by Danny Miller
As the prospector says prior to departing the station, “You’re about to experience the rush of striking gold!” Are you ever! California’s Great America had been stagnant for a long time. They hadn’t had a major attraction added in quite some time, and the most notable coaster activity had been ride removals, even under Paramount, like the transplant of rides like Stealth (now Nighthawk at Carowinds), and Invertigo (now Stinger at Dorney Park). By all means, when Gold Striker was announced, it had to be good, or else the park may never recover.
Gold Striker actually dates back to the mid-2000s. When Cedar Fair first acquired the park (along with the other Paramount parks), Great America was expected to get the third of the three Great Coasters International rides to go to the chain in a deal with the wooden coaster maker. After Renegade at Valleyfair opened in 2007, and Prowler opened at Worlds of Fun in 2009, it seemed that Great America was the logical spot for the last coaster. After all, the park lacked both the quantity and quality of wooden coasters that other parks already had. But wait, the uncertainty of whether or not Cedar Fair would keep the park or not, and the slight speculation that the San Francisco 49ers new football stadium could close the park, Cedar Fair balked and didn’t invest in a new ride.
Fast forward to 2013, the issues were resolved, and the stadium and park no co-exist with Cedar Fair still in possession of the park. The plans that had been public for a long time could finally proceed, and thankfully they did. Although I didn’t get to ride it in 2013, if I could jump in a time machine, my vote for “Best New Ride” of 2013 would easily go to Gold Striker. It is flat-out a better coaster than Outlaw Run in just about every way except that it doesn’t really break new ground. It doesn’t have to though, as it is just an all-around fun coaster. Its length is surprisingly (in a good way) long for a coaster of moderate size, and the forces are all over the charts (again, in a good way).
The ride starts with a quick little jaunt through some tight turns and a little bit of air even before the lift. Immediately you can tell this is going to be a wild ride. At the top of the drop, the already deafening chain is magnified by the tunnel designed to reduce the sound heard by nearby buildings. What results, however, is a more thrilling drop, with head-choppers all the way down, especially in the back row where you are jettisoned from your seat at the apex. The tunnels and side-walls along the entire course follow this theme as well, heightening the sense of speed and danger from start to finish.
In the blink of an eye, you’re nearly on your side, wrapping around the Star Tower. You quickly cut through the queue area and hit an airtime hill beside the station, with wood cross-beams seemingly inches from your head above. After this, it is several instances of GCI’s mastery of combining vertical and lateral forces. As you bank sharply, you also crest a hill, giving you ejector air and lateral forces together, and there are probably at least half a dozen instances of this throughout the course. A few spots connect these twisted turnarounds with small speed hills that violently (once again in a good way) throw you out of your seat and to the side.
Despite its length, and a ride time of two and a half minutes, Gold Striker speeds into the brake run. This is a credit to how perfectly GCI is able to slowly make elements smaller as the ride goes on, offsetting the speed that diminishes by keeping the sense of speed and force the same. This is truly what few coasters do well. Some seem to hit the brakes too early, while other fizzle out and tend to struggle to finish the course. Gold Striker finishes the course strong; it is a long ride that avoids slow elements at the end. Every element of the ride is thrilling, the ending just as much so as the beginning. From the Star Tower, one can really appreciate the tangled mess of timber that makes up this incredible coaster.
If nothing else, California’s Great America finally has a signature attraction that everyone can get excited about. Flight Deck is still a phenomenal inverted coaster, especially with the sharp new red and silver paint job. The 1993 product was one of B&M’s first coasters, and it still performs on the level of coasters like Raptor, Talon, and the Batman clones. It couldn’t be the sole anchor of the park however, as it isn’t new enough anymore, and isn’t ground-breaking enough. With Gold Striker present, Flight Deck is the king of the steel coasters here, but is no longer forced to anchor the entire collection. Gold Striker is a perfect compliment.
Flight Deck's signature finale over the lake pops a bit more with a fresh coat of paint.
The park was packed, which bodes well for the future of the park. There still seems to be something missing, as it’s not quite a full-day park just yet, but the addition of one more major attraction in the coming years could make this park a force to be reckon with once again, and would make it the definitive park to go to in Northern California. The staff was friendly, and the access to nearby restaurants gives you options if you prefer not to eat park food.
Lastly, as I mentioned two years ago, there is truly something for everyone at this park. There are two distinct kids area, offering plenty to do for tikes, while a good collection of “tweener” rides are scattered about the park. Finally, the heavy thrills like Flight Deck, Vortex, and Gold Striker are evenly spaced about the park, rather than cramming them all in one part of the park. The result is almost a correct order to experience the park, and the flow of guests can go around the park’s circular layout in either direction, meaning you will rarely hit a giant mob of people at any one attraction.
Overall, I was very happy with my second-ever visit to California’s Great America, and it was definitely my favorite park of the trip. Gold Striker is fabulous, and the signs that proclaim it as “California’s Best Wooden Coaster” could not make more of an understatement. It is a top five wooden coaster even for the most seasoned enthusiasts. It is just one reason that people should finally start planning a specific visit to California’s Great America.