- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2006

Teenagers, move aside. This year, families are the focus of the region’s three theme parks.

Six Flags America, Paramount’s Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens Williamsburg are entering the summer season with new shows, rides and admissions discounts to draw families.

Six Flags America in Largo is scheduled to open today under the new management of Washington Redskins owner Daniel M. Snyder and Mark Shapiro, chief executive officer, whose plan is to make the company’s 30 theme parks more like Walt Disney World.

His family-friendly plans, drastically different than previous management’s focus on thrill-seekers, include more costumed Looney Tunes and Justice League characters, daily parades celebrating the company’s 45th anniversary and brunch with characters.

There will be no smoking in the park, and employees will be stationed in the bathrooms to keep them clean, according to Karin Korpowski, a Six Flags America spokeswoman.

“What Shapiro is doing is, first of all, getting back to the basics, which is very important,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati theme park consulting company. “He’s pointing the missile in the right direction to get back the good image that the park once had; to rebuild the credibility among his marketplace by doing basic things: cleaning the parks up, operating them fully, offering better value once people come to the parks.”

Six Flags visitors also can expect a lot of Papa John’s Pizza and Sunkist fruit. Six Flags signed exclusive agreements with both companies earlier this year. But don’t expect food to be cheap. Mr. Shapiro mentioned in a visit to the park in February that food prices appeared low and could be increased.

“It’s not a huge increase in the food prices, but a big increase in the variety,” Ms. Korpowski said.

Visitors also will be able to buy a limited number of new $10 flash passes, which include five tickets to the front of any line.

In Virginia, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is instituting a series of summer concerts and Kinetix, a circus show.

“We’ve always maintained a family focus,” said spokeswoman Diane Centeno. “It’s very important to us to provide a great balance of attractions whether … roller coasters or shows.”

Paramount’s Kings Dominion, too, is premiering family-oriented activities this year at its Doswell, Va., park: a singalong show with cartoon character Dora the Explorer, a special-effects movie with the Hanna-Barbera characters Scooby Doo and the Jetsons, and an imagination circus show for children from 3 to 6 years old.

“Pretty much everything we have going on this season is family-centric,” said Susan Storey, a Kings Dominion spokeswoman. “We wanted to bring in a lot of things for the entire family … even for grandparents to come out and watch.”

The park’s newest ride is the Italian Job Turbo Coaster, which was designed for children older than 8 years old and is based on the movie of the same name. Reaching speeds of up to 42 miles per hour in imitation Mini Cooper cars, it’s not too intense to keep parents off, either, Mrs. Storey said.

“It’s interactive and different, but it’s not superfast or supertall, either,” Mrs. Storey said. “It’s opened up to a wide audience.”

Mr. Speigel said the ride reverses the late trend over the past decade of theme parks going after the teen audience, which came about when theme park companies tried to draw crowds by engaging in a race to build the best roller coaster.

“The operating companies have learned that this enormous war of who can build the highest coaster isn’t paying off,” he said. “When you spend $24 million on a roller coaster, you doggone well better see some improvement at the front gate. Now they’re coming back from the teen segment and going back to the family.”

Family audiences not only respond to child-friendly activities, but they also spend more money buying food and souvenirs, he said.

All three of the region’s parks have retooled ticket prices to encourage return trips. Six Flags and Busch Gardens are selling summer-long passes for the price of one day’s admission. Six Flags’ Play Pass is $49.99, and Busch Gardens’ Fun Card, which is only available to Virginia residents, is $51.95. Kings Dominion is adding a free second day’s admission to its $49.99 admission tickets.

The parks are hoping that on the return trip, the food, T-shirts and souvenirs are a more appealing purchase, Mr. Speigel said.

“They’re gambling that if they get the people back for a second or third time, they’re going to spend more money in the park because they didn’t have to pay to get in,” he said. “It’s an attempt to stabilize and grow market share and increase repeat visitor spending.”

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