What's new at theme parks this summer? Lights, cameras, action -- the movies!
Amusement parks popular among Baltimore-area vacationers have gone Hollywood, from "The Great Race" kiddie car ride at Maryland's dressed-up Wild World, to the "Days of Thunder" and "Batman" attractions at Paramount's Kings Dominion in Doswell, and Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., respectively.
In part, the trend linking rides and other offerings directly to the movies grows directly from the ownership of some parks.
The 18-year-old Kings Dominion near Richmond, for example, was purchased last year by movie-maker Paramount Communications Inc. And Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey is part of the national theme park chain now owned by Time Warner, which boasts venerable Warner Bros. studios as an affiliate.
Kings' Dominion, particularly, carries the Hollywood link through the park. Visitors are greeted by costumed characters from "Star Trek," sidewalk plaques on a "Walk of Fame" highlight memorable Paramount films and an ice show in one of the theaters has skaters dancing to themes from Paramount movies.
More than that, however, "the criterion in this business is coming up with changes so that people want to keep coming back," observes Tom Hall, general manager of Wild World in Largo, the nearest theme park to Baltimore.
What other mass medium offers more theme potential than the movie industry?
Well, television for one -- which helps explain the new "Totally Television" attraction at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., and a variety of TV themes running through other parks.
Here is a park-by-park introduction to what's new in 1993 at five regional attractions which draw many visitors from this area:
A 115-acre water and theme park on Route 214 in Largo, about a 45-minute drive from Baltimore. Admission: $18.99 adults; $14.99 kids 4 to 8, senior citizens $9.50. Season passes and group rates available. Information: (410) 792-2703.
Now under its second summer of management by the Tierco Group Inc., a small company with two other parks, both in Oklahoma, Wild World originally opened in 1974 as an animal park, then was converted to a water park with long slides and a wave pool.
This summer, it boasts the addition of several new rides aimed at emphasizing the park's family nature, says Mr. Hall, a former employee with Six Flags and theme park consultant who oversees operations from the seat of a wheelchair.
"I know how to get around the whole park going downhill," he jokes, noting that Wild World and other theme parks generally rate well in accommodating physically disabled visitors. He suffered a skiing accident as a young man, but says he has no trouble enjoying the park's thrill rides.
The amusement ride side of Wild World received the most emphasis this year, whereas last year's work went into improving the long-established water side of the park, now named Paradise Island.
"The Great Race," for example, offers young kids a relatively placid ride as they pretend to steer flivvers around a wooded course, evoking the great Jack Lemmon-Natalie Wood-Tony Curtis movie of 1965.
It is the newest attraction in the "Day at the Circus" kiddie ride area of the park, in which a variety of mini-rides, including a roller coaster, carousel and even a mini-bumper car track, have adopted the look of an outdoor circus.
The park has also added a Ferris wheel, and just this week celebrated the 100th anniversary (June 21) of the ride devised by George Ferris for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
But a couple of new thrill rides also beckon older visitors and, according to Mr. Hall, project Wild World's future into competing more directly with the bigger parks.
On Shipwreck Falls, a huge flume-style ride, visitors board a mock logging mill cart to plunge down a ramp into a pool, sending up a huge wall of water that splashes people who have just gotten out of the previous cart -- and anybody else not careful about tracking the flood's path.
"I recommend you do this last, for you definitely will get wet -- either that or bring a change of clothes," said Mr. Hall. Wild World allows visitors to move back and forth between the water area and the theme-ride area, but they must don shirt and shoes to enjoy the rides.
The Python, newly purchased from Six Flags Great Adventure, doubles Wild World's appeal to lovers of roller coasters.
On this straight-line looping coaster, you climb stairs to board the cars. The 60-second ride rockets forward and then drops you into an eyeball-wrenching loop before jerking to a halt -- then repeats the whole ride going backward.
Combined with the venerable Wild One wooden coaster operating since 1986 -- rated by the American Coaster Enthusiasts as among the top 10 wooden coasters in the nation -- The Python gives Wild World a respectable one-two punch for gravity defying enthusiasts.
Paramount's Kings Dominion
Located in Doswell, Va., 130 miles from Baltimore (a 2 3/4 - to 3-hour drive), at Exit 40 of I-95 South. Admission: $24.95 age 7 and older; $16.95 kids 3 through 6; $19.95 senior citizens (55 and older). Two-day, group and season passes available. Parking, $3 a car. Information: (804) 876-5000.
Opened in 1975 with the Wild Animal Safari as a chief attraction (still in operation), the big park in recent years has aggressively .. gone after thrill riders, but also offers a variety of shows, a nice children's ride area and a water-park area.
"Paramount's purchase has helped us in a lot of ways. Just look at these guys," notes Betsy Reardon, public relations representative, gesturing to a pair of young actors portraying officers of Star Fleet, from Paramount's movie and TV shows "Star Trek." There are Klingons and Romulans, too.
Indeed, you cannot escape the Paramount connection. Throughout the park, kiosk-like information booths direct visitors and show off costumes and other memorabilia from Paramount movies. Each booth also shows scenes on video monitors from such movies as "Crocodile Dundee," "The Untouchables" and "Ghost."
The biggest new attraction is the "Days of Thunder" simulation ride, trading off the 1990 Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman-Robert Duvall movie about NASCAR racing.
It's pretty cool! Visitors file past a half-dozen race cars on display into a pair of 74-seat wide-screen theaters and settle into mock bucket seats with hand-holds. As scenes from the movie flash on the screen, the chairs shake and jerk and otherwise give the illusion of sitting in a race car.
The editing is not perfect and the best effects are, oddly, the most subtle ones -- such as the seat trembling as the car idles, and tilting during an on-screen pit stop as first the right, then the left side tires are changed.
