IF THE IDEA of riding an ostrich, lion or zebra appeals to you, you needn't travel far. Such exotic creatures keep pace along with dozens of prancing ponies on antique carousels in the Washington area.
On lazy summer days, the carousels play host to a variety of passengers: cooing moms with bewildered babies, giggling couples holding hands as they ride side by side, mischievous youngsters who try to sit backwards and tired adults who rest in the stationary chariots. Smiling children wave over and over at non-riding parents poised with cameras.
"I've had them anywhere from 2 weeks old to 102," Max Hurley says of the riders at Glen Echo Park, where he has taken tickets and operated the carousel for 13 years. He even gave a special ride to Cybill Shepherd's 7-month-old twins when the actress filmed part of the movie "Chances Are" at the park.
Carousel buffs from throughout the world visit Glen Echo to ride the Dentzel carousel, which has spun there since 1921. One of 27 remaining Dentzels in the United States and Canada, according to the National Carousel Association, the ride boasts two chariots and 52 figures, including 40 horses, four ostriches, four rabbits, a deer, a tiger, a lion and a giraffe. Of them, 36 are "jumpers," which go up and down.
Children like to ride the rabbits and ostriches, says ticket-seller Irene Hurley, Max's mother. At the ticket window, youngsters can obtain a free read-aloud pamphlet that includes a carousel quiz and animal drawings to color.
On an average weekend, the merry-go-round draws up to 5,000 riders, according to Max Hurley. Housed in a wood and stone pavilion across from the aging facades of a vacant arcade and bumper car pavilion, the ride carries many visitors back to pre-1968, when Glen Echo was a full-fledged amusement park.
The ride is being restored gradually, with the brown-hued animals being painted to match their original vibrant color patterns. One horse, stripped down to its first coat of paint, serves as an unridable example of how the figures originally looked.
Among the four restored animals is the "lead" or "king" horse, an elaborately carved regal white animal bedecked with bright red roses. Irene Hurley, who is also co-chairman of the Glen Echo Park Foundation's carousel committee, says a giraffe and chariot currently are undergoing restoration, which can cost from $3,000 to $5,000. One panel of the flora-painted overhead canopy panel and two scenic murals decorating the drum -- the carousel's core that houses the machinery -- also have been restored, she says.
A 1925 Wurlitzer 165 band organ -- one of only three in public ownership -- provides the loud, lively music accompanying the ride. Carousel visitors can pick up fliers detailing the musical instrument's history, and can browse through a catalogue that lists the titles on the organ's 100 music rolls, most of which play 10 to 12 songs, including such selections as the full-length "William Tell Overture," Sousa marches, Irving Berlin tunes, polkas and modern numbers such as "The Wayward Wind" and "The Chipmunk Song."
Keeping the 50-foot merry-go-round in working condition requires regular maintenance. Once a day, Max Hurley checks the machine's oil and inspects each animal's stirrups, straps and foot pegs. Once a month the gears and bearings get oiled and greased. The shiny brass finish on the steel poles gets polished daily to remove fingerprints.
Regular maintenance and thorough restoration also have kept the carousel at Wheaton Regional Park in good running condition. Perhaps the area's oldest merry-go-round, the Herschell-Spillman model was manufactured between 1909 and 1915, says Louanne Bodammer, administrative assistant for the Montgomery County Parks Department.
Since May of 1985, the ride has resided in an eight-sided protective wooden structure at the park, she says. The carousel, designed as a traveling ride that could be assembled in a day, operated on the National Mall for many years.
Carlson-Jameson Inc. researched the ride to complete restoration of the 33 horses, three zebras and two chariots.
"The horses we have here, I'd say they're kind of plain compared to some of the other carousels," says Michael Kropff, a manager at Wheaton Regional Park, of the figures, all jumpers. "Herschell-Spillman was more known for mechanical work as opposed to wood carvings."
Kropff says immigrant workers created the designs in the early 1900s. The carousel has no band organ, but a sound system plays a variety of taped music ranging from French carousel songs to organ selections.
Other popular old carousels operate in front of the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building, in three Fairfax County parks and even in a Columbia shopping mall.
All of the area's carousels have ticket prices ranging from 50 cents to $1, thus offering inexpensive trips down memory lane, where going around in circles is half the fun.
BURKE LAKE PARK -- 7315 Ox Rd., Fairfax Station. 323-6600. Open daily 11 to 7:30; weekends only Labor Day through October. The carousel features 20 fiber glass figures built in the 1940s or '50s. Rides are 50 cents for ages 2 and up.
GLEN ECHO PARK -- MacArthur Boulevard at Goldsboro Road, Glen Echo. 492-6663. Open Wednesdays and Thursdays 10 to 2, Saturdays and Sundays noon to 6 through Sept. 30. At 10:30 a.m. on Saturdays through September, a park ranger gives a 30-minute carousel tour, offering information about the ride's history. Rides are 50 cents per person. Children under 8 must be accompanied by an adult.
LAKE ACCOTINK PARK -- 5660 Heming Ave., Springfield. 569-3464. Open daily noon to 7, through Oct. 28; weekends only noon to 6 Oct. 29 through Nov. 25. The carousel features horses made of wood and aluminum, dating back to the 1920s and '30s. Rides are 50 cents for ages 2 and up.
LAKE FAIRFAX -- 1400 Lake Fairfax Dr., Reston. 471-5415. Open daily 10 to 8, through Labor Day; weekends 10 to 6 Sept. 4 through Halloween weekend. The carousel is a 1950s Parker with 20 horses. Rides are 50 cents for ages 2 and up.
LEE DISTRICT PARK -- 6601 Telegraph Rd., Alexandria. 922-9841. Open Saturdays 11 to 7, Sundays 1 to 7. The carousel has aluminum horses made in the 1940s or '50s. Rides are 50 cents for ages 2 and up.
MALL IN COLUMBIA -- 10300 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. 301/730-3300. Open during mall hours: Monday through Saturday 10 to 9:30, Sundays noon to 5. The carousel is the newest in the area, a recent Italian model patterned after an 1898 German design. Rides are $1.
THE MALL -- On the Mall, in front of the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Dr. SW. Open daily 10 to 5:30. The 1940s Allan Herschell model has 58 horses and boats. Rides are 75 cents.
WHEATON REGIONAL PARK -- 2000 Shorefield Rd., Wheaton. 946-6396. Open weekends and holidays 10 to 6. Rides are 60 cents; parents who stand alongside seated children are admitted free.
Reston writer Mary Jane Solomon's favorite mount at the Glen Echo carousel is the ostrich.