Travel

What's new at California theme parks this summer

With recession clouds looming and gasoline prices soaring, summer 2008 is shaping up as the year for many Southern Californians to vacation locally, and that may mean a theme-park visit.

California's major amusement and theme parks drew more than 40 million visitors in 2007. Those numbers are expected to climb this year with more than $150 million in rides, attractions, parades and shows debuting at California parks this summer.

As The Times' theme-park blogger ( www.latimes.com/funland), I've test driven many of the new thrills and adventures in store for 2008. Here's a park-by-park preview:

DISNEYLAND (ANAHEIM)

This is the season of Hollywood synergy as the park's grand old Adventureland district takes on the khaki-colored charm of Indiana Jones, who (in case you hadn't noticed) is back in the theaters in a big way.

That means a new live-action show at the Oasis theater. The 20-minute show "Indiana Jones and the Stone Tiger" is staged six times a day; there's a bit of Saturday-matinee menace to the show, but if your kid can handle a ride on the Pirates of the Caribbean, he or she should be fine.

After the show, Indy races around the rooftops of Adventureland a bit and there's a few other staged chases. You can also get a free adventure map for youngsters to search for clues that unlock some Internet goodies when they get home.

DISNEY'S CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE (ANAHEIM)

The unloved 8-year-old sibling of neighboring Disneyland is about to go through a massive growth spurt. And it's not going to be pretty until about 2012.

Lots of people bash Anaheim's "second gate," but I hold the park dear. I've long held out hope that, despite its rough beginnings (shortly before 9/11), California Adventure might someday realize its true potential. The coming tween years stoke that promise.

A $1.1-billion makeover will kick into full gear after this summer, and once the dust settles you probably won't recognize the place. Plans call for a World of Color water show in 2009-2010 (think the Bellagio water show on steroids), a $100-million "Little Mermaid" indoor "dark ride" in 2010-2011 and a new Cars Land section of the park in 2011-2012 (including a $200-million Radiator Springs Racers ride), plus a 1920s Los Angeles-themed face-lift for the main entrance.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

There's plenty in store for 2008 before California Adventure turns into a massive construction site. Chief among the park's new offerings this summer: the $80-million Toy Story Mania dark ride opening June 17. Disney Imagineers offered me a "play test" of the ride through a 3D video game, and all I can say is prepare to be blown away (and to wait in a really long line).

Also on tap at California Adventure: the water-themed Pixar Play Parade (which I didn't like -- much too wet for my taste) and an all-new Playhouse Disney puppet show (perfect for the preschool set and their stroller-pushing moms).

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOLLYWOOD (UNIVERSAL CITY)

The $40-million Simpsons Ride, which opened last week at the movie and television theme park, has amusement-park junkies and Simpsons' fanatics salivating.

The simulator ride, which replaced the Back to the Future attraction, takes visitors on a careening journey through the low-budget Krustyland theme park. Played out on an 80-foot-tall domed screen, the bizarre storyline retains all the dysfunctional wackiness of the animated television show.

The line, which will be long, should prove as entertaining as the ride itself -- with dozens of Simpsons characters manning Krustyland midway game booths throughout the queue.

KNOTT'S BERRY FARM (BUENA PARK)

Easily my most anticipated ride of the summer, the $10-million Pony Express roller coaster straps riders to the back of a wild steed galloping at 38 mph.

Pony Express coaster riders, harnessed in with a T-shaped back restraint, take a 36-second ride from launch to brakes on an elongated figure-8 track featuring hairpin turns, whoop-de-dos and 60-degree banks.

The tweener coaster, which opened Thursday, hits that sweet spot between humdrum family ride and heart-stopping thrill attraction.

SIX FLAGS MAGIC MOUNTAIN (VALENCIA)

The onetime roller-coaster capital of the world has abandoned its roots and gone in search of the almighty family dollar.

For summer 2008, the "Extreme Park" plans to add a Thomas Town kiddie land (in addition to the existing Bugs Bunny World). A Wiggles World -- yes, a third kiddie land -- is in the works for 2010 or later.

In the meantime, Magic Mountain has torn down two aging coasters in the last two years to make room for a family coaster coming in 2009. Officials have promised to reclaim the coaster title, bestowed by ride aficionados, from Ohio's Cedar Point (considered by many coaster riders to be the best amusement park in the United States), but I remain skeptical.

Rather than add a new coaster this year, Magic Mountain dropped $10 million to overhaul X, the flawed but breathtaking prototype coaster with rotating 360-degree seats. The redubbed X2, which was scheduled to open Saturday, adds lighter-weight cars and special effects.

The upside of the family-friendly initiative is a considerably cleaner park and friendlier staff -- a pair of much-needed improvements.

If I sound a bit forlorn, it's because I want Magic Mountain to stick to its strength: thrills. But I realize it takes dollars to build the next Colossus or Goliath. I hold out great hope for the Mountain, much as I do for California Adventure.

LEGOLAND CALIFORNIA (CARLSBAD)

Coming off a record-breaking-attendance year, the Carlsbad kiddie park plowed the profits into a major $20-million expansion this year that included a new four-ride themed land and a separate-admission aquarium.

Opened in March, the new Land of Adventure features the awkwardly named although thoroughly enjoyable Lost Kingdom Adventure, the park's first dark ride. Geared to the grade-school crowd, riders take a 3 1/2 -minute journey aboard an off-road vehicle through ancient temple ruins while shooting at animated targets with laser blasters.

Other attractions in the new land include: Beetle Bouncers tower drop ride, Cargo Ace airplane ride and Pharaoh's Revenge foam-ball play area.

The SeaLife Aquarium features a two-story tank as its centerpiece as well as smaller stingray, sea-horse and jellyfish exhibits.

SEAWORLD SAN DIEGO

Big Bird, Elmo and the rest of the "Sesame Street" gang will pretty much take over the marine park this year.

The Bay of Play kiddie land, which was scheduled to open Saturday, features Elmo's Flying Fish airplane ride, Abby's Sea Star Spin teacup ride and Oscar's Rocking Eel boat ride.

The special-effects 4D movie "Lights, Camera, Imagination!" starring the "Sesame" characters opened in March, as did "Big Bird's Beach Party," an aquatic-themed musical stage show.

I'm not sure any of this is enough to warrant a trip down to San Diego for me, but the new land certainly addresses the "no-rides" refrain that often unfairly saddles the park.

BAY AREA AND BEYOND

To the north, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo (formerly Marine World) was scheduled to open its $6.5-million skateboard-themed Tony Hawk Big Spin coaster Friday. The spinning coaster has already debuted at Six Flags parks in Missouri and Texas.

In Santa Clara, California's Great America added the flipping, spinning FireFall ride featuring flame and water effects.

And the 100-year-old Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, voted the best seaside park in North America for 2007, unveils a swing carousel and a virtual shooting gallery where gunslingers ride a motion-based horse.

You can find more details on new attractions coming to the major California theme parks at latimes.com/funland. The Funland blog also features 2008 previews of the new Aquatica water park in Orlando, Fla., the Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach, S.C., as well as the additions planned for parks in Florida, elsewhere in the U.S. and around the world.

brady.macdonald@latimes.com; staff writer Geoff Boucher contributed to this report.

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