For the Yell of It
Friday, April 29, 2005
I never much liked big amusement parks. I'm more the county fair type, where the scent of manure wafts over from the livestock tents, the midway beckons and you pick at cotton candy while waiting your turn on the Tilt-a-Whirl. The parks always seemed too crowded, too far away and too hot in the summertime. Plus, I couldn't understand the point of waiting an hour in line for a ride that would last less than five minutes. If skipping the theme parks meant keeping my feet on the ground, then so be it.
But then I spent a sunny spring weekend riding roller coasters at two nearby parks, and I saw the light. Thanks to the smaller crowds, the lower temps and the surprising ease of getting to Paramount's Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va., (about 75 miles south of the Beltway) and Six Flags America (about five miles east of the Beltway) in Largo, I'm a believer. Give me steel or wooden tracks, spin me in corkscrews, turn me upside down, drop me down vertical slopes, shoot me up a hill at 80 miles per hour. Just strap me in and I'm game.
Kings Dominion, which celebrates its 30th birthday this year, is a 400-acre park whose trademark 332-foot-tall replica of the Eiffel Tower can be seen above the tree line long before you arrive. It's long been the king of theme parks in the area, and its high-tech rides (and long lines) prove it. The six-year-old Six Flags America, one of Six Flags Inc.'s dozens of regional parks worldwide, is a relative newcomer to the area. The 150-acre park is still expanding, adding new -- and ever more sophisticated -- rides and attractions to the site of the old Wild World, then Adventure World, parks.
At both parks, I found plenty of ways to avoid the lines that plague theme parks at the height of summer. One is to go before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Another is to arrive when the parks open in the morning or in the evening after most people have gone home. Or wait for a drizzly or chilly day, the kind of day when no one else is thinking, "What awful weather -- everybody in the car!"
There are also some financial advantages to visiting parks in the spring. Until May 8, you can save some cash at Kings Dominion and Six Flags by buying a season pass, which is a great deal if you plan to visit a park more than once. For most parkgoers, a season pass pays for itself in two visits. Plus, many parks offer upgrades to season-pass holders. At Six Flags, an extra $26 gets you into a fast lane to the front of the line, and at Kings Dominion, if you have a season pass and arrive when the park opens, you're guaranteed a spot on the first ride.
Not to say there aren't any drawbacks to hitting the parks in the off-season. Most of the parks are open only on weekends until May 28. The summer concerts and fireworks haven't begun, and the water parks aren't open yet; WaterWorks at Kings Dominion opens May 14, and the new Hurricane Harbor at Six Flags opens May 28. But you don't have to wait to get wet -- both parks have boat rides with a splash at the end.
Though there are shorter lines in spring, bear in mind that wait times are relative. For example, at 4:30 on a recent balmy Saturday, a queue of patient thrill-seekers waited more than an hour to ride Kings Dominion's popular Flight of Fear roller coaster. The park typically draws big crowds, and when I visited it was filled with athletes participating in a cheerleading competition at the park.
It's a slightly different story at Six Flags, which is smaller and bills itself as a local attraction. "It's not a destination, it's more of an everyday -- or every weekend -- place," said park spokeswoman Lahne Curry. Though the park was on the itinerary for several tour groups the weekend I visited, Curry said that many season-pass holders are Prince George's County residents. On a recent Sunday morning at 10:30, right after the opening ceremony, Six Flags felt practically empty. I watched two kids whirling 20 feet off the ground on the Flying Carousel swing ride, enjoying their exclusive view. Later, at the popular Mind Eraser roller coaster, I only had to wait long enough for the car to pull in and unload from the last run.
Lines or no, the sobering truth is that sometimes rides can malfunction unexpectedly and need to shut down. This can be disappointing if you've already done your time in line. At Kings Dominion, I overheard an exasperated teenage girl complain to her friend, "I waited in that line for an hour and then it broke just when it was my turn!" And at Six Flags, after the Superman: Ride of Steel coaster stopped running, I watched a disappointed boy stomp off in protest as a cluster of adults conferred about Plan B.
Curry said some shutdowns happen because a ride just needs its tires repositioned or there's a computer glitch. It's not always necessary to give up your hallowed place in line. The ride's staff "should be able to advise you whether it'll be fixed in five minutes or two hours."
Of course, for some people, a long line or malfunctioning ride can be a source of solidarity or of commiseration with other riders, or it can result in a new friend. And I realize that there are some people who like nothing more than to be at the center of the action, to chat and flirt with people in line, to watch the parade of humanity go by on a busy summer day at the park. If you're one of those people, wait till summer to hit the parks. Leave the off-season to the rest of us.
THE KING OF SPRING
In the spring, Kings Dominion offers visitors experiences far removed from the everyday. Unless, of course, your typical day includes getting a bear hug from a giant Scooby-Doo. Its parent company is Paramount, so many of the park's 200 rides, shows and attractions have tie-ins with movies or TV shows. On some of the newest rides, long waits are made to seem less so by the park's ingenious solution, QTV, which allows those in line to watch ride-related movies on TV screens set up along the path.