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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, Sept. 1, 2014

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In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

The Surf Rider is a new attraction this year. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

The wave pool is ideal for people who don't want to wait in line for a slide. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

The beach area adds another dimension to the water park scene. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

In Travel & Visitors Guide Commentary

The water park is now just as thrilling as the theme park. (PHOTO: Royal Bonde-Griggs)

Doing Great America differently


GURNEE, Ill. – I have gone to Six Flags Great America dozens of times in my life, and always approached it in a similar fashion. I start with the double-decker carousel, make my way clockwise around the park and skip the water park. This year, however, I decided to do it differently.

For starters, I decided to make the water park the main attraction and prepared accordingly with swimsuits, a change of dry clothes, towels and plenty of sunscreen. This year, the existing 40-acre water park called Hurricane Harbor introduced a new four-acre expansion called Riptide Bay which features four massive water slides, a five-foot wave surfing simulator called Surf Rider and a 14,000- square foot lagoon.

"Rip Tide Bay is the perfect addition to our park's extensive collection of thrills," says Hank Selemi, president of Six Flags Great America. "We extended the water park due to popular demand and are excited to provide guests of all ages with a variety of unique and thrilling slides and attractions."

One of the new slides, Dive Bomber's Loop, is the first slide in North America with a skybox launching capsule that gets up to 40 mph and has a five-story drop. The Mega Wedgie (what a name) is equally as thrilling with an 80-degree drop. For both of these slides, kids must be at least 48 inches tall and have a penchant for the extreme. Kids around this height / age range a lot, from still seeking the "baby slides" to wanting full-on encounters with danger. (I have one of each which makes trying to negotiate what we do difficult at times.)

Kids must be at least 52 inches to surf the Surf Rider, which is a "wave-in-a-box" featuring five-foot surfable waves. Sturdy, thrill-seeking kids at least 42 inches can body board instead of stand on a surfboard, but lighter kids easily get swept away by these strong waves, which we learned the hard way. (It didn't ruin our day, just put a temporary damper on things.)

There is also a family slide called Wipeout, which allows four people to swirl on a raft through 400 feet of enclosed tubing at top speeds. It has a 35-foot drop and it gets pretty intense.

Hurricane Harbor and Riptide Bay are both included in the admission price. General admission tickets are $59.99 – although there are many ways to get discounts including via the Facebook page – but this year, for the same price, an individual can buy a Summer Thrill Pass which allows for unlimited visits through Sept. 17. (A no-brainer if you're going to go more than once).

We "tailgated" in the parking lot and ate a big lunch prior to going into the park. You cannot bring food or drink on the grounds, but you can get a hand stamp to go out to your car and eat / drink throughout the day. This helps cut back on costs somewhat and allows for healthier food choices, although there are numerous restaurants on site for those who, understandably, want to make it easy on themselves.

However, even though we ate sandwiches and snacks in the parking lot, I still dropped almost $100 between a $20 parking fee and paying for treats (they each got fries and an ice cream bar), bottles of water and a couple of "grown-up lemonades."

We went on a very hot Sunday, so the water park was extremely crowded. The lines for many of the slides and water attractions were about 45 minutes. Still, my kids had a spectacular time and the adults had fun, too, after figuring out a couple of survival tips so we made it through the day without wanting to drown someone.

For starters, we took the time to scout out a place to sit in the shade. At first glance, it appeared all of the chairs were taken. And they are – the water park definitely needs more outdoor seating – but if you remain alert and resourceful, before long, you can find a couple of single chairs here or there, do a little kind communication and weasel your way under a covered space. Having a "home base" is key.

Then, you and the other adults – do not attempt this chaotic adventure with multiple kids alone – can take turns following the little people around. Or, if they are old enough, allow them to run to and fro but check in regularly.

My kids spent most of their time in the wave pool because there wasn't a wait to enjoy the water like there was for the slides. They were frustrated at times by the frequent 20-minute pool "safety checks" (are these for real or are they a crafty way to sell more concessions?), but for most of the day, they were wet and cool and happy.

Hurricane Harbor also has a beach-like area with real sand and covered seating areas. I wish it were larger, but it is a nice, more natural feeling addition to the water park.

After we exhausted ourselves with All Things H2o, we stopped at a few rides on the way back to the car. We took a whirl on The Demon, a classic two-loop coaster that I remember riding the first year it opened in the park. (Why do so many people, myself included, like rollercoasters less and less as we get older? My kid didn't find the ride scary at all, and I was just short of terrified.)

Then, we meandered back to the main gates, and they went on a couple of scrambler-type rides that didn't have much of a wait. We ended the day – as opposed to starting the day – with the top level of the carousel. I loved seeing all of those adults of all shapes and sizes riding the bejeweled horses.

Although I did not buy one, I am always tempted by the Flash Pass, which allows visitors to hold a virtual place in line. Instead of actually waiting in line, you can do other things, and when it's your turn, your Flash Pass alerts you. Then, you simply walk to the front of the line as if you were waiting all along. Flash Passes start at $35, and up to five riders can be added to one pass for an extra fee.

Overall, Six Flags Great America is well staffed and clean, with plenty of garbage and recycling bins. The bathrooms were problematic by the end of the day, but again, we went on an extremely busy, hot day. I would recommend trying to go during the week, if possible, when there are most likely fewer people attending.

And above all, don't forget to hug Sylvester or Tweety on the way out.


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