This isn’t exactly an undiscovered gem, but anyone looking to create a fun and memorable experience for children should consider the Great America theme park just of Interstate 94 in Gurnee, Ill.
Six Flags Great America isn’t cheap, although there are ways to cut down on the costs. And it’s not for the faint of heart. The roller coasters tower, and the crowds can get pretty heavy. But the park has been a rite of passage for children in Chicagoland for decades, and it remains the biggest fish in this bond. For those of you with the fortitude, the theme park is a big hit with kids. And for most children, one visit a year will go a long way.
The park contains dozens of rides. You can check them out here, so I won’t waste your time listing them. I will, however, offer some child-oriented suggestions.
- Parents with younger children will find plenty to do throughout the park. Six Flags has interspersed child-friendly rides in all of the major park sections. The princes are a bit old for such rides now, but their favorites can be found in the County Fair section. Want to introduce younger children to the joy of roller coasters? Try the Whizzer, a small coaster suitable for all but the smallest riders. Younger visitors may also like the Demon, an entry-level looping roller coaster, and the Rajun Cajun, a compact coaster with spinning cars.
- Thrill junkies will enjoy the Iron Wolf stand-up roller coaster, the Raging Bull, and Superman: Ultimate Flight. Expect your heart to stop a couple of times along the way, particularly on the Iron Wolf.
- The water rides are suitable for most ages. Logger’s Run and Yankee Clipper feature steep drops, but not particularly scary ones. And the newer Buccaneer Battle offers you a chance to shoot your own water guns at other riders and spectators manning land-based weapons.
- Admission to Hurricane Harbor water park is free with a Great America ticket. However, you should plan to bring a change of clothes, as swimsuits are not allowed in the rest of the theme park.
Here are a few other tips to consider when visiting Great America.
- Pack a lunch. Not surprisingly, the food is pricey. Expect to spend $30 or more to feed a family of four. We generally pack a cooler and leave it in the car. At lunch or dinner time, just walk to your car and eat. Great America offers a number of “deals” that do allow visitors to purchase food at prices below retail. But at the theme park, retail is pretty rich. For most parents, sandwiches, a bag of chips, and a two-liter bottle of lemonade will be far more palatable. If you want to score extra Dad points, however, splurge for the funnel cake sundae. It costs $9, so don’t buy one for each child. But there’s nothing like the sight of a spiral of fried dough, covered with ice cream, which in turn is covered with hot fudge and whipped cream. The desserts are large enough to share, so get two or three spoons and dig in.
- Either come early or come late. Interstate 94 backs up at the exit for Great America well before the park opens at 10 a.m. To get the most out of your trip, allow enough time to reach Gurnee well before that. Alternatively, the line tends to shorten after 11 a.m. If you try to arrive at 10 a.m., you’ll spend a long time waiting to pass through the parking gates.
- Bring sunscreen. Great America is a big place, and you’ll take in a lot of sun walking around.
- Tote your own water. Each patron is allowed to bring in one small water bottle. Given that water can cost more than $3 per bottle, I recommend that you bring in your own. Once inside, you can refill the water at any number of drinking fountains.
- Hit the big rides early. Download a map before you visit the park and have each child select a ride or two. Your best shot for hitting one of the big roller coasters more than once or riding on two or three before the lines get long is to move to the interior of the park immediately, before the crowds make it past the outer portions.
- Avoid the crowds. Great America is busy all summer. But you’ll find shorter lines and less competition for the top rides if you visit on a weekday during the summer or during the spring and fall, when the weather is cooler. And if your kids don’t mind a little rain, visit on a day with poor weather. Many of the less-intrepid revelers won’t go near the park. And if you can handle the rain, you can hit a lot more rides.
Have more questions? Great America has answers for most of them.
Now, for the big question: How much does it cost?
At the gate, adults pay $54.99 and kids pay $34.99. But if you purchase your tickets online, everybody pays the kids’ price – plus a service fee. You can also obtain that price without the service fee by purchasing select Coca-Cola products or a sack of burgers at White Castle.
Still too much? I can relate – we only went this year because the princes each earned a free ticket by reading a certain number of books at school. You may be able to find discounted tickets or coupons at online auction sites like eBay.
Great America isn’t for everyone. It’s busy and it’s expensive. But it’s also the biggest game in town, and as I said earlier, for most children it will represent the cornerstone of a summer of fun. Splurge, if only this one time.
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