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SUMMERTIME : Some Rides Can Be Too Thrilling

June 26, 1992|RUTH STROUD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Ruth Stroud is a Culver City writer

The sight of a giant King Kong flashing his red eyes and roaring at a tram full of people proved too much for 3-year-old Ian Kay one recent morning at Universal Studios.

"I want to get off," he whimpered as his mom and dad tried to comfort him.

"It's just pretend," his mother, Jodi Kay, reassured him. Ian's brother, Jordan, 6, who had visited Universal two years before, kept his head tightly buried in his mom's shoulder, refusing to take even one peek at the big ape.

Later, after experiencing a simulated earthquake in a subway tunnel, Jordan insisted that he was just a "teeny bit scared," while a teary-eyed Ian claimed he wasn't scared at all.

Although Universal Studios posts signs, and tram guides caution that some of the "loud sounds, sudden tram movements . . . and special effects . . . may be too intense for young children," few parents or kids appear to heed the warnings. Occasionally, the experience of encountering a string of fires, floods, earthquakes, avalanches, helicopter crashes and shark and ape attacks (all staged, of course) proves overwhelming to small children.

David Moss, who was 4 when he visited Universal in December, was "so completely and absolutely traumatized" by the time the tram reached the fourth attraction that his parents pulled the emergency cord and took a van back to the station.

"We spent two whole days afterward talking about it with our son," wrote his mother, Tina Feiger, in a letter to Universal Studios. "It is a testament to the success of technology that everything has become so believable," wrote Feiger, who holds a doctorate in education and teaches psychology at Santa Monica College. "On the other hand, the complete realism of the fantastic and fantasy is petrifying, especially to children under five."

According to Felix Mussenden, vice president, operations at the studio, about 35,000 people per day visit Universal during peak periods, and almost all of them take the 45-minute tram ride. Employees are trained to respond to the needs of guests, whether children or adults, who choose not to continue the ride. When the emergency cord is pulled on the tram, a radio dispatcher summons a van to take the guest back to the entertainment center.

If such a call "comes once or twice a month, it's a lot," Mussenden said.

"We try to warn our guests in advance of what they're going to be seeing," Mussenden said. It then becomes the parents' responsibility as to whether they want to have their child see the attractions, he added.

At Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, most rides have height restrictions and signs warning of potential hazards, such as getting wet. Pregnant women are barred from some rides. Others post signs suggesting that guests should be "in good health and free from heart conditions, nervous disorders, motion sickness, weak backs or necks or other physical disorders."

Eileen Harrell, publicity and public relations manager, believes that people know what they're in for when they come to Magic Mountain.

"I think that people basically like thrills," she said. "That's what we're known for--being a thrilling park and having a lot of coasters and other rides."

"I like getting wet," crowed 10-year-old Jason McMackin after getting doused on the Log Jammer one morning in late April. He was enjoying the park with his 4-year-old brother, Jarrett, and his mother, Judy.

Jarrett said he enjoyed Universal's Star Trek and Miami Vice attractions, but King Kong was still too scary for him, his mother said.

"He doesn't want to go on it again for a while."

Whether they take their children to Universal, Magic Mountain or any other summer attraction, parents should be aware of differences that are a function of age, sex or personality, said Lisa Aronson, a clinical child psychologist in private practice in Van Nuys.

Preschoolers "generally shouldn't be subjected to overwhelming experiences because they don't know as clearly the difference between reality and fantasy," Aronson said. "They might actually think an earthquake is occurring."

Still, Aronson added, there are exceptional preschoolers who enjoy being scared. They feel "excitement and exhilaration . . . a sense of triumph in mastering scary experiences," she said.

Elementary school-age children, less dependent on their parents than younger kids, will vary in their ability to handle the excitement of rides and attractions, the psychologist said. More independent children may show a thrill-seeking delight more characteristic of adolescents, although more dependent, vulnerable kids may find these experiences frightening.

Typically, adolescents--particularly boys--find theme parks and scary attractions a lot of fun, Aronson said. Experiencing apparent danger and surviving enhances their "sense of power and omnipotence."

In deciding whether to take a young child on a ride, parents should not be swayed by pressure from family or friends, Aronson stressed. Instead, they should use their own judgment as to whether their child can handle the experience. If they decide to let the child ride, they should prepare him or her for what the ride will entail and, if possible, offer the option of not going.

If a child is clearly frightened and wants to get off, parents need to heed those feelings and not belittle their offspring for being a "baby," Aronson cautioned.

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