Marriott’s Great America in Gurnee, Illinois Opened Forty-Five Years Ago Today

J.W. "Bill" Marriott, Jr. and "man of a thousand voices" Mel Blanc share smiles with Bugs Bunny at the opening of Marriott's Great America in Gurnee, Illinois

May 29, 1976: On this day forty-five years ago, the second Marriott’s Great America park opened to the public for the first time. The spotlight this day was on the brand-new state-of-the-art theme park in Gurnee, Illinois. Only a little more than two months earlier, a sister park opened in Santa Clara, California. This near-simultaneous opening of two new major theme parks was unprecedented in the industry.

Rainy weather in northern Illinois threatened to spoil much of the fun of opening day. However, those who took a chance on the weather were rewarded with a day full of smiles, laughter, and screams of excitement in the brand-new multi-million dollar family entertainment center.

The day kicked off with an opening ceremony that took place on a platform set up at the front of the Columbia Carousel’s reflecting pool. Speakers and special guests included J.W. “Bill” Marriott Jr., the park’s designer Randall Duell, and Mel Blanc. Marching bands from nearby high schools lined the sides of the reflecting pool while hundreds of balloons took to the sky above the Columbia.

Special guest Mel Blanc was known as the “man of a thousand voices”. He provided the famous voices for numerous beloved cartoon characters, including Bugs Bunny. In the photo above, Bill Marriott and Mel Blanc share a moment and smiles with Uncle Bugs, the official spokesrabbit of Marriott’s Great America.

J.W. "Bill" Marriott Jr. is interviewed by Martha Teichner, reporter for Chicago NBC affiliate WMAQ
May 29, 1976: On opening day for Marriott’s Great America in Gurnee, Illinois, J.W. “Bill” Marriott spends some time answering questions from Martha Teichner for Chicago NBC affiliate WMAQ.
J. Willard Marriott and Alice Marriott walk near the Columbia Carousel on opening day at Marriott's Great America in Gurnee, Illinois
J. Willard Marriott, in suit and tie, and wife Alice Marriott, in sunglasses, walk past the Columbia Carousel during the opening day of Marriott’s Great America in Gurnee, Illinois.

The Marriott’s Great America parks opened as state-of-the-art showplaces featuring the best of everything. Theming based on U.S. history was exceptional in attention to detail. And everything was part of the “show”, consistent with the theme of each of the parks’ original five sections. Rides, shows, food, merchandise, and architecture — all first-rate — reflected the theme of each park section: Orleans Place, Yankee Harbor, Yukon Territory, County Fair, and Hometown Square. In both California and Illinois, Marriott’s Great America indeed opened as the new Country of Fun for everyone.

Happy Forty-Fifth Anniversary, Marriott’s Great America!

Marriott’s Great America, Santa Clara Opened Forty-Five Years Ago Today

Crowds eagerly await opening day at Marriott's Great America, Santa Clara, CA on the morning of March 20, 1976.

March 20, 2021: On this day forty-five years ago, the very first Marriott’s Great America park opened to the public for the first time. That morning, growing crowds, pictured above, gathered outside the front gates eager to be among the first to experience this new Fun Country in Santa Clara, California. A little over two months later, on May 29, 1976, a second Marriott’s Great America would open to the public in Gurnee, Illinois.

Before the park’s gates opened to the excited fun seekers, an opening ceremony featured speeches from J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr. along with other Marriott and government officials. Members of the park’s Continental Militia in historically accurate uniforms joined with legendary figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Franklin to celebrate Marriott’s Great America’s opening day. The Great America marching band was on hand to provide rousing, patriotic music.

Bill Marriott and Senator John Warner at opening ceremony of Marriott's Great-America, Santa-Clara, CA
Senator John Warner looks on as J.W. “Bill” Marriott, Jr. hands off the American Revolution Bicentennial flag to a soldier for raising. Warner, head of the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration, traveled from Washington, DC to present the Bicentennial flag and honor Marriott’s Great America on its opening day.
Left to right: Randall Duell, unidentified, David Brown stand outside Buffet Le Grand in Orleans Place on opening day at Marriott's Great America, Santa Clara, CA.
Left to right: Randall Duell, unidentified, and David Brown stand outside Buffet Le Grand in Orleans Place on opening day at Marriott’s Great America, Santa Clara, CA. Duell and his firm designed Marriott’s Great America, along with many other major theme parks across the country. Brown was the head of Marriott’s Theme Park Group and was a key figure in the development of the Great America parks.

