Top-of-the-line adventure

UP FRONT

Parks: The region's theme parks have crnaked up the thrill factor with bigger, faster, higher roller coasters and other rides.

May 25, 2000|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

It's that time of year again, when otherwise sane people shell out big bucks for the privilege of being spun, shaken, twisted and just plain thrown around like laundry in a dryer -- all in the name of fun. Memorial Day weekend marks the official opening of amusement-park season and the race for your entertainment dollar.

Each summer, parks offer new rides and attractions designed to outdo last year's and the competition's. For the most part, this means rides that set your pulse to pounding and endorphins rushing -- in other words, rides with dizzying drops and that all-important factor: speed.

This season lives up to the challenge. New rides cover the gamut from space journeys in high-tech flight simulators to water slides with 77-foot falls.

Most of the parks have been open part time since April, offering teaser weekends and special hours, but in just two days the real adventure begins when they open the gates for full operating hours. So sunscreen the kids, pack a swimsuit, down a Dramamine and read on to find out what's new in the world of regional amusement parks.

Closest to home is Six Flags America in Largo, which up until May 1998 was known as Adventure World Family Theme Park. After a major face lift and change of ownership, the new park sports a fresh front gate, a Main Street promenade and a place among the ranks of Six Flags' 35 parks in the United States, Europe and Latin America.

For its first anniversary, Six Flags America presents the Superman Ride of Steel, the tallest and fastest ride in the park. At a height of 200 feet and speeds topping 70 mph, there's nothing Clark Kent about it. It leaps tall buildings (climbs 20 stories), whips riders "faster than a speeding bullet" over more than a mile of steel track, and challenges gravity with almost 10 seconds of virtual weightlessness.

The Ride of Steel raises Six Flags America's coaster-count to seven and its total number of rides and attractions to more than 100. Among them is Paradise Island, the 25-acre attached water park, just waiting to cool things down if the excitement gets too hot.

Largo's sister park, Six Flags Great Adventure & Wild Safari in Jackson, N.J., gives Paradise Island something to look up to. The centerpiece of the new 45-acre Hurricane Harbor water park is a million-gallon wave pool surrounded by more than a dozen fast-action rides, such as four roller-coaster-like slides that drop from heights topping five stories. But the fun doesn't come cheap. Hurricane Harbor has its own admission price.

In all, the water park adds 25 rides and attractions, along with 75 "water gadgets" -- the type of water blasters, guns and tipping buckets moms generally hate -- to Great Adventures' 100-plus existing amusements.

In Doswell, Va., Kings Dominion turns 25 this year and adds two new features: Pipeline Peak and Nickelodeon Central. Pipeline Peak joins the WaterWorks section and adds four enclosed tube slides, called pipelines. Among them: the Night Slide, a 77-foot body slide through a black tunnel.

Nickelodeon Central is geared toward little ones. Based on characters from the television network, the section has rides such as Rugrats Toonpike, where tykes "drive" a car (and you thought the coaster ride was scary) through the baby brigade's neighborhood.

Other rides in the park include Volcano the Blast Coaster, a suspended roller coaster that shoots riders into the heart of a volcano and out of its mouth, and the Xtreme SkyFlyer, which simulates the sensations of sky diving and hang gliding.

Flight simulation, in fact, seems to be emerging as a new theme at theme parks. In Lancaster, Pa., Dutch Wonderland offers a high-tech version this summer. The VR Voyager, a half-million-dollar addition to the park, uses Bose and Sony technology to deliver a 3- to 4-minute virtual-reality thrill.

The computer-controlled Voyager time travels to ancient Egypt or a Jetson-era future using action videos that give riders the feeling of motion. Operators will change the videos at scheduled times throughout the day so guests can return later for a whole new adventure.

Dutch Wonderland is one section of a five-part entertainment complex in Lancaster. The other areas concentrate on Lancaster County's history, with features such as an Amish museum and farmhouse.

At Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa., operators are banking on the new Lightning Racer to draw crowds. The first wooden racing/dueling coaster in the United States, its two tracks -- each 3,400 feet of Southern yellow pine -- support cars that race side by side at speeds of up to 51 mph, then curve toward each other in a dramatic face-off. The tracks split just in time.

Lightning Racer is the eighth coaster installed in the park, which was established in 1907 as a "picnic and pleasure grounds." Today, the park is home to more than 65 rides and attractions spread across 110 acres. Eleven of those acres belong to ZooAmerica, a North American wildlife park added in 1978.

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