A Guide to the Theme Parks

By , Wednesday, Apr 13, 2005, 12:00 AM

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.

Cedar Point, Ohio

Midway between Toledo and Cleveland, on a peninsula jutting out into Lake Erie. A giant amusement park of the most traditional sort. Open daily early May through Labor day, then weekends from Labor Day through early October. In the mid-1800s Cedar Point became a warm-weather recreational area because of its natural, two-mile-long white sand beach. Amusement parks rides were then added in 1880, the first roller coaster in 1897. Roller coasters are the chief and, indeed, monumental attraction here, drawing roller coaster addicts from around the world. There are 14 of them (more than in any other park in the world), and some are more technically advanced and larger than any on the planet. Apart from the coasters, every other sort of ride is offered, and there are charming areas for small children, especially the new "Camp Snoopy," featuring the "Woodstock Express" roller coaster (a ride for kids and their parents), and "Kiddie Kingdom" (kid-sized rides, in a pavilion themed in Medieval fashion). Next door is the separate "Soak City" water park ( $23 adults, $13 seniors, $10 kids less than 48 inches tall). Admission price to the Cedar Point park: $42 for persons 48 inches and taller; $20 for those under 48 inches tall; $25 for seniors aged 60 and over. Nearly three million visitors come here each year. Phone 419/627-2350; Web site cedarpoint.com.

DisneylandandCalifornia Adventurein Anaheim, California, near Los Angeles

Consists of "The Magic Kingdom"and "California Adventure," a California-themed resort hotel and entertainment complex. Receives nearly 15 million visits a year. Admission prices for each: $43 for adults, $33 for children 3 to 9; there are cheaper multiple-day tickets and special, changing rates for seniors (phone 714/781-4400 or visit the Web site at disneyland.com.) Most popular lodgings for staying here: the immense Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, a big 12-story slab of identical rooms, geometrically laid out; phone 714/520-5050. And phone 714/781-4565 for general Disneyland information. Rumor has it that Disney will be using "strawberry fields," a company owned lot kitty-corner to the park, to erect more attractions and perhaps a new resort hotel.

Walt Disney Worldat Orlando, Florida

Consists of The Magic Kingdom (first of the parks to open, and a work of genius), Epcot Center ("Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow," a hodge-podge of themes ranging from scientific discoveries to health and imagination to foreign nations; great fun, but outdated and lacking in creativity in many of its components; most pavilions are sponsored by major corporations, like General Motors, Exxon, AT&T, delivering lessons of social responsibility to the rest of us); Disney-MGM Studios (the world of the movies); the newest of the parks, Disney's Animal Kingdom, opened in May of 1997; and several subsidiary parks, lakes and entertainment-shopping areas. Together, they receive upwards of 33 million visits each year, by far the most popular such attraction in America, despite the fact that admission prices have soared in recent years. A one-day visit to one Disney theme park currently costs $48 for adults, $38 for children 3 to 9, but that per-day cost can be reduced by purchasing a multi-day "pass." Call 407/WDW-MAGIC (407/939-6244) for general Disney/Orlando information. Or visit the Web site at disneyworld.com.

Paramount's Kings Island, near Cincinnati, Ohio

Twenty-four miles northeast of Cincinnati, but not an island (it was named in 1972 after a "Coney Island" in Cincy, a small amusement park). This one is a big, 350-acre amusement dominated by a squat replica of Paris' Eiffel Tower in three-quarter size, but its real claim to fame is its profusion of roller coasters: there are 13 of them here, five of them wooden. The park is celebrated in the coaster-enthusiast community for investing large amounts of money for new rides. The newest coaster, Son of Beast, opened in 2000 and is the only looping wooden roller coaster in the world, as well as the tallest and the fastest, with top speeds of 78 miles per hour. Its namesake, The Beast, is in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest wooden roller coaster in the world (it's 7,400 feet long). Two others, Top Gun and Face/Off, are "suspended" roller coasters whose cars hang from tracks above one's head. Other additions to the roller coaster roster (as if rides called Vortex and The Outer Limits--Flight of Fear weren't enough) include the the ominous sounding Drop Zone, the world's tallest (at 315 feet) gyro free-fall ride. There is a water-related, 30-acre facility called WaterWorks with water slides; and for the younger children, the barely disguised advertising-oriented attractions of Nickelodeon Splat City and Hanna-Barbera Land, and a miniature "training" coaster called The Beastie. The price for "adults" (which includes kids as young as 7 years old!) is $41.99 ($36.99 if you purchase online ahead of time); kids aged 3 to 6 and seniors over 60 are $24.99 ($23.99 if you purchase online ahead of time). Three and a half million persons visit each year. You can request current information on Paramount's Kings Island by phoning 800/288-0808 or 513/754-5700. Web site: pki.com.

Sea World Adventure Park, Orlando

In Orlando, undoubtedly the most worthy attraction of that area, a "must-see." It displays marine life in all its complexity and explains it well. Highlight is "The Shamu Adventure," consisting of giant, performing, "killer whales," and their Floridian trainers who swim alongside, sit on top, and are occasionally shot high up into the air by a whale suddenly emerging from the depths. A genuinely educational and illuminating experience for your children, revealing the intelligence of many forms of sea life. I find it not simply instructive, but marvelously entertaining as well. In the race to compete with other attraction-based theme parks in the area, Sea World opened the Journey to Atlantis water coaster (a high-speed roller coaster adventure that will leave you soaked); another coaster, the Kracken, opened in the spring of 2000. Also new is the park's Discovery Cove, a reservations-only "tropical paradise" where visitors can swim with dolphins, sting rays, and other sea creatures. Admission charge: $49.95 plus tax for adults, $40.95 plus tax for children 3 to 9. For general information on SeaWorld Adventure Park, phone: 800/327-2424. Check out the Web site at seaworld.com.

Sea World of California, San Diego

On Mission Bay in San Diego, less than five miles from the downtown area, in operation since 1964, and covering 150 attractive acres. It displays marine life in all its stunning complexity, dramatically presented in performing shows, exhibits, glass tanks, giant water areas, simulated rivers and lakes, all done with careful skill and justly acclaimed as important scientifically; the park, in part, is a research institution. The highlight show seen by every visitor: "Shamu Adventure," presented several times a day in season, at least twice daily in winter, by two performing "killer whales," Shamu and baby Shamu, with their trainers swimming alongside. Other, perhaps equally interesting shows and attractions: "Manatee Rescue," the "Dolphin Discovery" show, the sea lion and otter shows and the Shipwreck Rapids Adventure Ride (a raft ride, complete with "obstacles" like waterfalls, through winding river rapids). Admission: $42.95 for adults, $32.95 for children 3 to 11, $39.95 for seniors 55 and older. Popularity? Nearly four million visitors a year. For general information on SeaWorld of California, phone 800/732-9753 or 619/226-3901, Web site: seaworld.com.

