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Image: WindSeeker
Courtesy Cedar Point
Thrill seekers can go on a 360-degree spin — at 300 feet in the air — on the WindSeeker at Cedar Point.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/10/2011 9:25:03 AM ET 2011-05-10T13:25:03

Born and raised in New Jersey, Brenda Jones has loved theme and amusement parks all her life. "Growing up here, we always had [Six Flags] Great Adventure, Hersheypark, the boardwalk in Ocean City, all of that stuff," she said. "We went all the time because it was an inexpensive thing to do."

Recently, though, she’s found her love tested in the face of everything from add-on fees for parking to the high cost of concessions. "My niece took her three kids to the boardwalk last year and it was $4 a ride for each one and $6 each for a waffle with ice cream. We just can’t afford to go anymore."

Amusement parks, still stinging from their own economic challenges of the past few years, are taking note. While pricey, new interactive attractions reigned last summer, this season visitors will see fewer new big-ticket rides and more deals pegged to multi-day visits.

"The last few years have been like an arms race," said Jamie O'Boyle, senior analyst at Cultural Studies & Analysis, a Philadelphia think tank. "It got to the point where they were putting in rides that cost more than it cost to build Disneyland." One example: last year's marquee ride — Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion — cost $25 million. The Happiest Place on Earth, meanwhile, cost $17 million (in 1955 dollars).

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Story: 11 new rides for thrill seekers

Such rides also have a distinct "fan boy" appeal, drawing a loyal, but exceedingly small, segment of the market. "Longer, higher, faster isn’t in vogue as it was, say, five or six years ago," said Dennis Spiegel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc. "The roller coaster is still king, but coasters speak directly to the teen market. Parks are now trying to get Mom and Dad and the kids back together as a unit."

Story: Crazy for coasters: For some, track goes on forever

Return of the Wave Swingers
One way they're doing that is by unveiling rides that are more eye-opening than heart-stopping. Among the new additions:

  • Barnstormer: At Dollywood, passengers are seated back to back on two pendulum arms that swing through 230 degrees of rotation, reaching 81 feet high and 45 mph. "It's not the tallest or fastest or scariest ride out there," said spokesman Pete Owens. "It's just a great family thrill ride."
  • Rev-O-Lution: Debuting at Lake Compounce in Bristol, Conn., in May, this ride features 24 outward-facing seats on a spinning disk that rides back and forth along a halfpipe-like track.
  • WindSeekers: Picture a Wave Swinger, one of those old-style carnival rides where you sat in a swing and got spun around a tower as centrifugal force pushed you outwards. Now picture one 200 or more feet high and you've got an idea of the experience on Atmosfear (218 feet, Playland, Vancouver, B.C.), SkyScreamer (236 feet, Six Flags St. Louis) and various WindSeekers (301 feet at Cedar Point, Kings Island, Knott's Berry Farm and Canada's Wonderland).

In fact, WindSeekers and their like speak directly to the state of the industry as parks seek to boost their family appeal while dialing back the attractions arms race a bit. "They have height; they have visibility, and you can put one in for $4-$5 million versus a big steel coaster that costs $24–$25 million," Spiegel said.

Eek! Why we love to scare ourselves silly

Deals, not discounts
Fewer big-ticket rides may also help keep a lid on some admission prices this year. "Pricing in the regional theme parks has pretty much hit the wall," said Spiegel, before cautioning that excessive discounting is also unlikely. Instead, parks are offering deals for those who are willing to stay longer or return later.

This year, for example, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va., is expanding its Fun Card program, which lets guests buy a one-day ticket ($64), but then use it for unlimited admission for the rest of the season. Previously restricted to Virginia residents, it’s now available to anyone.

"Our research is showing that families are taking one main vacation but also several shorter trips," said Dan Dipiazzo, vice president of marketing. "This makes it convenient and affordable for them to come back."

With gas prices hovering around $4 per gallon versus $2.95 a year ago, parks are also throwing more into the mix in an effort to provide deals without across-the-board discounting. Last year, Dollywood rolled out a "Dinner's on Dolly" program that included a free meal at select restaurants for anyone who purchased a one-day, regular-priced ticket online. "It's been very, very popular," said Owens.

