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Great America Sold, Park to Close

Cedar Fair amusement park company announced today that it’s selling the land under Great America to Prologis, a Fremont-based logistics management and real estate company, for $310 million. Cedar Fair will continue to operate the amusement park under a lease for up to 11 years, and will ultimately close the park. The company has operated Great America since 2006.

The land sale was the outcome of a strategic review initiated by Cedar Fair in 2021 to explore potential avenues to maximize the value of the company’s extensive asset portfolio,” said a June 27 press release.

Cedar Fair bought the land from the City of Santa Clara in 2019, following the dissolution of California’s redevelopment agencies in 2011. Before that, the land was leased to several Great America park operators since 1984.

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“For our investors, the sale and lease agreements allow us to monetize a high-value asset in the heart of Silicon Valley at a very attractive multiple. The transaction also provides us with a substantial sum of incremental capital which we intend to use to further advance our strategic priorities and generate enhanced returns for our unitholders,” said Cedar Fair President and CEO Richard A. Zimmerman in the press release.

Riding Four Decades of Fun

Over 46 years, more than 80 million people have visited Great America and its attractions have steadily grown. But the park’s history hasn’t been without controversy.

An amusement park called Frontier World was first proposed to the Santa Clara City Council by entertainer Fess Parker — familiar to TV audiences in a variety of roles, most famously Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett — a friend of then-City Councilman James Viso. Parker owned 560 acres north of Highway 101, according to the March 30, 1973 Spartan Daily and wanted to develop part of it as an entertainment venture in partnership with Santa Clara.

Parker had originally planned a theme park in Boone County, Ky., when a rival park in Cincinnati, Ohio incorporated his ideas. Parker intended to sue the Cincinnati park and asked Viso to testify for him.

“I said, why waste time suing them? Come and look at our site,” Viso recalled in a 2006 interview with The Weekly. “We had this big site north of Bayshore. A builder was proposing 10,000 units of housing and I wanted to retain some open space. So, I showed Fess the whole area and he liked it.”

The proposal was that the City would buy the land and finance the development with bonds via a special park district. Parker would provide his name and cachet, and both parties would share the profits. The financing proposal was one of the few issues where the legendary team of City Manager Don Von Raesfeld and Mayor Gary Gillmor butted heads.

While Gillmor wasn’t opposed to an amusement park, he thought the City was getting the short end of the stick on the proposed deal.

“We [Santa Clara] put up all the land. We put up all the money, and split the profits 50-50,” is how Gillmor recalled it in a 2005 interview with The Weekly. “Now, I love private enterprise, but I said ‘hell no.’”

During an acrimonious City Council meeting in August 1972, with accusations of conflicts of interest flying in all directions, Parker announced that he would build the park as a private developer. He eventually partnered with Marriott Corp. and the project was ultimately approved.

Marriott eventually bought Parker out and in 1976 the park opened as Marriott’s Great America, with a high publicity groundbreaking in October 1973 featuring Art Linkletter and Bugs Bunny.

With Silicon Valley real estate values skyrocketing, Marriott decided in 1983 to sell the park to a developer who intended to replace it with office buildings. Marriott gave the City first right to match the purchase price. Given this opportunity, if it didn’t buy the property, the City would be forced to approve the demolition and rezoning, according to former City Manager Don Von Raesfeld.

The purchase was approved by a 4-3 vote in January 1984.

“We had a full Council meeting where they made the decision – it had to be made by midnight,” recalled former City Clerk Judy Boccignone in 2006. “Then we hopped in a car – myself, the Mayor, the City Manager, the City Attorney and the Assistant City Manager – and drove to [the lawyer’s office in] San Francisco.

“We spent the rest of the early morning hours working through the documents and signing them – there were literally boxes of them,” she continued. “And then I went home and showered and dressed and came back to work at 7:00 a.m. and put in a full day.”

The final purchase price was $93.5 million.

*Mary Hanel, former director of the Santa Clara City Library Heritage Pavilion, assisted in researching this story.

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8 Comments
  1. Rick 5 months ago
    Reply

    What was the price the city sold the land to the operator for in 2019?

  2. $150 million. 5 months ago
    Reply

    $150 million.

  3. Rick 5 months ago
    Reply

    Really? So the city of Santa Clara basically gave away the land in 2019 for $150 million so the buyer could flip it 2 years later for $310 million? Either somebody made a hell of alot of money under the table or someone should be fired.

  4. Judd 5 months ago
    Reply

    You’re right, Rick. Business as usual!! Disgusting

  5. Carolyn Schuk 5 months ago
    Reply

    The city had no choice in selling it. It was taken by the county in the RDA asset clawback in 2012 and the proceeds of the 2019 sale were distributed as property taxes — the city got about 10% of that. If anybody can be blamed for bad decisions, it is those who bought the land with city money in 1983 and then put the deed in the RDA’s name. I remember having it explained to me that the logic behind this was to bypass the distribution of the increase in property taxes from development and gain more “flexibility” in the operation of the theme park. Perhaps Rick can provide some more insight into what exactly the “flexibility” consisted of.

    As is often the case, the clever people ended up outsmarting themselves. The city lost $14 million — about $18 million today that would almost cover the budget deficit.

    https://www.svvoice.com/santa-claras-rda-money-gambits-may-undermine-future-funding-for-core-services/
    https://www.svvoice.com/california-redevelopment-agencies-101/

    • Carolyn Schuk 5 months ago
      Reply

      That’s $14/18 million a year since 2013.

  6. Linda Lappin 5 months ago
    Reply

    yes tax payer’s money gobbled up by big business and a really fun place –a local attraction, one of the last theme parks north of LA, Dang..Sad for the families who make a summer of this crazy place.

  7. Preet 2 months ago
    Reply

    We can’t let them remove Great America. We all love going there.

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