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Great America Celebrates 25 Years of Operation

(The following remarks were presented by former City Manager and City Council Member Don Von Raesfeld at a 25th anniversary event held May 2, 2001 Paramount's Great America (now California's Great America); the remarks are reprinted with his permission.)

I am pleased to be here and to share in this 25th anniversary of Great America Theme Park with all of you. First, let me make a few points by introducing my wife of 2 years, Olga Von Raesfeld.

When asked if I would say a few words today, I accepted. The history of this City of Santa Clara event was without equal, the highlight of my career as Santa Clara City Manager. I would make a big mistake if I did not take this opportunity to give credit to members of the Santa Clara City Staff and the City Council back in 1972 when this idea was planted.

Back then, Councilman James Viso was a close friend of Fess Parker (who as an actor, had portrayed both Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett), who had close ties to the University of Santa Clara. Councilman Viso brought Fess Parker to Santa Clara with the idea and a goal to develop a Frontierland Theme Park. The location that we are in today was then a pear orchard and hay fields, and was enough acreage to accommodate such a large development. Fess believed that the theme park would provide good clean entertainment for children, young people and adults. Fess obtained City Council encouragement and a concept was developed where Fess and the City would be partners and would share in the profits, if any.

Another key player was an attorney skilled in public finance, Ken Jones. A concept evolved to create a Public Park District, which would provide the security for raising the funds to construct the Park.

Moving on with the story, real politics came into play and Sacramento politicians criticized the City for its intended role in financing and building a Theme Park, which they felt was a commercial venture, and not appropriate for a municipal government. The City finally informed Fess Parker that the City would support the Park only as a true private venture.

Fess Parker continued to search for private financing. This was difficult since all the planning had been based on a public/ private venture. Finally Randy Duel brought together Fess Parker and the Marriott Corporation. Marriott had also been working with Randy Duel to locate three theme parks, one in the East, one in Central U.S. and another one on the West Coast. After agreement was reached between Fess Parker and the Marriott Corporation, things began moving at a fast pace.

In October 1973, the Marriott Corporation along with the Santa Clara Chamber of Commerce and the City of Santa Clara, had a fantastic groundbreaking at the intersection of Coffin Road and Agnew Road, now the intersection of Great America Parkway and Mission College Boulevard. The ceremony was attended by many V.I.P.s including Art Linkletter, people from Marriott Corporation, Bugs Bunny and others. Marriott built a great Park, which laid the groundwork to benefit visitor enjoyment for 25 years.

While this history is important, the real story begins here. After about 7 years of operation, Marriott decided to sell off the park. Development in Silicon Valley had exploded and industrial land was in demand. Marriott Corporation struck a sales agreement with a land developer to tear down the park and turn it into office buildings. In that agreement they provided the City of Santa Clara with a first right to match the purchase price. It was obvious that having been given this opportunity, the City would have had to approve the demolition and rezoning if it didn't step forward and buy the park.

Forward-looking members of the City Council agreed to meet this challenge and save the theme park. The policy decision was not unanimous so the Council put it to an advisory vote, which was approved by 76% of Santa Clara City voters. The financing concept was simple. Mortgage the land and improvements to secure the public debt. The debt would be paid by theme park net income, in the form of a lease payment for the land. Once again, the City had great legal assistance from attorney Ken Jones and another attorney Bruce Ballmer. Since the project was financed as a part of the City's Redevelopment Agency, it only required a majority vote to be successful, and with that vote the purchase moved forward.

The next challenge was to contract with an experienced theme park operator. The City interviewed experienced operators with the help of a Citizens Advisory Committee headed by resident Josephine Rowen. With their input, the City Council contracted with Kings Entertainment Company to run the Park, and Kings Entertainment did an outstanding job. Under the leadership of Al Weber, they expanded the park and continually offered new entertainment. A few years ago, Paramount acquired Kings Entertainment and they are doing a great job for our Santa Clara citizens.

By the way, out of this success and the park's annual lease payment for the land, the debt entered into to purchase the park is being paid off year by year. Once all the debt is paid, a good amount of annual income will eventually flow to the City to benefit City programs and services for citizens.

  • The Starter - Fess Parker
  • From the Early City Council: James Viso.
  • Those who were on the Santa Clara City Council when the purchase of the park was approved in 1985: Bill Gissler, Judy Nadler, Jim Ash, Sue Lasher, John Mahan, Dave Tobkin and Eddie Souza.
  • From the staff: Jennifer Sparacino, Tom Goulding, the late Creston Patterson, Kris Machnick, the late Ed Moore, Mike Downey and elected City Clerk Judy Boccignone.
  • All the City Council Members that supported the Park through the years
  • Attorneys Ken Jones, Bruce Ballmer, and Phil Assaf.
  • The Marriott family and their employees.
  • Kings Entertainment, Paramount's Al Weber and Gayle Ando, and their employees.
  • And most of all, the Santa Clara citizens for their support in allowing this history to unfold. May these 25 years of success mark the beginning of another 25 successful years.

Also recognized by Paramount's Great America (now California's Great America) that day were the following:

  • Charter theme park employees (with the park since its opening): Melanie Bailey, Carol Catlett, Andres Davila, Greg Sanders, Ernie Schuyler, and Larry Service.
  • Involved Santa Clara citizens: Mrs. George Burdick (on behalf of George Burdick); Mr. Foster Lopes; Mrs. Phil Raineri (on behalf of Phil Raineri); Mr. Lorne Smyth; Ms. Josephine Rowen; former Council Members Dave DeLozier, John Mahan and Auralee Street; and former City Manager and former Council Member Don Von Raesfeld.
Last updated: 11/11/2009 9:34:39 PM