Amusement Parks or Theme Parks?

I’ve been listening lately to several podcasts and watching YouTube videos devoted to the histories and attractions of a variety of amusement parks. While I enjoy most of them I’ve discovered I have a pet peeve, or maybe just a peeve, that I didn’t really know I had before. Many of the hosts of these various shows seem to use the terms “theme parks” and “amusement parks” interchangeably. In my mind this is not accurate because although all theme parks are amusement parks not all amusement parks are theme parks. Amusement park covers a wide variety of entertainment venues which may or may not be specifically themed.

For example: Cedar Point, on the shores of Lake Erie in Northern Ohio, is an amusement park. Though it has various areas which are loosely themed, such as their Frontier Town and Frontier Trail, the bulk of the park is a collection of roller coasters, circular rides, and other attractions. I would argue that other parks like Kennywood, near Pittsburgh, and most, if not all, Six Flags properties fall into this category. Yes, they have some themed rides and attractions but no one goes to these parks with the idea that they will be transported to the wild West or Gotham City. The theme is secondary to the rides themselves.

The Disney and Universal parks are closer to true theme parks with entire lands devoted to creating the impression that you are in another place and time and attractions which stick to the theme. I think the best examples of these are Disney’s Galaxy’s Edge and Main Street USA, as well as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and even Springfield (at least in Florida) at Universal. When you go to these places the enjoyment of being surrounded by what feels like another place and time is the main source of enjoyment. The fact that you get to escape from Gringott’s is almost a bonus.

Now, from a historical perspective I think I can make the case that the real theme parks are some of the smaller places which don’t really exist anymore. A couple used to be found in the Irish Hills area of Michigan. The Prehistoric Forest which attempted to make you feel like you’ve walked into the time of the dinosaurs and Stagecoach Stop, which still appears to be operating, is the recreation of a town in the American Old West, complete with shoot outs and stage coach rides.

Anyway, that’s what I think. What do you think? Am I being too picky in my terminology or do you think that we need to be a little more precise in our use of the term “theme parks?”

Let me know if the comments!

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted in which case the original artist retains all rights. Otherwise photos and words @copyright by David P. Wahr

Roller Coaster Prep: Tips to Better Enjoy Your Day of Thrill Riding

A friend recently asked me how he should prepare to spend a day riding roller coasters at a major amusement park. He asked this knowing that I’m an experienced roller coaster rider (I logged over 300 coasters before I stopped counting) and frequent visitor of theme parks all over North America (at least 70 in 25 states and 1 Canadian province). So even though my thrill ride days may be over on advice from my cardiologist, I thought it might be time to share some of my hard earned wisdom on how to prepare for a day of riding scream machines.

Tip #1: Pack as light as you can. You’ll be on your feet all day and most parks will not let you take anything on a coaster with you which isn’t strapped to your body. For this reason I’ve started wearing a small “fanny” pack with several pockets. These are good for keeping cell phones, portable chargers, glasses, credit/debit card, cash, keys and sunscreen on hand without weighing you down. An alternative to the small pack are cargo shorts with velcro or zippered pockets.

If you feel for some reason that you can’t pack light, many parks that specialize in thrill rides will have lockers located near the ride entrances. These are usually fee based. In the old days you could use a coin to rent a locker. Now days you will need a credit or debit card. Some parks, like Cedar Point, will also have “boxes” at the loading station that you can put your belongings in. You do use these boxes at your own risk, but I can tell you that I’ve never experienced a problem with someone taking my stuff from one of these boxes over the years. However, accidents do happen especially if you hat looks like another one in the same bin.

Walt Disney World parks are an exception to this tip. You can take a small back pack with you if you like as almost all of their rides have pockets or space for you to put the pack at your feet.

Tip #2: Only take your car keys into the park. There’s no need to risk losing anything more than that on a ride. Leave your house keys, etc. locked in your car and safely out of sight (glove compartment or under the seat). Likewise, I don’t take my wallet with me anymore either. Most parks now accept credit/debit cards at all their retail locations and if they don’t you can stuff a few bills into a pocket or the above mentioned fanny pack.

Tip 3#: Wear a hat. Especially for those of us who are “follicly-challenged.” However, don’t wear your favorite hat as you’ll want to sit on it when you are riding the rides (to prevent it from blowing off). I’ve lost a couple over the years because I’ve left them on the seat of the ride.

Tip #4: If you wear glasses pick up some sport straps to hold them onto your head while riding. The park may even sell them, but you can likely get them cheaper at a retailer near you. Be aware that some parks consider a few of the coasters to be so physical that you may not even wear glasses which are strapped on.

Tip #5: Follow the rules! They are there for your safety. Roller coasters on the whole are a safe form of amusement and you are more likely to have an accident driving to the park than on a ride. Generally when someone gets injured, or worse, it’s because they were not following the rules. For example: going beyond fences to retrieve a dropped item is an enormous risk and people have been killed doing this.

Tip #6: Check the park’s website before visiting. Most every park lists basic information regarding ride specifics (rider’s height and other physical limitations for example) and facilities (lockers). Taking a few minutes to “know before you go” will make your day more enjoyable.

Tip #7: Take breaks. Riding roller coasters can be physically demanding even though in most cases you are sitting down. Twisting and turning at high speeds can upset even the hardiest of us. Don’t be afraid to throw a dark ride or two into your day between thrills. This tip isn’t as crucial if you have to wait and hour or more between rides due to the length of the lines.

There you have them, my top tips to better enjoy your day of thrill seeking at your favorite amusement park. I’d love to hear yours – be sure to comment and share your top ideas.

Ride on!

