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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Grampa John Brady is standing beneath a roller coaster sign reading, "Tatsu: Fly at the Speed of Fear," but he has other ideas.

"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.

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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.

Cleaner, visitor-friendly parks

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."

All the rage: dark rides

Bigger, higher, and faster are "out." So-called "dark rides" – where riders of all ages enter tunnels, dungeons, and fantasy-lands are "in." Rides such as "Buzz Lightyear" at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., or "Men in Black" at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., offer different kinds of interactivity – ways for riders to use light lasers or other implements to shoot at targets or monsters to tally up scores to compare with one another.

Besides the advantage of a bigger pool of possible participants – an incentive for theme-park owners to broaden appeal – "dark rides" create reasons to ride again: to improve your personal best or outdo your friends and family. "Mondo" coasters, by contrast provide bragging rights for competing park chains, but don't necessarily generate repeat business after the novelty has worn off.

"For years, the focus for theme parks has been to build the record roller coaster, but now they've realized that strategy has reached the point of diminishing returns," says Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider, www.themeparkinsider.com, an online consumer guide to theme parks. "It's gotten to the point where in order to break records, you have to make something that is too intense for the average park goer. Dark rides are loved by everybody."

New theme-park attractions

According to Ruben, 12 such rides are opening this year. Disney's California Adventure opened "Monsters Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue" in January and EPCOT will introduce "The Seas with Nemo & Friends" later this year. A revitalized "Hershey's Great American Chocolate Tour" just debuted near Hersheypark Pa., and "Gobbler Getaway," a new interactive dark ride, is debuting at Indiana's Holiday World & Splashin' Safari later this year. Perennial attractions such as Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" and Busch Gardens Williamsburg's "Curse of DarKastle: The Ride" have also been upgraded with better lighting, more interactivity, and more realistic animatronics.

Besides the emphasis on rides with broader appeal, more theme parks are offering a gamut of ways to avoid lines – both in getting into the park, and at attractions once inside. Before going to the park, visitors can find and customize their visits online.

Once at the park, attendees can purchase bracelets and anklets with RFID chips that eliminate the need to carry cash, and that can help locate park companions. They need only stop at kiosks that will give exact park locations for any member of their party.

"Interactivity; family friendliness; cleaner parks; and smoother. more appealing rides, are the order of the moment," says Tim O'Brien, a theme park expert with Ripley Entertainment.

Varying entrance fees

Meanwhile, although the price of tickets to some parks is increasing, other parks are lowering their rates because of higher fuel prices.

Six Flags has a higher general entrance fee (roughly $60) with the strategy of getting visitors to "realize the value of cleaner, more family-friendly parks," Mr. O'Brien says, author of a national guide to theme parks. But Cedar Fair, which owns parks such as Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio and Knott's Berry Farm in Anaheim has cut about $5 off the standard entrance fee at Cedar Point, to soften the blow of higher fuel prices.

"We will see by year's end which of these two strategies works best," says O'Brien.

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