Affordable Family Fun at U.S. Amusement Parks

For families on a budget, amusement and water parks offer low-cost thrills and new attractions, often close to home.

As the economy causes prices to rise, families in the United States that normally vacation in Europe are scaling back to domestic travel, staycations and daytrips with the kids. It all adds up to good news for the burgeoning amusement park business, which considers itself to be nearly recession-proof, say industry insiders.

There are more than 400 amusement parks and more than 1,000 water parks in the United States and attendance keeps growing. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA), more than 335 million people visited amusement parks in 2006. Meanwhile, the World Waterpark Association says that 18.5 million people visited the top 20 water parks in 2007, up 6 percent from a year earlier.

“Almost everyone in America lives within a one-[gas]-tank trip of a local theme park,” says David W. Mandt, vice president of communications for the Alexandria, Va.-based IAAPA.

Courting Families

While roller coasters that rise higher, soar faster and loop more is always big news in amusement parks—and there are plenty of those opening this summer—a number of parks are focused on appealing to the entire family.

Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, known for its roller coasters, has added a fourth children’s play area, Planet Snoopy. It has seven pint-sized rides, including a mini-tea cup, rocket and train ride. At the Six Flags parks in California, Georgia and Massachusetts, Thomas the Tank Engine and friends entertain youngsters at the new child’s play area, Thomas Town.

Disney, the 40,000-pound gorilla of the amusement park business, has a new attraction designed for the whole family—from toddlers to teens. The Toy Story Mania! interactive ride at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Orlando, Fla., and California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif., is a 4-D ride (the fourth D refers to the physical parts of the ride, such as a spray of water that hits riders who pop a water balloon) based on the popular animated films Toy Story and Toy Story II. It “shrinks” riders to the size of a toy and then sends them through a dark tunnel where they play with the toys. Disney promises that no two rides are the same.

Morphing Concepts

Increasingly, amusement parks are growing into theme parks and adding water parks. Hotels are building indoor water parks. Zoos are adding rides. Family entertainment centers are adding more thrills to their existing go-kart tracks and batting cages.

And the parks are changing all the time, adding new attractions, developing educational components and building higher, faster, loopier coasters.

“That’s especially important when visitors are regional,” Mandt says. “The parks want them to come back. Having something new and different is important.”

Regional Parks

Big corporate amusement companies such as Disney, Six Flags and Cedar Point parent company, Cedar Fair Entertainment—known as “destination parks” in the business because they are family vacation destinations—consistently top the list of the most popular amusement parks in the United States. Still, there are many smaller, regional amusement parks drawing crowds this year.

“Regional parks consider themselves economy-proof. When money is tighter, instead of a big, long trip to a national destination, they feel like people will drive a few hours to a park in their own state and make it a two to three day trip,” says Tim Baldwin, editorial staff writer for Amusement Today, a monthly industry publication. “If people are saying they need a vacation of some kind, the regional parks will prevail.”

Hard Rock Park

The first major regional park to open in the United States this decade is the $400 million Hard Rock Park, the world’s first rock ‘n’ roll-themed park, in Myrtle Beach, S.C. My 12-year-old coaster-loving daughter, Tess, and I, visited this park operated by the Hard Rock Café folks during the “soft opening” and found it to be manageable for families. It offers more than 40 rides and attractions, including some aimed at the whole family.

As befitting a rock ‘n’ roll park, there’s plenty of entertainment, which gave us a chance to decompress a bit. We found a shady spot in the grandstand to get out of the sun and rock out to Black Label, laughed at the antics of the Malibu Beach Party gang and watch the acrobatics of the Roadies Stunt Show.

But the star of the park is Led Zeppelin—The Ride, a 150-foot-tall coaster that rolls you over and under while rocking you to the Zeppelin hit “Whole Lotta Love.” Many of the rides have height restrictions; check the Web site for details:

Choosing A Park

With so many parks and so little vacation time, it’s tough to know which one is right for your family. Browse amusement park Web sites for basic information on hours and admission prices. Some sites even have Web cams that give you a rider’s eye view of the thrills and spins. Here are some other research tips for your family amusement park vacation:

Finally, call the park before you go and ask whether there are other money-saving promotions. Some parks ask visitors to bring in a soda can for a discount or give you a better deal if you buy tickets online and print them out at home. That offers another advantage: you get to bypass the long lines at the ticket window.

Midwest Favorites

Two of my family’s favorite parks are in Indiana—Indiana Beach on the shores of Lake Shafer near Monticello, and Holiday World in Santa Claus.

Family-Friendly Indiana Beach

Indiana Beach is the park my family visited regularly when I was growing up in northwest Indiana. This summer, the park is debuting the Steel Hawg coaster, Indiana’s first major steel coaster. It features a 120-degree first drop with multiple inversions. I hope it doesn’t overshadow the nostalgic, small town, family-friendly feel of the place, which is reminiscent of an old-fashioned park on the boardwalk.

Make reservations early and stay in one of the quaint cottages on the property. On site lodging makes traveling a godsend—especially when your family is tired at the end of the day. I didn’t plan ahead and there were no rooms available the last time I visited with two tweens who couldn’t be dragged away until closing time. While they slept in the back seat, I struggled to stay awake while driving along the pitch-black country roads in search of a hotel room.

Good, Clean Fun at Holiday World, and Free Sunscreen!

Holiday World in southern Indiana is our new family favorite. Like many amusement parks these days, it comes with a water park, Splashin’ Safari, so you can get heated up on the rides, then cool off in the water park.

Holiday World is still owned and operated by its founding family, and it also caters to families. It’s immaculately clean, has plenty of fun stuff to do and, best of all, there are stations throughout both parks dispensing free soda, Gatorade, punch and SPF 30 sunscreen. Yes, free.

There is a new wooden coaster called the Voyage, but there are no super-duper upside-down coasters in the park. The idea, says park president Will Koch, grandson of the founder, is to keep the park safe from the roving bands of teenagers who are drawn to the thrill rides and can scare off families. “We like the teenagers to come, but with their parents and little sister,” says a spokeswoman.

There’s the Lake Rudolph Campground and RV Resort next door, owned by Will’s brother, Philip Koch, that rents campsites as well as campers and cabins. In-season tent sites start at $30 per night. As cabins can cost up to $170 nightly (and you must bring your own linens), they didn’t seem like a very good deal to me. Having said that, I’ll add that my kids love staying in a campground, especially one with a steel coaster nearby.

If you would prefer a more adult experience, try the newly restored and beautiful French Lick Resort about 45 minutes north of Holiday World in French Lick, Ind., or the Leavenworth Inn, a bed and breakfast in nearby Leavenworth, Ind.

Destinations: Orlando, Indiana, Sandusky, Myrtle Beach, California, Anaheim

Themes: Amusement Parks, Family Travel

Activities: Parks and Playgrounds