One year almost to the day that Six Flags Great America deployed much fanfare to announce designs for the record-breaking Goliath roller coaster, park officials hosted a scaled-back ceremony Thursday to announce scaled-back plans for 2015: A celebration of the park’s 40th season.
“Next season’s going to be a party,” Park President Hank Salemi told a group of Gurnee officials and residents invited inside the otherwise closed Hometown Square. “If you were a kid in 1976 or any time since then, we hope to stir memories and generate even more excitement about our park next year.”
While no major additions are planned, Salemi said the park will bring back three kids’ rides that date to Great America’s opening season in 1976 — the Lady Bugs, Red Baron Airplanes and Tots Livery Surrey Carriages.
Salemi added that park employees will also sport nostalgic costumes, and each week will feature a focus on a different thrill ride, with parties planned around each of the park’s 14 coasters.
Otherwise, Thursday’s event was primarily a chance for the sharing of memories, including an appearance by Richard Welton, who was a 33-year-old mayor when what was then known as Marriott’s Great America opened its gates in May 1976.
Standing with Bugs Bunny and a few other Warner Bros. icons, Welton told a crowd of about 100 people that “they’re the only ones who haven’t aged — the cartoon characters. I’m glad to be here today. I’m really glad to still be alive after all we went through a lot of years ago.”
He reminisced about growing up in Gurnee when it was a small community of about 300 people. At the time, local high school graduates moved away because there were few job opportunities in the area, Welton said.
“We wanted to live here and build a community of opportunity. We knew we needed money, and we had none,” said Welton, recalling that his mayoral predecessor, Gordon Gillings, told him “a philosophy that I’ve followed all my life, and that is, ‘We’re not against development as long as it pays for itself and doesn’t cost Gurnee taxpayers any money.’
“And 105 million visitors with a little amusement tax off of each, multiply that out, and there you can see some real money,” Welton said. “In order to build the town that we wanted to build, we needed a golden cow, and you’re looking at it here today.”
Current Gurnee Mayor Kristie Kovarik said one of the biggest benefits of having the theme park in town is “how it blends in with our community” and gives it an identity.
“When I travel for business, no one ever knows what Gurnee is,” Kovarik said. “But all I need to say is, ‘Well, do you know where Six Flags Great America is?’ And everyone, no matter where I’ve been in the country, always has some story or memory to tell about Six Flags. We really are blessed, and as Mayor Welton pointed out, it has fed the economic development for this whole region and fueled a lot of jobs and provided a lot of revenue that we then use to provide the finest public services anywhere in the state.”
Salemi said Great America is “very, very fortunate to have the kind of working relationship we have” with the village when the park needs permission for big-ticket expansions like Goliath, the wooden coaster that debuted this spring with a height that required a zoning variance.
“I say this all the time [to] some of my counterparts who run other parks around the country, and I say it to my boss and the people who run Six Flags, we are so, so lucky to be in the community that we’re in,” Salemi said. “You guys are incredible neighbors. We do our best to be good neighbors — I know sometimes we cause traffic jams and maybe make a bit too much noise, but we truly are so appreciative of all you and what you do for us.”
The 2014 operating season is winding down, with Great America and Hurricane Harbor both open this weekend and on Labor Day before the water park shuts down for the year. Great America will then be open to the public the weekend of Sept. 6-7 before re-opening for Fright Fest on Sept. 27.
Plans for 2015 include a 40th Season Celebration on May 29, 2015, with Gurnee residents invited to participate by emailing the park at email@example.com.
Welton recalled that four decades ago, some villagers predicted Great America wouldn’t celebrate too many anniversaries.
“A lot of people said it would leave, and this would be a Riverview in two years,” he said, referring to the Chicago amusement park that closed in 1967. “Well, here we are quite a while later, and you can see it’s a quality theme park that will be here forever.”