Avoiding sticker shock
It's all about helping visitors avoid the sticker shock of additional expenses once they’re past the ticket booth, said Paula Werne, spokesperson for Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind. In addition to including parking, unlimited soft drinks and free sunscreen in its ticket price, the park posts its food prices on its website to help would-be visitors with their budgeting.

Story: Does Santa Claus really exist? Yes, in Indiana

"People can shop ahead of time and not have any surprises when they get here," said Werne. "Dad doesn't have to feel like a cheapskate by saying, 'We'll buy one drink and share it.' "

If it all sounds a bit nostalgic, it's probably because it is.

"The boomers are hitting 65 this year," said O'Boyle. "They're paying for family vacations with the grandkids and that sense of history is very appealing. They don't necessarily want to relive it but they do want to see echoes of it."

Werne is downright wistful. "There are so few things anymore that we can give our kids that we had when we were young," she said. "What are our kids going to remember, their first iPad?"

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail .

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Explainer: 11 new rides for thrill seekers

  • Image: Octotron, Belmont Park
    Minh Tra  /  Courtesy Belmont Park

    Gas at $4 per gallon. Airplanes ripping open mid-flight. Donald Trump for president.

    Let’s face it, this summer is looking scary enough without this or that thrill ride raising the bar on near-death experiences. Instead, theme and amusement parks are rolling out new (and newly renovated attractions) that emphasis unique elements and psychological thrills over sheer speed and stupefying G-forces.

    “Parks have wised up,” said Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com. “They're not trying to appeal to record-setting coaster connoisseurs; they're just trying to build something fun that a lot of people will want to ride.” For those who prefer to enjoy their adrenaline rushes while staying conscious, the following rides are worth a spin.

  • Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

    Image: Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
    Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

    Opening on May 27, Busch Gardens’ newest coaster celebrates the world’s fastest animal with speeds of up to 60 mph, three pounce-like launches and a route that flies over a simulated Serengeti complete with hills, ravines and waterfalls. It debuts alongside Cheetah Run, a glass-paneled enclosure where the real deal will run sprints several times a day. The combination “takes the thrill away from ‘Let’s see how many times we can go upside down’ to ‘Let’s see how many different elements we can add to a ride,’” said Erik Yates, editor of BehindTheThrills.com.

  • Octotron, Belmont Park

    Image: Octotron, Belmont Park
    Minh Tra  /  Courtesy Belmont Park

    As the newest addition to San Diego’s beachfront amusement park, this ride never leaves the ground yet still manages to provide a good gut-churning experience. Like the mutant love child of a Tilt-A-Whirl and a tea-cup ride, it features individual cars that circle around a ground-hugging undulating track. However, instead of spinning in flat circles, each two-person car spins forward and backwards with riders controlling just how much head-over-heels (or heels-over-head) motion they can stand. “We must’ve spun upside down like 50 times,” said Robb Alvey, owner/creator of ThemeParkReview.com. “I’ve never felt so sick in my life.”

  • Untamed, Canobie Lake Park

    Image: Untamed, Canobie Lake Park
    Canobie Lake Park

    No one’s likely to confuse Salem, N.H., with Orlando, Fla., or Anaheim, Calif., but this amusement park just north of Boston is clearly on the hunt for thrill-seekers with Untamed, its new grizzly-themed steel coaster. As just the fourth Euro-Fighter coaster in the country, it features that design’s vertical lift hill and a beyond-vertical first drop at a dizzying 97 degrees. After that, riders are whipped through a wilderness-themed layout, although it will likely be a big green blur given ride elements that include a vertical loop, zero-G roll and a vertical U-turn maneuver known as an Immelmann. The ride is set to open in early June.

  • Texas Giant, Six Flags Over Texas

    Image: Texas Giant, Six Flags Over Texas
    Six Flags Over Texas

    How does a 21-year-old wooden coaster make the grade as a Class of 2011 screamer? By undergoing a $10 million refurbishment that combines its existing wood structure with an all-new steel track. Considered a hybrid, it combines the wild ride of wood with the speed (65 mph), steep drops (up to 79 degrees) and intense banked turns (95 degrees) of steel. “The original was really powerful, but it was also rough as hell,” said Alvey. “You needed a chiropractor on the exit ramp.” By contrast, the new version “takes everything you think you know about wood coasters and flips it upside down. It’s completely bizarre.”

