Look for the bunny hops. They guarantee plenty of air time.
Twelve-year-old Carrie O'Brien translates: Bunny hops are the small jumps at the end of the roller coaster. "Air time means you sort of lift up off your seat," explains Carrie, who lives in Nashville and is an expert on the subject.
She's ridden dozens of roller coasters around the country with her dad, Tim O'Brien, who covers amusement parks around the world for Amusement Business Newsweekly, the $6-billion-a-year industry's trade newspaper. He wrote "The Amusement Park Guide" (Globe Pequot $12.95), which offers reviews of some 250 amusement parks.
Now Tim and Carrie O'Brien are co-authors of "The Essential Guide to Six Flags Theme Parks" (Oxmor Press, $12.95). The book required the father-daughter team to spend last summer on the theme-park circuit eating french fries, collecting souvenir drink bottles from each park, and, of course, trying out every big and small coaster, as well as dozens of other rides.
1996 has been designated the International Year of the Roller Coaster by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. That's because more than $300 million has been spent on new coasters this season.
When heading to a theme park, "Wear shoes you can walk in all day," advises Carrie. "And bring an extra set of clothes if you're going to ride the water rides."
Don't eat before riding the biggest coaster in the place. You'll be sorry. "And don't make the kids feel bad if they don't want to ride something," Carrie adds.
But for those who are game:
The Santa Monica West Coaster at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, the West-Coast's only ocean-front amusement park. The West Coaster races across the park at 50 feet above the pier. (Call  260-8744.)
Cedar Point's Mantis, the world's tallest (145 feet), fastest (60 mph) and steepest (137-foot plunge) stand-up roller-coaster. It turns riders upside-down four times. Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio, boasts 12 roller coasters, more than any other amusement park. (Call  627-2350 or vis- it their Web site at http: //www.cedarpoint.com.)
Montu, the world's largest inverted roller coaster, debuting at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay ( 987-5082). The riders are suspended in cars underneath the track. How about a 128-foot drop? Montu is part of a new 7-acre Egypt area, the largest expansion in the park's history. (Call  4Adventure to find out about all of the Busch Theme Parks, or visit the Web site at www.4adventure.com.)
Preschoolers get their chance for some thrills at Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa.. They can fly down the new double-slide inner-tube ride, Smiley's Chutes, or the five-story-high water ride that speeds up to 20 feet per second. (Call  752-7070. Find Sesame Place at www.4adventure.com.)
Survive an 84-foot drop straight down in pitch darkness on the fastest, steepest water ride ever at the new $100 million attraction Jurassic Park-the Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood. Here's your chance to get stalked by dinosaurs. Call Universal Studios Hollywood at (818) 622-3801. Or visit the Web site at http: //www.mca.com.
Get launched via magnetic wave that pushes the Outer Limits Flight of Fear ride from 0 to 54 mph in four seconds. Ride it at Paramount's King's Dominion in Richmond, Va., or King's Island in Cincinnati, Ohio. Call King's Dominion at (804) 876-5000 or King's Island (800) 333-8080.
"One of the great things about amusement parks is it's something you do together as a family. It's interactive, not like watching a video," says Gena Romano, president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions and of the Nelly Bly Park in Brooklyn.
None of these chills comes cheap. According to an Amusement Business survey, the average cost for a day at a theme park for a family of four is $124.70. That will buy you admission, lunch and souvenir T-shirts for the kids.
A day at Universal Studios or Disney World would cost considerably more, says amusement park expert Tim O'Brien. Because theme parks are so pricey, and so many of these rides require junior thrill seekers to be at least 54 inches tall, O'Brien suggests heading to smaller, local theme parks with young children.
That way you won't feel cheated when the kids poop out after two hours and beg to leave. You also won't be tempted to browbeat them into riding the biggest roller coaster in the place when they decide, after waiting in line for a half hour, that they would rather do something else.
Whatever you do, "Don't rush through the park," adds Carrie O'Brien. "Parents should have as much fun as the kids."
Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053, or e-mail to eogintol.com.
Pub Date: 7/07/96