DISCLOSURE: This review is based on my own opinion and perspective. I paid for my tickets for the event. Six Flags Great America did not grant me any special access to conduct this review, nor was the park aware during my visit that I would be writing a review.
If you had told me that you were driving a car inside Six Flags Great America, I would have guessed you were either a park employee or had made a series of hilariously wrong turns.
But in the age of COVID-19, a leisurely cruise along the park’s paths counts as a worthwhile excuse to get out of the house.
Being a theme park fan in 2020 has not been easy, especially if your nearest regional park never opened. That was the case for anyone who calls Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois their home park, as the state’s coronavirus safeguards won’t allow amusement park rides and attractions to reopen until a vaccine for treatment for COVID-19 is widely available.
So to get some revenue flowing, Great America is offering two ride-less holiday experiences. The first, Holiday in the Park Lights, I’ve yet to experience due to the recent COVID-19 surge in Illinois making me skittish about crowds, even in outdoor settings with masks required. The second, however, eliminates any risk of guests intermingling by keeping them in their cars. So for the sake of safety, I went with the Holiday In The Park Drive-Thru Experience for my first foray back into theme parks since the pandemic began.
The $15 tickets for the event are per person, not per vehicle. They have to be purchased in advance along with a reservation window to enter the park. You can also purchase some food packages in advance — a multi-step process that begins with handing over a printed food voucher and receiving a punch card at the parking gate. I’ll get into this more later.
From the parking gate, you’ll be directed around the edge of the park. For longtime fans, be sure not to miss glimpses of old ride vehicles on this leg of your journey; I spotted some old trains from the Scenic Railway rotting away behind a fence.
You enter the park grounds under Goliath and then weave through more backstage areas. The drive-thru experience doesn’t really begin until you reach the Hometown Square section of the park, just south of Whizzer. You can find a full map here.
From there, you wind your way through 12 different themed areas. I use that term lightly since they all amount to largely the same experience: holiday lights, theming and music. Occasionally, characters or costumed employees pop up along the route — such as Bugs Bunny, or in one confusing holiday crossover, Uncle Sam — but for the most part, the names of the different areas don’t mean much.
My two personal highlights of the event bookended the experience. The “Elegance” section featured the best photo opportunity of the night, showcasing the park’s entrance plaza and the Columbia Carousel. The other was the wall of screens wrapping around a building in the Southwest Territory, which made for the most impressive technological display of the night (though one that a camera doesn’t capture very well).
In between were displays that all blend together. Holiday lights. Music. A few characters. Repeat.
Six Flags staff did a stellar job keeping the line of cars moving along, while providing enough spacing that drivers will still get to enjoy the sights and sounds of the park. They also efficiently directed traffic so my car could make a quick detour to pick my pre-ordered package of fudge and hot cocoa.
At $15 for two pounds of fudge and two drinks, it appears the pandemic hasn’t changed Six Flags’ food prices. The two random fudge flavors I received — cinnamon bun and birthday cake — were far too sweet for my liking. The cocoa was a better choice, but I couldn’t enjoy it until after I had left the event; park rules state that if you have your windows rolled down during the experience, you need to be wearing a face mask, so keep that in mind if you envisioned a cocoa-supplemented cruise.
The route ended with an exit under American Eagle about 25 minutes after we began. I could nitpick certain aspects of the events— like the overpriced food, how the “Snowman City” area amounted to, really, just a snowman, and how certain sections of the park lacked many decorations compared to other drive-thru events, like Six Flags Magic Mountain — but 2020 requires that I grade on a curve. Just being back in a theme park, even for a little while, even without rides, was enough for me.
An event like this may not feel worthwhile in regular times, but in the midst of a pandemic that has claimed 1.7 million lives worldwide and devastated the theme park industry, it’s a welcome distraction.
If you’ve been desperately missing theme parks, but also want to remain responsible and limit yourself to activities with a near-zero risk of COVID-19 transmission, then this event is for you. Remaining dates for Six Flags Great America’s Holiday In The Park Drive-Thru Experience are Jan. 2-3, 7-10 and 14-18, 2021.
And let’s hope in 2021 that these kinds of events aren’t necessary.
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