It surprised me that Six Flags actually decided to make investment in theming beyond Marriott’s design of the park. The company is known for dropping serious money on the latest megacoaster, sure. But adding an entire land complete with elaborately designed buildings and themed attractions? Not very likely. Yet that’s exactly what Six Flags did at Great America in the mid-nineties.
Go (South)West, Young Man
A land called the Great Southwest was actually on the drawing board as part of the original Great America park masterplan. The expansion was planned to open in 1979, but never did. It’s quite possible that Randall Duell named the land in tribute to the Great Southwest Corporation, Angus G. Wynne’s company for which Duell designed Six Flags Over Texas.
The best evidence that Marriott was serious about this expansion was the addition of the Southern Cross skyride which opened in 1977 for the the park’s second season. Like so many other gondola-type rides built at parks across the United States, this was a product of Swiss firm Von Roll. But there were two ways in which this gondola was unique—its height and its route.
The Southern Cross was one of the tallest and longest gondola skyrides Voll Roll ever built for a theme or amusement park. Really high—guests traveled some 125 feet in the air. And the reason for this lofty stature was that Southern Cross intersected perpendicular with—and passed completely over—the Delta Flyer / Eagle’s Flight skyride. Which made the name for the ride quite appropriate. “Southern Cross” is an astronomical term for a kite-like arrangement of stars (also called a “crux”), which is the shape that the two skyride lines formed. The Southern Cross route also ran northeast to the southwest.
The gondola was only round trip ride as the Great Southwest area was awaiting the start of construction. There was nothing at the end of the line but a pile of dirt. But it never came. By the end of the 1982 season it was determined that since there was literally no destination keeping Southern Cross viable, it was removed. Two seasons later the Delta Flyer / Eagle’s Flight was also removed from the Gurnee park. The skyride at the Santa Clara park continues operation to this day.
Six Flags has a habit of using coaster names multiple times on different rides at various parks throughout the chain. As it turns out, “Viper” is quite common. The earliest use I could find is the Viper at Darien Lake in New York, an Arrow steel looper which opened in 1982 and is still running today. Curiously that park came to be managed by Six Flags in 2017. There was also a Viper which operated at Six Flags AstroWorld from 1989 until that park’s closing in 2005.
In 1990 Six Flags Magic Mountain opened their own Viper. As of 2019, it’s the last of the 7-looper roller coasters built by Arrow still operating. This is when the Six Flags “Viper” logo appears to have debuted.
The same logo was again repeated at Six Flags Over Georgia for their Viper, which opened in 1995 and operated until 2001. Ironically, this ride was the very same Schwarzkopf shuttle looper Tidal Wave which had opened at Gurnee in 1978. Yet another Viper operated from 1995 to 2004 at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, but it was a completely unrelated design and its logo was a bit similar—but not identical—to the other Six Flag “Vipers.”
And that very same season in which the park’s former Tidal Wave became a Viper down in Georgia, Great America opened their own (with that same pesky logo).
This massive wooden Viper in the Southwest Territory was built as a tribute to the famed Coney Island Cyclone. The layout is essentially a mirror-image of that classic, with some adjustments in scale.
As I’ve seen before, it’s common to use fictional proprietors and industrial concerns as foundation for backstory in thematic design, particularly in the Old West and Turn of the Century genres. In this case, the coaster station for Viper is presented as a “Snake Oil” elixir factory.
The details of the station and surrounding queue structures are surprisingly realized for a Six Flags project. Much like the rest of the Southwest Territory area, I was impressed. Authentic-looking aged and weathered planking, rope, rusted metal wire, and barn lighting factor in throughout.
You Flotsam, You Jetsam
In the coaster station for Viper there are several caged-off areas with tools, oil barrels, and other various industrial machinery and materials on display. I call these “prop cages” and I’ve seen them at thematic environments all over the world. Six Flags is sloppier about this than most—at a glance it’s just a bunch of junk that was gathered at a salvage yard and scattered about. You might say this suggests “story” or “theme” but it’s really the laziest pass possible.
