Six Flags Great America's Goliath is quite possibly the most anticipated coaster of 2014, a unique Rocky Mountain Construction design that will break world records for top speed (72 mph) and the tallest (180 feet) and steepest drop (85 degrees) on a wooden coaster.
And although most of the industry's eyes will be on Gurnee, Illinois around Memorial Day weekend for its debut, many from outside the area may be unaware of the history of the plot of land where Goliath will make its home.
As a SFGAm devotee from Opening Day, I invite you to join me as we explore some of the surprising history and trivia behind that small, thin plot of land.
1976-1984: Simpler Days, Marriott Days
Marriott’s Great America opened in Gurnee in 1976 with a level of themeing and detail that rivaled any of its amusement park contemporaries of the day. Each of the six sections of the park (Carousel Plaza, Hometown Square, Orleans Place, Yankee Harbor, Yukon Territory, and County Fair) embraced its theme in everything from architecture, entertainment, food, and shopping. (Up until its full transformation to a Six Flags property, employees even wore section-specific costumes, something nearly unheard of outside a Disney park. And no, I refuse to capitalize “park”.) The Chicago metropolitan area had been without a noteworthy amusement park since the closing of Riverview in 1967, and Great America became an immediate success.
Bordered to the south by a Gurnee city street, to the east by backstage employee areas, and to the north and west by parking lot, the park would have to look within its confines to create room for new attractions. The section of County Fair in question was originally home to landscaping and the Zierer Wave Swinger known as the Whirligig, and was adjacent to the tracks of the Great America Scenic Railway, the railroad route that encircled the park. The Whirligig was uprooted in the offseason after 1984 and moved to its new home in the center of Yankee Harbor. (This was a puzzling decision to me in my youth, as the calliope-themed swings had very little to do with the 19th century Atlantic seaboard surroundings, and signaled the first crack in the park’s veneer of immersive themeing.) Due to expansion over the following years, the Whirligig would come to inhabit three separate locations in Yankee Harbor, all within several hundred feet of each other.
After a number of high-profile additions to the park, Marriott decided to get out of the amusement park business, and Six Flags purchased the park in 1984. No one knew what the future would hold, but Six Flags already had something big in the works.
1985-1989: A Force Ahead Of Its Time
We're spoiled these days. Fans of theme parks and roller coasters have months, sometimes years of lead time when it comes to the next big attraction. The announcement of a new coaster is almost always accompanied these days by a virtual POV and if one is so inclined, they could attend a convention where they'll be able to actually sit in the coaster's train months ahead of the actual opening of the ride.
It wasn't like that in the 80's. Most people wouldn't find anything out about their local park's new attraction until the local news stations would run a three minute piece, or maybe not even until they walked into the park for the first time that season. Only true amusement park geeks of the 80's knew that during the spring, their local park would produce that year's brochure, to be found at highway rest areas and in the lobbies of hotels.
That being said, when on road trips with my family each year during the spring, I would keep an impatient eye on the collection of attraction brochures available at highway rest areas and in the lobbies of hotels. Sure enough, one day in 1985, I spotted the familiar red, white, and blue Great America logo on a brochure tucked in between advertisements for the Chicago Botanical Gardens and the Wisconsin Dells’ Paul Bunyan All-You-Can-Eat Cook Shanty. Not knowing what to expect, I grabbed one with greedy hands.
“Z-Force?” I remember thinking upon seeing the cover. “What the hell is a Z-Force?”
Z-Force was the first (and only) Space Diver coaster built by Giovanola for Intamin, a bizarre design that eschewed the traditional horizontal footprint of steel coaters, and instead built the mass of its layout vertically. As the coaster was a first-of-its-kind design, Six Flags had no photographs available to advertise the ride, and instead used artist’s renditions in their brochure. Opening up the pamphlet, this is what I saw:
Let’s be honest. Even by today’s envelope-pushing standards, it’s difficult to get a grasp on exactly what’s supposed to be going on in that illustration. Six Flags did their best to explain the ride, using phrases such as “cork-screw like turns” and “falling through space”, but that odd perspective and flimsy-looking supports in the drawing made Z-Force look like something out of a Coasterboy nightmare on three doses of Ny-quil. To say that Z-Force looked more than a little terrifying was quite the understatement.
On my first visit to the park that year, I was relieved to see that the coaster looked much more substantial in person than in the artist’s rendition, but it was still the strangest structure of its type that I’d ever seen. To fit into the constraints of the area between the railroad tracks and the park midway, the coaster featured a long but relatively thin footprint. To accommodate the coaster’s trains, which seated four across instead of the traditional two, the track was much wider than usual, and featured a thicker, rectangular-shaped spine. (Looking back, it’s no surprise that then-Giovanola employees Walter Bolliger and Claude Mabillard were involved in the ride’s design, the track was very similar to what would become standard for B&M in several years.)
An eighty-five foot height might not sound very intimidating by today’s standards, but in 1985, the look of this blue and white steel monstrosity was enough to stop me dead in my tracks with trepidation. It took me until minutes before park closing before I mustered up enough courage to get in line, and waited over an hour while watching trains roar through the dives and turns high above the queue line.
The actual ride itself didn’t quite live up to my giddy expectations. After the lift hill, the train made a 180 degree turn and slowly rolled the length of the structure toward the first hairpin dive into the mass of the structure. (From the front row of the train it was quite an intimidating sight, creeping ever closer to where the track just seemed to vanish into nothingness.)
The dives themselves were no more than about 35 feet, and the trains never really seemed to pick up any serious momentum at any point. The most forceful portions of the ride were a dive element taken from the bottom (similar to today’s Immellman inversions), and an upward helix near the conclusion. I would ride Z-Force several times that summer and over the next few years, but nothing would match the slightly fearful excitement of that initial ride.
1987-1989: Sudden Vacancy
Z-Force was part of a now-defunct program called Six Flags Ride Rotation, a collection of coasters and flat rides that would be moved from one park to another to provide something “new” without a serious expenditure of capital.
With little to no warning, Z-Force was removed from Great America after the 1987 season, and was installed at Six Flags Over Georgia in time for a 1988 opening. Z-Force’s loading station was moved across the park, and was used for the Intamin Bobsled coaster known as Rolling Thunder that opened in 1989. (It is a common misconception that the station for Z-Force was slightly reconfigured and used for Iron Wolf, the B&M standup coaster that would debut in 1990.
In reality, only parts of the station’s foundation and lower frame were re-utilized, and a brand-new new station was built atop them.) The Z-Force site would remain vacant and empty until work began after the 1989 season for the next chapter of its existence.
Keep reading the Coasterradio blog for Part Two, coming soon!