You see the commercials on television. Strapped into a quadruple-loop, twisting, roaring monster of a roller coaster, Joe and Mary America and well-scrubbed children are hollering their heads off as they enter each gut-twisting turn. Arms raised in gleeful anticipation, they turn to each other with huge smiles before another astonishing daredevil loop sends them into yet one more moment of sublime ecstasy. At the end of the ride, happy faces all, they know that for one minute in their gentle, suburbanized existence, they have touched the stars.
Now the reality. To ride the amusement park's crown jewel, the Sensational Cowabunga Corkscrew, our happy clan must wait an hour and a half among jostling hordes in steamy, 95-degree weather reminiscent of downtown Bangkok in the summer. The children channel their resentment into whining, sullen restlessness and general peevishness. The parents enforce discipline with growing snappishness as they silently count up the day's cost in admission tickets, loud T-shirts and overpriced concessions -- wondering all the while how a roll of $20 bills could disappear so fast from their pockets without someone brandishing a pistol.
If the first portrait is an unobtainable fantasy and the second a cynical overstatement, nonetheless Americans are flocking to amusement parks in record numbers -- about 254 million admission tickets were sold to U.S. parks in 1990, according to industry figures. So you can bet as school vacation begins and the temperatures heat up, Baltimore-area households will be right there with the rest, hitting Hersheypark or Kings Dominion or Wild World or any number of other parks within a day's drive.
Some doubters may wonder about forking over large amounts of dollars for the privilege of standing in line all day, but a day at the amusement park now is a staple of American leisure. For parents, it has become one of those issues you may not like but must contend with, such as paying $100 or more for a pair of Air Jordans. Amusement parks are here to stay.
With that in mind, I set out to explore some parks within a driving radius of about 200 miles from Baltimore. The parkswere evaluated according to a number of criteria: cost, number of rides available (for adults, teens and children), food and general ambience. Since the little things do count, I noted unexpected delights (Pleasant Surprises) and disappointments (Picking Nits).
Any such survey is subjective, and I have my own prejudices. My attitude toward amusement parks grows out of a love for small-town carnivals and beach-town boardwalks. That means fast rides and fast food in a honky-tonk atmosphere, and never mind that the guys working the rides have more tattoos than teeth. I don't need a hokey theme, such as Ye Olde Englande, with workers dressed up in tights and funny hats. Regarding the myriad shows and plays that have sprouted up in recent years, who needs to hear yet another hokey 1950s rock and roll medley or half-baked country music revue? Include me out, as Mr. Goldwyn said.
As for food, perhaps some park-goers are impressed by eating a dinner of baked ziti in a "sidewalk cafe" and being served by a waiter dressed up like one of the Medicis, but I'll take fries and a corn dog any time. It's more than an affection for carnival vittles: Most parks don't allow food or drinks to be brought in, which jacks up considerably the price of a visit.
Before we begin a park-by-park assessment, some general observations. First, all the parks are located near a couple of major metropolitan areas. That means many people -- millions of them -- also see the enticing commercials and want to get in on the fun.
Accordingly, since Saturdays, Sundays and holidays can be hellish, most parks encourage patrons to come on weekdays, or first thing in the day, or in the evening (many offer reduced rates then). Still, even a midweek day can be bad, especially if you've got small children who get tired or overheated easily.
Hersheypark is a grand dame of sorts among East Coast amusement parks. It was founded in 1907 by Milton S. Hershey, the chocolate meister himself, as a place where employees of his plant and their families could relax -- a "picnic and pleasure grounds" was how he described it.
Older Baltimoreans might remember Hersheypark as a traditional pay-per-ride park centered around its 1946 wooden roller coaster, the Comet, and 1919 roller coaster (a real gem). But most traditional parks either closed in the 1960s or adopted the more aggressive strategies of the newer ones. Hersheypark did so in 1972 by adopting a one-price-for-all-rides admission ticket (some activities have separate prices), and has today on its 87-acre complex such dazzling, lose-your-hat-and-your-lunch rides as the Sidewinder (this year's new attraction) and the sooperdooperLooper.
Children's rides: Generally good. Most are located near the carousel, by Music Box Way or in Minetown Arcade.