There is no way to avoid taking the family to at least one theme park each summer, but parents around here are blessed, if that's the word, with three choices.
In terms of the number and quality of rides and shows, Busch Gardens, Kings Dominion and Hershey Park rank in that order. As "experiences," attractive places where adults can keep from going bonkers with fatigue and boredom while the kids are wearing themselves out, Hershey Park moves up to second.
Kings Dominion, 90 minutes away via I-95, is the most convenient and the obvious choice for daytripping. A wise family will take along a humongous picnic cooler, with enough ice to outlast a day in the parking lot, because an adequate meal is not to be had in the park at any price.
Having done the park there is nothing else to do but go home, unless one is unaccountably seized with a desire to visit Richmond, because Kings Dominion is slightly south of the middle of nowhere.
Busch Gardens and Hershey Park are so far away and have so many nearby attractions that it's foolish and dangerous to make them one-day, gas-wasting ordeals. There's little to be gained by going on weekdays; like Kings dominion, they're always overcrowded.
Hershey Park can be done in a day, but by itself probably isn't worth the trip. Better to invest a weekend, stopping over at Gettysburg or in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, Lancaster for a first choice and Hershey itself for a second.
Its hideous hex-sign schlock notwithstanding, the Amish region is the best in the U.S. for family touring, and even the mediocre restaurants are pretty good by what passes for modern standards. For some reason the percentage of nice folks and good cooks seems higher in the Strudel Belt than anywhere else between here and Holland; for an excellent sample of both, stop by the Dutch Cupboard restaurant on Steinwehr Avenue (Business Route 15) in Gettysburg.
Busch Gardens is in a class by itself, probably because the proprietary beer barons, Big Augie and Little Augie Busch, can afford to indulge their whims. The setting, rides, shows and food range from okay to outstanding, and if the kids are big enough to run around on their own, it's possible to have a fine time just feeding the ducks until the youngsters burn out.
Some parents take along a gusty babysitter and drop everybody at the park while the adults visit nearby Williamsburg, Yorktown or Jamestown. It is also possible to while away most of a day just trying to decode the attractive, full-color and almost useless free map.
In high summer the best strategy probably is the two-day ticket, which gets you in after 5 p.m. one day and all day the next. The children can be chivvied through a day of touring historical places by the promise of Busch Gardens at sundown. After an evening of trying out the rides they can decide what to hit hard the next day, and probably won't complain too much if you pull them away before the wilting heat of a typical Virginia Pennisula summer afternoon.
The No. 1 ride at Busch Gardens is of course the Loch Ness Monster, a double-loop roller coaster whose cost would be justified on esthetics alone. Even though it's the biggest draw, the waiting time averages considerably less than Le Scoot (a log flume) and Le Mans (a dreadfully slow and dull miniature automobile course).To get the best effect from the Monster, leave the overhead harness as loose as the attendants will let you.
Half-hidden in the Hastings section is the Catapult, which may have the shortest line in the park, "short" being a relative term. It's nothing but a standard crack-the-whip, but somehow being indoors and in the dark makes it a delightful ride, thrilling without being punishing. Being air-conditioned, it's an excellent pick-me-up.
The place to eat is Das Festhaus, and the thing to eat is the $5 German sampler, which is excellent and ample for two persons if followed by one of the fine desserts. Half the party should go into the cafeteria line while the others capture and hold tables.
On Wednesday Busch Gardens will open its newest "country," Italy, a nine-acre hamlet bordering the Oktoberfest section. It will have a restaurant with a display kitchen where one may observe the preparation one's fettucini Alfredo, and a plaza where 1,000 at a time may watch folk singers and dancers and the Renaissance Flagmen of Sansepolcro.