Since I spent nearly two full days at Great America, I’ve got a lot of photography to parse of the three other original lands besides Carousel Plaza and Hometown Square—Orleans Place, Yukon Territory, and County Fair. I visited each area more than once during different times, so lighting shifts from all manner of daylight to dusk and then to twilight in these photographs.
(New) Orleans (Square) Place
It’s kind of charming when I come across thematic design that it so obviously derivative of other projects. In this case, I think it’s pretty obvious that Randall Duell and his design team took a cue from New Orleans Square at Disneyland.
Leaving Hometown Square and passing back underneath the tracks of the Great America Scenic Railway and then weaving around the Columbia Carousel is the most direct way to access Orleans Place. Both Carousel Plaza and this area have matching brick and wrought iron entries.
Orleans Place lies entirely outside the railroad berm which circles the rest of Great America. Again, with the Duell Loop model, the only other way to get there would be to walk through all the other lands first in the opposite direction (counter-clockwise from the entrance). It seems most likely to me that because the way in which Hometown Square is staged, first-time visitors would proceed forward counter-clockwise, thus encountering Orleans Place only towards the end of their day.
For those familiar with the French Quarter, this is the architectural stereotype which comes to mind—the elaborate, rounded-corner ironwork balconies as at the intersection of Royal and St. Peter streets.
As I made my way through, I began to notice that Duell’s designers took a ‘piecemeal’ rather than a ‘holistic’ approach to Great America. This allows for a greater variety of structures with their own subtle motifs, but also creates sort of a collaged effect. The pieces are all from the same kit of parts, so to speak, but there’s no master picture on the Lego box which is being followed.
This first retail block on the left as you enter Orleans Place is a perfect example. The corner begins with the classic Quarter ironwork of a Creole townhouse; again, the most stereotyped visual identifier. This adjoins an American townhouse with stucco finish (painted in garish lavender), then a low shingle roof building which then terminates with more wrought iron and a traditional copper roof.
The individual elements are interesting, and inspired by the New Orleans theme, but just like the architectural amalgamations I found at Cedar Point, they feel off when taken as a single composition.
Now compare with this photo of New Orleans Square at Disneyland. Everything here is tightly integrated and composed. If we’re talking about spaces which tell stories (and I am) then I’d say this is well-plotted. There are actual “story beats” to each and every facade, and they are all interrelated.
New Orleans Square was the first new land to open at Disneyland. Walt himself dedicated the land on July 24, 1966 in what was to be his last public appearance at Disneyland before passing away in December of that year. As such he never saw its signature attraction, Pirates of the Caribbean, completed (it finally opened in March of 1967). The New Orleans Square expansion cost as much in mid-1960s dollars as the entire construction of Disneyland cost in 1955—some $17 million.
Obviously Duell and Marriott didn’t have that kind of money to spend on a single land. But, and perhaps this is unfair, I couldn’t help but compare Orleans Place with New Orleans Square at every turn.
One thing that I thought the Great America designers did effectively, given their budget constraints, was to consider the city of New Orleans beyond simply the French Quarter. Although Disney’s version is dripping with detail and verisimilitude, architecturally the experience is pretty much limited to the Quarter.
The world's largest bumper car floor, Rue Le Dodge, is fashioned as a country manor.
Other attraction queue areas have more of a Spanish flavor, which is authentic to Louisiana but not necessarily what the public would expect.
There are also more generic “cottage” type structures.
I’m not sure if this is a direct nod, an inside joke, or just a coincidence. This ride sign is rendered in a typeface called Rubens, a wood type cut by John F. Cumming released in the 1880s or 1890s. Notable in this context is that Rubens is used extensively at The Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland, which resides in New Orleans Square.
Rubens had undergone a revival in the mid-sixties, and the Mansion opened in the summer of 1969. Of the various digital font versions of the typeface, the two most popular—Ravenscroft and Mansion—are based on its Disney park usage.
Count on Six Flags, however, to muck up the original design intentions for any one of their parks. Usually by dropping a massive coaster named after a DC comics superhero right in the middle of things.
What used to be a French Quarter double-gallery house now serves as the entrance, storage lockers, and part of the ride queue for Superman: Ultimate Flight. I had to sneak around a corner to even get this view of it—the obnoxious signage for the ride blocks the entire front of the building.
Then right next door, you have The Dark Knight Coaster, which is in an indoor WIld Mouse style ride in the dark with various effects. Six Flags must have just bulldozed what was here prior, because this “Gotham City Transit” station is nestled right in with the original New Orleans buildings. No connection at all, other than Superman was already living next door.
And then next is a standalone themed cottage selling pizza.
I will say this about Great America. They might not always take the time to design their own themed graphics, signage, and other ephemera, but they do employ lovely historical examples, such as this wheat pasted large format advertisement for Tabasco Sauce.
