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Great America: Déjà vu all over again

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Yogi Berra had it right: It’s like déjà vu all over again.

Today I stood center-stage at the Great American Theater, the largest live performance auditorium at California’s Great America in Santa Clara. The occasion was the annual convention of ACE, the American Coaster Enthusiasts, those wild and daring people who travel the country experiencing every form of twist and turn, soaring heights to plunging depths, of the country’s most challenging roller coasters. Timid is not a word heard in these surroundings.

I had been invited as their special guest, because on March 20, 1976 as Public Affairs Manager of what was then called Marriott’s Great America, I had the wonderful and rather daunting (at age 25) responsibility of designing the opening promotion of Great America, the largest project at that time in the history of Marriott Corporation.

Facing the crowd of 350 coaster enthusiasts, I drifted easily back to those earliest years of my career, and especially to a particular time when I stood at that exact spot. It was 1976 and I had invited Clint Eastwood and Merv Griffin to visit Great America. I wanted them to experience the simply outstanding live entertainment performances that at the time were seen as the standout feature of the theme park. The show that was playing that first year was Music America, a high energy musical romp through 45 Americana songs. Performed by an extremely talented cast of 25 high school and college-aged men and women, supported by a 17-piece orchestra made up of similar ages, this extravaganza climaxed with an audience standing ovation at all performances.

At the close of that particular show as the audience filed towards the exit doors, I escorted Clint and Merv onto the stage. We lifted a portion of the huge red velvet curtain and we proceeded under to greet the performers. Emerging on the other side these two internationally-known stars brought the stretching and exhausted cast to a startled halt. After exchanging pleasantries and a quite a few OMG remarks, Merv Griffin offered them the ultimate compliment. He said, “There is nothing on Broadway that is anywhere near as entertaining as what we just witnessed.” These words made everyone’s day, probably year.

As I emerged from the theater this afternoon, I walked slowly, dreamily, through a very changed Great America. Gone were the strolling marching bands, steam driven train with its haunting whistle, gone were Bugs Bunny and the other Warner Brothers characters, replaced by Snoopy, Charlie Brown and friends. What once was a broad offering of live entertainment constantly erupting from all directions has now morphed into a primarily ride-focused amusement park. Still very nice, but for me, not as nice.

As I left in the late afternoon I noticed a sandwich board near the front entrance. It said that on a day coming up California’s Great America would be donating a portion of that day’s proceeds to the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. I flashed-back to 1976 when I had developed a partnership between Marriott’s Great America and the March of Dimes to help promote the opening of our new theme park, while raising much-needed funds to fight children’s birth defects. That partnership raised $2.5 million (a lot of money in 1976), a whopping 40% more than had ever been raised in the Western Region of the March of Dimes. That partnership is considered the first cause marketing program in history, and as the designer, I have been called the “father of cause marketing” by the Cause Marketing Forum.

For me, today was full of intense emotion, revisited experiences, and once again, enjoying the exploding laughter of a family getting soaked together on the water ride. As I drove away, I remembered the line I wrote for our highway billboard on the opening day 38 years ago: Super Smiles and Summer Fun, Welcome World, We’ve Just Begun.

Déjà vu, all over again, again.

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