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The simple summer pleasures of amusement parks

With a handful of amusement parks within easy driving distance, Baltimoreans can spend their summer weekends sampling breath-taking roller coasters, cavorting with some of their kids' favorite animated characters or getting soaked even though they're miles from the nearest ocean. And for those who haven't been in a few years — maybe it's time to once again sample the simple summer pleasures that only an amusement park can provide.

Here's a look at five parks within 200 miles of the center of Baltimore, along with a sampling of what new rides and attractions they have to offer.

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Why you should visit in 2010

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New this year, says Six Flags spokeswoman Julie Filz, is the decidedly kid-friendly Thomas Town, the largest Thomas the Tank Engine-themed area in the U.S. (Ask your 5-year-old about Thomas if you're clueless.) The area features eight rides and attractions, including the Cranky the Crane Tower (a 30-foot drop that should leave kids gasping, and smiling) and the Sodor Carnival Ferris Wheel, which gives riders a bird's-eye view of the whole area. And of course there's Thomas himself, taking riders on a tour of his entire town.

"In most kids' areas, Mom and Dad can usually put the kids on the rides, then step back and watch," Filz says. "Here, you can ride everything with your child. You're not taking the kid to the amusement park, standing back and watching him or her have all the fun."

Also this year, says Filz, park workers have redone much of Six Flag's water park, Hurricane Harbor, and its wave pool, Hurricane Bay. They've ripped-up the old Astroturf-like surface and replaced it with a more attractive, foot-friendly surface. And shows have been added that revelers can watch from the pool deck.

Address

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13710 Central Ave., Bowie

Miles from the Inner Harbor

34

Wow factor

A half-dozen roller coasters, including the classic Wild One, an all-wooden wonder that dates to 1917, when, as the Giant Coaster, it began thrilling visitors to suburban Boston's Paragon Park. It was moved to Six Flags in 1986.

Hours through August

Park opens at 10:30 a.m. daily through

Labor Day

, closes at 8 p.m. weekdays, 9 p.m. Fridays and Sundays, 10 p.m. Saturdays. Water park hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.

Admission

$29.99-$49.99; season passes, $54.99

Information

301-249-1500 or sixflags.com/america

Why you should visit in 2010

The determinedly kid-friendly park boasts a new ride called the Twister, Dutch Wonderland spokeswoman Bethany Alwan says, "a circular ride that sort of tilts on its axis and goes forwards and backwards. It's very cool." (Actually, the ride was new last year, but it's probably new to you, right?)

The park also has included a free round of miniature golf at the nearby Wonderland Mini-Golf in its ticket price.

Plus, if you haven't been since 2003, you haven't seen Duke's Lagoon, a 1.5-acre, pool-less water park known as the sprayground — a perfect place for young kids who want to get wet. "We don't want to have standing water or a swimming pool," Alwan says, "because a lot of our guests might not be able to swim yet."

Address

2249 Lincoln Hwy. East, Lancaster, Pa.

Miles from the Inner Harbor

82

Wow factor

An amusement park in the

heart

of Amish country — it doesn't get any more low-key or kid-friendly than that. And the parking is free.

Hours through August

10 a.m.-8:30 p.m. daily

Admission

$19.95-$31.95

Information

866-386-2839 or dutchwonderland.com

Why you should visit in 2010

After three years of adding within the park itself (including a water park and an 11th roller coaster, Fahrenheit), operators of the entertainment complex that is Hershey turned their attention to other attractions this year. That includes ZooAmerica (admission is included with a park ticket), which is celebrating its 100th anniversary and has added a pair of ocelots to its animal lineup.

"They're native to where cocoa beans are grown, so we thought it was appropriate," Hersheypark spokeswoman Mindy Bianca says.

But the real crowd-pleaser this year, she says, has been added to

Hershey's

Chocolate World, a celebration of all things chocolate located just across the street from the park. Since June 12, visitors have been able to make like budding confectioners thanks to the "Create Your Own Candy Bar" feature.

"It gives people the ability to go in and custom-design their own chocolate bar," says Bianca, right down to the label. "It is probably the world's coolest souvenir."

Address

100 W. Hersheypark Drive, Hershey, Pa.

Miles from the Inner Harbor

: 90

Wow factor

Chocolate, chocolate, chocolate

Hours through August

10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, until 11 p.m. Saturdays through Aug. 14 and Fridays July 30-Aug. 13. Closes 8 p.m. Aug. 30-31

Admission

$20.95-$52.95

Information

800-HERSHEY (437-7439) or hersheypark.com

Why you should visit in 2010

"It's had a few down years, but I'm really impressed with where it's headed and how the park is looking this year," says spokesman John Pagel. "We've used tons and tons of paint ... we've painted just about every building in this park. We're really moving to enhance the visitor experience, to get people excited about it again."

Also generating a lot of excitement is the park's 15th roller coaster, the Intimidator 305, named in honor of legendary racecar drive Dale Earnhardt, who was nicknamed The Intimidator, and the ride's fear-inducing height, 305 feet. The coaster reaches a top speed of nearly 90 mph during its three-minute ride.

"It's the most intense roller coaster I've ever been on," Pagel says, "and I've been on a lot."

Also this year, the Peanuts gang's Planet

Snoopy

has replaced the Nickelodeon and

Hanna-Barbera

characters (Yogi Bear, the Flintstones) that for years roamed through the park's kids' area.

Address

Exit 98 on Interstate 95 in Doswell, Va., about 20 miles north of Richmond

Miles from the Inner Harbor

131

Wow factor

The Eiffel Tower, visible from I-95. Oh yeah, and did we mention that there are 15(!) roller coasters?

Hours through August

10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily, closes 8 p.m. (except Saturdays) beginning Aug. 16.

Admission

$33.99-$56.99; $59.99 for two-day passes

Information

804-876-5000 or kingsdominion.com

Why you should visit in 2010

Even after being tagged the country's most beautiful amusement park for 20 years running by the National Amusement Park Historical Association, the European-flavored Busch Gardens Williamsburg is far from resting on its laurels. "We re-envisioned the Ireland section of our park," spokesman Kevin Crossett says, adding a new show, "Celtic Fyre," and a new flight-simulation ride, "Europe in the Air." ("You're up in the air." Get it?).

Even more colorfully, however, the park has added IllumiNights, a brightly lit nighttime display with elements in each of the park's four European-themed areas (16-foot-tall puppets in Ireland, a living cuckoo clock in Germany), ending in a spectacular fireworks display nightly at 9:30.

"It's kind of hard to put IllumiNights into words," says Crossett. But, he assures, it sure is pretty.

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IllumiNights runs through Aug. 22.

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Address

Williamsburg, Va., Exit 243A off Interstate 64

Miles from the Inner Harbor

200

Wow factor

Consistently rated even more beautiful than Disney World? That's impressive.

Hours through Labor Day

10 a.m.-10 p.m. daily through Aug. 22; closes 8 p.m. Aug. 23-27, 9 p.m. Aug. 29, 7 p.m. Aug. 30

Admission

$51.95-$61.95

Information

800-343-7946 or buschgardens.com/bgw

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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