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!