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Amusement Park Thrills–Do's and Don'ts

By Larry Olmsted

Call it the summer of the amusement parks. Coast-to-coast, this is a huge year in the thrills and entertainment industry, with numerous record-breaking roller coasters, cutting edge virtual reality rides, and whole new theme parks coming on line.

Taking your kids to an amusement park should be a fun, safe, rewarding experience, but unfortunately, this is not always the case.

"A lot of kids leave the parks unhappy, because their parents harass them," said Tim O'Brien, an editor at Amusement Business Magazine, and author of The Amusement Park Guide: Coast to Coast Thrills (Globe Pequot Press, 1999). O'Brien should know. He co-wrote a guide to Six Flags parks with his then 13-year old daughter, who has ridden over 120 roller coasters. He offered his tips and advice from years of visiting amusement parks, big and small, with and without children.

Bear in mind that amusement parks do not care how old your children are. They consider "kids" those 48 inches and under, both for allowing them on rides and on discounted admission prices. Some of the newer high-powered coasters that are faster, steeper, and have more inversions require riders to be 54 inches. But just because your children can ride, doesn't mean they should. Walk up to the ride and watch it, with your child, observing the reaction of the people getting off. "Make sure he wants to ride it before you get on a long line," warned O'Brien, who has witnessed many parents making this mistake.

Here are his picks for the best parks for children of different ages, along with our own.

6 and Under:

Six Flags: This chain has elaborate children's areas, all themed on Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny, with a mix of rides and playground attractions such as rope climbs, crawl through tunnels, and slides. The best are Great America near Chicago with two such areas; Magic Mountain near Los Angeles; and the newest, Six Flags New England in Agawam, MA. Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey is trying a new tact, interspersing its rides for younger kids throughout the park, so families don't have to separate.

Cedar Fair: This chain has licensed Snoopy and the Peanuts characters, and currently offers its Camp Snoopy children's areas in several parks it owns or manages including Knots Berry Farm near LA; Cedar Point in Sandusky, OH; Dorney Park in Allentown, PA; and even in Minnesota's Mall of America.

Teen Friendly:

Six Flags, Paramount and Cedar Fair are consistently teen friendly chains of parks, in part because they rely heavily on teenage employees.

Islands of Adventure,
the new theme park at Universal Studios Orlando, is based almost entirely on Marvel Comics characters, and thus has strong appeal for teens. Its Hulk coaster is one of the new generation of high-powered thrill rides, and Spiderman: The Ride offers simply the best virtual reality technology available.

Universal Studios, Orlando,
has attractions based on more recent movies like Twister and Terminator 2 that appeal to teens.

Animal Kingdom, Orlando, FL: The newest Disney park is surprisingly mature, and offers two exceptional rides older children will appreciate, the signature African safari, and the white water raft through "Asia" complete with tigers.

Strictly 13-14 and Under:

These parks specialize in this age group, and lack rides for adults and older teens:

Sesame Place, Langhorn, PA:
Owned by Busch Entertainment, this park is based entirely on Sesame Street characters

Legoland, Carlsbad, CA:
Opened last year, this wildly successful park is based on Lego blocks, and the rides are even fashioned to look like they are made of Lego. Includes the world's largest Lego retail store.

Picking the right park is not enough. You need a strategy for safety and enjoyment. O'Brien offers five tips for a better visit with your children:

1. With young children, as soon as you enter the park, locate a park employee. Show your children the uniform or attire, and tell them to seek out a park employee if they become lost. Children are separated in amusement parks every day, and they have first-rate lost and found facilities, but first someone has to know they are lost.

2. Don't let your kids go into the gift shop until the end of the day, or you will be carrying around bags all day. Also, you can use it as an enticement for good behavior.

3. Be careful what your children eat and drink. Water is preferable to soda, as sugar and motion don't mix. Also, greasy foods should be avoided.

4. Start riding right away, hitting the rides for a few hours upon arrival. Then break for lunch, then spend an hour or two taking in shows before heading back to the rides. This will also alleviate upset stomachs, and pace children.

5. Don't become obsessed with getting your money's worth. "Let the kid ride what he wants to ride. Never, ever force a kid to ride a ride."

Larry Olmsted lives in Vermont and writes frequently about travel and recreation.

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