There's danger lurking at amusement parks.
The danger is a word.
And that word is "again."
As in, "Uncle Craig, Shipwreck Rapids got us soooo wet. Can we ride it again?"
Or, "Uncle Craig, Bionicle Blaster made me so dizzy, I think I'm going to throw up. Let's go again!"
Or, simply, "Coastersaurus! Again, again, again!"
Coastersaurus, for those who haven't heard, is a roller coaster at Legoland. Two weeks ago I rode it. Again and again and again.
I rode many coasters, in fact. My mission was to rate the newest rides and attractions at Legoland in Carlsbad and SeaWorld in San Diego. Tough work.
Enter Daniel, age 6. He's more than a nephew. He's a coaster connoisseur, a maestro of amusement. This is a kid who, at 3, was doling out critiques of Knott's Berry Farm and chiding the park's mascot, Snoopy, for not being attentive enough. In the world of critics, he is no Gene Shalit.
For our outing two weeks ago, the kid rated rides using the system of Mrs. Matzner, his first-grade teacher. If a ride earned a 4, that meant it was "very good," he said. A grade of 3 meant "pretty good," 2 meant "OK" and 1 meant trouble.
Coming along for the ride were Daniel's 2-year-old brother, Eric, a protégé in the making, and my partner, Todd.
One Saturday morning we were among the first to pass through Legoland's turnstiles, beelining for the park's new marquee ride, the Coastersaurus.
Daniel looked up at the twisting track. He glanced at Uncle Todd, who's a tad roller-coaster-phobic. Then he muttered to me, "He's going to be crying for his mommy."
Turns out the Coastersaurus — a junior coaster, in theme park parlance — wasn't so scary. Our little cart scooted around a life-sized brachiosaurus made of Lego bricks, never whizzing much faster than 20 mph. There was virtually no wait to get on, so by 10:15 we had ridden it twice.
"My face was like this!" Daniel exulted, pulling his cheeks toward his ears. The G-forces really weren't that strong, and I thought ride designers had done too little to dress up the simple track layout. But none of that mattered to the kid. His rating: 4.
Coastersaurus is part of a new dinosaur-themed part of Legoland that also includes Dig Those Dinos, a sand play area where children can dig for fake bones, teeth and other "fossils." You pay $3 to rent a brush and pail. That's on top of the $41.95 per adult and $35.95 per child park admission fee and $7 parking charge. Though we saved 20% on admission with an auto-club discount good through June, the added brush-and-pail fee was irksome.
The same held true for Raptor Splash, another new play area. Opposing teams used giant slingshots to launch water balloons at each other's "battle stations." The catch: You had to buy buckets of balloons at $3 a pop.
Daniel thought the game looked to be a surefire 4. His cheap uncle gave the pay-as-you-play concept a solid 1.
We moved on to Fun Town Fire Academy, opened three weeks ago. The line was short, the wait only two minutes. We soon found out why.
The goal is to pile into a hand-pump-powered truck, race other families to a "burning" house, use a hand-powered hose to douse faux flames, then pump your truck back to the station.
Simple enough, except all the adults act as though winning is a matter of life and death. Blame peer pressure — when the fire-station bell rang, I couldn't help but push and pull on our truck's hand pump with fury. By the time we finished — alas, in fourth place — I was doubled over, our house fire extinguished but my lungs ablaze.
Me: "Maybe [gasp] later [gasp]. What grade do you [gasp] give this?"
Daniel: "It gets a 4."
Daniel: "Because it tires you out. [Insert a 6-year-old's giggles here.]"
I was thankful our next stop was the new, non-sweat-inducing Block of Fame. It's a walkway lined with busts of Elvis, Einstein, Lincoln and Pavarotti, among others, all created with Lego bricks. Enough with the art junk, Daniel said. Time for more rides.
It took the Dragon roller coaster — about as fast and furious as Legoland gets — for our critic to reach his limits.
"Umm, I'm a little scared," he announced with painful sincerity as we climbed into the passenger cart. "I'm going to regret this."
We sped off in a series of body-twisting, cheek-flapping turns. The kid still had a death grip on my arm when we pulled back into the station.
"What did you think of the ride?" I asked hesitantly.
Daniel paused with an odd, blank face, as though he might get sick.
"It's a 4!" he said, breaking into a smile. "Let's go again!"
We gave the Dragon another whirl, but I can't say I'd do the same with the Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina. Despite assumptions to the contrary, chain hotels are not all alike. Most are owned and managed by different people with varying philosophies about property maintenance and customer service. That's why last year, I was impressed by a Sheraton resort in Phoenix but surprised by the shabbiness of a Sheraton hotel in the Bay Area.
The cheap uncle bristles The Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina, unfortunately, fell somewhere between those extremes — a 2 1/2 on the Mrs. Matzner scale. The biggest annoyance was that a reservations agent had led us to believe we could get complimentary parking and breakfast. Being a cheap uncle, I found this very appealing. So I canceled reservations at another hotel and booked with the Sheraton.
Upon arrival, however, we were told breakfast and other "club level" extras would cost $50 more each night. I complained to a customer service representative, who was as helpful as a squirt gun in a forest fire. She informed me that it's company policy not to grant complimentary breakfast and parking.
I asked for a manager, the guy who oversees something called the Sheraton Service Promise. He offered to provide breakfast and parking for $30 a night instead of $50. No thanks.
Our room was large and had a nice view, but the furniture was dated. Parking may not have been included in our rate ($159 a night plus tax), but the easy chairs did come with complimentary stains. Dust bunnies and a toothpick on the floor by the nightstand were free too.
We found more satisfaction with our restaurant choices, kid-pleasing chains such as Pat & Oscar's (salad, barbecue chicken, pizza) and Islands (chips and salsa, teriyaki chicken tacos). Michelin won't grant any stars, but both earned a solid 3 in our book.
The weekend ended on a high note with a day at SeaWorld. Fun Card passes, good for admission through December (with a few blackout dates), were $51.95 per adult and $42.95 per child — only a few dollars more than regular daily admission prices.
The park's new ride, Journey to Atlantis, won us over with its innovations. It combined the long, splash-filled plunge of traditional water rides with roller coaster twists and turns.
Worried that the ride might be too intense for my star critic — he is 6, after all — I dragged coaster-phobic Todd into line with me instead, where a recorded voice warned us to secure all prosthetic devices lest they be shaken loose.
We made it through, limbs intact, eager to ride again. Even the coaster-phobe gave Atlantis a 3.
The rest of the day was spent with the kids, watching sea lions beg for food, going eye to eye with great whites in the shark tunnel and touching the spongy, slippery torsos of bat rays. At Daniel's behest, we rode Shipwreck Rapids, a rousing raft ride on a simulated river. We walked away with shirts dripping, shoes squeaking and a 6-year-old pleading with his uncles to please, please, please take him on the ride again.
Craig Nakano is an assistant Travel editor.