In 2004, Six Flags tweaked the section of Orleans Place which connects with Yankee Harbor and christened it Mardi Gras. I’m not even sure that I’d call it a mini-land, as there are only two rides here among a variety of carnival games. More festive, I supposed? It doesn’t really work.
The architectural interactions are stronger than the original Duell designs from 1976, however. This block is unified almost on the level of Disney’s New Orleans Square, even along the rooflines.
One last Great America element which doesn’t factor in to the Disney Version of New Orleans are the vintage-style marquees in the Mardi Gras area which offer lovely ambience after nightfall. I would suspect the reason is twofold. First, Disneyland’s Crescent City is specifically set in the pre-industrial Antebellum South. The second is that Main Street U.S.A.—set at the dawn of twentieth century and the spread of electrical lighting—has this sort of flourish covered quite well already.
From Yankee to Yukon
Continuing along the Duell loop in a clockwise fashion, you come to the Yankee Harbor area which appears to be themed to a late 18th or early 19th century New England port reminiscent of the Maine coast or Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
Although I enjoy looking at concept paintings for theme park projects, most are inevitably something of a dissapointment. Only perhaps half of the intention of the above rendering ended up being built.
Walking into Yankee Harbor from Mardi Gras, I encountered my first “theme bridge.” I remembered these from the Great America park in California. Apparently the design team felt that a reasonable shortcut to crafting transitions between the various themed lands was to just build a covered bridge and stick a sign with the name of the land on either side.
Yankee Harbor has many more smaller, stand-alone structures than Orleans Place. Many are deliberately domestic in orientation—as if these buildings house the ‘residents’ of this waterfront area.
The quality of signage at Six Flags parks certainly varies. Here the graphic and typographic style is somewhat correct, but tacky and anachronistic in presentation. Obviously no one warped text using Adobe Illustrator in pre-industrial New England.
Just as I drew comparisons between New Orleans Square and Orleans Place, Yankee Harbor reminded me strongly of the Cape Cod section of the American Waterfront area at Tokyo Disneysea. Naturally, Disney had more money to spend on their designs—in this case, actually quite more than usual. The Tokyo Disney Resort is wholly owned by The Oriental Land Company, and as such the Japanese invest their own funds, hiring out to Disney for design and operations consultation.
Tokyo Disneysea opened in 2001 at a cost of nearly three billion dollars. So naturally I couldn’t expect the same of Six Flags (née Marriott). But looking at vintage postcards from the park’s opening decade, it’s such a shame that much (if not most) of Randall Duell’s original designs have been altered, degraded, or simply neglected. I couldn’t even find the iconic lighthouse featured on both cards, so maybe it’s been removed?
This is the only connected block that I found in Yankee Harbor, and it demonstrates the same spatial ‘piecemeal’ approach which I saw in Orleans Place. However here the roofs appear to overlap and interlock in more organic ways.
I was surprised by the amount of blacktop and concrete in and around this “seaport.” There are pier pilings at the right edge of this shot, so why not wood plank decking? Based on the images on the vintage postcards I found, it’s possible this kind of detail was originally present, but removed due to wear and tear and never replaced.
Snacks are often found in “shacks,” whether at a Disney, Universal, Cedar Fair, or Six Flags park.
Here a Yankee “house” is joined with an industrial-looking shed, once again showing a ‘piecemeal’ design language (and here not very successfully).
…and more shacks.
Continuing clockwise along the Duell Loop, Yankee Harbor gives way to Yukon Territory. Although named for the Canadian region, also here is all the romance of the Klondike / Alaskan Gold Rush, interspersed with native Alaskan Iñupiat and Canadian Inuit iconography. Although in 1976 the designers likely called it “Eskimo” (a term which has since been deprecated by these peoples).
The concept art features a snowy mountain in the background to the right, and what look like Russian onion domes in the striped style of Saint Basil's Cathedral to the left foreground.
“Theme bridge” number two, this time with carved totems and tacky timber sticks-as-lettering.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that these totems were probably carved by Midwestern white guys. I’ve been thinking about this kind of stuff quite a bit, but I’m not ready to address it just yet with my posts on Great America. So more on this later.
These Northern Native vibes really reminded me of some of the carvings and other designs at the Canada Pavilion at Epcot’s World Showcase, Walt Disney World, Florida. Disney at least had the good cultural sense (or budget) to commission the real thing—the wooden totem pictured here was carved by David A. Boxley, an American artist of the Tsimshian, an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast.
But this time, the scale is grander and more extensive here at Great America. And cheesier, as evidenced by this “Watering Hole” sign.
