Buckle up and hang on Whee: Roller coasters, African themes and fast rides are enticing Americans past the gates and into the fun.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For a growing number of Americans, theme parks are !B becoming more of a vacation lure than ever -- for good reasons. Theme park visits are easy to plan, provide a lot of entertainment, and are pretty much guaranteed to please.

Cedar Point, Ohio

Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, which has gained the title of world's largest roller-coaster park, is into its 127th season. The park, along Lake Erie, features 57 thrilling rides, live shows and lakeside accommodations.

This year's new thrill is Chaos, a whirling ride that flips, spins and twists in three directions on a rotating and tilting platform. The ride has already won the "best new product for a major amusement park ride" by the amusement park industry.

While Cedar Point may not be as well-known as some other theme parks, it has won for the past five years the Best Amusement Park in the World award by readers of Inside Track, a newspaper that ranks the bests of the industry.

One of the major reasons is the park's legacy in roller coasters. It boasts 12 "scream" machines, the largest number in the world. Its newest member, the Mantis, opened last year and claims title as the tallest, fastest and steepest stand-up coaster in the world. It rises 145 feet, hits speeds of 60 miles an hour and has a 137-foot, 52-degree drop.

The owners of Cedar Park, Cedar Fair, also have three additional parks, including Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, both in Pennsylvania. Wildwater Kingdom, a family-oriented park, is home to one of the tallest wooden scream machines in the world.

Hersheypark, Pa.

Also in Pennsylvania is Hersheypark. Located in Hershey, the park is built on nostalgia, with its centerpiece, Midway America, boasting of rides such as a 100-foot-tall Ferris wheel, an old-style wooden roller coaster, and an "old-fashioned" Whip ride.

Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

Anheuser-Busch has some of the best theme parks in the country. At Busch Gardens Tampa Bay in Florida, the Edge of Africa opens this summer.

Although the park is already home to Serengeti Plain, with dozens of endangered bird, mammal and reptile species in a DTC naturalistic setting, the Edge of Africa promises a more intense safari experience. The new attraction, the largest animal expansion in the park's history, provides an up-close viewing of hippopotamuses, giraffes, lions, baboons, meerkats, crocodiles and other species.

While animals may be the star attraction in Tampa, the park has great rides such as Montu, the Southeast's largest and fastest steel roller coaster.

Montu soars above Egypt, a themed area that includes a replica of King Tut's tomb and a sand-dig area for the children. Souvenir shops sell authentic gifts from the North African nation. There are also water rides and a nearby water park, with a German beer hall (providing an oompah band, bratwurst and other German foods), a bird area and a tour of the Anheuser-Busch plant.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg

There are thrills at other Anheuser-Busch parks, too. At Busch Gardens Williamsburg, the world's tallest and fastest inverted roller coaster, Alpengeist, is open. The ride has a vertical loop of 106 feet and a drop of nearly 17 stories.

Sea Worlds

Anheuser-Busch also owns the nation's Sea World parks, and in San Antonio is introducing the first hanging roller coaster at any Sea World. The Great White rises more than 10 stories and features an 81-foot drop.

Sea World of California in San Diego has a different thrill called North to Base Station Wild Arctic, where guests take a harrowing helicopter flight over the frozen north to come face-to-face with live walruses, polar bears, beluga whales and harbor seals.

And at Sea World of Florida near Orlando, a Dolphin Interaction Program allows guests to come nose-to-nose with the park's famed dolphins.

Six Flags, N.J.

Batman and Robin: The Chiller, opening at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., is said to be the most powerful ride to be introduced in the park's 23-year history. Riders will be propelled from 0 to 65 miles an hour in just five seconds and will plummet backward 20 stories.

The New Jersey theme park is the largest seasonal park in the country and includes other coasters along with live-action shows.

The park also claims the world's largest drive-through safari outside Africa, where families can cruise in their own cars through a wildlife preserve.

Six Flags, Calif.

At Six Flags California in Los Angeles, Superman the Escape is being called the fastest and most technologically advanced ride ever built. Guests hit 100 miles an hour in seven seconds on a ride that rises 41 stories -- twice as tall as Niagara Falls -- giving riders 6.5 seconds of weightlessness while free-falling down the steel tower.

Disney parks

Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., is not sitting idly by, especially in this, its 25th anniversary year. While Disney World has not been known for its thrill rides -- Space Mountain being the major exception -- this year it just may have a winner in Test Track.

Test Track, in Epcot, will simulate the testing of new vehicles in varied conditions, from the hot desert to the coldest of environments, then on to a ride hitting speeds up to 65 miles an hour, the fastest ever at Disney World.

Well, almost the fastest. Nearby, Disney has created a race track where individuals can book instruction at the Richard Petty driving school, learning to drive a race car at up to 165 miles an hour.

Besides the new thrills, there is a new Wide World of Sports theme park, and next year Disney World will open its own African-themed animal park.

Even its older sibling, Disneyland in California, is undergoing a complete renovation with a new Tomorrowland taking shape, new rides, a new parade and other attractions.

Universal Studios Florida

Universal Studios Florida is adding five themed islands in a new park next to the present one. When completed in 1999, Islands of Adventure will have areas featuring characters from Dr. Seuss books, a Spiderman ride that will combine high-speed simulators with live action and 3-D film, and a Jurassic Park with dinosaurs, featuring a ride with the steepest water drop ever built.

Other parks

Opryland USA outside Nashville is built around the Grand Ole Opry theme. Besides being home to the Opry now, the park celebrates music of all kinds, with as many as 12 fully-staged shows going on. The park even has its own share of thrill and other rides.

In Santa Claus, Ind., Holiday World plays upon such times as Christmas and Halloween, with attractions keyed to families. The park is entering its 52d season with attractions such as the Raven, voted the No. 3 coaster in the country; a water-slide park with three in-the-dark water slides, acampground; and zany events such as "Stark Raven Mad."

While most people head to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., for its annual summer races, nearby is the Great Escape in Lake George, where the Comet, first built in Canada in 1927 and rated one of the 10 best coasters in the world, is still thrilling riders.

In Denver, the first amusement park to open in a downtown area, Elitch Gardens, features 23 thrill rides, including a 100-foot Ferris wheel with spectacular views of the downtown area.

Pub Date: 6/22/97

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