How Marriott’s Great America theme parks changed the game for family fun in the 70s & 80s

Old Marriott's Great America theme parks 1970s and 1980s

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When Marriott’s Great America theme parks first opened their gates in the mid-1970s, they represented the hospitality giant Marriott’s ambitious foray into the world of amusement parks.

These parks were born from a simple yet ambitious idea: Give families an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind experience. And boy, did they deliver!

Vintage Marriott's Great America park scene from 1976

Imagine yourself in the middle of the hustle and bustle, surrounded by roller coasters zipping through the air, cotton candy stands, and people wearing silly hats and smiles. This was the essence of 70s and 80s family theme park adventures, and you didn’t even have to go to Disneyland to get a piece of the action. 

The parks were initially launched in two locations — Santa Clara, California, and Gurnee, Illinois — in 1976. In the early years, both parks were the image of each other, with nearly identical layouts and attractions.

Each was divided into themed areas, drawing inspiration from American history, and featured a range of thrill rides, family rides, and live entertainment, providing something for everyone.

Vintage Great America map - Illinois (1970s-1980s)
Vintage Great America map – Illinois park (1970s-1980s)

The rides were innovative, with fresh takes on the classic roller coaster with rides like the “Demon” and “American Eagle,” flipping guests upside down and all around, making even the bravest of thrill-seekers a bit weak in the knees. Then there were the water rides for those scorching summer days, like the “Loggers Run,” where you could count on getting absolutely drenched (and loving every second of it).

These parks also knew how to put on a great show. Whether it was the music of the Grand Music Hall, the daring feats at the Theatre Royale, or — in later years — the seasonal spookiness of Fright Nights, there was always something to dazzle guests of all ages.

Marriott's Great America vintage theme park brochure - Gurnee Illinois (1978)
Marriott’s Great America vintage theme park brochure – Gurnee Illinois (1978)

The parks have left their imprint on the theme park industry, their influence seen in many parks that followed. Sure, they’ve undergone changes over the years (with the California park now operating as California’s Great America under Cedar Fair, and the Illinois park as Six Flags Great America), but their spirit of innovation and unadulterated fun remains strong.

So, here’s to the old Marriott Great America theme parks — a tip of the hat to the past, but also a celebration of their lasting legacy in the world of theme park entertainment.

These parks were never just about the rides or the food or the shows: they were about the memories created, the smiles shared, and the good times that will never be forgotten.

1972 fishing village concept for Baltimore-Washington Great America theme park

1972 fishing village concept for Baltimore-Washington Great America theme park

Park construction begins in California (1974)

Construction on the first of three planned “Marriott’s Great America” regional theme parks got underway in October of 1973 in Santa Clara, California, with a spectacular ground-breaking ceremony. Opening of the park has been set back due to highway construction delays and is now set for early spring of 1976.

Great America construction begins in California (1974)

Our Chicago-Milwaukee park, in the town of Gurnee, Illinois, is also under construction and will open in the summer of 1976.

No date for starting construction of the Washington-area park, at Manassas, Virginia, has been set as yet, but we expect to move ahead soon. We are enthusiastic about the prospects for this new business, and for the contribution it will make to the long-term success of the company. There is an excellent future for this type of family-oriented entertainment and recreation.

Celebrating the start of construction of Chicago Marriott's Great America (1974)
Celebrating the start of construction of Chicago Marriott’s Great America (1974)

In 1964, about 16 million Americans visited theme parks. By 1976, when we open our first park, this number should jump to about 75 million. With their bicentennially-appropriate American heritage theme, and their trans-continental market span, we expect our “Great America” parks to be a major national factor in this profitable and growing leisure time industry.

Rural America: Early park concept (1973)

Great America park concept - Rural America (1973)

County Fair: Early park concept (1973)

Early Great America park concept - County Fair (1973)

Marriott’s Great America in Illinois (1976)

Marriott's Great America in Illinois (1976)

Two Marriott’s Great America parks open (1976)

From the Marriott 1976 Annual Report

“Marriott’s Great America,” five years in the making, was unveiled in two of the nation’s major metropolitan regions in the spring of 1976. Almost overnight, they became two of America’s brightest new leisure-time attractions. The two identical theme parks opened in the Greater San Francisco Bay area in March, and north of Chicago at the end of May.

Conceived in the spirit and style of America. Executed with excitement… color… entertainment… nostalgia… good taste… authenticity, Packed with live shows, thrilling rides… food, unique shops, fun games. Splashed with flowers and shrubs, ponds and streams, park benches and gazebos. And operated by people who smile.

Inside the Great America theme park - Tidal Wave in background (1977)

The result: Both an artistic achievement and the start of a financial success. The people came and enjoyed. Guest compliments have been continuous. Combined attendance for the first season appears lobe heading toward five million. Spending for admission, food, games and shops has exceeded $13 per person — above forecast.

