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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.

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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.

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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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