On the whole, however, "Days of Thunder" offers good fun and, at over three minutes, lasts longer than most park rides. (Kings Dominion's great 2-year-old Anaconda coaster, for example, turns you upside down four times in about 80 seconds.)
"Paramount on Ice," a skating show of surprising quality on a tiny rink in what used to be called the Mason Dixon Music Hall exploits the movie theme. A neat black-light effect during a "Star Wars" sequence sends one skater whirling up and over the stage.
And in Hanna-Barbera Land, 16-year-old Lauren Harris of Rodgers Forge, a junior at the Baltimore School for the Arts, plays Pebbles Flintstone in a five-shows-a-day theatrical presentation.
"It's really fun," says the only character in the show who speaks her own lines. (Others in the familiar huge costumes lip-sync to a sound track.)
Lauren took part last December in regional auditions for Kings Dominion held at Towson State University.
Also coming to the park July 10-15 is the traveling exhibition "Star Trek Earth Tour," which will offer a variety of costumes, sets and other artifacts of the late Gene Roddenberry's entertainment extravaganza, from "Star Trek: The Movie," to TV's newest spinoff, "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."
Six Flags Great Adventure
Located in Jackson, N.J., 144 miles from Baltimore (a 3- to 3 1/2 -hour drive), Exit 7A off N.J. Turnpike. Admission in two-tier structure, including a combination for the park and drive-through safari or park-only: $29.95/$29 adults; $20/$19 children 54 inches tall or under (age 3 and younger free); $14.98/$14 senior citizens (55 and older). Safari drive-through only $12, parking $5 a car. Group and season rates available. Information: (908) 928-1821.
Holy G-forces! The new movie-themed attraction at this big park, part of a seven-park national chain, is Batman The Ride, billed as the East Coast's first outside inverted looping coaster. Riders sit in swing-like seats with their legs dangling to barrel through a two-minute ride that includes two vertical loops, two "outside helixes" (don't ask; you don't want to know) and a zero-gravity roll. You go upside-down five times.
The park has also sharpened its connection to parent Time Warner by renaming one of its eateries the HBO Backlot Commissary, and creating an exhibit of rocket artifacts and other displays around the 1983 film "The Right Stuff."
Kids can also watch "Nickelodeon's Wild and Crazy Kids" show, themed on the affiliated Nickelodeon cable network for kids.
In Williamsburg, Va., 200 miles from Baltimore (about a 4-hour drive), I-95 South to I-64 East. Admission: $26.50 adults; $21.50 children 3 to 6. Two-day and three-day passes, group rates, season passes and senior discounts also available. Information: (804) 253-3350.
Although not operated by a movie company, the 18-year-old park's biggest new attraction this summer is a movie: "Haunts of the Olde Country."
Visitors view a film tour of Great Britain's ancient haunted castles, billed as offering "4-D" effects: the latest in 3-D film technology enhanced with a variety of simulations, including cold air, fog, raindrops and flashes of light in the theater itself.
And TV comes into play, too, with "Totally Television," a live family entertainment show in the park's Hastings' Magic Lantern Theatre. Video clips integrated into the show help actors salute a variety of favorite TV shows over the years.
Located in Hershey, Pa., 90 miles from Baltimore (about a 90-minute drive), Exit 28 off I-83 North. Admission: $22.95 adults; $14.95 juniors (age 3 to 8); $14.95 seniors (55 and older). Consecutive day and group rates available. Information: (717) 534-3090.
Billed as "The Sweetest Park on Earth" with its connection to the adjacent chocolate confectionary, Hersheypark has no new rides this year. Instead, "we're putting the emphasis on entertainment this summer," says spokeswoman Laura Stokes, in celebration of the park's 20th anniversary year.
Beginning Wednesday, for example, the park launches at 5 p.m. a three-day birthday party. And a feature of that celebration -- a parade by The Great All-American Hersheypark Band -- will continue as an attraction Tuesday through Saturdays through Aug. 28.
The park's continuing ride attractions include the Sidewinder, Sooperdooperlooper, Comet and Trailblazer roller coasters, as well as the Coal Cracker flume, the Dry Gulch Railroad and a children's ride area.
Theme parks often team with merchants to offer discount coupons or other reduced-price admission deals that make a day at the rides significantly less expensive. It is best to call each park for details, for the arrangements change through the season, But here are some current opportunities:
* Wild World: Safeway stores are offering discount coupons good for $5 off on weekdays and $3 off on weekends.
* Paramount King's Dominion: The park suggests a call for the latest deals, but currently has two discount programs with Giant Food stores. Through July 2, $4 discount coupons are available at all Giant stores. Beginning July 4, Giant stores will also be selling discount tickets for children 12 and younger, good for July 11 through Aug. 6. The tickets save $12.50 off the regular $24.95 admission for kids 7 through 12, and $4.50 off the regular $16.95 admission for kids 3 to 6.
* Six Flags Great Adventure: Before visiting the park, a spokesman suggests visitors purchase cans of Coke or Diet Coke in stores in the area or from vending machines outside the park entrance. A coupon imprinted on the cans entitles the bearer to a free admission on weekdays, when another admission is purchased. On weekends, the cans are good for a $4 discount on one admission when a regular ticket is purchased. Food bags at McDonald's restaurants nationwide also carry discount coupons for Six Flags parks.
* Busch Gardens: Through July 3, coupons good for $3.50 off admission are available at Pizza Hut restaurants.
* Hersheypark: Giant Food stores sell discounted tickets for $15.75, about $7 off the regular price. In addition, look for varying discount coupons at Wendy's restaurants, Getty gas stations and CVS stores.