Wednesday, June 29, 2022

The Marriott Era: Great America Begins


Most every amusement enterprise that opened up after DISNEYLAND was inspired in some way by Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom. While some parks were only inspired by the original theme park, others have quite a bit of Disney DNA in them- like Marriott’s Great America in Santa Clara, CA.

Great America’s ties to DISNEYLAND begin before DISNEYLAND opened in 1955. In the early 1950’s, Fess Parker was just a contract player at Warner Brothers, starring in supporting roles and looking for larger roles. In 1954 he caught the eye of Walt Disney who gave him the role of a lifetime as Davy Crockett. Fess went from being a supporting actor to a superstar literally overnight. In 1955, he proudly appeared at the opening of DISNEYLAND, watching history getting made in the orange groves of Anaheim.

Fess Parker would go on to earn a fortune that he would try to put to good use. Seeing the success that followed the opening of DISNEYLAND, Fess decided to try his hand at building a theme park. His park, to be called Frontier Worlds, was originally intended to be built in Boone County, Kentucky. When another theme park was announced for a neighboring area, Fess dropped his plans and began looking west- to Santa Clara, CA. At the time, the city was a sleepy outpost just north of San Jose. Mr. Parker purchased 1200 acres and hired Harrison “Buzz” Price to determine the viability of a theme park at the location.

Mr. Price, shown above with Walt Disney, was the analyst who helped Mr. Disney find a suitable location for DISNEYLAND, determined the ideal size for the parking area and even calculated how many restaurants would be needed and how much guests would spend. Mr. Price’s analysis would become the standard for the theme park industry and his calculations are still used today. His contributions to DISNEYLAND were so huge that he even has a window on DISNEYLAND’s Main Street.

Mr. Price was helping with Florida’s Disney World at the time, but he found time to assist Fess Parker. He determined that Santa Clara was an ideal location for a theme park, especially since the area was devoid of such attractions. (Its only competitors would be ABC’s Marine World and Africa, USA which had yet to merge.) Despite the positive analysis, Fess Parker could not find other investors.

On the other side of the country, J. W. Marriott was making plans to diversify his company and he saw theme parks as the way to do it. The company had mainly been on the sidelines during DISNEYLAND’s rise; it hadn’t started opening hotels until 1957 and didn’t feel it was strong enough financially to get involved in DISNEYLAND’s food service, which had originally been contracted out. By the 1970’s it hadn’t even established much of a foothold in either Anaheim or Orlando. Mr. Marriott envisioned building his own theme parks- one in the west, one in the east and one in between. Fess Parker had heard about these ambitious plans and asked Harrison Price to setup a meeting to convince Mr. Marriott to choose Santa Clara as the west coast location for the Marriott parks. 

Marriott had already been offered and rejected other spots in both Northern and Southern California. One Southern California location had been offered to and rejected by Walt Disney decades earlier. Market research had suggested that the Southern California market would not support another theme park at that time and that the park might find greater traction in Northern California. Santa Clara’s proximity to San Francisco and its builtin tourism industry pushed the scales in the location’s favor. J. W. Marriott had decided on his west coast location, buying the property from Fess Parker.

The company would eventually build two of the three parks, the other one opening in Gurnee, Illinois. The east coast park never got off the ground because all of the locations the company had identified as potential sites ended up facing big opposition. (Coincidentally, Disney would buy one of the sites and attempt to build Disney’s America theme park, a project that was also shot down.) Eventually, Marriott would divest itself of its theme parks. While they were profitable, they were not as profitable as the company had hoped and required constant capital investments to keep guests coming in the gates. 

The Gurnee Park was sold to Six Flags. The Santa Clara Park was slated to be demolished. The computer industry had setup right outside Marriott’s front gate and the park was now at the center of Silicon Valley. The land it sat on was more valuable to computer companies and it was rumored that IBM had offered Marriott a ton of money to build a campus on the park’s grounds. The city of Santa Clara would eventually come to the park’s rescue.

So the park’s Disney pedigree goes much further than just being an inspiration. If not for Disney legends Fess Parker and Harrison Price, the park most likely would have been located elsewhere.