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TMCNet:  Get ready for Great America

[June 10, 2013]

Get ready for Great America

Jun 10, 2013 (Chicago Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Maybe you are one of those Chicagoans for whom Six Flags Great America is right in your backyard. You have season passes, and a trip to the park's Hurricane Harbor for you is like a trip, for the rest of us, to our municipal pool. We have heard about you. We're a little resentful. We suspect you of being from the North Shore.

For the rest of us, a Great America outing is a once-in-the-summer sort of thing, potentially a very expensive day out, and every moment must be maximized. (A family of four, for example, parking and paying at the gate for admission and top-of-the-line Flash Passes, can shell out as much as $662.96 plus tax and meals.) With that in mind, we took a look around the park and have a guide to what's new for summer 2013 (the "igNight" show, Batman backward) and a few other things worth knowing.

Batman The Ride Backwards: In any story like this, you gotta get to the rides first. Batman is the park's third-most popular (the current top five are Raging Bull, X Flight, Batman, Superman: Ultimate Flight and Demon), and for the summer, all its suspended seats have been turned around so you face backward. Think playground slides -- sooner or later someone's going to want to try going down butt first. Which was not just a matter of taking the train off the track and turning it around, says Director of Operations Dameon Nelson. "It required a whole new chassis." Our impression: It's a bigger change in the experience than you might think. First, I think I noticed how dependent I was on that yellow shoulder harness you pull down around you. Mine was a click loose at the starting gate, I confess, and I spent the whole of that first climb pressed up against it -- turned around, it cradles your whole weight -- staring down at the receding concrete and thinking about how if it somehow gave way, bon voyage. Then came the first drop and loop -- and holy Batman. There's a thrill in simply not knowing what the heck is going on. I was blind to every spin and corkscrew and couldn't even tell I was upside down until the G-forces dug in and the horizon heaved around.

The Viper gets turned around July 8, Nelson said, and the wooden American Eagle for Fright Fest in the fall. There are no brand new rides this year; expect something in summer 2015 or so.

"It's way better than before," said Mary Kate Foran, 15, of Chicago. "You can't see anything that's coming." (She also likes X Flight, which "just feels so high-tech" and is a lot smoother.) Batman's "back row is now the best," advises Juliette Stroesser, 15, of Grayslake. And friend Cassie Clearwater, also of Grayslake, confirmed some suspicions about summertime attendance: "Most teenagers on the North Shore get season passes, pretty much." "igNight Grand Finale": You've seen laser shows; you've seen fancy pyrotechnics. This show promises to be that and a bit more. There's a new cityscape-looking stage set, 60 feet tall by 70 feet wide, in Hometown Square, which will be covered in video projections with what Nelson calls "3-D mapping technology." "This is something that hasn't been seen anywhere," he said. The imagery will seem to turn the stage set into "buildings that are glowing, that are on fire, or even crumbling down." There's a story to the show, which starts off during the 1871 Chicago Fire and follows a boy and girl through to the present day, ending up at Club igNight. Expect high-energy music, dancers and sensory overload. Starting Saturday, the 20-minute show will play each night after rides shut down at 10 p.m. as a closer for the day.

Hurricane Harbor: Admission to the theme park includes the water park, which is entered through Southwest Territory (and can have long lines or fill to capacity on hot days). The name of the game here is water slides. There's a Hurricane Bay wave pool, the gentle Skull Island for the littlest kids, a lazy river (Castaway Creek) and various pools and decks (Monsoon Lagoon) for sunning and just getting wet. (Cabanas for eight rent for $200-$250.) But most of the rest of the Harbor's 17 rides and attractions are water slides of some description. Dive Bomber and Mega Wedgie are "floor slides," which means you step into a tube up in a tower and wait for the floor to give way, sending you shooting down the slide at a claimed 40 mph. (Google "wedgie" for more information.) There are a few slides for four-person inflated rafts (Bahama Mama and Bubba Tubba), some with conveyor belts so you don't have to haul up the oversized raft. The Tornado, with the huge yellow-and-blue funnel, is more gentle than it looks; you just slide in from the side and slosh back and forth.

In case of weather: This has certainly been the year so far for extreme weather. So a few words about that: The park is open rain or shine, including Hurricane Harbor. If it's really wet and cold and not many people are using the water park, it may close early, said park spokeswoman Kathryn Enrique. "But we let our guests decide." Rain checks generally are not issued. A forecast of lightning and thunderstorms will not close roller coasters or Hurricane Harbor, just lightning in the immediate vicinity. Great America has its own weather station, and guests are kept apprised of weather conditions over the loudspeakers, including warnings from the National Weather Service. The park does not have designated shelters for all guests. People generally choose to leave when there's a Weather Service warning, Nelson said.

Price list: Here are standard admission fees and various other prices.

-- Gate admission: $63.99; children under 48 inches $43.99. Online admission: $43.99 (with no discount for children), plus $7.99 fee.

-- Flash Pass: In some theme parks, buying a fast-pass means skipping the regular line for rides and getting in a special queue. Great America's system is a little different. You get an electronic pager that lets you select a ride remotely, then buzzes you in when your turn comes around (for example, 45 minutes later if that's the current wait time). Regular passes start at $55 (the price goes up with more than one person using it). Gold and Platinum passes (starting at $80 and $115) cut the wait time and add benefits like double rides. A limited number are issued per day.

-- Dare Devil Dive: You wear a harness and are dropped by a cable from a 12-story tower. It's an extra $35 for one ride.

-- Cheeseburger and waffle fries in the County Fair Food Court: $10.99. Coke: $3.99. Cold Stone Creamery Limited: $5.69.

-- For sake of comparison, admission to Cedar Point theme park in Sandusky, Ohio: $44.99 online. And to Disney's Magic Kingdom in Orlando, Fla.: $95.

Miscellaneous tips: Make your way around the park clockwise by taking a left past the Columbia Carousel; park representatives say most people go right. Think about your shoes; that main loop is one mile around, and the average guest walks eight miles in a day. Don't try to beat the parking fees ($22) by parking in the mall lot across from the main entrance; on the weekday I visited, I lent my phone to a group of teenagers stranded by a towed car. Small bags and backpacks can be helpful and are accommodated on most rides by storage racks. And use a locker just outside the Hurricane Harbor gates if you think you'll need it longer than the water park's hours.

dgeorge@tribune.com Six Flags Great America 1 Great America Parkway, Gurnee (exit I-94 at Grand Ave.); more information at sixflags.com/greatAmerica ___ (c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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