Think amusement parks are just for kids? Think again.
There's nothing like screaming aboard a careening roller coaster, gorging on funnel cake and popcorn, or splashing in a spray of water to bring out your inner child.
The advent of spring means parks across the region are now open for business, albeit with abridged, seasonal hours. That gives early birds ample time to catch a sneak preview before the summer crowds descend.
Many parks are launching new rides, shows and attractions aimed at all ages.
"There's a lot of excitement this year," says Elizabeth Ringas, the Mid-Atlantic regional representative for the American Coaster Enthusiasts, which has some 8,000 members nationwide. "There's the new drop ride, the Mach Tower at Busch Gardens and great new shows at Six Flags. Kings Dominion has done a huge remodel on its Intimidator 305, and it's almost a whole new ride."
Meanwhile, several parks have "significantly" lowered admission fees for budget-conscious visitors, Ringas notes. "And some are offering season passes that pay for themselves with two visits. It's a good value.
"You create such monumental memories. It's worth the trip."
Many parks can boast of hair-raising rides and assorted thrills. But how many have the sweet scent of chocolate wafting through the air?
"A visit to Hershey might begin at our theme park, but it definitely shouldn't end there," says Mindy Bianca, a spokeswoman for Hershey Entertainment & Resorts. "There's an entire town here that offers a variety of attractions — many of which feature our favorite element, chocolate."
Although Hershey — located in central Pennsylvania about 90 minutes from Baltimore — calls itself The Sweetest Place on Earth, there's plenty more. Hersheypark features some 65 rides and attractions, including 11 roller coasters and nine water-drenching amusements at The Boardwalk.
For the kids Rides, rides and more rides – Hersheypark features some 65 rides and attractions and nine water-drenching amusements at The Boardwalk. When they're too tired to spin any more, head for ZooAmerica to see creatures large and small in an 11-acre habitat.
For the grown-ups Hershey's Summer Concert Series at the Amphitheatre begins in May and features performing artists such as Taylor Hicks, Billy Ocean, the Lovin' Spoonful and Tanya Tucker. The shows are included in admission to Hersheypark.
Do it together Those who love sweet treats won't want to skip Hershey's Chocolate World (adjacent to Hersheypark), where an interactive, hands-on exhibit helps guests create their own candy bars.
Address 100 W. Hersheypark Drive, Hershey, Pa.
Hours Hersheypark is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. today and Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Weekend hours begin May 6 and weekday hours start May 25. Generally, hours are 10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, 10 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 14 and Fridays July 30-Aug. 13. The Boardwalk is open May 28-Sept. 5.
Admission $21.95-$53.95. This weekend, the park hosts Springtime in the Park, a special opening for spring break with tickets priced at $26.95.
Information 800-437-7439 or Hersheypark.com
Six Flags America
Swagger is the name of the game at Six Flags America this year.
For starters, expect high-flying stunts and swashbuckling adventure courtesy of the Blundering Buccaneers, a new show from the parks' stunt team.
That's not all that's fresh at the park, located about 40 minutes south of Baltimore in Bowie.
Beginning May 27, guests can experience stories from exotic locales around the world in Survivor Live, a new interactive, stage show based on the CBS reality television show.
"We expect the show to be a big hit with guests this summer," says the park's president, John Winkler.
For the kids The Zoomazon Falls waterslide attraction opens later this summer at Hurricane Harbor water park. This four-slide complex will have an Amazon rain forest theme, with sound effects, water features and foliage. Also new this season for young guests is Bob The Builder Live, a song and dance show based on the TV program.
For the grown-ups Survivor Live. Although it's aimed at all ages, the show will feature music and choreography, sets and lavish costumes that will appeal to adults. Guests interact with both live stage performers and clips from the TV series as four audience members compete against one another in a series of challenges. The last contestant standing will be named "the ultimate Survivor."
Do it together Adventurous types (of the right height) won't want to miss thrill rides such as Superman: Ride of Steel and ROAR, a wild and twisty wooden roller coaster.