  • Green Lantern: First Flight, Six Flags Magic Mountain

    Image: Green Lantern: First Flight, Six Flags Magic Mountain
    Six Flags Magic Mountain

    It shares its name with another new ride in New Jersey and a big-screen summer movie starring Ryan Reynolds, but this coaster promises to be the most exciting of the bunch. As a four-dimensional coaster, it combines a vertically oriented zigzag track with suspended eight-person trains that rock back and forth and flip 360 degrees. The result is a two-minute ride along 825 feet of track, which means it’s more about the spins than the speeds. “It’s not just taller, faster or barfier,” said Niles. “It’s a completely unique experience.” The ride is set to open in mid-June.

  • Superman: Escape from Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain

    Image: Superman: Escape from Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain
    Mathew Imaging  /  Six Flags Magic Mountain

    How do you refresh a 14-year-old coaster? If it’s Superman, which launched riders straight up an L-shaped, 415-foot-high track, it’s simple: Re-engineer the front-facing cars so riders now go up facing backwards. It’s as fast as ever — riders rocket from zero to 100 mph in seven seconds and experience 6.5 seconds of weightlessness — but now you actually see the ground as it recedes and rushes back at you. It’s especially intense when two cars are launched on the side-by-side tracks. “It’s always fun to look over and see someone else freaking out just as much as you are,” said Yates.

  • Dare Devil Dive, Six Flags over Georgia

    Image: Dare Devil Dive, Six Flags over Georgia
    Six Flags over Georgia

    The key word is “dive.” After climbing 100 feet up a vertical tower, this Euro-Fighter-style coaster pauses for a moment…and then plunges back down at a beyond-vertical pitch of 95 degrees. Hitting a top speed of 52 mph, it then twists and turns its way through three inversions and over a zero-gravity hill before depositing its dazed riders back at the station. “It’s a complete rush of confusion,” said Yates. “Am I going up? Am I going down? Am I going to die?” (Opening May 28.)

  • Gotham City Gauntlet, Six Flags New England

    Image: Gotham City Gauntlet, Six Flags New England
    Six Flags New England

    Old coasters don’t die; they just get moved and/or rethemed. That’s the story behind the Gauntlet, which previously operated as Road Runner Express from 2000 to 2009 at the now-closed Kentucky Kingdom theme park. Topping out at 49 feet, the ride lives up to its scary subtitle — Escape from Arkham Asylum — by putting riders through 17 hairpin turns in around 90 seconds. “It’s more psychological than physical,” said Alvey. “You’re thinking, ‘'Oh my god, is this car going to stay on the track?’”

  • Soarin’ Eagle and Steeplechase, Scream Zone

    Image: Soarin' Eagle, Scream Zone
    Frank Franklin II  /  AP

    The transformation of Coney Island from freak-show funhouse to family-friendly destination continues with the debut of Scream Zone, which features not one but two new coasters. Originally built for Denver’s Elitch Gardens, Soarin’ Eagle is a flying coaster in which riders ride prone and parallel to the track. (Think Superman or, well, a soaring eagle.) “It’s not going to make anyone rearrange their Top 10 coaster list,” said Alvey, “but it’s going to be a good, solid ride.”

    If Soarin’ Eagle provides a glimpse of Coney Island’s future, Steeplechase offers a nod to its past. It takes its name from Steeplechase Park, which opened on the beach in 1897, and from that park’s popular Steeplechase course in which riders raced separately controlled wooden horses around a steel track. On the new version, riders still straddle their saddles, but the trusty steeds are connected in two-across, 12-person trains. In other words, the only way to win the “race” is to be first in line.

  • WindSeeker

    Image: WindSeeker
    Courtesy Cedar Point

    Remember wave swingers, the old kiddie rides in which people sat in swings and got spun around a central pole or tower? Well these rides are like that, only on steroids. At least six parks are opening such rides this summer, with Cedar Point, Kings Island, Knott’s Berry Farm and Canada’s Wonderland all offering 301-foot versions that spin riders in two-person swings that hit speeds of 30 m.p.h. and flare out at up to 45 degrees. “Being that high up is pretty alluring to me,” said Niles. “but I can see where it’d scare the living daylights out of a lot of other people.”

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