NEW YORK — Jane Byrnes and her family traveled last summer from their home near New York City to visit friends in Buffalo, then west to Ohio, with Pelee Island in Lake Erie as the final destination.
One stop on the trip loomed large for Jane’s son, John: Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, which calls itself the world’s largest roller-coaster park. John counted down the days to Cedar Point, and he researched the biggest rides, so he knew all about the 420-foot-high Top Thrill Dragster, which opened shortly before the Byrneses arrived.
“He was unbelievably excited,” Mrs. Byrnes recalled. As luck would have it, despite lines that stretched for hours and intermittent closures that are typical of brand-new rides, John got to ride the Dragster on his 12th birthday.
Like the Byrneses, many vacationing families set aside one day of a longer trip to visit an amusement park as a way of varying the itinerary — and pleasing the children.
Wherever you are and wherever you’re going, there’s a park full of rides, splashes and fun nearby, from the country’s biggest theme parks in Florida and California to the 29 Six Flags parks in 15 states to award-winning parks in Texas and Indiana to parks that fit in with classic regional road trips.
Busch Gardens, Shenandoah National Park and Colonial Williamsburg make a nice itinerary for Virginia. Paramount’s Kings Dominion in Doswell, north of Richmond, is another option and includes a water park. Also nearby is the theme-and-water park Six Flags America in Mitchellville.
A popular combination in Pennsylvania is Hersheypark, Gettysburg and Amish country. Other well-known parks in Pennsylvania include Sesame Place in Langhorne and Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in Allentown.
In New York City, take a break from the museums and boutiques and hop the Brooklyn-bound subway to Coney Island. There’s nothing like the breeze blowing off the Atlantic Ocean, the clatter of the wooden Cyclone coaster and the view from atop the 150-foot-high Wonder Wheel. Next door, walruses and penguins cavort at the New York Aquarium.
Even on a once-in-a-lifetime family trip to France, small children who may or may not appreciate the Louvre might enjoy a trip to Disneyland, a quick train ride from Paris.
The energy and thrills of an amusement park also can be nice punctuation for a rural retreat. In the resort town of Lake George in upstate New York, Six Flags has a Great Escape park; and in Saco, Maine, Funtown Splashtown U.S.A. is small by megapark standards but fun — rides plus a water park.
The Northwest’s largest theme park, Silverwood, is half an hour from Spokane, Wash., and 15 minutes from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It has more than 60 attractions and a water park called Boulder Beach.
The South is home to Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., and Paramount’s Carowinds in Charlotte, N.C., where the Thunder Road twin racing coasters straddle the North and South Carolina border, zooming back and forth through both states.
Lake Winnepesaukah in Rossville, Ga., just six miles from Chattanooga, Tenn., and Family Kingdom in Myrtle Beach, S.C., are well-known waterside parks, while Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock, N.C., is known for its three-mile steam-train ride.
In the Midwest, about three hours from Chicago and 31/2 hours from Minneapolis, Wisconsin Dells offers 18 indoor-outdoor water-park resorts. The parks include Chula Vista, a Southwest-themed resort; the Great Wolf Lodge, a North Woods-style log lodge; and the Kalahari Resort, an African-themed getaway with high-end accommodations, including a new stand-up surfing ride called the Flowrider.
The Midwest also is home to several parks that aficionados consider among the finest anywhere — including the Byrneses’ favorite, Cedar Point, voted best amusement park in the world for six consecutive years by the industry magazine Amusement Today.
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari in Santa Claus, Ind., takes Amusement Today’s top honors for “friendliest park” and “cleanest park.”
The park even supplies visitors with free sunscreen and free unlimited soft drinks. Holiday World also is home to the Raven, which captured Amusement Today’s No. 1 spot for wooden coasters. New this season at Splashin’ Safari is Jungle Racer, a five-story-tall complex of 10 racing water slides. Splashin’ Safari’s Zinga won in Amusement Today’s best water-park ride category.
Paramount’s Kings Island in Ohio, 24 miles north of Cincinnati, has won Amusement Today’s “best kid’s area” three years in a row. Its 85 attractions include a new Australian-themed water park called Crocodile Dundee’s Boomerang Bay Water Park Resort, with a Didgeridoo Falls water slide, Tasmanian Typhoon inner-tube ride, and a Kookaburra Cay water playground for little ones. A Boomerang Bay water park is also opening at Paramount’s Great America in Santa Clara, Calif.
Amusement Today’s other top awards for 2003 went to Schlitterbahn in New Braunfels, Texas, as best water park; Busch Gardens in Williamsburg for best landscaping; Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio for best shows; and Knoebels Amusement Resort in Elysburg, Pa., for best food (including vegetarian options, bison burgers and catered barbecue group picnics). The 2004 awards come out in late August.
Visitors to Florida and California, of course, often devote their entire vacations to visiting theme parks, and if awards were based on attendance, those states would be the hands-down winners, according to figures from Amusement Business, a trade publication. Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., had 14 million guests last year. Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., racked up 12.7 million guests, while its newer cousin, Disney’s California Adventure, attracted 5.3 million.