The Northern California market contains some 7 million people — and San Francisco/Oakland is the sixth largest market in disposable personal income in the United States. Chicago’s 100-mile radius has 12 million people, and Greater Chicago is second in the nation in disposable personal income. Obviously, both markets are large and strong. And there is no comparable entertainment value in either one.

Full operating seasons, starting next apring, will be about 150 days in Santa Clara, and 120 days in Chicago. Design of a third park — in the Greater Washington [DC] area — remains in a holding position while we complete the first full season of operations at the first two parks. We will focus on this project during fiscal 1977.

Vintage 1970s Great America theme park scenes (1)

Opening day, May 29, 1976, marked the start of something special at Marriott’s Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. It wasn’t just the bicentennial spirit that made the day unforgettable — it was the exciting mix of attractions that drew the crowds.

The fun started with some familiar faces. Bugs Bunny and his Looney Tunes pals were everywhere, bringing laughter and a sense of nostalgia — a tradition that continues with Six Flags at the helm today.

But it was the roller coasters that were the main draw. Willard’s Whizzer was a game-changer with its spiral lift, while the Turn of the Century thrilled riders with its loops. And for the kids? The Gulf Coaster was their introduction to the world of roller coaster fun.

Yet there was more to the park than just roller coasters. The Columbia Carousel was impressive not just for its double-decker design, but also for being one of the world’s tallest at that time. And the Sky Whirl wasn’t your usual Ferris wheel; standing at 110 feet, this triple Ferris wheel was unique to Marriott’s.

The adventure continued with the Delta Flyer and Eagle’s Flight, sky car rides that gave visitors a bird’s-eye view of the park, and Orleans Place, with its French quarter charm, upped the thrill quotient with the spin-crazy Orbit and the always fun Rue Le Dodge bumper cars.

Marriott’s Great America had it all — from high-speed thrills to slower-paced attractions, ensuring there was something for everyone.

Vintage 1970s Great America theme park scenes (2)

List of original Great America rides in 1976

  • Willard’s Whizzer: A roller coaster unique for its spiral lift hill and smooth, curving drops.
  • Turn of the Century: Another roller coaster, this one featuring thrilling loops and twists.
  • The Gulf Coaster: This roller coaster catered to a younger audience with milder drops and turns.
  • Columbia Carousel: An exceptionally tall, double-decker carousel that, upon opening, was one of the tallest in the world.
  • Sky Whirl: A unique triple Ferris wheel standing at a height of 110 feet, custom-designed for Marriott.
  • Delta Flyer: A one-way gondola sky car ride offering spectacular views of the park.
  • Eagle’s Flight: Another one-way gondola sky car ride, which was a crowd favorite.
  • Orleans Orbit: Originally part of the Orleans Place attractions, this was an Enterprise-type ride providing a thrilling spinning experience.
  • Rue Le Dodge: Also in Orleans Place, this ride was a classic bumper car attraction where riders could steer their own cars and “bump” into each other.

DON’T MISS: These 10 old roller coasters at vintage amusement parks will make you really appreciate today’s safety standards

Retro Marriott’s Great America: Summer 1977

Just south of San Francisco, you’ll find thrilling rides, live stage shows, fireworks, great food and music, a super hotel and a crazy rabbit.

It’s Marriott’s Great America. A family fun park featuring five colorful theme areas. Each offers live musical stage productions. A spectacular collection of thrill rides and roller coasters. And it’s all yours for one admission price.  Hungry? Sample tasty snacks or gourmet dishes. Browse through dozens of fascinating gift and craft shops. And meet Bugs Bunny in person.

Marriott's Great America - Summer 1977

We’re located in Santa Clara, minutes north of San Jose, and 45 minutes south of San Francisco off U.S. 101. Open weekends. 10 am to 8 pm. Daily all summer long, 10 am to 10 pm. And the beautiful Santa Clara Marriott Hotel is right next door.

ALSO SEE: See how Carowinds theme park in North & South Carolina looked in the 1980s

Great America’s Skytower 200-foot tall observation tower (1978)

Great America's Skytower 200-foot tall observation tower (1978)

ALSO SEE: Disneyland in the 1980s: See the magical theme park’s rides, attractions & maps

Old Tidal Wave roller coaster loop (1978)

Old Tidal Wave roller coaster loop (1978)

Vintage Sky Whirl ride at Great America theme park (1980)

Vintage Sky Whirl ride at Great America theme park (1980)

Old “Turn of the Century” roller coaster double corkscrew (1976)

After the 1979 season, this roller coaster was painted black and rebranded as The Demon. 

Old Turn of the Century roller coaster double corkscrew (1976)

See The Demon roller coaster experience in 1986!

