How to keep theme parks dream parks

TAKING THE KIDS

May 29, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"One more time," 3-year-old Melanie pleaded.

It had started to rain and was getting dark and cold. The older kids were ready to quit after a long day of being turned upside-down on roller coasters, splashed on water rides and gobbling too many hot dogs. We grown-ups would gladly have gone home hours earlier.

But not Melanie. Without waiting for a "no," she ran into the 38-foot-tall Snoopy's Bounce to jump herself silly on the air-filled cushions. After that, she took off on the pint-sized Red Baron's airplane, a giant grin on her ketchup-smudged face.

We had wandered into Camp Snoopy, the 6-acre area that's wonderfully designed for younger children at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif. Melanie had found theme-park heaven, and we got a kick out of seeing her enjoyment. But I was beat and wondered how fast we could leave without provoking a tantrum.

From California to Florida to Texas to Ohio, major theme parks and smaller local ones -- there are some 400 across the country -- are rolling out an array of new attractions designed to thrill, entertain and make families want to come back for more. Increasingly, they're building elaborate playgrounds and touting their "family" appeal with musical shows.

But parents "shouldn't plan on having a lot of fun at amusement parks," says Tim O'Brien, who wrote the book on the subject. Mr. O'Brien, author of "The Amusement Park Guide" (Globe Pequot, $12.95), is an editor of Amusement Business Magazine. He has ridden roller coasters all over the United States with his two daughters.

As Mr. O'Brien points out, whether you love them or hate them, amusement parks are part of growing up in America. This summer marks the 110th anniversary of the first roller coaster at Coney Island. So smear on the sunscreen, pack some snacks and a change of clothes for the kids (they'll get wet on the water rides) and hang on tight.

Head for the $7 million, '50s-style Boardwalk at Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, complete with a giant Ferris wheel, kiddie rides, paddle boats and a water balloon game (call [800] 473-4378).

Knott's Berry Farm has spent $10 million developing Mystery Lodge, which uses special-effects technology to take families on an adventure back in time, led by a mysterious Old Native American Storyteller (call [714] 827-1776).

Settle down in Hollyrock, U.S.A. for "The Flintstones Show" at Universal Studios Hollywood, just as the movie hits the theaters. Keep an eye out for flying Pterodactyl Planes (call [818] 622-3801).

Explore Berenstain Bears Country at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. Anyone under 48 inches tall gets into the park for $4.95 (call [419] 627-2350).

On the East Coast, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Va., is unveiling its Land of the Dragons, where kids can cavort with friendly dragons in more than a dozen play elements (don't miss the three-story treehouse). Sesame Place outside of Philadelphia trumpeting its AmaZing Alphabet parade, complete with the whole Sesame Street gang and opportunities for the preschool set to participate (call Busch Gardens at [804] 253-3000; Sesame Place at [215] 752-7070).

There are plenty of new heart-stopping thrill rides and attractions, too. See dinosaurs up to 24 feet tall come to life in the Monster Marsh at Sea World of Texas ([210] 523-3611).

Enter Wayne's World areas at Paramount's Kings Dominion in Virginia and Carowinds in North Carolina and ride the Hurler at speeds up to 50 mph (Kings Dominion, [804] 876-5000; Carowinds, [704] 588-2606).

Go to the moon on Time Warner's Six Flags Great America new high-speed Space Shuttle in Illinois or escape from Gotham City on Batman the Ride, which also is making its debut at the Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif. (Great America, [708] 249-1776; Magic Mountain, [805] 255-4100).

Cedar Point, the roller-coaster capital of the world, touts its famous collection of 11 different roller coasters, while Hersheypark in Pennsylvania is unveiling Tidal Force, the world's tallest splashdown water ride, with a 100-foot drop (call [800] HERSHEY).

"Remember that kids can have just as much fun at smaller regional parks," says Mr. O'Brien. They're easier on the wallet, too. With some park admissions now more than $30 a person, it's worth seeking out bargains. Call ahead to see if there are any discount coupons available. Disney World in Orlando, Fla., for example, is inviting teachers to visit Epcot free through the end of 1994 (bring verification of current employment and a teaching credential).

Here is Mr. O'Brien's secret to theme-park happiness: "Pace yourself so that you're riding when everyone is on the food lines and you're eating when they're on the ride lines."

Of course, he adds, don't eat and then head for the biggest roller coaster in the place. And parents should never force kids to ride anything.

"They have reasons for not wanting to go on something," explains UCLA child psychologist Jill Waterman, the veteran of many amusement-park excursions with her 9-year-old twins. "If parents ignore their feelings, then the kids feel like they don't count."

Mr. O'Brien suggests checking out the ride before waiting in line to make sure the child knows what he's in for. And if it's more than he bargained for, don't hesitate to signal the operator to stop it.

"Try to look at it all from the child's perspective," adds Ms. Waterman. "When they're tired and cranky, it's time to go, even if you haven't ridden every ride."

But try telling that to a 3-year-old when Mom's the one who's cranky.

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