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.
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!