A Guide to the Theme Parks

You'll still be able to find old-fashioned treats like hot dogs, cotton candy, and popcorn at most amusement parks today (although it is very likely they are very overpriced), but today's theme parks are quite different from those of a generation ago. There are still kiddie rides and amusements for the whole family, but the big draws are the high-speed, gravity-defying, stomach churning roller coasters and rides. Add to that car safaris and water parks and the picture is quite different. Does this justify the vast increase in theme-park pricing? We'll let you be the judge.

The vast majority of the population of the United States lives at least a few hours from a top-notch amusement park, an easy day or weekend trip to the transporting pleasures of the old-fashioned (albeit revamped and high-tech) theme park of today. Below there is a basic description of ten of the country's most notable theme parks; contact information for the smaller parks is listed here, along with tips on getting the most out of season pass purchases.

Even the hardiest park-goer can make the classic error of neglecting amusement park plans until the summer. Springtime is when most northerly parks re-open after the winter, but the cold fact is many of them start selling discounted season tickets not long after closing the year before.

If you're in the market for a season pass, you can often save as much as 20% by purchasing it months in advance. Mid-winter, from December to January, is the best time to get a jump on pass prices, since rates gradually increase through May, peaking June through August. Come September, prices may retreat a bit, but since many parks shut down in the autumn, you won't be getting much for your money unless your pass is good for a year from date of issue.

Most passes cost about as much as two days' admission (Disney and Universal, though, hit much harder) and some even less, so if you attend even twice, you've saved money. In most cases, a season pass is a photo I.D. that guarantees you admission on any operating day of the year. Often, you can buy a pass outside the park--such as online or at a major local supermarket chain--but eventually you'll have to make your I.D. on the premises.

Here are some other tips to get the most out of purchasing your season pass:

In addition to unlimited free entry, many passes offer discounts on food and souvenirs. Several offer free or discounted parking, and others even grant early entrance privileges. Check on fringe benefits.

Several passes, particularly those at Universal Studios Hollywood, Cedar Point, and some Six Flags parks, are also good for nearby partner water parks. Ask if the pass you're about to buy is also good at other parks.

Here's a clever way to save major dollars: Six Flags park passes are good at the other Six Flags parks throughout the country, despite the fact prices vary from park to park. So you can buy a pass at, say, Kentucky Kingdom ($44.99) and use it at Magic Mountain (where even a single-day ticket is $42.99). The only place you can't use your pass is at the Six Flags water parks--unless the park where you bought it has a local agreement.

Many parks, especially in the Six Flags group, slice pass prices by as much as 25% when they're purchased in packs of four or more. Although they're often marketed as "Family Passes," in most cases they're sold to any four people who buy together. If you have three friends who also love theme parks (after all, who goes to them alone?), get together and save.

Some parks, like Busch Gardens Williamsburg or Six Flags Magic Mountain near Los Angeles, will grant deep discounts to you if you're referred by a current or past season pass holder. If you know someone with an old pass, you can get a new one at Magic Mountain for $75 instead of the regular $90. Ask if your local park offers a similar promotion.

A few parks, such as Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Universal, and Busch Gardens, often sell cheaper tickets and passes to people who live in the same state as the park. If you live in California or Florida, inquire about resident discounts.

SeaWorld San Diego has been known to run promotions in which a mid-winter one-day ticket purchase will yield you an unlimited free pass for the balance of the year. Don't buy a season pass until you find out about unexpected promotions like that one.

Ten big theme parks in depth:

Busch Gardens, Tampa Bay, FL

Its theme is Africa, re-created on eight different "lands" consisting of "Morocco" (a simulated Moroccan village with open-air gift shops and theatres), "Nairobi," "Congo," "Timbuktu," "Stanleyville," "Land of the Dragon" (an interactive child's play area), "Bird Garden" and "Egypt" (a seven-acre replica of the 1920s excavation of King Tut's tomb by Howard Carter), all covering three hundred and thirty acres. It's a rather vast, complex and interesting place to visit. The highlight: an open-air, un-fenced, 70-acre "Edge of Africa" viewed on a free, overhead monorail, from which you see--roaming about freely--giraffes, zebra, black rhinoceri, hippopotami, gazelles and every other form of North African wildlife, who apparently take well to the climate of Florida. Newest attractions include "Gwazi" (the largest double wooden roller coaster in the Southeast), Akbar's Adventure Tours (a simulated ride narrated by Martin Short), and Lory Landing (a bird aviary). Admission price to Busch Gardens: $49.95 for adults, $40.95 for children aged 3 to 9. Admission ticket packages are available to both the Busch Gardens park and the adjacent Adventure Island (a 30-acre waterpark) and for SeaWorld. For general information on Busch Gardens, call 813/987-5082. For hotel/park package information, call 800/42KUMBA (800/425-8622). Web site: buschgardens.com.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.
 

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