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Theme Park Thrills, Chills--and Steep Bills : Our Intrepid Reporters Get Taken for Rides Again and Again and Again . . .

June 19, 1988

Sundays in the park have changed.

The depiction by turn-of-the-century French artist Georges Seurat is so serene that we can imagine it being accompanied by a sound track of chirping birdies and squealing kids (in the distance, so as not to be too loud) at play.

Update Seurat's scenario in "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte" to today and you'll find that Sundays in the park are likely to be accompanied by the wicked roar of a roller coaster as it charges by at 65 miles an hour (with a chorus of shrieking hostage riders). As for the sounds of children, well, they're apt to be screaming out: "Let's hurry and get in line!"

Then there's the clink of coins pulled out of pockets and the rustling of dollar bills being wrenched from wallets, to be exchanged for services rendered.

We're talking theme parks, 1988.

Bear in mind: No matter which park you choose to visit, you will spend a lot of money! If you don't believe cheap thrills are a thing of the past, check out the accompanying chart.

Note that in order to enhance their admission dollars, the parks have come up with interesting ways of determining just when it is that a kid becomes an adult.

To the folks at Magic Mountain, it's when a kid's over 48 inches. (Break out a yardstick; then call over your 8-, 9- or 10-year-old; you may be in for a surprise.) At Disneyland and Knott's, it's when a kid hits age 12.

This may come as a shock to a lot of parents who thought adulthood was linked to the acquisition of a driver's license--at least.

Notice also that admission prices are competitive at the various parks. Not coincidentally, so is the mania to launch new rides. Although, with few exceptions, the new rides aren't exactly "new."

Disneyland's upcoming Splash Mountain flume ride is a variation on Magic Mountain's Log Jammer, which is a variation on Knott's Berry Farm's Timbermountain Log Ride. Knott's just-opened Bigfoot Rapids is its version of Magic Mountain's wet 'n' wild Roaring Rapids. Got the (copycat) message?

So how are the parks?

On a recent Sunday, Calendar reporters, joined by a family or a friend, decided to find out by visiting the Southland's seven major theme parks.

We bought tickets, stood in lines, weathered the heat, sampled the fast foods and hit the souvenir stands. We didn't tell the parks we were coming.

(Not all were thrilled to discover that we'd dropped in "incognito." Many park publicists like the press to visit during specially organized "media days," which are usually scheduled so there's no standing in lines!)

We did contact the park reps afterward to obtain Sunday's details. As a sign of the heavy competitiveness between them, some parks collectively decided not to provide us with certain details--especially attendance figures.

(When told of one park's food sales claims, another park claimed its competitor's figures were inflated: "How could they have sold that many hamburgers?!")

From our collective experience, we offer this advice to prospective park visitors: Get plenty of sleep the night before, wear comfortable shoes, bring a jacket (no matter how hot it gets during the day, those temperatures will drop at nighttime). And--easily most important--bring plenty of cash--the folding kind.

And now, for your "ride":

Disneyland: The Mouse That Roared

As the granddaddy of theme parks, Disneyland operates like a well-oiled mousetrap. Though it's doubtful there's ever been so much as a spot of oil on these grounds! They're so super-clean that Disney publicists brag about the 3,000 mops, 1,000 brooms and 500 dustpans used annually.

Good clean fun is also what you get with the rides--more theme than thrills. Technology--not twists, turns and drops--is what's pushed.

Little wonder that the park's last new attraction, the George Lucas-designed "Star Tours"--which takes visitors on a simulated journey into space largely via screen visuals and "shaking" seats--is the park's most popular attraction. (As a result, it's often dazzling maximum-capacity crowds of 1,600 persons per hour.)

Of course, for a ride that really moves, you can't top Space Mountain. The Southland's only dark (fully enclosed) roller-coasterish ride (no major drops, but lots of terrific careening) is also the smoothest.

In contrast, the bobsleds of the Matterhorn jerk about their tracks--a result of a 1978 refurbishing that added the silly abominable snowman and new double bobsleds. Alas, in increasing ride capacity, the thrills are also cut down noticeably. Gone is the swift, smooth "feel" they once had.

Still awesome after all these years, though: Pirates of the Caribbean. No matter how often you ride this one, it's hard not to be awed by its audio-animatronics (those animated figures) who Yo-Ho-Ho and swashbuckle about. What a treat! When we hit this ride at 9 p.m., it was near-empty. The couple in front of us even managed a private boat. (FYI, the nearby Haunted Mansion is equally mesmerizing.)

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