Disney has been doing this kind of stuff in their attraction queues for years. But they’re more thoughtful about it—there is backstory embedded in each and every display. For example, in the queue for Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, this prop cage is designed as an archaeologist’s field office. The crate planks are stamped with the names of famous universities from around the world.
Another design trope that I’ve found at nearly every theme park I’ve visited is what I call the “Flotsam / Jetsam” approached to a vaulted ceiling. Basically, if you’ve got a high open interior area in a structure, a solid shortcut to theming is to fill the rafters with a bunch of appropriate “stuff.”
My guess is that this treatment is linked to antique stores and other retail establishments in the tradition of “Grandma’s Attic.” The idea is that the more stuffed to the gills with junk a curiosity shop is, the more sweetened and heightened the discovery of a “hidden gem” is after a lengthy “treasure hunt.” Which is why antique malls and other kinds of vintage flea markets feel completely overwhelming (and intriguing).
I think the “Flotsam / Jetsam” ceiling, at least in thematic design, can be traced back to the mid-century tiki craze which began in the United States in California during the 1930s with Don the Beachcomber and Trader Vic’s. Donn Beach realized the narrative value of decor in securing a restaurant’s aura and reputation, and decorated his Beachcomber with artifacts of his overseas travels as well as props from the movie business.
Victor “Trader Vic” Bergeron took this practice to even greater heights and basically perfected the artform. Each new restaurant in his chain featured more and more elaborate decor. And every vaulted ceiling was crammed full of native canoes, paddles and spears. And fish netting and rope, plus Japanese glass fishing floats and lanterns made of both bamboo and taxidermied puffer fish.
Phase Two, 1996: Ol’ West Town
For the 1996 season, the second phase of the Southwest Territory expansion in the form of an eleven-acre themed area opened adjacent to Viper. This Old West Town features retail stores, restaurants, and a saloon split across two sides of a single block.
There is nothing groundbreaking about the design, and there didn’t have to be. At this point the American public had been awash in westerns on television, in the movies, and at other theme parks for decades.
George Ladyman, Six Flags vice president of design/entertainment, commented to the press upon the opening of Phase Two of the Southwest Territory in May, 1996:
We developed it to the point where we've brought westerns to the 1990s. We've created a great family section to the park. The stunt show is for little kids, big kids and Moms and Dads. It worked well for us.
It was nice to see some actual hand painted signage leveraging historically-appropriate typography. Quality of this sort varies widely at the Six Flag parks, but here they’ve really nailed it.
Phase Three, 1997: A New (Old) Mission
Some five additional acres were added to the Southwest Territory with the opening of Phase Three for the 1997 season. Again, there continued to be great attention to detail in the design. As Great America park President Jim Wintrode said to the press in the spring of 1996 when Phase Two opened:
Theming is the one thing we concentrated on most with this new area. This is the best we've ever done. The buildings are all full-scale size, unlike Universal Studios and Disney, which utilize half-scale and three-fifths scale models. I'm not degrading what they do by any means, but the height coupled with the theming adds a lot to the realism effect.
The centerpiece of the second and third phases of the project is a massive California Mission-type structure. The front portion opened in 1996, and the building’s backside was completed in 1997.
I grew up very close to the Mission San Juan Capistrano in Southern California, so it was both familiar and disconcerting to see this. Call the feeling uncanny. Little did I know there was a direct connection. Upon the opening of Phase Two, park President Jim Wintrode noted: “The five mission bells also lend to the authenticity. They came from the same bell company that services San Juan Capistrano."
On the second day of my visit to Great America, I happened to catch this part of the park during part of the golden hour just after sunset. The throws of soft light in yellows and light oranges were perfectly cast onto the mission creating an idyllic atmosphere.
The courtyard on the opposite side of the mission was completed in 1997. There are little touches of broken stucco revealing brickwork underneath that are far superior to what you’d find at the Mexican area of Knott’s Berry Farm or at other Six Flags parks, and are actually on par with any Disney design.
Much like the routed wood, hand painted examples I found in Carousel Plaza, Chubasco features some nice signage (although the typographic choices are a bit dubious).
The Mexican /Southwestern theme spills out into other areas of the expanded land, such as this adobe “Fiesta Fries Cantina.” Here the signage is more tacky than other more authentic samples in the area.
