American Eagle: Iconic ride in the suburbs for 30 years
For three decades, one sight has dominated the Gurnee skyline -- the red, white, and blue American Eagle roller coaster at Six Flags Great America.
Newer, sleeker, fancier coasters have been built around it, but none are quite as noticeable as the massive wooden coaster that looms large over Interstate 94.
"It really is iconic in that regard," said Great America spokeswoman Jennifer Savage. "It's a symbol of Great America. Everyone knows it when they see it on I-94."
The roller coaster turns 30 this year, marking a milestone rarely hit in an age when amusement park technology often pushes aside tradition.
That's because despite its age, the Eagle remains one of the best coasters in the world, experts said.
"It's an amazing feat for a wooden coaster like the Eagle to last this long," said Jeff Peters, a roller coaster expert with the American Coaster Enthusiasts organization. "There is a lot of maintenance to keep a wooden coaster like this operating as well as it has, and Great America should be commended for keeping it going."
The Eagle remains the largest, tallest and fastest racing wooden roller coaster in the world. In part, that's because wooden coasters fell out of vogue with technological advancements that allowed manufacturers to shift their focus to bigger and better steel rides, Peters said.
"I think the sheer size of the Eagle is what keeps this as one of the best wooden coasters in the world," he said. "The Eagle, when it was built, was cutting-edge. Then, the world turned to steel coasters and were making less wood coasters. I think that helped in its longevity."
Location also has helped the Eagle remain one of the best-known roller coasters in the country, Savage said.
People witness its hulking mass as they wait to exit I-94 in Gurnee, or they actually have to drive under it when entering the park off Washington Street. It's also the fall home of "Tiny" the giant spider that signifies Fright Fest at the park.
It's become one of Great America's "must rides", Savage said.
"With 45 million rides over 30 years, it's definitely one of the most popular roller coasters at Six Flags," she said. "People just love the Eagle."
Officially, the American Eagle is two roller coasters in one, because the double-tracked coaster that opened in 1981 has separate tracks built side by side.
It officially tops out at speeds of 66 mph, is 4,650 feet in length, and has a 15-story drop on the first hill.
But, numbers don't really tell its story.
The first drop forces riders to plunge into a hole about 20 feet below street level. From start to finish, those sitting in the last car come off their seat at least a half-dozen times.
"That's what the appeal is for me," said Jason Morgan, another American Coaster Enthusiasts spokesman. "The speed and the pacing of the ride is awesome throughout. But the airtime you get from that rear car is makes it iconic."
Morgan said the airtime people can achieve on the old wooden coaster is something you have to experience to understand.
"You can actually leave your seat on every hill from the back car," he said. "Plus, the out-and-back layout of the track makes it incredible. You travel a long way to leave and get back to the station."
Erik Sommerville, 17, of Wauconda said it's still his favorite ride in the park.
"The first drop is always exciting," he said. "You feel like you are free falling straight down."
Bobby Adelizzi, also 17 and from Wauconda, said while newer rides seem smoother, the "clicketyclack" sound of the old Eagle makes it exciting for people as they are pulled up the first, giant hill.
"It's a nice ride at night," he said. "This is the last ride we try and go on every night we are here."