At theme parks, new focus on family fun
Dark rides and parades for visitors of all ages are in. Bigger, scarier roller coasters for teens are out.
Grampa John Brady is standing beneath a roller coaster sign reading, "Tatsu: Fly at the Speed of Fear," but he has other ideas.Skip to next paragraph
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"Guys, you ride the coaster," he says to son Jeff and four grandchildren. Halfway through a day at Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park here, two kids munch on purple snow cones, two pack their cheeks with cotton candy, and Mr. Brady could use some air conditioning and a chair. "Your grandmother and I will take [5-year-old granddaughter] Karen, go watch the Chinese acrobats, and meet you here in 90 minutes," says Brady.
Like a resounding "ding" of the sledgehammer bell, the wishes of older and younger Americans for alternatives to "higher, faster, scarier" roller coasters have been heard by theme parks across the US. The result: A more family-friendly, less teen-centric (translation: "roller-coaster dominated") experience than in recent years.
For the Bradys, that means watching plate-spinning, bungee-jumping contortionists, and hoop divers from Hebei Province, China, while sitting in air-conditioned comfort on a southern California desert hillside where it's 105 degrees F. in the shade. At some of the other 420 US parks from Arizona to Maine, it means more parades, arcades, and games for younger kids; and more variety/stunt shows, music, and entertainment for the over-50 set; and more attractions that all ages can enjoy together.
"The biggest trend we are seeing is a family focus – a good, solid, multigenerational experience," says Beth Robertson, communications director for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. There are more midway rides for young and old together; more with four seats together (instead of two); and more fireworks, laser shows, light extravaganzas, and stunt shows for all ages.
The trend began after 9/11, she and other analysts say, as more American families decided to forgo travel abroad and sought ways to entertain themselves within the US.
Now, at park chains from Disney to Universal, from Six Flags to Cedar Fair, the idea has continued to blossom. Parks are cleaner and more visitor-friendly: They have designated smoking areas, "misters" to stay cool while waiting in line, and more places to sit and relax.
"Many parks have gone out of their way to improve the entire experience of the theme park visit," says Paul Ruben, North American editor for Park World, a theme-park trade publication. More are offering discounts, package deals with nearby – often competing – parks, and ways to reserve seats for high-priority rides without having to wait in line.
"For years they thought the way to increase attendance was to bring in a compelling new thrill ride, but now they are realizing that things got out of balance and the family got left behind," says Mr. Ruben.
The trend may be more self-preservation than altruistic, Ruben and others say. Six Flags, the world's largest regional theme park company with 28 US parks has run into financial difficulties in recent years as attendance dropped. Observers cite the chain's reputation for being teen-dominated.
New CEO Mark Shapiro, who took over last December, is trying to recast that image. He recently said the company will consider selling six properties including Six Flags Magic Mountain, in part because of its "rowdy teenage atmosphere," the Associated Press reported.
"We are trying to reset the balance between teens and families," says Six Flags's spokeswoman Wendy Goldberg. "There were a few years of letting the brand go down a bit. There was the perception that Six Flags was good only for teens, not kids and adults."