In terms of outward mechanics, there’s nothing special going on. Giant Drop looks like any other similar drop tower at any other park. But the queue descends slightly down into a mine setting that partially obscures the base of the tower (and thus the loading procedure).
You can see rider loading from the other side of the attraction, but not from the queue as you descend into the mine. For a first time rider, this is likely to increase anticipation and maybe up the scare factor.
The wood typography here, all hand painted on weathered wood, is really terrific. This sign was probably the best example in the entire area, maybe even the whole park.
A Load of Bull
In 1999, after all three of the design phases of Southwest Territory were complete, the area received its most recent—and angry—resident. Raging Bull is a Bolliger & Mabillard hypercoaster and is quite similar to its sister Diamondback at Kings Island which opened ten years later. The bull is something of a twister, whereas the snake is more of an out-and-back model.
Adding massive coasters like this to a thematic environment are always a mixed blessing. These rides are fun, and some of their queues and stations might be elaborately themed. But then end up towering over the landscape and distorting the scale of everything else, as I saw in Rivertown at Kings Island.
In this step panoramic you can see the attention to detail which was applied to one block of the Old West Town in Southwest Territory. But Raging Bull twists and turns overhead, intruding on the ambiance. It’s a shame, but something which is not going to change at Cedar Fair and Six Flags parks anytime soon. Their unique selling proposition as compared with the Disney parks is to draw an audience for these very thrill rides.
But the details are good. The Six Flags design team spent a month researching a variety of Western, mining, prairie, Mexican and Indian architectural environments across the Southwest to come up with inspiration for all the various elements of the town. And it shows. The “Groceries” façade above is nearly identical to one I saw in Deadwood, South Dakota.
As viewed from the Sky Trek tower, Raging Bull completely dominates the area, dwarfing the California Mission plaza and Old West Town below.
The integration of The Demon, by contrast, is much more organic. This Arrow corkscrew opened with both Great America parks in 1976 as the Turn of The Century. With the addition of two vertical loops and some tunnels and rockwork, both were transformed into The Demon in 1980. So the rockwork pictured and the tunnel the loop travels through were present when Southwest Territory was being developed. Notice the care taken to the color of the rock (which was repainted to a more desert tan) and the trees planted up and around the edge of the ride. Everything blends seamlessly with the new area.
Six Flags doesn’t always get the details right, of course. I found this prop barrel display of horse tack to be tacky indeed.
At Face Value
One last feature of the area which caught my eye were a series of façades on one half block of the Western Town. They are designed and presented as false fronts, just as this were a movie studio backlot set as opposed to immersive theming. Other parks like Universal do this (quite intentionally) and even Disney has attempted the approach at their movie-themed parks and lands (though I’d argue less successfully).
There are no buildings behind these fronts, and no glass in the windows. Which means you see the lift hill of The Demon roller coaster right behind.
For me, the effect is simply surreal. And I mean that in a good way. It’s like something out of The Twilight Zone; I thought it was cool. I commented on this same kind of design when I posted about my visit to Deadwood, South Dakota.
But it’s likely I was reading it the wrong way. According to Southwest Territory designers Sharon Hendrickson and Anthony Stark, there’s another, more intentional story at work here. As Stark elaborated to reporters in 1996:
We meshed all those together and came up with a new town built over time. It includes a little bit of everything. Each ride carries a specific story, like the town bank leveled by a tornado, which is signified by the Trailblazer. We wanted it to look like what would happen if a carnival came through an Old West town.
So, ok, the bank was hit by a tornado, and that’s why the window glass is all blown out, and there is nothing left standing behind the building fronts. I suppose that works. But I also suspect they were just trying to save on construction costs. This is Six Flags, after all.
All in all though Southwest Territory was impressive, especially for a Six Flags park. I realize I’m probably grading them on a curve. But after so many years of owning this former Marriott park, Six Flags managed to introduce—rather successfully—some of the DNA from their original Texas park. Call it a form of corporate self-love, or an extension of branding, but Great America is a more interesting and thematically varied park because of it.