Address 13710 Central Ave., Bowie
Hours Park opens at 10:30 a.m. weekends in April and May. Open daily May 27-Aug. 22, plus Labor Day weekend. Hurricane Harbor water park is open May 28-Aug. 22, plus Labor Day weekend. Water park hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Admission $49.99. Season passes are $59.99. Guests who purchase four or more season passes this weekend will receive one season parking pass free (valued at $50).
Information: 301-249-1500 or sixflags.com/America
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
The Williamsburg, Va., park has some bold new rides, a rejuvenated Oktoberfest village and a humor-filled new Italian show. The park has also welcomed some new family members on the farm.
There's major buzz for Mach Tower, which at 240 feet will be the tallest ride in Busch Gardens when it's completed in late spring. Thrill seekers are lifted to the top, then spiraled into the stratosphere in a rush of wind and screams before they drop.
For the kids Highland Stables, where two lambs (Scottish Blackface sheep) and a new 150-pound Clydesdale colt were born this spring. Visitors can see the new colt and take a behind-the-scenes tour of a working Scottish farm.
For the grown-ups The revamped beer garden at the Oktoberfest village. Don't forget the gourmet pretzels.
Do it together Water Country USA. The park's water attraction has a new 75-foot drop slide, Vanish Point, that opens May 21, but it also has a variety of falls, pools and playgrounds for the entire family.
Address Williamsburg, Va., Exit 243A off Interstate 64
Hours Vary. Open Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays through May. Daily hours begin May 27.
Information buschgardens.com/va or call 800-343-7946.
There's something bright, new and shiny for the whole family at Kings Dominion, the 400-acre amusement and waterpark about 20 miles north of Richmond, Va.
"Snoopy's Starlight Spectacular," a million-dollar light-and-sound spectacular, features Snoopy and the Peanuts gang. It's designed using a mix of 1.2 million LED lights.
Also designed to dazzle: Kings Dominion's "Nights of Fire"— 64 nights of fireworks every evening at 9:30 p.m., including for big summer holidays like the Fourth of July.
For the kids Planet Snoopy and KiDzville, two park areas dedicated to child-size fun.
For the grown-ups Go for the thrill — the park has one of the largest roller coaster collections on the East Coast. After a big debut last year, the Intimidator 305 is newly improved and faster, say park officials. The ride was named "Best New Roller Coaster in 2010" by the trade magazine Amusement Today.
"Over 1 million guests experienced the extreme thrills last year," said Pat Jones, vice president and general manager of Kings Dominion. "This monster is back and better than ever."
Do it together Ride The Americana. The park's first ferris wheel, introduced in 2009, features 24 six-person gondolas.
Address Exit 98 on Interstate 95 in Doswell, Va., about 75 miles south of Washington.
Hours Through August, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily; closes 8 p.m. (except Saturdays) beginning Aug. 15.
Admission $34.99-$57.99; Two-day passes $59.99
Information kingsdominion.com or call 804-876-5000
With some 30 pint-sized rides, live shows, a water-play zone and miniature golf, it's no wonder Dutch Wonderland is known as "A Kingdom for Kids."
New in 2011 are three new treats: two rides known as the Kite Flight and Leapin' Frogs, respectively, and a live interactive stage-show, "Dress Up n' Dance!"
The Kite Flight allows guests to experience the sensation of free-flight while gliding 17 feet in the air.
Leapin' Frogs is a classic ride, where little ones in frog-themed seats bounce up and down in a circle, amidst faux frogs and lily pads. And "Dress Up n' Dance!" is a live, interactive stage show with well, music and dancing.
"We wanted to give our guests another experience that they could do as a family," says Rick Stammel, general manager of Dutch Wonderland. "The Kite Flight allows families to ride together and create memories together."
For the kids Everything.
For the grown-ups Head to Duke's Lagoon, where you can rent a bamboo cabana for the day. Each cabana includes two lounge chairs and a dining table with four chairs and a waiter for food and drink service. It's the perfect place to chill out while the kids splash the day away.
Do it together Ride the Kingdom Coaster, a wooden coaster that's family-friendly.
Address 2249 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster, Pa.
Hours Open weekends beginning April 30. Daily beginning Memorial Day. Hours vary by date, check website for details.
Admission $21.99-$33.99. Ages 2 and under are free.
Information dutchwonderland.com or call 866-386-2839