A Guide to the Theme Parks

Sea World Adventure Park, Orlando

In Orlando, undoubtedly the most worthy attraction of that area, a "must-see." It displays marine life in all its complexity and explains it well. Highlight is "The Shamu Adventure," consisting of giant, performing, "killer whales," and their Floridian trainers who swim alongside, sit on top, and are occasionally shot high up into the air by a whale suddenly emerging from the depths. A genuinely educational and illuminating experience for your children, revealing the intelligence of many forms of sea life. I find it not simply instructive, but marvelously entertaining as well. In the race to compete with other attraction-based theme parks in the area, Sea World opened the Journey to Atlantis water coaster (a high-speed roller coaster adventure that will leave you soaked); another coaster, the Kracken, opened in the spring of 2000. Also new is the park's Discovery Cove, a reservations-only "tropical paradise" where visitors can swim with dolphins, sting rays, and other sea creatures. Admission charge: $49.95 plus tax for adults, $40.95 plus tax for children 3 to 9. For general information on SeaWorld Adventure Park, phone: 800/327-2424. Check out the Web site at seaworld.com.

Sea World of California, San Diego

On Mission Bay in San Diego, less than five miles from the downtown area, in operation since 1964, and covering 150 attractive acres. It displays marine life in all its stunning complexity, dramatically presented in performing shows, exhibits, glass tanks, giant water areas, simulated rivers and lakes, all done with careful skill and justly acclaimed as important scientifically; the park, in part, is a research institution. The highlight show seen by every visitor: "Shamu Adventure," presented several times a day in season, at least twice daily in winter, by two performing "killer whales," Shamu and baby Shamu, with their trainers swimming alongside. Other, perhaps equally interesting shows and attractions: "Manatee Rescue," the "Dolphin Discovery" show, the sea lion and otter shows and the Shipwreck Rapids Adventure Ride (a raft ride, complete with "obstacles" like waterfalls, through winding river rapids). Admission: $42.95 for adults, $32.95 for children 3 to 11, $39.95 for seniors 55 and older. Popularity? Nearly four million visitors a year. For general information on SeaWorld of California, phone 800/732-9753 or 619/226-3901, Web site: seaworld.com.

Six Flags Great Adventure, of New Jersey

An hour by car from both New York and Philadelphia, near Exit 16 of Interstate 195: Primarily carnival-style attractions (rides and roller coasters), redeemed however by a giant, open-air "zoo" (the "Wild Safari," "biggest safari outside of Africa") in which elephants, rhinos, giraffes, bears, water buffalo and the like roam freely, while lions and both Siberian and Bengal tigers are fenced in. It used to cost an extra few dollars to drive through, but now the safari is free with the purchase of a theme park admission ($45.99 for adults, $28.99 for both children 48 inches tall and under and for seniors 55 and older). Plan on an extra hour for the 4 and 1/2 mile drive through the safari. . The park is open from April through October, and its most popular attractions are the floorless roller coaster "Medusa," "Nitro" (reaching speeds of 80 mph), "Batman & Robin: The Chiller," "The Great American Scream Machine" (a roller coaster), and "Skull Mountain" (indoor coaster).For children, there are two themed areas, "Bugs Bunny Land" (for the very young), and the new "Looney Toons Seaport," which has 12 attractions for kids and their parents. An illuminating, educational experience it isn't; and yet it's known in the industry as a "theme park." In the summer of 2000, Six Flags added a third park to its New Jersey compound, the 22-acre water-slide park Hurricane Harbor. It's open from Memorial Day to Labor Day and costs $29.99 adults, $22.99 seniors aged 55 and anyone less than 48 inches tall. Four million yearly visitors. Phone 732/928-1821 for general information on Six Flags Great Adventure. Web page: sixflags.com/greatadventure.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Surprisingly, for an in-city theme park, a full-scale, 415-acre, complex of pavilions and elaborate rides, atop a sharp hill and on broader grounds below it, connected by escalator, and so expansive as to require more than a day to experience it all. Here, among other family attractions, are the elaborate, staged, extravaganzas that most Americans associate with Universal Studios Florida, but that were, in many cases, first developed in the Los Angeles park: The E.T. Adventure, Backdraft, Back to the Future--The Ride, King Kong, Earthquake--The Big One, Lucy: A Tribute, The Wild, Wild West Stunt Show, Jaws, and many more. The park, in every respect, compares quite respectably with the Florida version, and even attempts to upstage Florida's "Terminator 2:3D" with "Jurassic Park," equally mindless (and now replicated at Universal's Islands of Adventure park in Orlando). It may very well be the only theme park of this size in the nation to be located within the city limits of the metropolis it adorns. Receives nearly 6,000,000 visitors a year. Prices are $45 adults, $35 children aged 3 to 9. For general information, phone800/UNIVERSAL, Web site universalstudios.com.

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