At tourist attractions nationwide, cellphone apps can enhance your visit

(Phil Marden for The Washington Post)
By Jennifer J. Salopek
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 27, 2010

What did I want to do, my adoring family asked, on Mother's Day? Go to Six Flags! I said.

I know: It's a nontraditional alternative to brunch and spa treatments. But as a lifelong roller coaster addict, I was eager to try out the amusement park's new iPhone app, Fun Finder, and see how it might enhance a day among the rides. We downloaded the app onto three devices and roped in some friends, and off we went to Six Flags America in Largo.

I had two main hopes for Fun Finder: that it would help me avoid long lines for the biggest coasters and would let my 12-year-old son be a little more independent in the park. The app is divided into two main features: Park Pal and Fun Wheel. Park Pal is an electronic substitute for the poster-size paper map we've all struggled with. It includes all of the app's navigational tools: hours and events in a calendar format; ride descriptions, including minimum height and "thrill rating"; an interactive map of the park that interfaces with the phone's GPS (turn on iPhone Location Services) to show your location; and Friend Finder, which is supposed to help you keep track of the others in your party. Fun Wheel has two game areas: the Big Scream, a scavenger hunt that seems designed to steer you to the pay-to-play games, and Social Club, which "helps you find the best places to hang with friends." (I never really understood what that was for.)

Alas, neither of my chief wishes for the app was entirely fulfilled. Although Park Pal shows which rides give out Flash Passes -- timed-entry tickets issued by a virtual queuing system -- it doesn't allow you to get one virtually (you still have to walk over to the ride) and doesn't show the times the passes are being issued for. My son couldn't take off alone, either. He has an iPod Touch, not an iPhone; he could download the app, but once inside the park, which has no WiFi, he couldn't run it.

Still, as the mom of a 5-year-old, I was thrilled to be able to find the nearest restrooms -- fast. In fact, the interactive park map is Fun Finder's best feature. Using the iPhone's GPS, it drops a pin on the map at your location. Under "More Fun" in Park Pal, you can then look for food, restrooms, live characters, ATMs, lockers and other conveniences close to where you're standing.

There may still be some kinks that need ironing out, but this is the wave of the future. Tourist attractions nationwide -- from amusement parks to museums and science centers -- are developing mobile applications to enhance (and prolong) the visitor experience. Whether they're intended to educate and inform or just to entertain, and ranging in complexity from simple text-based trivia games and scavenger hunts to full-featured interactive software, they can help you get more from the attraction you're visiting, a real plus in this era of ever-rising admission prices.

And you don't need the latest gizmo to participate. Text-based games and hunts can be played on any cellphone with text-messaging capability, regardless of carrier. You begin the game by texting a specific word to a five-digit number; look for signs or brochures at the attraction for instructions.

Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, for instance, has scavenger hunt apps for all its major permanent exhibits (and rolled out a new one for the opening of the blockbuster "Cleopatra" show on June 5). As you move through the "Giant Heart" exhibit, for example, you can answer questions that lead you from one ventricle to the next. If you have a smartphone, the game's GPS capability can tell you whether there are too many other players in your area and urge you to move to another one. You can also combine pieces of the exhibit-based games into a single game that gives a strong overview of the entire museum. When the game is over, you can fill out a survey to tell the staff how you liked it.

"These games really engage our visitors, especially teens," said Frederic Bertley, head of the Franklin Institute's Center for Innovation in Science Learning.

Mystified by modern art? Play the new scavenger hunt in the Sculpture Park at the Abington Art Center near Philadelphia. Search for clues and solve riddles in and around the center's 27-acre woodland setting; the sculptures hold the answers. The game, which consists of about a dozen clues and takes about an hour to complete, "requires visitors to really look at the sculptures and notice details that they may have previously overlooked," said executive director Laura Burnham.

Many tourist attractions now offer audio tours via cellphone. I find that so much better than those clunky headsets. Plus, there are no rental fees. Sites with educational missions but small staffs can use the tours to share far more information than signs or interpreters can offer.

Say you're standing in front of the giant Pacific octopus at the Seattle Aquarium and you wonder what that guy eats or how he reproduces. Just whip out your phone and dial the number on his tank for a short informational message. If you want to hear more, press the Option key for an expanded message.

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