If California theme parks conjure up images of long lines for attractions and food, visitors to the San Francisco Bay area will find nirvana with a stop at California's Great America, a Santa Clara sister park to famous Knotts Berry Farm. Even in August, the lines were short for what any theme park junkie would consider a high-quality product.
During our formative years in the Pacific Northwest, we relished the opportunity we had every few years to visit California and, in particular, Disneyland. In grade school - before the jocks or rock and roll musicians would take over - the coolest people in our class were those who had been to Disneyland. The pampered rich kids who had been there multiple times were our fourth grade heroes.
Such was the fascination with Disneyland and other parks like Knotts Berry Farm that one of our first road trips that a friend and I took as freshly minted high school graduates was to Disneyland where, interestingly, we ran into a person from our small Washington town right in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle. We checked out the beaches, too, but it is telling that Disneyland was still high on the list for a couple of 18-year-olds.Gradually, of course, we fell out of love with Disneyland. Not that we don't still like to take our families there, but one's tolerance for inconvenience seems to grow in direct proportion to one's age. Back in the day, it was no problem waiting an hour for Space Mountain. Today, as over-the-hill adults, our time just seems a little more precious. For some reason, the prospect now of spending a 12-hour day at any park waiting in line for everything from rides to pretzels to bathrooms - well it just doesn't have the same allure it once had.
Enter California's Great America. Here we were, a pleasant sunny Monday in August, and we're making our way through this major theme park spending no more than five or 10 minutes in any one line. Sure, you say, there must be something wrong with this park if they actually have plenty of space to walk without being jostled by other visitors. You say it just doesn't compute that anyplace really good would not have long lines for the rides. We say we'd have the same healthy skepticism - except that it's true. This place really was wide open, yet remarkably complete in its offerings.
It was a Monday so that probably had a lot to do with it. But still, have you ever been to Disneyland on a Monday in August? If school's out, Disneyland's in - and packed to the rafters.
Okay, we've established that the shorter lines and less crowded walkways make this theme park attractive for middle age adults who may not have the theme park buzz like they used to, but the true judges of any theme park have to be the kids. The 10- and 13-year-olds we brought along for the day were our testers - they were the ones who would strap it on and experience most of the rides that Great America has to offer.
We noticed right off that the 364-acre park appeals to literally all ages, with the roller coasters and thrill rides for the teens and 'tweens, and Kidzville and Nickelodeon Central for the little guys. For those adults who want to pretend they're not really at a theme park, Great America even has a sports bar with real adult beer. Restaurants seem to appeal to all tastes, with lots of funnel cakes, churros and other sweets, but also fast food and even some sit-down restaurants such as Maggie Brown's where you can enjoy fried chicken, mashed potatoes and corn.
Another thing you notice right away is that California's Great America is actually two theme parks - the original park and a water park that was added a few years ago called Boomerang Bay. Guests get into both areas of the park - a total of 55 rides -- for the same general admission price.
Troy, the 10-year-old, made a beeline for the roller coasters - of which there are eight -- while his older sister Ashlea offered to accompany him with certain restrictions: she would not, she declared, ride on anything that made her go upside down. Since most of the roller coasters and thrill rides do that, Troy became the primary test pilot on several of the more aggressive roller coaster rides such as the Demon and the Vortex. He did get some companionship on the Grizzly, the parks's "old fashioned" roller coaster made from lumber back in the good old days.
Troy's verdict after trying out a number of roller coasters and other thrill rides: "Awesome."
Troy and Ashlea also enjoyed the Survivor ride that is quite unlike anything you've seen before and manages to dip and twirl you in a way that seems designed to deeply disturb that fried chicken meal you got back at Maggie Brown's. The kids cooled off by sampling several of the waterslides in Boomerang Bay, and we adults even got into the act with rides on the Rip Roaring Rapids and Loggers Run.
Along the way, Troy and Ashlea picked out a few of the gentler rides like Barney Oldfield's Speedway, the Flying Eagles and the Celebration Swings. The point is there was no shortage of rides and attractions and, in fact, our day was so busy we didn't even get a chance to take in the magic or BMX shows, both of which looked like they would be fun experiences.
According to the park's PR Department, California's Great America has improved quite a lot in the past few years since it was purchased by Cedar Fair, the company that owns Knotts Berry Farm. More family attractions and shows have been added and gone is the emphasis on movies that the park had when it was owned by a movie studio and called Paramount's Great America. There is also a tremendous emphasis on safety, part of the Cedar Fair culture. Just count the number of lifeguards at the Barrier Reef wave pool and you'll see what we mean.
Our trip to Santa Clara was all the more enjoyable because we stayed overnight very close to the park at the Biltmore Hotel and Suites. Arriving at the Biltmore mid-day, we learned that shuttles to the park ran every hour, which proved a convenience and also a cost savings because parking at Great America is $12 per day. At the end of the day, we simply phoned for pickup and a van was at the park gate in just a few minutes to take us back to the hotel.
The visually attractive Biltmore proved to be a good selection because the rooms are set up nicely for a family, with our suite having a bedroom separated from the living room area where the kids slept on a couch that rolled out into a bed. While we didn't get time to use it, there is a heated outdoor swimming pool that would be quite refreshing after a day at the theme park.
Also great for families was the excellent hot breakfast included with the room. The breakfast included bacon, eggs, potatoes, cereals, breads, pastries, coffee and orange juice. The hotel doubles as a business hotel - not only is it close to California's Great America, but it's located in the heart of the Silicon Valley where the list of local companies is like a Who's Who of major internet and software developers. So, whether you're a family or in town on business, you'll get free high-speed internet, a fitness center and a business center.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: California's Great America is located in Santa Clara, about 45 miles south of San Francisco. The park is in the heart of the Silicon Valley, where many famous software and internet companies make their home.
WHAT: This park is an excellent all-ages park that offers plenty of thrills for the teens and 'tweens, but lots to do for grade schoolers and adults as well.
WHEN: Great America is open daily in the summer through August, but is open only on weekends during the shoulder seasons and is closed in winter.
WHY: California's Great America is a high-quality theme park like its sister park, Knotts Berry Farm, and will appeal to all ages.
HOW: For more information on California's Great America, phone 408-988-1776 or visit www.cagreatamerica.com. For more information on the Biltmore Hotel and Suites, phone 866-469-9845 or visit www.hotelbiltmore.com.
Photos, from top: Historic carousel greets visitors at the entrance; Everybody gets wet on tube ride; Biltmore Hotel and Suites is convenient to park; Invertigo roller coaster takes riders upside down
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway