RATING THE RIDES Big amusement parks: What do they offer kids? What will they cost us?

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You see the commercials on television. Strapped into a quadruple-loop, twisting, roaring monster of a roller coaster, Joe and Mary America and well-scrubbed children are hollering their heads off as they enter each gut-twisting turn. Arms raised in gleeful anticipation, they turn to each other with huge smiles before another astonishing daredevil loop sends them into yet one more moment of sublime ecstasy. At the end of the ride, happy faces all, they know that for one minute in their gentle, suburbanized existence, they have touched the stars.

Now the reality. To ride the amusement park's crown jewel, the Sensational Cowabunga Corkscrew, our happy clan must wait an hour and a half among jostling hordes in steamy, 95-degree weather reminiscent of downtown Bangkok in the summer. The children channel their resentment into whining, sullen restlessness and general peevishness. The parents enforce discipline with growing snappishness as they silently count up the day's cost in admission tickets, loud T-shirts and overpriced concessions -- wondering all the while how a roll of $20 bills could disappear so fast from their pockets without someone brandishing a pistol.

If the first portrait is an unobtainable fantasy and the second a cynical overstatement, nonetheless Americans are flocking to amusement parks in record numbers -- about 254 million admission tickets were sold to U.S. parks in 1990, according to industry figures. So you can bet as school vacation begins and the temperatures heat up, Baltimore-area households will be right there with the rest, hitting Hersheypark or Kings Dominion or Wild World or any number of other parks within a day's drive.

Some doubters may wonder about forking over large amounts of dollars for the privilege of standing in line all day, but a day at the amusement park now is a staple of American leisure. For parents, it has become one of those issues you may not like but must contend with, such as paying $100 or more for a pair of Air Jordans. Amusement parks are here to stay.

With that in mind, I set out to explore some parks within a driving radius of about 200 miles from Baltimore. The parkswere evaluated according to a number of criteria: cost, number of rides available (for adults, teens and children), food and general ambience. Since the little things do count, I noted unexpected delights (Pleasant Surprises) and disappointments (Picking Nits).

Any such survey is subjective, and I have my own prejudices. My attitude toward amusement parks grows out of a love for small-town carnivals and beach-town boardwalks. That means fast rides and fast food in a honky-tonk atmosphere, and never mind that the guys working the rides have more tattoos than teeth. I don't need a hokey theme, such as Ye Olde Englande, with workers dressed up in tights and funny hats. Regarding the myriad shows and plays that have sprouted up in recent years, who needs to hear yet another hokey 1950s rock and roll medley or half-baked country music revue? Include me out, as Mr. Goldwyn said.

As for food, perhaps some park-goers are impressed by eating a dinner of baked ziti in a "sidewalk cafe" and being served by a waiter dressed up like one of the Medicis, but I'll take fries and a corn dog any time. It's more than an affection for carnival vittles: Most parks don't allow food or drinks to be brought in, which jacks up considerably the price of a visit.

Before we begin a park-by-park assessment, some general observations. First, all the parks are located near a couple of major metropolitan areas. That means many people -- millions of them -- also see the enticing commercials and want to get in on the fun.

Accordingly, since Saturdays, Sundays and holidays can be hellish, most parks encourage patrons to come on weekdays, or first thing in the day, or in the evening (many offer reduced rates then). Still, even a midweek day can be bad, especially if you've got small children who get tired or overheated easily.

Hersheypark

Hersheypark is a grand dame of sorts among East Coast amusement parks. It was founded in 1907 by Milton S. Hershey, the chocolate meister himself, as a place where employees of his plant and their families could relax -- a "picnic and pleasure grounds" was how he described it.

Older Baltimoreans might remember Hersheypark as a traditional pay-per-ride park centered around its 1946 wooden roller coaster, the Comet, and 1919 roller coaster (a real gem). But most traditional parks either closed in the 1960s or adopted the more aggressive strategies of the newer ones. Hersheypark did so in 1972 by adopting a one-price-for-all-rides admission ticket (some activities have separate prices), and has today on its 87-acre complex such dazzling, lose-your-hat-and-your-lunch rides as the Sidewinder (this year's new attraction) and the sooperdooperLooper.

Children's rides: Generally good. Most are located near the carousel, by Music Box Way or in Minetown Arcade.

General rides: There are height minimums for children for most thrill rides, but children may accompany adults on a few. I liked the sooperdooperLooper quite a bit; it's a long thrill ride with your requisite 360-degree loop and a harrowing stretch during which you're nearly parallel to the ground. The Comet is a classic wooden roller coaster, quite fast and moderately thrilling. The Frontier Chute Out is good, too: You rocket down chutes on a sled into a pool of water. But the lines move slowly even on non-peak days and isn't worth the wait on a busy day. The Coal Cracker is a pleasant flume ride that most small children can go on. I can't comment on the new Sidewinder, in which riders go back and forth through a variety of loops. It looked like great fun, but with such a long waiting time (90 minutes plus) it didn't seem worth it.

Quiet time: There's miniature golf, a nice little feature, and paddle boats for rent for $3 a half-hour (don't forget to feed the ducks). Just outside the gates of Hersheypark is Chocolate World, a combination mock tour of the chocolate-making plant -- a short distance away -- and retail shop, which offers a wide variety of souvenirs and chocolate products. Chocolate World closes at 5 p.m, which makes it a relaxing way to end the day.

Food: All types of fast food -- fried and barbecued chicken, hot dogs, hamburgers, fries, pizza, steak sandwiches -- as well as pasta dishes, salads and Buffalo wings.

Pleasant Surprises: The general niceness of the place, even after several visits.

Picking Nits: Right as you enter the park, several fresh faces pop up and ask you to pose for a picture -- "no obligation," you're told, and you're given a ticket to hand in later at a nearby booth. What you're not told unless you ask is that there is a price: $5 for one picture and $9 for two. It's somewhat like those chaps with cameras who stand by landmarks in European cities waiting to hustle American tourists. One could argue that you can decline politely to pose, but in a park in which the price for every other attraction is clearly stated, it's a cheesy way to do business.

Ambience: Pleasant, family-oriented, with some good thrill rides. A good mix of the antic and the restful.

Hersheypark: Open daily 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. through Aug. 25 and Aug. 31 to Sept. 1; 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Aug. 26-30 and Sept. 2, 7-8, 14-15, 21-22. Admission: adults $20.95, children 3 to 8 $17.95 ($14.95 after 5 p.m. for both), senior citizens (62 and up) $13.95, children 2 and under free. Two-day passes (consecutive days) $31.50, $25.50 for children; season pass $54.95. Group rates. In Hershey, Pa., about 2 hours from Baltimore. Information: (800) 441-1507.

Kings Dominion

If Hersheypark appeals to the nuclear family, Kings Dominion has the feel of a Saturday night funny-car race held simultaneously with a heavy metal concert. Located north of Richmond, Va., it's an unabashed rides park, with great thrill attractions -- this year, the Anaconda -- and a very good children's area in Hanna-Barbera Land.

Children's rides: Both my 4-year-old son and 17-month-old son liked Hanna-Barbera Land quite a bit. It has excellent rides and much of the area is in a shaded area, near picnic tables. Well thought out and quite attractive.

General rides: A good selection, from the Grizzly and Rebel Yell, two very fast wooden coasters; to the Shock Wave, a stand-up coaster; to the Anaconda, which features -- count 'em -- six loops and what is said to be the only looping roller coaster with an underwater tunnel. The Anaconda looks terrifying, and it can be exhilarating, but it moves so fast you don't really experience the delicious essence of a great coaster ride -- anticipation. The Rebel Yell provides plenty of the latter and really makes you hold on to your hat.

Quiet time: Fireworks are offered during the summer, primarily Saturday nights. There's a wonderful old steam railroad for a cooling-down ride.

Food: Fast-food heaven, generally well done.

Pleasant Surprises: With Kings Dominion's reputation as a hangout for teen-agers and young adults, it was gratifying to see the excellent facilities for children -- even a first-class diaper-changing station.

Picking Nits: Some arcade-type games seemed frightfully expensive, especially since you're already spending a bundle.

Ambience: The young and the (nicely) restless. Patrons' T-shirts tell it all: Every kind of sports team and figure is represented (especially Michael Jordan), and you can't believe so many people like the heavy metal group Megadeth.

Kings Dominion: Open through Sept. 3, and Sept. 9, 15-16, 22-23, 29-30; Oct. 6-7, 13. Closing hours vary. Park generally opens 10 a.m. weekends through Sept. 2 and 10:30 a.m. thereafter. Admission: $21.95, children (ages 3-6) $13.95, children 2 and under free, senior citizens (55 and up) $16.95; two-day admission $33.95, $25.95 for children; season pass $54.95. Group rates. In Doswell, Va., 2 1/2 to 3 hours from Baltimore. Information: (804) 876-5000.

Busch Gardens

The "Old Country" theme is the draw for this park near Williamsburg, Va. It especially exemplifies what Tim O'Brien, author of the just-published "The Amusement Park Guide" (Globe Pequoit Press, $12.95 paperback), sees as the coming trend in amusement parks.

"Parks are trying to market to the graying of America, the aging of the baby-boom generation," he says. "They're not getting away from thrill rides, but they are trying to create a better environment for an older America. Next to shade and a place to rest, they want a good place to eat. They want a lakeside cafe where they can have a good meal and a glass of wine."

Thus, one sees lushly landscaped grounds, several restaurants for "nice" dining, and the "Old Country" theme played to a fare-thee-well. Different areas of the park have European themes -- England has its Globe Theatre and Big Ben, France its LeMans Raceway, Italy its Roman Rapids, etc. All areas have shops in which you can buy "authentic" items from the region -- wool sweaters from Scotland, and the like.

Children's rides: Only fair. The carousel is so-so and the Grimm's Hollow Play Area is substandard. But Der Autobahn, Jr., is a fine bumper-car ride for youngsters.

General rides: Surprisingly good. The Loch Ness Monster has two interlocking loops and a terrifying drop in which the coaster is said to reach speeds of nearly 70 mph (I believe it). It's well worth an hour-plus wait. In San Marco, an "Italian village," Da Vinci's Garden of Invention has five good rides, and in Oktoberfest (Germany, of course) the Big Bad Wolf is a suspended roller coaster that leaves you wobbly-kneed.

Quiet time: Two 19th century steam trains circle the park and give relief for tired legs. The Rhine River Cruise (actually on a man-made lake) offers a respite from walking and the heat.

Food: Varied but often expensive. You can spend a lot in this department.

Pleasant Surprises: The railroad is first-rate.

Picking Nits: Busch Gardens is quite hilly, and you can't get there from here in some areas without machinations. In a few areas, you have to pick up strollers and children to traverse steps, and that shouldn't be.

Ambience: Personally, I can't understand how anybody could fall for the "Old Country" hokum, but many others obviously disagree. I just close my eyes to the claptrap and go for the rides and the pleasant atmosphere.

Busch Gardens: Open from 10 a.m. until Sept. 3, Fridays to Tuesdays from Sept. 6 to Oct. 22, and Oct. 25-27. Closing times vary. Admission: $22.95 ($18.95 after 5 p.m.), children 2 and under free. Two-day pass (consecutive days) $28.95; season pass $64.95. Group rates. In Williamsburg, Va., about 4 hours from Baltimore. Information: (804) 253-3350.

Wild World

Water parks have become popular draws in recent years, and this one in Largo, near the Capital Centre, draws about a half-million patrons a year, mostly from Washington and Baltimore. There are few non-water rides, which might put off some people, but the Wave Pool, which sends out good-sized waves, is very popular, especially as the mercury climbs.

Children's rides: Kids do better than grown-ups in this area. There's a good little roller coaster and several other traditional kid-oriented rides -- airplanes, boats and the like. The children's pool (Tadpool) is large and should be non-threatening to most toddlers.

General rides: Basically a non-factor in the traditional area. The Wild One, a long wooden roller coaster, has been closed because, according to a park official, the adjoining land has been rezoned to residential and the coaster no longer can be operated. There's a Tilt-A-Whirl for mild thrills. Water rides are another matter. The Rafters Run is a tube ride down a winding chute and is pleasantly challenging. The Rampage, a sled ride down a chute that seems almost straight down, is exhilarating, though I suspect lines are long when the park is crowded. The Zoom Flume is very popular and certainly will get you wet.

Quiet time: There's a very small train, but I suspect the best way to unwind is to play one of the many arcade games.

Food: Strictly fast food, and not especially distinctive, although it is reasonably priced.

Pleasant Surprises: I thought the Wave Pool would be overrated, but it's great fun -- if it's not crowded.

Picking Nits: There should be at least one more decent adult, non-water ride.

Ambience: A mix of atmospheres -- partly carnival, partly swimming pool. After 5 p.m., it becomes less family-oriented and attracts more teens and young adults.

Wild World: Open from 11 a.m. through Sept. 2; closing times usually 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 p.m. weekends. Admission: adults $15.95, children 3 to 8 $13.95, 2 and under free, senior citizens $8.95, after 5 p.m. $12.95 for adults and $10.95 for children. Season passes: $59.95, $49.95 children, $139.95 for family of 4 (additional children $33.95 each). In Largo, about 1 hour from Baltimore. Information: (301) 249-1500.

Sesame Place

This is a funny place. It's designed for children 3 to 13, yet is operated by a company associated with a beer maker: Busch Entertainment Corp., a subsidiary of Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc. (BEC also runs Busch Gardens). And it features the fuzzy-wuzzy themes of America's favorite children's show, "Sesame Street," for a decidedly urban, street-wise clientele. A child nurtured in the gentle environment of day care may find the Rubber Duckie Pond, a wading pool, intimidating, as the young set of Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York frolics rambunctiously as if the fire hydrants were just opened in the neighborhood.

Children's rides: Some good water rides (Rubber Duckie Rapids) for just the young'uns and a few more they can go on with an adult. By all means bring swimsuit, towels, flip-flops and plenty of suntan lotion.

General rides: This is not a rides park, so unless you like water rides you're out of luck. You can get soaked in the Sesame Streak (a tube ride) and the Big Slipper (two flume rides), or go en famille in inner tubes on the leisurely Big Bird's Rambling River ride.

Quiet time: There are any number of shows for children throughout the day. I'd also suggest the Sesame Studio, which features hands-on exhibits, and the Computer Gallery, which has games that even the small ones can play. The Sesame Neighborhood has such attractions as Oscar the Grouch's Garage and Sesame Engine House No. 1, but it's pretty tame stuff if your child, like mine, regards the Sesame Street bunch with affection but not adoration.

Food: Good and wholesome -- low-fat hot dogs, pizza with honey whole wheat crust and the like. The best thing is that you can bring in your own food and drinks, and save a lot of money.

Pleasant Surprises: The many wonderful attractions in the Outdoor Activities Area. What kid wouldn't want to try out Ernie's Bed Bounce -- imagine watching 20 youngsters jumping up and down gleefully at once -- or climb the Cookie Mountain, then slide safely down the vinyl sides. Every parent I talked to wanted to take one of these home to have for rainy days.

Picking Nits: How can a children's park run out of rental strollers at 11:30 a.m. on a Saturday? "We don't have many strollers and they go pretty fast," the attendant said apologetically. Maybe, but such high-volume parks as Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens had no problem in this area.

Ambience: A Type-A park all the way. Much to enjoy for self-confident children; the shy might take a while to warm up. And don't bring youngsters under 2, as there really isn't enough available to warrant lugging them around in the hot sun.

Sesame Place: Open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Sept. 1; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 2-4, 7-9, weekends Sept. 14 to Oct. 6. Admission: $17.95 children, $15.95 adults, children 2 and under free, senior citizens $10.95. Season passes: $64.95 children, $54.95 adults (families receive discount of 10 percent per pass if three or more are purchased). In Langhorne, Pa., about 2 1/2 hours from Baltimore. Information: (215) 752-7070.

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