Great America’s Whizzer named ‘Roller Coaster Landmark’
BY DAN MORAN Sun-Times Media email@example.com August 10, 2012 3:56PM
Updated: September 12, 2012 6:06AM
About 10 years ago, when Six Flags Great America in Gurnee was looking for space to build what would become Superman: Ultimate Flight, the Whizzer really was being eyed for extinction.
“We’re very landlocked. We don’t have much expandable land left here, (so) often, when we put a major ride in, another ride has to come out,” park president Hank Salemi said Friday.
But the grand old roller coaster survived, and it was honored Friday by the Ohio-based American Coaster Enthusiasts as the 24th ride in the U.S. to receive the organization’s Roller Coaster Landmark designation, putting it on a roster with Disneyland’s Mattherhorn and the Coney Island Cyclone.
Salemi told a gathering of the enthusiasts Friday that the group can claim credit for helping to save the Whizzer.
“We received tons of emails and letters and calls, really an outcry to preserve this last (Anton) Schwarzkopf racing roller coaster left in the world. And we listened. We heard you loud and clear.”
The Whizzer is one of Great America’s few original rides still in operation, having opened with the park in May 1976. It was then known as Willard’s Whizzer, named for Marriott’s Great America founder J. Willard Marriott, and was identical to another Anton Schwarzkopf model that opened the same year at California’s Great America near San Francisco.
While the California Whizzer was dismantled in 1988, its Illinois cousin endured as a rite-of-passage coaster, allowing children 36 inches and taller to ride with an adult. ACE member Jeff Peters of Salem, Wis., said the cross-generational appeal has been the Whizzer’s saving grace.
“It’s a great family coaster — it’s your ‘first coaster’ kind of thing,” Peters said. “I remember with my niece, it was her first coaster (when) she was just barely able to make the height.”
Dave Altman of Pittsburgh, president of the enthusiasts group, said rides like the Whizzer give a theme park its character.
“You can put the next million-dollar ride in to bring people in, but it’s these rides that have sustained their attraction over the years to families and generations — it’s a great thing that parks like Six Flags are maintaining that.”
The landmark designation was the second awarded to a Great America coaster, with Batman: The Ride honored in June 2005 for its status as the world’s first inverted roller coaster. ACE officials, who are hosting a preservation conference this weekend in Gurnee, also presented Salemi with a plaque honoring Great America for preserving not only the Whizzer but also The Little Dipper, which was relocated from now-defunct Kiddieland in 2010.
Salemi told the group that the Whizzer is “very special to the people here in Chicago.”
“A lot of people will tell you their very, very first (coaster) they ever rode was absolutely the Whizzer,” Salemi said. “A lot of people will tell you (the Little Dipper) was their first coaster. So I really feel like we’ve accomplished what we wanted to do, and that was to preserve history — theme park history, amusement park history, roller coaster history here in Chicago.”