All photos by David P. Wahr unless otherwise noted in which case the original artist retains all rights. Otherwise photos and words @copyright by David P. Wahr

Favorite Destinations: Amusement Parks

Those people who know me know that I’m a bit of a roller coaster fanatic. I’ve been to more than seventy amusements parks in 25 states, and one Canadian province, in search of the best rides. As a result I’ve also visited some of the oldest operating parks in North America and have ridden four of the oldest roller coasters, too.

Everyone, of course, has an opinion on which is the best park and/or attraction so I thought I’d toss out my favorites. What follows are not trip reports or a list of what to do in each park. I’ll save those for later.

So with that in mind and for what it’s worth here are my top five in a reverse order:

Fifth Place: Dollywood

Last Visit: December 2015
Favorite Ride: Thunderhead

Photo by David P. Wahr

I’ve only been to Dollywood a couple of times but it holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know if it’s the location, the great food at the park (I had my first fried Twinkie there believe it or not), the wonderful shows or just that I like Dolly Parton. This park has a good blend of thrill rides and family shows/attractions that makes it good for all ages. In my last visit, during the Christmas Holidays, my mother was able to go off and enjoy several shows while us “youngsters” went off to ride the coasters. Then we all met up to stroll through the shops and have a delicious meal. It’s location in the Smoky Mountains is a plus and the whole park has a relaxed, country feel to it. If it turns out that somehow the park doesn’t satisfy your needs for entertainment my family and I thoroughly enjoyed Dolly’s Dixie Stampede (Christmas edition). Even the cheesy parts of the show worked!

Fourth Place: Knoebels

My friend Bob’s terror is real! The Haunted House at Knoebels in 2001. Photo by David P. Wahr

Last Visit: July 2001
Favorite Ride: Haunted Mansion

I know that as a coaster afecinado that if a Pennsylvania park was going to make my top five it should be Kennywood or even Dorney Park. But even though it’s been a while since I’ve last been to Knoebels my memory of that visit is still fresh as if I visited just last summer. This is a quaint park tucked into a Pennsylvanian valley very near Elysburg. There are some traditional rides, a wonderful collection of classic style coasters (not a loop or launch coaster in the place), a giant swimming pool, delicious fudge, and a Haunted Mansion dark ride that actually startled me when I went through it – and I’m the guy who can usually spot the “shock” coming before it happens. I enjoyed the chair lift to the top of the mountain, too.

In the age of the mega theme park I think we all could use a few more places like Knoebels in our neighborhoods. Because the admission is free you can spend an afternoon or a day without any worries. You do have to pay for the rides, of course, and at the time I visited there were several ticketing options including an all day pass.

By the way, interestingly enough Pennsylvania has several of these “old fashioned” parks. It took me two vacations to get to them all!

Third Place: Disneyland

Last Visit: July 2019
Favorite Ride: Indiana Jones Adventure

Perhaps the second most famous castle in the world. Photo by David P. Wahr

What more is there to say about Disneyland? It is the epitome of theme parks and the model that most others are based upon today. The only reason it didn’t rank a little higher is that in my opinion the folks in Florida handle customer service just a little better – which is saying a lot as Disney is renowned world-wide for customer service at their parks!

A lot of rankings would look at Disneyland and California Adventure as two separate parks. Though this is technically true, I have chosen to rank the two parks plus Downtown Disney – the out door mall between the parks – as one experience. In fact, on my last visit I was able to do both on the same day. I do not recommend trying to see both parks in one day however. It’s only because I’ve visited so often that I was able to do this. I have my favorites and made full use of the single rider lines!

Second Place: Walt Disney World

Where else can you stand in front of the Millennium Falcon? Oh yeah, there’s one in California too! Photo by Robert J. Yoman.

Last Visit: February 2020
Favorite Ride: Star Wars – Rise of the Resistance and Avatar – Flight of Passage (tie)

Again, I take the entire “world” in as one experience. I’ve been going to Walt Disney World since 1975 (about four years after it opened) on a family vacation to Florida and the place just keeps getting better and better. In fact, the only reason WDW did not make number one on my list is because of the crowds at the Magic Kingdom.

First Place: Cedar Point

Last Visit: October 2019
Favorite Ride: Millennium Force

Best coaster ever! Photo by David P. Wahr
For my money the scariest ride ever – Cedar Point’s Wind Seeker. Three hundred feet up, no floor. Photo by David P. Wahr

This park is the obvious sentimental favorite for me. Located on a peninsula sticking out into Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, Cedar Point started life as “The Queen of America’s Watering Places.” Today, it’s known as “America’s Roller Coast.” I’ve been visiting since my aunt and uncle took me and my sister and brother there as kids. This, by the way, was an aunt who “snuck” me out of the house one evening when siblings were asleep and took me to the local carnival to ride a couple of the rides. I think that my love of roller coasters was inherited. I worked there as a captain on “The Western Cruise” (which is sadly gone today) for two summers during my college years and I’ve gone back nearly every summer since. If you like coasters and other thrill rides this really was for decades the best place to find the tallest, fastest, and most extreme coasters in North America. It still has a fabulous selection of coasters today even though it ceded it’s title for most coasters to Six Flags Magic Mountain some years ago. Pity.

The emphasis today is on a more family inclusive experience. In fact, in recent years they’ve increased the number of family friendly attractions and have significantly upped their dining service game. You can now reasonably spend two days there and not do everything in the parks (there’s a waterpark which is a separate ticket). Like Walt Disney World though I worry that it could become a victim of it’s own success. My last visit was during their Hallow Weekends event on a beautiful October Saturday. I spent three hours stuck in traffic on the Cedar Point Causeway just trying to get into the park as it had reached capacity. In hindsight, I probably should have turned around but the old “we’ve come this far” mentality took over. Fortunately the park was open late and we got our rides in.

I can only go so long without a ride on the Millennium Force after all!