RailBlazer and More – California’s Great America Off-Season Tour 2018
This past weekend I joined the American Coaster Enthusiasts Northern California Region (ACE NorCal) for their annual off-season behind the scenes tour at California’s Great America. I knew Great America was busy this offseason with RailBlazer plus new restaurants and midway upgrades, but it wasn’t until actually being at the park that it was clear how much work was actually going on.
The day involved a presentation and short Q&A with park management, as well as visits to four different sites at the park. With all the excitement surrounding CGA these days, ACE NorCal had their largest crowd ever for the tour with over 130 people. In order to actually facilitate showing all the sites, we were broken into four groups, each group starting at a different location. The four locations visited were:
- The Great America Pavilion, currently being expanded, where we also sampled some of the new food coming to the park
- The Consulate above Orleans Place, the former suite of the Marriott family, also getting renovated this off-season
- The construction site of RailBlazer
- The CGA coaster shop, complete with the recently arrived RailBlazer train
California’s Great America Management Q&A
The presentation to kick off the event was led Clayton Lawrence, the manager of live show development for all of Cedar Fair. The park chose to focus on just 2018 developments for the day, so no hints about future projects, but we did learn a lot more about 2018. We learned a bit more about the midway work and restroom upgrades (all the way down to the ground and plumbing, which apparently hasn’t been done since the park opened). Perhaps most interesting, we learned about a bevy of new shows and entertainment coming, as well as a new festival.
— Coaster101.com (@Coaster101) February 24, 2018
The park is bringing back last years festivals, Taste of Orleans and Red, White & Brews, and adding a third this season. They announced that for the first two weekends of April there would be a new BBQ festival, “Backyard Bands & BBQ”. Last year park GM Raul Rehnborg mentioned to me that they hoped to add a festival around Spring Break season; this looks to be filling in that spot. Always exciting to for a new event where Chef Erick can try out some new dishes.
On the entertainment side of things, there’s a whole range of new productions. Several are being tied into the RailBlazer California Mountains theme, with a new Mountain Bike show coming to the Great America Theater and bluegrass bands performing on the “RailBlazer Green” (the new name for the unofficial InvertiGarden). Across the park, CGA is working on continuing to build back the theming of Orleans Place. Along with the new restaurants, new midways (more on that below), and the return of Taste Of Orleans this summer, the park is adding regular live New Orleans music to the area of the park (maybe akin to the Disneyland bands in New Orleans Square). This should really help return the area to a truly “themed” section of park.
There was a short Q&A with park management, probably the most interesting of which was a question from Mike Rumble of InsideCGA. He asked GM Raul Rehnborg, if there was one defunct ride he’d personally love to bring back, what would it be? Rehnborg answered that the old train the park used to have would be his choice. He talked at length about the importance of preserving the history of the park, and embracing historic family attractions (and that style of attraction) as part of the parks growth. Obviously some things need to be removed, but it’s nice to hear that there will be some focus on preserving some historic rides, and possibly bringing back old style family rides (like what Carowinds did with their County Fair section of the park in 2017).
Great America Pavillion
The tour group I was on happened to be led by one of ACE NorCal’s regional representatives, and CGA employee, Brian Christensen. We started at the Great America Pavilion, which is undergoing a lot of upgrade work. The Pavilion, which the park uses to host the official tailgate for San Francisco 49ers games next door and private company events, is already the largest among Cedar Fair parks. It’s apparently been quite profitable for the park, so they’re now working to add more capacity, both from the catering side and seating side. Brian told us that the long term goal is to move all of the parks picnic and rental facilities to this area in the front of the park. There’s currently a large picnic grove at the back of the park behind the Grizzly, so the guess here is that moving those facilities to the Pavilion will make that room for either ride expansion, or to move some behind the scenes park facilities back there allowing for new attractions somewhere in the middle of the park. That’s just my guess, but it would make a lot of sense for a park that is space limited.
A the Pavilion we enjoyed a brief intro to some of the new food coming to the new Orleans Place funnel cake factory. Executive Chef Erick Ponce showed off a huge range of flavored churros and funnel cakes his team has developed, with flavorings and toppings ranging from very traditional to more unusual. The two I tried were on the more unique end of the spectrum. First was a savory funnel cake, in which the funnel cake is used as a base, topped with pulled pork and fried onion strings. Think of it as a pulled pork sandwich with a sweeter bread. The rich funnel cake went really well with the bbq pork and sauce. The second one I tried is the “hot chocolate” churro, which is a chocolate churro with a chocolate powder, but with chili powder mixed in as well. It wasn’t particularly spicy, but it added more depth to the flavor (and would normally be served with hot chocolate, sounds perfect for WinterFest).
Our second stop was “The Consulate” in Orleans Place. When Marriott originally built the park, the space was used by the Marriott family to host visitors at the park. It’s kind of like their version of Disneyland’s Club 33. Sadly, unlike Club 33, it’s aged a lot over the years and is no longer used (currently mostly for meetings of the parks operations team). However, this year the park is doing a complete renovation.
The intention is that the renovated Consulate will be rented out to host small group events or parties. The interior will be mostly gutted, with only a few current features (like some of the light fixtures) being saved. That includes renovation of the kitchen to allow for catering of events inside, and the addition of an elevator to make it ADA compliant. While looking at the old version of the consulate really shows its age, the potential of a renovated version is clear. The balcony gives a great view, and it’s actually quite spacious inside. It would certainly work for something like a small company party.
