On this day of patriotic excess here in the United States, I am writing about a little sliver of it. It is not about the country itself, or some dyspeptic fantasy about making it great again. Perish the thought.
No, this is about a theme park.
Back in 1976, around my birthday, a new theme park opened in what was just starting to be called Silicon Valley, Marriott’s Great America.
Here, 46 years down the road, I have no idea what Marriott thought they were doing going into the theme park business, or why they wanted to put a theme park in Santa Clara County… San Jose wasn’t even in the top 30 cities in the US by population at that point… but it was a different time.
As for the name… it was 1976, the year of the bicentennial, and I was being mildly ironic when I wrote “patriotic excess” up in the opening of this post. Having lived through the country’s 200th birthday, and the lead up to it, because 1975 was the dress rehearsal for the whole thing, I think I can confidently declare that I saw more things festooned in red, white, and blue than you can imagine if you were not there.
So the fact that this new theme part was to be named Great America was completely on brand for the times. In the gush of patriotism everywhere… we had that whole Vietnam War thing to forget about… one could hardly call out the name of the park as going too far.
Oddly, the short hand for the park in my peer group was immediately “Marriott’s” for whatever reason. Probably just easier to say, but awkward once Marriott decided they didn’t want to be in the theme part business and sold it to somebody else. I still occasionally refer to it as “Marriott’s” now and then, a sign of having been there at the beginning I guess.
And the whole thing was kind of a big deal here in the valley, which has since more than doubled in population, even in amidst the frenzy of the bicentennial.
It wasn’t as though we had never seen an amusement park. We had Frontier Village and Santa’s Village and Marine World Africa USA… all of which were still around when Great America opened… along with the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. But those were all of a different era, closer in kinship to Playland in San Francisco than more modern attractions.
It was, honestly, if not quite on par with Disneyland… because the mouse will bow to nobody… at least had the feel of Magic Mountain or Knott’s Berry Farm down in LA. It was modern and paved and didn’t smell of years of neglect and had modern rides, including roller coasters.
And it wasn’t 400 miles down the highway in southern California, it was right here in the valley on a stretch of Bowers Avenue that they renamed Great America Parkway to commemorate the new park. You could ride the bus there.
And all the rides were free.
Well, “free” isn’t the right word. Access to all of the rides were included with admission to the park. This is, of course, the normal way of things today. But I am old enough to have gone to Disneyland when the E-ticket was still a thing, when you bought a coupon book with tickets that you had to hand in to go on specific rides. I remember going on Mister Toad’s Wild Ride a second time because we didn’t have enough tickets in the book for anything better.
But at Great America you just had to get in the front gate and you could go on rides all day.
Or, if it was peak season, you could stand in line most of the day if you wanted to go on the better rides. But there was no asking your parents to fork out for more tickets. This was the wave sweeping the amusement park landscape at the time. Today I can’t imagine a theme park doing the whole ticket scheme. The Santa Cruz Boardwalk, which couldn’t be gated, went to a wrist band scheme for rides not too long after Great America showed up. Even the annual carnival at the catholic school up the street from us offers an unlimited rides wrist band option, though they still do the tickets as well.
Great America represented the future of amusement parks, while the other attractions I mentioned all fell by the wayside. Frontier Village is houses, Oracle is located where Marine World used to be, and I used to work at the office center that Borland built back in the 80s on the dead elf graveyard that was once Santa’s Village. Anything with less pull than Great America and more overhead than The Mystery Spot fell by the wayside for the most part.
But for 11 year old me having a theme park close by was a boon, and all the more so because of my Boomer parents (divorced, because of course they were) who were always keen for some place to dump me off and be rid of me so they could do whatever they did. I spent a lot of weekends and most of my summers with my grandparents. I joke with my aunt, the youngest of my parents generation, that we get a lot of the same jokes and references because the same people raised us.
I think one of the greatest times of my pre-teen summers was a Thursday afternoon when a few of us got dropped off at Great America. It was late August, back to school was approaching, and the early summer allure of the park had worn off… so the place wasn’t empty, but we didn’t wait more than a few minutes in line for any rides.
Of course, the park was not without its problems. Not too many years into the life of the park, Marriott decided it really didn’t want to be in the amusement park business and tried to sell the whole thing to a real estate developer because the rising price of land has been a thing in the valley my entire life. The city of Santa Clara, where the park was located, didn’t want that and tried to break up the deal and buy the park themselves and there was an ugly lawsuit where the city got the park, the companies got paid, and the tax payers got the bill.
The city owned it for a while and had some outside company run it, some Waystar RoyCo subsidiary I am sure, and the whole thing entered a somewhat desultory state of existence. The mascots got traded out, with Hanna-Barbara replacing Looney Toons character, never a good sign, and the place got a reputation for a place full of roving gangs of bored teens getting into trouble.
Eventually the city unloaded the park on another company and the reputation of the park recovered a bit.
Not that it ever ceased to be a popular attraction. I went to any number of end of year parties, company parties, birthday and anniversary parties, and what not at the park. And, when our daughter was old enough to be up for that sort of thing she and my wife had season passes to the park and many afternoons were spent there.
The park used to be easy to find from any spot up the bowl of the valley, the giant three pronged ferris wheel, the Sky Whirl, drawing the eye from a back window of our house in Cupertino, which was on a slight rise at that end of the county. And you could find it at night around the 4th of July because they did a fireworks show as the park was getting ready to close for the evening around the holiday.
Even today, living on the floor of the valley the street that crosses the end of our own points directly towards Santa Clara and Great America and you can, through the trees, still spot the distant fireworks from the park.
Which, of course, might be reason enough to bring up Great America, it being a patriotic themed amusement park, bound in memory with the bicentennial in my brain, and hosting fireworks annual. A simple Independence Day memory in that alone.
But there is another reason the park comes to mind this holiday weekend. The news came out this past week that the current owners of the park have sold the land to real estate developers, land not having gotten any cheaper since when Marriott tried to do the same thing back in the 80s. The trajectory of land value in the valley has been constantly upward. My dad bought our first house in the mid 60s and sold it at the end of the 70s for five times what he had paid for it. Since then its value has appreciated to 20 times what he sold it for back then, or 100 times what he bought it for initially.
And that is the way of things. Once Great America was kind of on the edge of things in the valley, in among some commercial office space built around the same time, all with patriotic street names, and across the street from the Santa Clara Convention Center, where GDC used to be held back in the day, past which was low rent areas, landfill, and then the bay.
Now, though, things have sprung up around it, and there is no such thing as a low rent area in the valley, save for relative to the prices in San Fransisco or New York. Levi’s Stadium is around the corner and people have built up over the landfill where the garbage trucks used to dump stuff when I was a kid.
The park still has some time left. They say it could be open for another decade, though that is likely due to how long it will take plans to get approved for whatever the new owners have in mind. In the end though, the park will be gone, some new expensive condos or whatever will be in their place, and we’ll be left with a street name as the reminder that something else used to be here, like Santa’s Village Road up in Scotts Valley, or some themed side street that remind those who knew where Frontier Village once stood.
So it goes.