Busch Gardens is about 55 miles east of Richmond, off I-64. Yesterday's Weekend section gave an incorrect location.
If you didn't want to have to go to theme parks, you shouldn't have had children. If you've got them, you've got to go at least once a year.
There are only three major parks in this region, so it isn't as bad as though you lived in Central Florida; and all three serve beer. This is especially nice if one of your kids is old enough to handle the drive home: You can turn the Kinder loose in the park and relax until they come find you.
Kings Dominion used to be the park of choice for Washingtonians simply because it is closest. Until recently it lacked both the style and substance of its competitors at Busch Gardens and Hershey Park, but pulled the crowds because it was a quick- and-sweaty way to get the annual ordeal over with, never mind the tricks and trash and surly attendants.
Two seasons under new management, and what looks like a very large investment in both attractions and attractiveness, have turned Kings Dominion around. "The Grizzly," a new rollercoaster in the traditional wood-frame style, opened this spring to well-deserved huzzahs. If you hate amusement parks, you'll find it relatively painless; if you love them, you'll love it.
I think Busch Gardens is better than Disney World, although it is only excessive attachment to my children that makes it possible for me to spend a day at either. Augie Busch started with better topography than at Kings Dominion, and has done more imaginative things with it. But even the prettiest park can be a horror when the crowds build to such gigantic proportions; I think that making people stand in line for more than an hour at the major rides is something very like stealing.
The only reasonable strategy is to get there early and tell the kids to run like hell for the Loch Ness Monster when the place opens; that way they'll get at least one ride. The crowds thin out in the evening, but to take advantage of that you really need to have a nearby place to spend the night. Better yet, spend the weekend in Williamsburg or Yorktown.
Hershey Park is my favorite park of the three, although I'm not entirely sure why. It has no rides in the class of the top draws of its Virginia competitors, and the crowds are just about as awful, but I just like them Pennsylvania Dutchpersons. But don't daytrip it, spend the weekend at one of those wonderful Lancaster County places that are just restaurants with motels attached because when you get up from the table all you want to do is go lie down. KINGS DOMINION -- Off I-95 about 75 miles south of Washington. Admission $12.95. Open weekends only until June 3. BUSCH GARDENS -- Off I-64 (which is off I-95) about 45 miles west of Richmond. Admission $12.50. Open daily until fall. HERSHEY PARK -- In Hershey, Pennsylvania. From the Beltway take I-270 to Frederick and I-70 to Hagerstown, where you pick up I-81. Starting looking for the Hershey signs around Harrisburg. Admission $12.95. Open daily from May 22 through Labor Day.