The Consulate renovation goes along with the myriad other work happening in Orleans Place. The out-of-themed trending now is turning into the candy kitchen, and a brand new building is being constructed for the new funnel cake factory.
Along with those a large section of midway (both here and elsewhere in the park) is getting torn up. The new midway style goes from plain asphalt to concrete squares. Additionally, the edges of the midways are being replaced with bricks. It gives the area much more of a street-like feel, with sidewalks and a center path. It gives a more “finished” aesthetic to the paths. Seeing the difference between the old cracked asphalt and the new sections makes it clear how much difference the rebuild makes. Brian told us that over the next few years the park plans to replace the midways across the rest of the park.
Probably the highlight of the tour was our look at the RailBlazer construction site. As the site is still active (and this wasn’t a hard hat tour), we weren’t able to get too up close, but we did get a chance to look at it from different angles. I did learn that crews are pretty much working seven days a week on the construction.
The track is nearly complete, with just the station pieces left to install. Brian told us that the concrete in the station was recently poured and when it full cures the last of the track will be put into place. We could also see some of the work on the theming under construction. Frames for some of the rock formations were in place and the area of the lake was cut.
Seeing the ride in person, it really stands out how unusual it looks compared to more traditional coasters. The single rail is incredibly thin, and with the small number of supports it needs, it makes the ride look very sparse. It stands out how much open space there is around the track, and how almost flimsy it looks. You can tell that riding it will give a totally unique experience for a coaster, with almost no structure around the riders. It also really emphasized how small the footprint of the ride is; it’s a really compact design.
The single thin narrow rail also makes the twists of the track look much crazier. There are plenty of track sections where it is almost impossible to tell which part of the track is “up” without going back and tracing from a support. It adds a new level of twisty-ness to RMC’s traditional twisted coasters. I think it’ll make it much harder to anticipate the ride’s next move, especially the first time riding it.
The Coaster Shop
The last stop of our tour was the California’s Great America Coaster Shop, where the park maintenance teams work on their coaster trains. The park received the first of the RailBlazer trains, currently waiting for the track work to be completed. The trains are lovely, themed as an ATV kind of design. Looking at them, especially the wheel base, really emphasizes how narrow the track they’re riding on is.
We also got a chance to hop into the cars, and the restraint system is pretty comfortable despite the over-the-shoulder design. It doesn’t seem like it should feel to restricting while riding.
I asked some of the team in the coaster shop if there was anything that stood out from it compared to other trains, and they said there wasn’t anything major from a maintenance or or assembly aspect that differed. It sounds like they don’t expect any major issues with them.
Aside from RailBlazer’s train, the coaster shop is filled with neat memorabilia from past rides at the park. The Grizzly trains were both in the shop getting worked on. I learned from the maintenance team that they’re waiting on new axels from PTC for the trains, and then should have them back together. Not surprisingly, the old Grizzly trains and the old Arrow Demon trains take the most offseason work. Apparently Flight Deck’s trains, though, can be in and out in a couple days of offseason work. Further testament to the amazing longevity and quality of even 25 year old B&M inverts.
We did learn that in addition to the major train work, Grizzly is also getting some re-tracking done this offseason (by in-house teams). While it maybe isn’t as big a track (or train) overhaul that we would hope for, still nice to see some work being done to it.
Leaving the coaster shop, we wandered through the water park back towards the center of the park. We passed by the remains of Loggers Run, which has pretty much been completely removed, as has the HMB Endeavour beside it. And, while we weren’t told any real details on 2019 or beyond attractions, we did learn that this is going to be the last season for the Go-Karts. With a quick glance at a map it’s easy to notice these three rides, plus Snoopy’s Splash Dance, which was also removed, are all in a row. Clearly something will be going there.
With that, our tour at California’s Great America was finished. I want to thank again both ACE NorCal and the team from CGA for putting on a great event. I think it’s safe to say that the biggest take away from this tour is that Cedar Fair is putting a lot of work into California’s Great America. From RailBlazer and the new restaurants, to the infrastructure investments, focus on theming, and the hints at future expansion, there’s a lot to be excited about. It’s a good time to be an amusement park fan in Northern California, and I’m excited that Cedar Fair seems to see a lot of opportunity in this market.
A huge thank you to 130+ people who attended our behind-the-scenes event @CAGreatAmerica today! Best attended event for us since 2002. And talk about hospitality. AMAZING. Thank you SO MUCH CGA!!! ??? #RideWithACE #GreatAmerica #cagreatamerica #offseasonCGA18 #RailBlazer pic.twitter.com/TPFejEK3Kh
— ACE Northern Calif. (@ACENorCal) February 25, 2018
California’s Great America is set to open in just about a month, the March 24 weekend. We still don’t have an opening date for RailBlazer, but it sounds like Spring is the target (I’m going to guess sometime in late April). But, the park will be celebrating the 25th Anniversary of Flight Deck opening weekend, and “Backyard Bands & BBQ” will be there the following, so still lots of reason to head to the park pre-RailBlazer. Details on their schedule and upcoming events can be found on the Great America website. For more on upcoming park and attraction openings, keep on checking out the Coaster101 Facebook and Twitter feeds, and let us know in the comments what part of CGA’s 2018 offseason work you’re most excited about!