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Great America History - Original Concepts

Posted: Sun Aug 28, 2005 1:38 am
by RLAiello
About 10 years ago or more, while I was still living in Kenosha, WI, I visited the library one day and started looking for news articles about Marriott's Great America. (I was pretty resourceful in those pre-internet days!). I found some articles in the microfilm libraries about the Marriott family in two magazine that mentioned the Great America parks as a "future concept, and give an interesting perspective on how the concept of "Great America" morphed into what we know today.

These article were printed in, I believe, 1972. The first one is from Newsweek, but the second one I can't identify because I did not get the name of the publication. However, I did print copies, which I still have today.

Here an excerpt from the first one, from Newsweek, which includes a picture of the Marriotts holding up a plan of what the original park concept would look like. While the quality is not so great, it's interesting to see what they had in mind back then:

...Recently, Marriott began to supplement its main axis of hotels, restaurants and airline catering by taking dead aim at the nation's desire for more travel and leisure time. Last December, for instance, it acquired two Greek cruise ships and a 45% interest in a third, now under construction. And in its single largest diversification to date, a $70 million, 850-acre complex called "Marriott's Great America" is being planned in Maryland, midway between Washington, DC and Baltimore. Scheduled to be completed in 1975, it will include three separate "theme" parks, theaters, live entertainment, campgrounds anda 600-room Marriott hotel.
"We're aiming everything at the mini-vacation," Marriott told Newsweek's James Bishop, Jr. "There is a very short life cycle to resorts-- in vogue one minute and out the next. Growth patterns of the future will be toward the water and the sun. But we have not been anxious to be in every village, city, town and hamlet in the world."

In this excerpt from the second article, they talk a little more about what the original concept would have offered:

Branching out. Such profit variations helped persuade Bill Marriott to push diversification. The biggest new venture is the Great America Park. It is a good example of how Marriott is extending its market segmentation technicque. David L. Brown, the vice-president to heads the project, estimated that it will have to appeal to at least 25% of the population in the Baltimore-Washington areas if it is to turn a profit. So it is aimed at several different markets. For full-day trips, Great America will offer a park full of carnival rides and free shows. For visitors with less time, there will be half-day tours of an ersatz jungle or a make-believe ocean. And a flossy restaurant is planned to snare suburbanites looking for an elegant evening out.
But residents of Columbia (MD) are fighting some required zoning changes and holding up the start of construction. Marriott may switch to another site rather than drag the project through lengthy litigation. The schedule calls for the park to open in 1975.

Interesting tidbits to add to our knowledge of the history of Great America!

MGA's origins

Posted: Sun Aug 28, 2005 1:58 pm
by dth1971
Wow! A campground near Marriott's Great America in its original plans? How could the planned but dropped MGA campground fit into the MGA theme park?

Re: MGA's origins

Posted: Sun Aug 28, 2005 4:27 pm
by RLAiello
dth1971 wrote:Wow! A campground near Marriott's Great America in its original plans? How could the planned but dropped MGA campground fit into the MGA theme park?
Well there were 850 acres to play with! EIGHT HUNDRED AND FIFTY... Good LORD... that's huge. I think they were really trying to go after Disney at first, but when the Maryland project (obviously) failed to happen, they re-thought their plan.

Posted: Fri Jun 02, 2006 9:24 am
by JW65
With GA's birthday, I wanted to pull this up to the front. Rick this is a great find.


Posted: Mon Jun 05, 2006 6:06 pm
by RLAiello
Thanks for doing so, JW... I completely forgot I had even posted that! :-D

Re: Great America History - Original Concepts

Posted: Mon Jun 24, 2013 10:13 am
by blade
I think the whole problem with Marriotts original concept, is that it lacked a cohesive strategic plan, and that led to it's demise in 1984. Here's how.

Marriotts seemed like they couldn't make up their mind whether to be a regional or destination park. The plan to put the parks between DC/Baltimore, and Milwaukee/Chicago was a good idea. But what about California? Here's where they strayed from that plan. The bay area had several key population centers. The biggest with San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose had about 6,000,000 people in 1970. San Jose was the fastest growing at 32% per decade and had about 910,000. But Sacramento was the second fastest growing at 23% per decade and had a metro area over 800,000 in 1970. With 23% growth forecasted, this metro region would top 1,000,000 by 1980. Plus, it's the capital with a lot of government jobs and these cities generally won't lose population over the years. They probably are also less influenced by recessions and booms.

When you really look at a map, northern California does not lay out much different than northern Illinois. SF and Oakland are Chicago, San Jose is Gary, Indiana, Sacramento is Milwaukee, Stockton is Madison, and Modesto is Rockford. Marriotts made a great choice by making the Gurnee park reasonably accessible from all 5 of these metro areas. But, they did not do this in California. When I look at a google map of the area, the major population centers along the coast in California come to a pretty abrupt end south of San Jose. The say in real estate, Location makes all the difference!

