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Amusement at Smaller Parks

After raising four kids, the Biacofskys are convinced they’ve found the secret to family vacation happiness: amusement parks.

So far they’ve visited more than 300: small, family-owned amusement parks with just a dose of the giant theme parks. Every summer, the Biacofskys would travel to one region of the country and hit as many parks as they could in a week, along with a sprinkling of historic sites and museums.

“The kids would write letters all winter for brochures,” said Angie Biacofsky, who works for a school district near her home in Willoughby, Ohio. “Even when they hit their teens, they were interested in going on vacation with us!”

“Amusement parks are something we all can enjoy together,” she said, noting that she and her husband, John, courted at a local amusement park and, on their 30th anniversary, they renewed their wedding vows atop a roller coaster.

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One family-owned park they especially like is Holiday World and Splash Safari in Santa Claus, Ind. Near Evansville, Ind., Holiday World opened just after World War II and features rides devoted to Christmas, the Fourth of July and Halloween, and a water park area. It is now run by the third generation of the Koch family. (Call [800] GO SANTA. Admission is $21.95 for adults; $15.95 for seniors and people 54 inches and smaller; children age 2 and under are free.)

One old-fashioned park that got a thumbs-up from my family is the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk in Santa Cruz. Touted as the West Coast’s largest remaining seaside amusement park and a California Historic Landmark, it has been a fixture there for 91 years. The park is located on a mile-long stretch of beach, so we could watch the sea lions when we needed a break from the rides and arcade games. Don’t miss the 1924 Giant Dipper coaster. (Call [408] 426-7433. Unlimited ride pass is $18.95 for adults and kids or $1.50 to $3 per ride.)

“The kids don’t always need the glitz at the big parks,” says Karen Callahan, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., which is more than an hour’s drive from the Boardwalk. She likes the place so much she comes monthly.

Smaller parks are less crowded and cheaper than giant theme parks, says Tim O’Brien, author of “The Amusement Park Guide” to more than 275 large and small parks around the country (Globe Pequot Press, $14.95).

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One of O’Brien’s picks: York’s Wild Kingdom and Amusement Park in York Beach, Maine, where, along with the go-carts, bumper cars and a Ferris wheel, you can get an elephant ride at the zoo. (Call [207] 363-4911. Zoo and ride package is $13 for adults, $9.75 for kids 4 to 10 and $3.50 for those 3 and under.)

These parks also offer visitors the chance to rub shoulders with local families. The best time to go is midweek summer evenings.

“A lot of these places have made their biggest investment in the kiddie and family area,” O’Brien says.

While Disney World, Universal Studios and Six Flags, among others, continue to compete for customers with ever-bigger high-tech thrills, these small parks draw in families by offering something entirely different--the chance for parents to rekindle childhood memories while their kids have a good time on hand-carved carousels, wooden coasters and 30-year-old arcade games that the kids love as much as their parents did in the 1950s and ‘60s.

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“I love the ambience at the older parks,” says Angie Biacofsky, a member of the 5,000-member American Coaster Enthusiasts. “They remind me of when I was young.”

Bob Aston, who owns KiddiePark, the San Antonio, Texas, institution located adjacent to the 348-acre Brackenridge Park, says, “Every day someone stops to tell me they remember coming here to the KiddiePark when they were kids or they had their first job here.”

Aston, in fact, says one reason he bought the place 20 years ago was his own memories of having birthday parties at KiddiePark. There’s a 1918 carousel and a roller coaster from 1950 at the park. (Call KiddiePark, [210] 824-4351.)

“Our newest ride is from 1962,” Aston says proudly, adding that, even without modern thrills, 100,000 kids are drawn to the park annually. Kids can ride all afternoon for $5.99--a lot less than the $20-plus admission many large parks charge. They also like the low-key atmosphere at parks such as this one.

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“Your kids can run around the whole place without you worrying,” says Becky Terrazas, a single mom and emergency room nurse who brings her two often to KiddiePark.

“You can go for a couple of hours and ride every ride with the kids instead of spending all of the time in line,” says Dwight Cromie, a public television producer who is a fan of Castle Amusement Park in Riverside. “The kids are happy and I’m happy. You even get to know the ride operators!”

A smaller park may set up special programs for groups too.

The 25-acre Castle Amusement Park has an 1898 carousel, one of the oldest in the country, miniature golf and a three-level castle with more than 400 arcade games, along with other rides. (Call [909] 785-4140. Unlimited ride passes start at $16 for those 12 and older and $14 for kids 11 and younger.)

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Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.


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