Compared to Yankee Harbor, where wood seemed lacking overall, here in the Yukon Territory there is lumber galore. And much of it is painted a reddish dark brown for some reason.
Some carved wood type lettering adds the proper Western Frontier trappings.
The same goes for hand painted signage, which is abundant at the DIsney parks, but rarer in the Six Flags or Cedar Fair realm.
Were the 1970s actually browner, or was it the cast of the photography? Even today, the Yukon Territory area is awfully brown. Sadly most of the props and much of the signage seen in the above postcard has been removed over the years.
And the propping which does remain—what are sometimes called “tertiary elements” in video game design—is rather thoughtlessly placed. Consider the pairs of skis tacked up on this Old West false front. Would skis ever appear like this in the actual Yukon? Just nailed to a storefront, out of reach?
Such haphazard design ‘decisions’ are decidedly very Six Flags. But this roof structure is a level of building detail which can only belong to Duell’s original designs for Marriott.
The Six Flags additions sometimes feel slapped onto the original structures like bumper stickers, like this “Cartoon Caravan” sign.
Yet by taking a closer look, original details can still be appreciated.
Lastly there are parts of the Yukon Territory area which feel lonely and abandoned. Was this once a retail establishment, or perhaps a crafts demonstration space? I saw more than one of these—a part of the park which was simply shuttered (apparently long ago). This is a lovely false front though, nearly identical to one I saw in Deadwood, South Dakota.
It’s Just Not Fair
At the far back of Great America from the entrance, halfway through the Duell Loop, is the County Fair area. I found this to be the most sparsely designed and generic land in the park. Part of this is probably because here we are in Illinois, in the Midwest, and the theme is, well, the Midwest. In fact, the original name for the area when Great America opened was The Great Midwest Livestock Exposition at County Fair.
Quite a mouthful; no wonder they shortened it.
Once again, the vision of the concept art exceeded the grasp of the designer’s actual budget. But here with County Fair I feel it’s actually the smaller details—things which would not have cost much to add, like the patriotic bunting and flags—which are lacking. Disney does more just during their seasonal Fourth of July overlays on Main Street U.S.A.
Here we go again…another “theme bridge.” Unlike the entry to the Yukon Territory, the sign here is well-designed and feels authentic for the setting.
Interestingly, the “theme bridges” are only employed as transitions between lands on the east side of the Duell Loop (clockwise from the entrance to the back of the park). On the west side, there are these arches / gateways.
The typography here is off, and reads more Renaissance Fair than County Fair.
Unlike the “theme bridges” on the east side, these gateways are generic and feature the same style of signage on either side, no matter which land you are facing.
When I say County Fair feels less considered, I mean that it’s as if the designers ran out of time (or money, or both) and started dropping in generic versions of structures which had already been drafted for other themed areas throughout the park. This shack seems to be from Yankee Harbor.
This house looks just like its cousins over in Orleans Place.
And this small eatery has the nondescript “amusement park-ness” of Carousel Plaza, complete with the expected Circus Wood Type look.
Other than a few thrill rides, County Fair is dominated by a food court and countless midway-style carnival games. I’m not sure why, but the area became more interesting as dusk gave way to twilight. I felt the same way at Kings Island—once the Coney Island area emptied out towards the end of the day, there was this beautiful, almost melancholic sense.
Here is the American Eagle, a dual track woodie which opened in 1981 and could be considered the anchor attraction of the entire County Fair area. With rows of popcorn lights moving in sequence, just like the rest of the land, it becomes more kinetic at night. It’s just a shame that the designers of Great America appear to have hastily completed this back part of the park and were never able to fully address its shortcomings in the years following.
Pirates of the Midwest?
If you follow the Duell Loop back from County Fair towards the entrance to the Southwest Territory area, you come across this, well, anachronism. But it’s not just out of time, it’s out of place. It’s out of everything. What do you call some thematic design that just feels like it appeared out of nowhere? I guess I’ll just go with incongruous.
Buccaneer Battle is a generic pirate boat ride featuring small scale effects and interactivity developed by a German company called Mack Rides. which was added to the park in 2009. Visually, the attraction does not appear to belong to any one land, but the park guide map lists it as officially part of County Fair.
Unless that county happens to be within the Spanish Main during the 16th or 17th century, it doesn’t wash. I do have to commend Mack Rides here, though. The structural design and finishing touches are very high level, much more so than the typical Six Flags offering. Mack is owned by the same family which owns and operates Europa-Park (the second most popular theme park in Europe after Disneyland Paris), so I’m not surprised by this commitment to quality. Still, let’s be honest. It’s Pirates of the Caribbean on the cheap.
Now that I’ve explored the original lands of Great America, this Spanish Main setting is actually an appropriate segway to the most recent addition, Southwest Territory.