My husband and I wondered if it wouldn't be more wholesome to take the kids (6, 4 and 8 months) to the mountains or the beach. But then, I adore roller coasters; I still cherish my childhood memories of cruising around Kings Island (Kings Dominion's Ohio counterpart). And these days, with metal detectors at the entrance gates, the parks are a relatively safe environment where kids can test their limits and try new things.
Where else can two little boys "drive" a car down the Blue Ridge Tollway? Or climb onto a tube by themselves and swoosh down a gentle water slide? And where else do parents get to stand in long lines for deep-fried funnel cakes topped with four scoops of soft-serve ice cream, or see other grown-ups walking around with stuffed Tweety Birds the size of toddlers under their arms?
Unless you plan to dash to one of the coasters as soon as the park opens to beat the crowds, I recommend starting your visit with a trip up to Kings Dominion's faux Eiffel Tower. From here you can admire the coasters' thrilling architectural differences and plot your own attack. You can also take in all 16 acres of the park's new addition, Water Works.
Never mind that the bobbing, waterlogged crowd was larger than any I'd ever seen at any beach anywhere. At Water Works, our boys couldn't get enough of Big Wave Bay, a 650,000-gallon pool with four-foot waves and lots of whistle-blowing lifeguards. My husband and I, however, were quickly stressed out by the crowds and how easy it would be to lose track of a kid. I was more impressed by the 17 water slides, which come in all slopes and sizes. The line for the FreeStylin' slide moved surprisingly quickly, so the boys and I toted our tubes up the stairs to the tower to glide down again and again.
Much of the time, the baby and I hung out under the giant umbrellas that sprout from the concrete like mutant mushrooms while the boys stomped, slid and splashed their way through the less crowded and more family-friendly Lil' Barefoot Beach. Another favorite: Lazy Rider, a quarter-mile inner-tube ride on a purposely lazy "river."
Despite creative landscaping, Kings Dominion excuse me, Paramount's Kings Dominion is definitely less aesthetically appealing than Busch Gardens (the "Most Beautiful Theme Park in America" award winner for seven straight years). Busch Gardens aims at Ye Olde Worlde; Kings Dominion heads straight for Hollywood. Posters featuring Paramount's box-office offspring blossom from the grounds of the Eiffel Tower. You can party on, dude, in the Wayne's World section of the park or ogle Forrest Gump's white suit over your fries and margaritas at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Shack. There are Blue's Clues revues and roaming Rugrats.
I weathered the suspended-steel Alpengeist at Busch Gardens two years ago, and I would have liked to ride Volcano, the Blast Coaster, its slightly faster counterpart here, which goes to the additional trouble of hurling riders through a simulated volcanic eruption. But I couldn't spare the hour-long wait, and I wound up on Shock Wave, a standing coaster (your bottom actually rests on something like a bike seat) with one great drop and ripping turns. While the boys carefully chose their carousel mounts, I made the first run of the day. I almost hopped on again, but motherhood and my husband's turn to play called.
This father of three and would-be sky diver gravitated toward the Xtreme SkyFlyer, a 15-story curving tower to which one is harnessed, hoisted and dropped. Though you have to pay extra for SkyFlyer, it seemed safer (and cheaper) than jumping out of a plane. I worried briefly about our future teenage boys watching their dad whoop it up while he sailed over their heads in a smooth arc, swinging until his momentum ceased.
The boys were tall enough to ride a few of the grown-up coasters but were intimidated by the screams. I tried to explain that screaming is the best part of the ride.
They were a tad old, on the other hand, for the toddler-friendly Kidzville section with its unrelenting Raffi background music.
There is thematic and loud music everywhere you go, actually: hard rock in Wayne's World, surfer music at Big Wave Bay. I knew it was time to go when the music got on my nerves. By that time, coincidentally, the boys were ready to pass out from so much fun.
We will approach Kings Dominion again, wiser but still wary.
Getting There: Paramount's Kings Dominion (804/876-5000, www .pkdthrills.com) is about 90 minutes from the Beltway via I-95 south to Doswell, Va. If you pass an Eiffelish Tower, you've missed the exit.
Being There: Park admission is $33.99 for ages 7 and up, $24.99 for ages 3 to 6; discount passes are available at Giant Food stores. We arrived late Saturday afternoon and paid $5 each to enter the park after 5 p.m. by buying our tickets through our Best Western hotel. (We paid full price the next day.) Amusement park nuts can buy a five-day package that includes unlimited admission to both Kings Dominion and Busch Gardens (and its Water Country USA) and hotel accommodations thereabouts for four nights (800/832-1127). Water Works is open daily through Sept. 6. Lockers and changing facilities are available.
Where to Stay: We stayed at the Best Western Kings Quarters (804/876-3321), which is within walking distance of Kings Dominion but also has a free shuttle. There's a pool, a small park, a Denny's restaurant and a bar on site. The park also has a campground (800/922-6710).
Six Flags America, Largo, Md. (five miles east of the Beltway on Route 214, 301/249-1500, www.sixflags.com): After a delayed opening and initial traffic snarls, Washington's closest-in amusement park has been a hot place to be this sizzling, dry summer its 135 acres holding not just the former Adventure World water park but two new steel coasters (the ultra-twisted Joker's Jinx and bi-directional Two-Face) and lots more components of Six Flags' $40 million renovation. Open daily through Sept. 6 (Paradise Island, the water park, is open daily through Sept. 11). Halloween season: open Friday through Sunday afternoon-evenings Oct. 1-17 and daily afternoon-evenings Oct. 21-31. Admission $29.99, $14.99 for kids 48 inches and shorter (ages 3 and younger free), $19.99 for seniors 62 and older and the disabled.
Busch Gardens, near Williamsburg, Va. (about three hours, 800/772-8886, www.buschgardens.com): This year's addition, the "hypercoaster" Apollo's Chariot, starts off with a 210-foot, 70-mph drop and it's all downhill from there (except for those sudden uphill parts). Probably the region's most impressive collection of serious coasters (Big Bad Wolf, the Loch Ness Monster and the inverted Alpengeist) are to be found here amid Anheuser-Busch's 100 award-winning acres of faux 17th-century Europe. The park is a couple of miles from both Williamsburg and sister Anheuser-Busch park Water Country USA (separate admission; see below). Open daily through Sept. 5, Friday-Monday Sept. 6 through Oct. 31. Admission $35, $28 for ages 3 to 6, $32 for seniors 55 and older.
Water Country USA, near Williamsburg, Va. (about three hours, 1-800-772-8886, www.watercountryusa.com): Not a whole lot new this season at this sprawling, 15-year-old water park except for it being one of the wettest places for miles around. Open daily through Sept. 6, weekends only Sept. 11-19. Admission $27, $19.50 for ages 3 to 6, $24.30 for seniors 55 and older. A three-day pass to both Water Country USA and Busch Gardens is $55 (ages 3 and up).
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