsch remains hopeful that Great America will remain on the property in some shape or form in the coming decades.
“Despite the announcement, I find it very difficult that a theme park or entertainment district will not exist on this site going forward,” he said. “The costs to tear everything out and redevelop the land for alternative uses will be extremely costly, not to mention that Prologis will need to work with the city of Santa Clara to rezone the land for other uses.”