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Some Tricks to Having Fun at Theme Parks

Who says we got no culture? England has its theaters, Germany its music festivals, France its restaurants. We gave 20th-Century civilization the themed amusement park.

Unlike the parks of old, the Coney Islands and Pacific Ocean Parks that were simple fun, these parks have organizing principles, “themes” to differentiate themselves from the increasing competition. The result is they’re all alike--a little prehistory, some state history, some future fantasy, some cartoon and storybook characters. They even have the same activities--roller coasters, drenching water rides, skating shows (roller or ice), dolphins and sea lions, and those omnipresent dancing fountains.

Today’s parks, moreover, are huge, inviting not mere visits but vacations, and drawing masses of out-of-towners determined to “do the whole park.” They’re also willing to spend two, three, even five days and thousands of dollars to do it and, naturally enough, are driven to get their money’s worth, doing as much as possible with the least amount of waiting on line.

Summer, unfortunately, is peak season everywhere, even the only season for some parks. Even at year-round parks, the census builds in summer to double and more: “Attendance goes a third higher after Memorial Day,” says Knott’s Berry Farm spokesman Stuart Zanville, “and goes down by half after Labor Day.”

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Anyone who can choose the time of year is advised to go right after Labor Day, or perhaps November or January. Christmas holidays are jammed, but December’s first weeks are good because “schools aren’t yet out and people are getting ready for the holidays,” says Joan Bullard, spokesman for Universal Studios Hollywood. Sundays in January are also good, says Bob Gault, Disneyland’s general manager of park operations, because the park is open late and everyone else is watching football championships.

Tuesdays Are Good

Stuck with the summer, one should generally avoid weekends, particularly Saturdays, the heaviest day everywhere. Unexpectedly, and uniquely, Disneyland’s lightest day is Sunday, perhaps, says Gault, “because it’s a transition day for a lot of travelers, who start their vacations on Monday.” Other parks recommend weekdays, particularly Tuesdays, because “people extend weekend vacations into Monday,” says Dan LeBlanc at San Diego’s Sea World.

Unpleasant weather helps the tolerant. Temperatures over 100 degrees can cut attendance 20%, and rain cuts it further, says Knott’s Zanville. Parks full of outdoor thrill rides lose all appeal, given the metal scaffolding and wet brakes: “Rain, and lightning even more, will stop some of our rides,” says Bruce Neal, spokesman for Six Flags over Texas. But Disneyland’s many indoor rides and Universal’s covered tram tour--for many, the highlights of those parks--could make them rainy day bonanzas.

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The park consumer intent on beating crowds could best start when the park opens, or better, before it opens, allowing a half hour for parking and paying. Everyone instinctively understands this, but “people still pile up at 10:30 or 11,” says Universal’s Bullard. Alternatively, some advise coming late and staying into the evening, when most parks thin out, even when there’s a special promotion. Many park officials recommend that people staying nearby break their park visit in the middle, leaving the heat and crowds after noon and returning after supper.

Whenever they arrive, clever tourists take the park map and show schedule and do some plotting before plunging in. One must make some choices, of course--a straightforward matter if a park is heavy on shows, which run often and to large audiences. At Sea World (35,000 visitors on a peak day), Shamu and Baby Shamu perform up to 9 times a day to 5,000 at a time; at Universal (peak population: 34,000), the Miami Vice stunt show seats 3,000, 10 times a day. Waiting lines, moreover, can be cut off when they reach capacity, so people can go do something else.

Ride parks are more complicated, carefully laid out these days to distribute the biggest attractions throughout the park. This layout is “the essence of crowd control,” says Zanville, “assuring that everyone doesn’t congregate in one place.” It also forces visitors to walk through the park, missing no gift shops or food stands or more modest attractions. To buck the geography means exhaustion: “People who (just) run to the major rides,” says Neal, “crisscross the park unnecessarily.”

Continuous rides, moreover, have continuous waits. “For many rides, a half hour to 40 minutes is not unreasonable,” says Neal. Most early birds, therefore, rush to the big blockbusters (Disneyland’s Star Tours, Knott’s Bigfoot Rapids), which can gather lines with over an hour’s wait. If interested, they might also run to some less popular rides of low capacity or slow progress. Disney’s Dumbo ride, for one, may have 40-minute waits because it takes few riders and must stop, empty and fill again for each ride.

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Some waits, moreover, just seem longer than others. If one must wait somewhere, lining up alongside an outdoor ride, or a major pathway, is less boring than moving slowly through one of those partly enclosed mazes. Some waits seem shorter, particularly when compared to the posted estimate of waiting time, which is usually liberal, says Zanville, because “people feel better when they haven’t had to stand in line as long as they expected.”

Overall, the rule of thumb for visitors looking for their money’s worth is to try to do everything out of sync with everyone else. Families with children should abandon all nutritional principles, buying “shut up” snacks at normal mealtimes and eating meals at odd hours. If the park features a major show, aired only a couple of times a day, they should attend the late show rather than lining up for the more crowded early one.

But one can lose sight of the proverbial forest for the trees. It’s certainly true that one could get one’s family onto a lot of rides while everyone else takes their children to Disneyland’s famous Electrical Parade at 8:45 p.m. But one would be dumb. Some crowds are meant to be joined.


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