I think Marriotts would have been much better off putting this park on the north end of the bay, maybe someplace like Vallejo. This would have made the park much more centrally located and brought the Sacramento area in as a more key market. Vallejo is exactly 62 miles from both San Jose and Sacramento.

Let's look at a couple other reasons why a northern bay location would be better.
A. Tourism. A northern location puts the park on the way to Reno and Lake Tahoe. It also puts it at the gates of wine country. In 1970, wine tours were not a popular thing. But today more than 4,000,000 people take wine tours in the Napa and Sonoma areas. These are huge numbers and San Francisco is usually in the top 15 most visited cities every year in the whole country.
B. Competition. Santa's Village, Frontier Village, and the Santa Cruz boardwalk are all on the south end of the bay. None of these are big enough parks that would have help carry Marriotts, but all are capable of taking away attendance. I know Frontier Village was small in those days, but they had 60 acres available for expansion and with the right owner and situation could have become a significant park.

The bottom line is this Santa Clara park failed for Marriotts because of lack of attendance. Sacramento had about 13% of the population of the bay area in 1970 and about 15% in 1980. If the park could have gotten just 10% better attendance, this would have resulted in profits likely in the 25%-30% increase range, because the infastructure and operating expenses to run the park would remain about the same. It would just be putting 2000 people more per day. Buses of school kids from Sacramento and north would be much more in range in April/May. I believe a 10% increase in visitors is very likely with a north bay location.

Being from southern Wisconsin, if the Gurnee park had been built in Gary, Indiana, rather than making 4-5 trips per season, I would probably make more like 1 every 3-4 years. It would involve driving through the headaches of Chicago, and probably having to get a hotel on most trips. It would be much less appealing. I'm saying this from a theme park enthusiast fan perspective, and not a casual general public indifferent attitude.

Other things Marriotts did that leave me scratching my head:
Not combining the Lincolnshire, Illinois Theater and the Gurnee Great America into one property. These are currently 15 miles apart and opened one year apart. The Lincolnshire resort has a golf course and puts on many Broadway class shows every year. This would have allowed Great America to start as a resort. An indoor waterpark, outdoor waterpark, citywalk/shopping, banquet center and more hotels could have been added in the 90's. This place would be world class.

Not buying Six Flags in 1982. Former employees say this was discussed. In 1982 6 Six Flags parks were bought for $140 million by Bally. Considering Marriotts spent $35 million building each park a decade earlier, this sounds like a good buy, especially when 5 of the 6 Six Flags parks were in huge markets. By comparision, Kings Island, Kings Dominion, and Carowinds were sold for $167 million in 1984. Magic Mountain was sold for $51 million by itself in 1979. These 6 Six Flags parks, plus Gurnee Great America and a waterpark were sold by Bally just 5 years later for $610 million. I also can't understand why they did not buy what is Six Flags America today, back in 1978-1981 when it was in constant financial trouble and could have been had cheaply. The zoning problems they had in their other 2 East Coast sites they tried, were much more lax here.

Not realizing the impact of Orlando. They opened the Marriott World Center there in 1986, but no theme park??? Disney and Seaworld had already established it as a vacation Mecca. Universal wasn't there yet.

Buying properties to build theme parks, that were too small and too close to angry neighbors. In the case of Santa Clara, building a park on leased land. That was dumb with too many potential conflicts with the city. In Gurnee every other corner of the I94/Grant exit was undeveloped. Larger tracts and no subdivisions around them could have been available. There was also this same opportunity in Vallejo, CA in the 1970's.

Not creating a Halloween event. ... y?vm=r&s=1
If you look at this recent article and what Marriotts wanted to do on the 850 acre Maryland plan, versus what they actually ended up building in Gurnee and Santa Clara, I think you will see what I mean about no cohesive strategic plan.

Re: Great America History - Original Concepts

Posted: Sat Mar 29, 2014 3:56 pm
by jimmy gimbels
Odd that Marriott never considered building a park in their own backyard: Salt Lake City.

Re: Great America History - Original Concepts

Posted: Tue May 20, 2014 1:25 pm
by blade
As far as I know, their roots lie in the DC/ Virginia area. That's why they wanted a park in the DC area.

Re: Great America History - Original Concepts

Posted: Sun Dec 27, 2015 8:00 pm
by Mr. D.T.
jimmy gimbels wrote:Odd that Marriott never considered building a park in their own backyard: Salt Lake City.
That is odd, since Salt Lake CIty is a fascinating place with the mountains in the background overlooking the huge body of water. But with Lagoon sitting in nearby Farmington, who needs another major theme park anyway?