Epcot, a Disney park in Florida, reported 8.6 million guests. Nearly 8 million people visited Disney-MGM Studios, and 7.3 million headed for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, both at Lake Buena Vista.
In Orlando, Universal Studios and its sister park, Islands of Adventure, were visited by more than 6 million people each, with SeaWorld Florida attracting 5 million visitors, Universal Studios Hollywood in California attracting 4.5 million and Busch Gardens of Tampa Bay registering 4.3 million.
SeaWorld California in San Diego attracted 4 million visitors last year, while Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, Calif., had 3.4 million guests.
Information on parks by phone, Web
Admission rates vary depending on age or height of guest; date and time of admission; how many days the ticket includes and other factors.
Look for deals and discounts from park brochures, Web sites, local businesses, convention and visitors bureaus, AAA and AARP.
Amusement parks nationwide: To find an amusement park in your area, click on the map at www.freewebcentral.com/hidden/frameamusementparks.htm.
Beginning Friday, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions will have a clickable map and other information at www.ticketforfun.com.
Amusement Today: For complete “best of” lists, go to www.amusementtoday.com and click on Golden Tickets.
Busch Gardens: Williamsburg, 800/343-7946 and Tampa, Fla., 888/800-5447; www.buschgardens.com.
Cedar Point: Sandusky, Ohio; www.cedarpoint.com or 419/627-2350.
Coney Island: Cyclone, Wonder Wheel, aquarium and sideshow in Brooklyn, N.Y.; www.coneyislandusa.com/tourism.shtml.
Disneyland: Anaheim, Calif.; www.disneyland.com or 877/700-DISNEY.
Disney World: Lake Buena Vista, Fla.; www.disneyworld.com or 407/W-DISNEY.
Dollywood: Pigeon Forge, Tenn.; www.dollywood.com or 865/428-9488.
Dorney Park: Allentown, Pa.; www.dorneypark.com or 610/395-3724.
Family Kingdom: Myrtle Beach, S.C.; www.family-kingdom.com or 843/626-3447.
Funtown Splashtown U.S.A.: Saco, Maine; www.funtownsplashtownusa.com or 207/284-5139.
Hersheypark: Hershey, Pa.; www.hersheypa.com or 800/HERSHEY.
Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari: Santa Claus, Ind.; www.holidayworld.com or 877/GO-FAMILY.
Knoebels Amusement Resort: Elysburg, Pa.; www.knoebels.com or 800/ITS-4FUN.
Knott’s Berry Farm: Buena Park, Calif.; www.knotts.com or 714/220-5200.
Lake Winnepesaukah: Rossville, Ga.; www.lakewinnie.com or 877/LAKE-WIN.
Paramount: Parks in California, North Carolina, Ohio, Ontario, Spain and Virginia (Doswell, north of Richmond); www.paramountparks.com.
Schlitterbahn: New Braunfels, 830/625-2351 and South Padre Island, 956/772-SURF, Texas; www.schlitterbahn.com.
Seaworld: San Diego, 800/25-SHAMU; Orlando, 800/327-2424, and San Antonio, 800/700-7786; www.seaworld.com.
Sesame Place: Langhorne, Pa.; www.sesameplace.com or 215/752-7070.
Silverwood-Boulder Beach: Athol, Idaho; www.silverwoodthemepark.com or 208/683-3400.
Six Flags: Parks in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland (Mitchellville), Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Washington, with 11 more around the world; www.sixflags.com.
Tweetsie Railroad: Blowing Rock, N.C.; www.tweetsie-railroad.com or 800/526-5740.
Universal Studios: Orlando, 407/363-8000, and Los Angeles, 800-UNIVERSAL; www.universalstudios.com.
Wisconsin Dells: Eighteen indoor water parks; www.wisdells.com or 800/223-3557.
Parks cut spending on ride innovations
By Mike Schneider
Visitors will find few new cutting-edge rides at the nation’s amusement and theme parks this summer, despite starring roles in attractions based on the Mummy, SpongeBob SquarePants and Crocodile Dundee.
Industry leaders say this year is one of the least thrilling in a while when it comes to innovative rides. Many of the parks are still recovering from flat attendance during the past couple of years and are coasting off past investments or putting their money into sprucing up restaurants, bathrooms and other amenities.
“There doesn’t appear to be anything that’s new and unique,” says Bill Coan, principal of ITEC Entertainment Corp. in Orlando, Fla. Mr. Coan did not include Universal Studios’ new Revenge of the Mummy ride in Florida and California in his thumbs-down assessment; his firm worked on the Mummy ride.
Only about $500 million was invested in parks around the nation for this year, while in past years, that figure has been as much as $800 million, estimates Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. in Cincinnati.
“The attendance over the last five years has been flat, especially since 9/11,” Mr. Spiegel says. “It has definitely had an impact on the business and how they spend money.”
