Peering down from a satellite view, the park looks quite larger than its actual 250 acres. This is because a substantial (5,383 feet, fourth longest in the world) out and back wooden coaster runs the entire length of the parking lot and then some (pictured here along the bottom right edge).
It wouldn’t be a Cedar Fair park without another hyperbolic park map, and scale and proportions are all out of whack as usual. I make it a point to limit my reconnaissance and online research before I visit a new thematic site, as I prefer my initial impressions to be fresh. As such, I wasn’t aware of how ridiculously small Michigan’s Adventure is. So glancing down at the park map as I entered for the day, I thought, ok, plenty enough to do here. How wrong I would be.
A Deer Destination
Like many parks which Cedar Fair has come to acquire, this property began as something quite different.
Deer Park opened on this site in 1956, and featured a petting zoo (with, you guessed it, deer being on display prominently).
There was also a storybook themed land (similar to Children’s Fairyland in Oakland, California and other such parks across the United States), some small rides for children, and a picnic area.
In 1968, during a decade-long, nationwide scramble to compete with Disneyland which brought forward the first Six Flags parks, the admission gating of Knott’s Berry Farm, and expansion at Cedar Point, a man named Roger Jourden bought the park with the intention of developing it into a larger local attraction.
Jourden dispensed with the deer and started adding more rides, renaming the place Deer Park Funland in 1972 to suggest an amusement atmosphere. He continued to add more rides each and every season. By 1979 the park had a standard Arrow model Corkscrew (the seventh) which is still in operation.
Shiver Me Timbers
Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the park continued on in this manner, quietly adding a few new attractions from year to year. For the 1988 season Deer Park Funland was renamed Michigan’s Adventure and gained its first wooden roller coaster, Wolverine Wildcat.
Yet ten years later, for the first time the park landed on national roller coaster radar with the addition of Shivering Timbers. The ride broke records and brought in fans from all over the world. Michigan’s Adventure was finally, somewhat, famous.
The landscaping around the coaster is lush, with foliage suggesting a logging theme (though this is not made explicit by any theming or propping in the station ). Timbers = logging = trees seems to be the extent of the vision here.
Even after Cedar Fair purchased the park in 2001, no great efforts were taken to ‘theme-up’ Michigan’s Adventure. It doesn’t have ‘lands’ and never has, so design motifs are sporadic and not cohesive. In and around Shivering Timbers the retail and dining structures carry a generic “woodsman” frontier look, which scans decently as the Northwoods region of Wisconsin as well as Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It’s woodsy, there are shingles on the roof…time to cut down a tree, start a fire, and cook some game! But again, I should go easy on the place. Michigan’s Adventure is not a theme park, has never been a theme park, and is not pretending to be one, either.
Here we have the kind of cheesy plastic-molded 19th century wood typography that is stock in trade for Six Flags parks and remains hopelessly stuck in the Jimmy Carter’s only term.
The typography on the signage here is a more authentic treatment than the “General Store” above, but certainly a contemporary interpretation—it’s from the Letterhead Fonts Foundry (LHF) which was founded in the late 1990s.
At first I assumed this was the same railroad as pictured in the vintage advertisement above, but actually it was only added to Michigan’s Adventure in 2002, just a year after Cedar Fair acquired the park. The track appears to be the same gauge, however.
Rapids All Around
After a relaxing journey out into the the surrounding woods—including a small lake and a tunnel—the train stops at its second depot, the Grand Rapids Junction. Once again, solid 19th century type, though the fonts themselves are of more recent vintage.
As I glanced back, I noticed that this station is even more rustic—less Victorian—than the one I departed from over in the wooded area surrounding Shivering Timbers (the first lift hill of which can be seen here in the distance).
During the 2006 season, Michigan’s Adventure celebrated its 50th anniversary, and for the occasion Cedar Fair added the Grand Rapids water ride. This was a previously undeveloped corner of the park, and probably contains its best-executed thematic design. The structures, rock work, and foliage all work to tell the same story with considered visual literacy.
Since acquiring Knott’s Berry Farm in 1997, Cedar Fair’s designers (or, more likely, their contractors) have been cribbing liberally from that Southern California park’s classic Old West theming as the company has augmented its other properties with renovations of existing attractions, new rides, and even new lands.
Whether it’s a new coaster, shop, quick service food stop, or even a sign, Cedar Fair seems to return to Knott’s for inspiration. This makes sense—it’s the only park, besides Cedar Point itself, which has a rich history to draw upon. I hadn’t noticed this until I visited Michigan’s Adventure, but looking back now, there are bits of Knott’s all over Cedar Point and Kings Island as well.
Case in point, this “RIP ROARIN’ FUN” sawblade is right from the Knott’s Berry Farm playbook. And the type, as before, is from the Letterhead Font Foundry. Again, a late-1800s industrial proprietorship becomes the most natural backstory for a ride conveyance, just like at Cedar Point and Kings Island.
The Grand Rapids ride itself also nods quite directly to BigFoot Rapids at Knott’s, which is actually currently undergoing renovation and retheming and will open in the summer of 2019 as Calico River Rapids (tying it more closely to other attractions in the Ghost Town portion of the park).
Although I didn’t ride it, I observed the “Old Faithful”-style water effects which were quite neat. The queue, load station, and surrounding props were all well designed. I will say though that the sweltering humidity of midsummer in Michigan worked against the visuals here, which smacked more of the Rockies region.
The Grand Rapids area aside, Michigan’s Adventure just didn’t deliver. I was glad to have ridden one of the more noted wooden roller coasters in the United States, but the park is lacking in scope. There just wasn’t enough to do. I planned on staying all day but barely lasted six hours (and this was with a lot of walking around and re-riding attractions multiple times).
I ended my stay with a pleasant lakeside view of the Wolverine Wildcat. Though the lake is artificial, the cool breezes blowing off its surface were certainly real (and welcome, given both the sun beating down and the heavy humidity).
I will say that Michigan’s Adventure did have this going for it—it was quiet, uncrowded, and relatively inexpensive. It just wasn’t the thematic destination I was hoping for.
Next stop: Six Flags Great America.