From opening day forward, the Santa Clara park has entertained millions while the Gurnee park has entertained even greater numbers of people. While the two sister parks went their separate ways under new ownership, both started out by setting new quality standards for regional theme parks. Marriott’s emphasis on authentic theming blended with the best in rides and food service, top-notch and unmatched variety of live entertainment, as well as innovative merchandise options provided an unparalleled guest experience.

Happy Forty-Fifth Anniversary, Marriott’s Great America!

IMAX Pictorium, Gurnee 1979 — 2018

Gurnee IMAX Pictorium

This is the television commercial for the IMAX Pictorium at Marriott’s Great America. NOTE: The video is a bit unstable at the beginning of the commercial but it quickly stabilizes. This is the only copy that I have.

Late in the day on April 25th, 2018 I got the news that the Pictorium at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois was to be demolished. By the 27th of April, the Pictorium was pretty much gone.

Opened in 1979, the premiere film for the Gurnee Pictorium was “To Fly!”. The Pictorium at Gurnee’s sister park in Santa Clara had opened in 1978 with the IMAX film “Man Belongs to the Earth”. One of the first IMAX films, “To Fly!” was the premiere film for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. “To Fly!” has been showing there since the museum opened on July 1, 1976.

Pictorium poster
This poster for the Pictorium at Marriott’s Great America in Gurnee features an image from a scene in “To Fly!”. To view larger, see the gallery at the end of this post.

At Gurnee, the Pictorium was originally sponsored by Procter & Gamble. During the Gurnee Pictorium’s inaugural season, Procter & Gamble distributed thousands of gift boxes to guests who visited the Pictorium. The boxes included promotional materials and coupons for Marriott’s Great America and Procter & Gamble products along with items of interest to children, recipe cards, a detergent bottle pump dispenser, a sample bottle of mouthwash, and most importantly, a sample package of new Country Style Hearty Pringle’s potato chips (back when Pringle’s was still owned by Procter & Gamble and they still called them Pringle’s potato chips instead of potato crisps).

Gurnee IMAX Pictorium gift box from Procter & Gamble
Here is the IMAX Pictorium gift box from Procter & Gamble along with a sample of the contents. To view larger, see the gallery at the end of this post.

At the Gurnee Pictorium I saw my first IMAX film, “To Fly!”. The Marriott’s Great America Pictorium theaters featured the world’s largest IMAX screens at the time. Viewing “To Fly!” in the Pictorium was an exhilarating experience with the stunning visuals and amazing sound and music. It was definitely uplifting and inspirational. Fully air-conditioned, the Pictorium provided park guests with welcome relief from the summer heat and an opportunity to relax and enjoy the show. For years, the Pictorium drew large crowds, frequently filling to capacity.

Eventually, IMAX theaters in theme parks began to lose their lustre. Attendance at shows dropped off and more and more parks removed the IMAX projection equipment from their theaters. This would happen at both Gurnee and Santa Clara. Gurnee continued to offer non-IMAX presentations in the Pictorium such as the “Screams and Dreams” series, a set of documentaries covering the park’s history produced by the park’s entertainment department. The last presentation I saw in the Gurnee Pictorium was the first “Screams and Dreams” film in July 2011. As a contributor to that production, it was an incredibly special moment for me to see my name and website appear on the big screen in the Pictorium as the credits rolled. Accompanying me at that showing were Angie Lovell McAvoy, Kyle Smith, Danielle Lobello, and Kristopher D. Jones. I believe that Jeannie Forystek was there for that showing, too. I apologize if there’s anyone I may be forgetting. Unexpectedly as I went through the park, park employees gave me the rock star treatment. That day will always remain a cherished memory. The last time I actually saw the Gurnee Pictorium was in January 2016.

Gurnee Pictorium, January 2016
January 2016: Although I didn’t know it at the time, this was the last time I would ever see the Pictorium in Gurnee. To view larger, see the gallery at the end of this post.

I’m definitely sorry to see the Gurnee Pictorium go. It had a great run. I’ll be posting more photos and information about the two Pictorium theaters in the future.

To view larger versions of these photos, click on any image below.

Welcome to the new

Carousel Columbia: Welcome to the new

Welcome to the new!

I am happy that you are here! The site has a whole new look. In addition, it is now mobile-friendly and encrypted for secure connections. The main site has been completely overhauled. The photo albums and galleries and the site forums are now mobile-friendly while retaining most of their legacy appearance. You can always return to the main site from any page in the forums and photo galleries. Please note that the forums are temporarily locked during this site transition period. I’ll announce when they are reopened.

There is not much new content here yet. Most of what you will see is the original content appearing in a much-improved format, including large featured images on all of the pages for rides. The important thing is that the new site serves as the foundation for lots more new content and features to come.

Welcome back and I hope to see you here often. It’s a GREAT day at!