Six Flags Great Adventure, of New Jersey

An hour by car from both New York and Philadelphia, near Exit 16 of Interstate 195: Primarily carnival-style attractions (rides and roller coasters), redeemed however by a giant, open-air "zoo" (the "Wild Safari," "biggest safari outside of Africa") in which elephants, rhinos, giraffes, bears, water buffalo and the like roam freely, while lions and both Siberian and Bengal tigers are fenced in. It used to cost an extra few dollars to drive through, but now the safari is free with the purchase of a theme park admission ($45.99 for adults, $28.99 for both children 48 inches tall and under and for seniors 55 and older). Plan on an extra hour for the 4 and 1/2 mile drive through the safari. . The park is open from April through October, and its most popular attractions are the floorless roller coaster "Medusa," "Nitro" (reaching speeds of 80 mph), "Batman & Robin: The Chiller," "The Great American Scream Machine" (a roller coaster), and "Skull Mountain" (indoor coaster).For children, there are two themed areas, "Bugs Bunny Land" (for the very young), and the new "Looney Toons Seaport," which has 12 attractions for kids and their parents. An illuminating, educational experience it isn't; and yet it's known in the industry as a "theme park." In the summer of 2000, Six Flags added a third park to its New Jersey compound, the 22-acre water-slide park Hurricane Harbor. It's open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and costs $29.99 adults, $22.99 seniors aged 55 and anyone less than 48 inches tall. Four million yearly visitors. Phone 732/928-1821 for general information on Six Flags Great Adventure. Web page: sixflags.com/greatadventure.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Surprisingly, for an in-city theme park, a full-scale, 415-acre, complex of pavilions and elaborate rides, atop a sharp hill and on broader grounds below it, connected by escalator, and so expansive as to require more than a day to experience it all. Here, among other family attractions, are the elaborate, staged, extravaganzas that most Americans associate with Universal Studios Florida, but that were, in many cases, first developed in the Los Angeles park: The E.T. Adventure, Backdraft, Back to the Future--The Ride, King Kong, Earthquake--The Big One, Lucy: A Tribute, The Wild, Wild West Stunt Show, Jaws, and many more. The park, in every respect, compares quite respectably with the Florida version, and even attempts to upstage Florida's "Terminator 2:3D" with "Jurassic Park," equally mindless (and now replicated at Universal's Islands of Adventure park in Orlando). It may very well be the only theme park of this size in the nation to be located within the city limits of the metropolis it adorns. Receives nearly 6,000,000 visitors a year. Prices are $45 adults, $35 children aged 3 to 9. For general information, phone800/UNIVERSAL, Web site universalstudios.com.

Universal Studios Orlando, Florida

Movie-making and TV production, on a vast area strolled by look-alike movie characters--Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, the Marx Brothers, W.C. Fields. After a a major expansion, it now rivals the major Disney parks in size. Current standout features at Universal Studios Florida: "Men in Black: Alien Attack," "Twister" and "Terminator 2:3D," plumbing new depths of mindlessness, a simulated-motion "ride" where one sits on a vibrating seat in a 700-person auditorium, surrounded by movie screens showing images that whoosh and careen and plunge and soar. Its purpose: to scare you, to make you dizzy and seasick, nothing else. (Someone should remind the Orlando planners that the late Walt Disney created the nation's first major theme park for the specific purpose of supplying an alternative to the roller coasters and mindless "whip-em" machines of the average carnival--the only entertainment that he was able then to find for his own children. Sad to see how his successors--for Universal is one of the successors--lack the imagination to design pavilions appealing to innocent mirth and dreams, as Walt Disney did in the "Magic Kingdom".) In 2000, Universal demonstrated improved creativity with the opening of a second Orlando park, Islands of Adventure. Although its attractions, situated on islands based on Jurassic Park, and characters from Marvel Comics, Dr. Seuss, and the funny papers, are mostly corporate tie-ins or copies of West Coast originals, they're closer to the coaster-and-screams standard held by traditional theme parks such as Six Flags. Prices for either Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure are $49.95 for adults, $40.95 kids aged 3 to 9, and toddlers are free, but these rates are sometimes subject to reductions based on widely circulated coupons or tour package promotions. For information on either park, call 407/363-8000. Web site: usf.com.

Contacting the major parks

Here's a listing of more major parks throughout the country (particularly the ones that might be selected as a multi-day or overnight destination), plus a few American favorites abroad:

California

Colorado

Florida

Georgia

Illinois

Kentucky

Louisiana

Maryland

Massachusetts

Missouri

New Jersey

New York

North Carolina

Ohio

Oklahoma

Pennsylvania

The Pennsylvania Circuit (Old-fashioned parks dating from 1926 and always top-ranked among wooden roller coaster enthusiasts):

Tennessee

Texas

Virginia

Canada

Abroad

Six Flags also maintains parks in Europe, including Six Flags Holland near Amsterdam, Warner Bros. Movie World in Dusseldorf, Germany, and four Walibi parks in Belgium and France. Links to all can be found at sixflags.com/europe/index.htm. Six Flags México City is located at six-flags.com.mx/. Disneyland Paris, Marne-la-Vallée, France, 011-33-1-60-30-60-81, disneylandparis.com/. Tokyo Disneyland, Maihama, Urayasuy-shi, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, 011-81-47-354-0001, tokyodisneyland.co.jp/