YouTube video

Original 70s Yankee Clipper log flume ride at Great America (1976)

Original 70s Yankee Clipper log flume ride at Great America (1976)

County Fair At Marriott’s Great America in Illinois postcard

County Fair At Marriotts Great America in Illinois vintage postcard

Park highlights in 1980-1981

THE DEMON: Great America’s newest thrill coaster, featuring mysterious passageways, twin vertical loops, flashing lights, strange noises. double corkscrews and a crimson waterfall. County Fair

LOCKHEED’S PICTORIUM: The wonder of flight is presented in breathtaking splendor on Pictorium’s giant screen in “To Fly.” A new wide-screen film on the American experience premieres Memorial weekend. Carousel Plaza

THE CALIFORNIA 1ST BANK SKY TOWER: Offers a spectacular aerial view of the Santa Clara Valley during a leisurely revolving trip to the top of its 200-foot column. Carousel Plaza

FORT FUN: An adventurous play area just for kids. Among the activities are ball crawls, twisting slides, rope and net climbs, and bouncing punching bags. Yukon Territory

THE UNION OIL BARNEY OLDFIELD SPEEDWAY: Enjoy a spin in one of the antique replica racing cars as it winds around a scenic track. County Fair

THE GAMES GALLERY AND ARCADE: Offers the latest in electronic games, plus games of skill with the biggest prizes around. County Fair

LAFITTE’S TREASURE CHEST OF TOYS: Marvelous toys from around the world will delight children and make fascinating browsing for every member of the family. Orleans Place

Great America Santa Clara California (1981)
Great America Santa Clara California (1981)

Scary 80s freefall ride “The Edge”

Vintage Great America ride The Edge freefall

Riding the 80s ride The Edge at Great America (1983)

ALSO SEE: Vintage Knott’s Berry Farm: See the Southern California amusement park as it used to be

Popular live musical Holiday at the Great America theme parks (1977)

Popular live musical Holiday at the Great America theme parks (1977)

Celebration Swing carousel at Great America theme park (1976)

Celebration Swing carousel at Great America theme park (1976)

Columbia Carousel at Marriott’s Great America (1981)

Columbia Carousel at Marriott's Great America (1981)

Columbia Carousel at night – Marriott’s Great America (1976)

Columbia Carousel at night - Marriott's Great America (1976)

Spirit of America parade float (1976)

Spirit of America parade float (1976)

Stage shows with singers and dancers at Great America in 1982

Stage shows with singers and dancers at Great America in 1982

Vintage 1976 Marriott’s Great America “County Fair”

Vintage 1976 Marriott's Great America County Fair

DON’T MISS: Busch Gardens: See the theme park in Tampa, Florida through the 20th century

Old Great America arcade games in 1976

Old Great America arcade games in 1976

Great America Raceway car driving attraction (1976)

Great America Raceway car driving attraction (1976)

Vintage Great America stage show with Warner Bros cartoon characters (1979)

Vintage Great America stage show with Warner Bros cartoon characters (1979)

Vintage paper bag from Marriott’s Great America (1970s-1980s)

Vintage paper bag from Marriott's Great America (1970s-1980s)

70s musical stage show at Marriott’s (1976)

70s musical stage show at Marriott's (1976)

Bugs Bunny Warner Bros character at Great America in 1980

Bugs Bunny Warner Bros character at Great America in 1980

Bugs Bunny with theme park visitors in 1982

Bugs Bunny with theme park visitors in 1982

Face painting in 1980

Face painting in 1980

Great America’s old dolphin tricks show (1976)

Great America's old dolphin tricks show (1976)

Foghorn Leghorn character at the old Marriott’s Great America (1981)

Foghorn Leghorn character with a little girl at old Marriott's Great America in 1981

Great America candy shop interior (1976)

Great America candy shop interior (1976)

Who owns Great America now? A timeline

1972: The Marriott Corporation announced its plans to build two amusement parks, Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, and Santa Clara, California. (Plans for a third park in the Washington DC area never made it past the drawing board.)

1976: Both Great America parks opened. The Santa Clara location debuted first, in March, followed by the Gurnee park in May.

Early 1980s: Due to financial pressures, Marriott decided to exit the theme park business.

1984: The Illinois location was sold to Bally Manufacturing, the parent company of Six Flags, and was subsequently renamed Six Flags Great America — as it operates today.

1985: The California park was sold to the City of Santa Clara and the Great America management group, and eventually ended up under the management of Cedar Fair Entertainment Company;

2022: Cedar Fair announced the sale of the Silicon Valley land on which California’s Great America resides. Terms of the sale reportedly allow park operations to continue up until 2033, at which point the park will be permanently closed.

The modern-day Great America park

Great America theme park around the early 2020s
Photo by Jay Boncodin/

Get more views of the theme park today on the company’s Instagram account.

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Great story! The video of the Demon is from the mid to late 90’s, not 1986 as stated. The uniforms are from the Paramount era. The lights in the tunnel were removed shortly before:

    City of Santa Clara’s acquisition from Marriott in 1985. It was then sold to Kings Entertainment Company in 1989 while Santa Clara retained ownership of the land. Paramount Parks acquired the park in 1992, followed by Cedar Fair in 2006.

  2. Been to Gurnee, IL location many times. Also was fortunate to live close to Cedar Point in Ohio, which didn’t make your list. Good times. There was also King’s Island but I never was there.

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