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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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.
"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 .