Welcome to Sunday in the Parks with Calendar--the Sequel. And please fasten your seat belts.
For our second annual survey of Southern California's major theme parks, our intrepid reporters visited the parks on a recent Sunday, unannounced. Accompanied by family or a friend, they bought tickets, stood in lines, sampled the park's rides and menus and withered in the heat.
Afterward, they put in calls to the various park publicists for assistance in compiling our comparison chart. (Some of those publicists would have preferred that we attend their parks during special "media days"--when the parks operate without a glitch and are especially clean and when we might have been wooed with "cuts" in line, as well as special edibles.)
It's no surprise that Sundays in the park have changed since the serene turn-of-the-century depiction "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grande Jatte," by French artist Georges Seurat, (the inspiration for our illustrations). In fact, Sundays keep on changing, as the parks continue in their mania to always be one step/ride/attraction ahead of the competition. So how do they measure up? Read on:
The San Diego Wild Animal Park, just east of Boiling Cauldron and immediately west of Raging Inferno, creates a nice cozy environment akin to the inside of a hamburger cooking in a microwave. Since there is very little else to do in the park, the line for the monorail--a creaky 50-minute guided tour of the park--is an excruciating 35 minutes. Because of the heat, it seems more like six hours.
Patrons waiting in line for the monorail are treated to a light mist that's meant for the growing bamboo. It's not enough.
The park is a pleasant-enough place to walk around on a Sunday afternoon, sort of like a visit to the set of the old "Daktari" television show. Except you saw more animals on the TV show.
The park's animal shows are almost obnoxiously cute, geared toward the average 4-year-old Muppet Babies fan. Grand finale of the new Australian show is a kangaroo jumping over some posts. Not exactly the stuff of "Wild Kingdom."
Beyond the quickie shows, the only real time killer--other than spending money in the imitation African gift shop--is the monorail ride.
It winds through the 700-acre park, where animals roam relatively free, allowing people glimpses of them in environments somewhat similar to their natural habitats.
(Folks willing to fork over $50 each are taken by truck right up to the animals.)
The monorail affords great views of elephants, elephant keepers gingerly cleaning up after elephants, thousands of deer-like creatures and a few bored-looking rhinos. It also provides a stunning view of the people in the trucks who get to see the animals up close.
Right after boarding the monorail, our monotone-voiced tour guide--with glazed expression and perky humor reminiscent of the Osmond clan, circa 1971--warns visitors of the dangers of the ride. To summarize: Passengers who jump out of the tram might hurt themselves, so the park advises against it. Now, let the thrills begin.
Tip: Sit on the right side of the tram. People sitting on the left get a great view of California shrubbery, and little else.
Because it's "baby season" at the park through June, there are lots of baby animals wandering around. Of course, visitors taking the 2 p.m. tram almost certainly won't see them since most of the animals are sleeping in the shade. Animals are not stupid.
In general, the animals don't seem to mind the tram, but they don't exactly rush out to greet it, either. Visitors take their chances. The animals may be in sight; or maybe not.
Given our guide's monotone style, and prepared speech, she did not seem to notice whether the animals did or didn't appear.
"If we pass something that I don't mention, it means that I think we'll see it later," she said, oh-so-sweetly.
Translation: Don't ask any questions and keep your suggestions to yourself. The condescending tone permeated the tour.
Much of the tour concentrates on the park's wildly successful breeding programs. In fact, judging from our tour guide's talk, the park is some sort of animal fantasy land--a kind of animal heaven.
An animal recently released into the park was "eating, drinking and reproducing within a week," the guide revealed. Oh, the park's rhinos also have a "Jacuzzi."
After listening to the patter, and spending 15 minutes watching gazelle graze, a park visitor begins to hope for something to happen. \o7 Anything\f7 .
According to the guide, a certain kind of gazelle is able to escape a charging cheetah. OK, then, let's see it . . . quick, someone, let a cheetah loose.
Now, \o7 that \f7 would make the trip worth the price of admission.