Six Flags’ Eagle took flight 30 years ago

Take a deep breath, then scream.

That was the advice given by Angie McAvoy as the American Eagle slowly jerked and clicked its way to the top of a 147-foot drop. That’s 15 stories.

“You OK?” McAvoy asked with a smile.

“Maybe I’ll put my hands up this time,” she pondered casually.

Responding is difficult when you can’t breathe. And you’d rather not open your eyes. And you can’t quite clench the bar in front of you tight enough.

Still, if you’re going to ride the Eagle for the first time – even if you never intended to ride the roller coaster or any roller coaster ever – McAvoy is an ideal seat-mate.

Once the “First Lady” of Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, McAvoy was one of the first to ride the wooden roller coaster when it opened 30 years ago. She rode it for 10 hours straight as cameras filmed its commercial debut.

So. when she tells you to scream, you scream.

And scream. And scream.

And then you try to breathe again, while McAvoy continually tells you it’s almost over.
“I lied a couple times,” she said with a laugh as the ride finally came to a stop.

Thus, with a wobble and weak knees, your first American Eagle experience is over. And – one would hope – your nausea, too.

The tallest, fastest and longest racing wooden roller caster in the world when it made its debut in 1981, the American Eagle remains one of the most popular rides at Great America.

And for many, it’s the most nostalgic among the park’s 14 roller coasters.

“We had never seen anything like it before,” remembered McAvoy, who watched the roller coaster being built years ago. “It was growing and taking over the park... I said I would never ever ride it. I would promote it, but I would never ride it. I was terrified.

“Now it’s my favorite ride.”

In honor of its 30-year anniversary, the Eagle is among numerous attractions spotlighted this season at Six Flags Great America.

The 2011 season also features the new Riptide Bay at Great America’s water park, Hurricane Harbor. Now 20 acres, Hurricane Harbor offers more slides and attractions than any other water park in the state, said Meredith Kelleher, a public relations specialist.

Among five new slides is Dive Bomber, where the floor drops out from beneath you and you free-fall five stories into a looping slide. In Mega Wedgie, you start in a launching capsule before your feet drop down a five-story, 80-degree plunge at 40 miles per hour.

“Even if you’re not a roller coaster buff, there’s still something for everyone,” said Kelleher of Crystal Lake, who started working at the park five years ago.

“My nephew thinks I have the coolest job on earth,” she said.

Great America all began years ago with a simple idea.

For those intrigued by the park’s history, the park’s new show “Screams and Dreams: 1972-1984” offers a look back at how it all came about.

McAvoy was one of the park’s first employees, determined to work there when she drove by and saw it being built. Her father had done some landscaping for the theme park.

She worked as a theater attendant right out of high school in 1976 before becoming the park’s ambassador and spokesperson.

“I get a little passionate about this park,” she said during a golf cart ride through the back of the park offering a behind-the-scenes look.

“This is where the magic happens,” she said.

Unlike the American Eagle, she said, the park’s newer roller coasters come in steel pieces.
“It’s like a puzzle they put together, but this is like one piece of wood at a time,” she said. “It amazes me.”

What amazes some who ride the Eagle is that they survive it. (Though Kelleher’s quick to point out its safety.) Still, you can’t help but feel a bit on edge as that wooden coaster rattles you around.

“It shakes you. It makes you free fall. It’s pretty sweet,” said 17-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was among a group of physics students visiting the park and studying the velocity, accelerations and other aspects of the coasters.

The American Eagle’s velocity? It reaches a top speed of 66 miles per hour.
“It sounds like it’s breaking the whole time, but it’s not,” said 17-year-old Andrew Pruski of Notre Dame High School in Niles. “It feels like it’s going to fall apart.”

For many, the school field trip offers their first and perhaps only trip to the theme park.
“Some kids take a full year of physics just to come here,” said Shannon Brunett, a physics teacher from Gillett, Wis. “They can get down here and have an experience they might never get otherwise.”

Riding the Eagle for the eighth time, Brunett was determined to keep her eyes open.

Did she succeed?

“’Til the top,” she said.
Maybe next time.

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