Summer is the most important time of the year for the nation’s $10.3 billion amusement park industry, which earns most of its business during the months when children are out of school. It is the time for the parks to show off their newest, heart-pounding rides.
The ride generating the most buzz for this season is Revenge of the Mummy, a dark-ride roller coaster opening at a cost of $40 million each at Universal Studios’ parks in Florida and California.
The ride uses technology found in magnetic levitation trains to take riders through a faux-Egyptian catacomb inspired by the movies “The Mummy” and “The Mummy Returns.” The ride is filled with humanlike robotics, screens that re-create walls crawling with beetles, and a track switch that allows cars to zoom backward into a drop.
“Those movies were … a great mix of action, adventure, thrills, humor — everything we thought we could take and create a physical version of,” says Scott Trowbridge, vice president of design and creative development for Universal Parks & Resorts.
Another stomach-churner opening this month is Hersheypark’s Storm Runner, a coaster with a hydraulic launch that sends riders speeding up to 72 mph in two seconds.
The $12.5 million ride at the Pennsylvania park has a 180-foot drop, two corkscrew rolls and a 135-foot Cobra loop.
Universal’s primary competitors in Orlando — Walt Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando — passed on opening any new rides for the summer.
Their sister parks in California, however, are replicating popular attractions from the Florida parks. Disney’s California Adventure is opening the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a free-fall ride that is one of the most popular at the Disney-MGM Studios park in Orlando.
SeaWorld San Diego opens Journey to Atlantis, a combination water flume and roller coaster that first put SeaWorld Orlando on the thrill-ride map four years ago.
Anheuser-Busch-owned theme parks Busch Gardens in Tampa and SeaWorld Orlando have emphasized shows over rides this summer.
Busch Gardens introduced “KaTonga,” a Broadway-style, African-themed musical that features costumes and life-size puppets reminiscent of the musical “The Lion King.”
SeaWorld Orlando for the first time is offering an outdoor night show that will entice visitors to stay past dinnertime.
“Mistify” projects images on a screen of mist and uses dancing fountains, underwater light shows and fireworks over its waterfront.
Next door, sister park Discovery Cove is inviting guests to swim with bottlenose dolphins at night and then enjoy a gourmet dinner afterward for a cool $249 per person.
“If you think about the guest behaviors in our park, they love our daytime, but this is a way for us to really exploit the nighttime for the first time,” says Dave Goodman, vice president of entertainment at SeaWorld Orlando.
Officials at the nation’s regional parks are hoping for better weather than they had last year, when frequent rain kept visitors away during the first half of the summer.
After more than a year of being shuttered, the 68-year-old Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., reopens in July as a hybrid of a thrill-ride park and botanical gardens.
For this season, Ohio-based Cedar Fair, which owns seven amusement parks and five water parks, invested about $27 million, compared to close to $45 million last year.
At the end of the year, though, the company plans to open a $22 million indoor water park, Castaway Bay, at its Cedar Point park in Sandusky, Ohio, and a $16 million inverted roller coaster, the Silver Bullet, at its Knott’s Berry Farm park in California.
Cedar Point, which bills itself as the roller coaster capital of the world, spent a large chunk of its summer money on improving hotel accommodations rather than on rides.
“The big record-breaking coasters — you can’t build every year,” says Brian Witherow, a spokesman for Cedar Fair.
Six Flags Inc., the world’s largest regional theme park company with 29 parks in the United States, invested just $75 million this year. In past years, the company has put in as much as $350 million. It is running a national television ad campaign for the first time in seven years.
“It’s the right amount in keeping with … the downturn all of us in the business have seen in the past few years,” says Debbie Nauser, a spokeswoman for Oklahoma City-based Six Flags.
Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington is introducing SpongeBob Squarepants the Ride 4-D, a 100-seat theater that combines a 3-D film with other sensory effects. Six Flags plans to open the SpongeBob ride at other parks that don’t compete with Paramount Parks because Paramount opened its own version of the ride at its parks last year.
This year, Paramount Parks, which owns five parks in North America, is looking to a movie hero from the 1980s, Crocodile Dundee, as inspiration for two water parks.
Paul Hogan, the actor who played the Aussie outbacker, has signed on as a spokesman for the Australian-themed water parks called Boomerang Bay. The water parks have opened at Paramount’s Great America in California and Paramount’s Kings Island in Ohio.
Other new Paramount rides include an interactive Scooby Doo ride that lets riders zap ghosts to collect points at Paramount’s Kings Dominion north of Richmond and Borg Assimilator, the first Star-Trek-themed roller coaster, which is opening at Paramount’s Carowinds in North Carolina.
The International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (www.iaapa.org) has started a Web site to make it easier for visitors to find parks and rides in one place. The Web site (www.ticketforfun.com) debuts Friday, in time for Memorial Day.
Strong attendance so far at the destination parks in Florida and California is a good indicator that the regional parks will fare well this summer, although one thing could stand in the way, says Jerry Aldrich, an Orlando-based amusement park consultant.
“You hope for good weather,” he says.