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TODAY'S PAPER
Travel

Where the wild rides are

KIRA VERMOND shuts her eyes and provides a sampling of what's new, classic and just plain fun at North America's theme parks
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, June 19, 2004 - Page T2

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The first drop is the real killer. Everything after it is gravy -- the 70-kilometre-per-hour hairpin turns, the rattling teeth, even the way you have to duck to avoid a wad of spit from some joker a few cars ahead of you. It's summertime and that means it's roller coaster season.

While you won't find many bigger, badder thrill rides this year owing to lacklustre attendance in previous years, amusement parks are still trying to outdo each other and draw people through their gates. Musical shows, water parks and kiddie rides rule. This is good news for people who like their amusement on the saner side, but a drag for those of us who can recite safety precautions in our sleep ("Please secure all valuables. . .").

Here's a sampling of what's going on at top theme parks across Canada and the U.S. this year:

Canada's Wonderland, Toronto

The new: Quickly being swallowed whole by Toronto's encroaching suburbs, Paramount Canada's Wonderland seems closer than ever to the city centre. This year, thrill seekers can check out Tomb Raider: The Ride, inspired by the Hollywood action flick Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. Six hundred riders an hour buckle in, ready for two full minutes of climbing and dipping, while rolling inversions and high-bank curves give the illusion of flight. Now if only the ride could give us Croft's killer gams.

The classic: Almost every theme park has one -- a monster-sized swing ride that whips riders around in a circle high above onlookers -- and Paramount has Swings of the Century. On this ride, you can take a breather from the roller coasters while soaring through the air and enjoying the view.

Best-kept secret: Wild Beast has got to be the most underrated roller coaster at Paramount Canada's Wonderland. Grabbing onto the bars to keep from flying off the seat is futile as riders roar down the serpentine wooden track with its humps, bumps and hairpin turns. And best of all, the lines are short.

If rides aren't your thing: Head over to Splash Works, the water park at the far end of the property, and chill out on a beach chair beside Whitewater Bay -- Canada's largest outdoor continuous wave pool -- which easily holds 1,000 swimmers. Or, don a swimsuit, grab an inner tube and float 400 metres down Lazy River. You can almost block out the screams coming from the Mighty Canadian Minebuster roller coaster a short stroll away.

Information: An adult day pass costs $37.44, while children aged 3 to 6 and seniors pay $26.74. For more information, call (905) 832-7000 or visit the website at http://www.canadas-wonderland.com.

Universal Studios, Orlando, Fla.

The new: Borrowing from a main theme in Hollywood -- if someone else is doing it, we'd better too -- Universal Studios is turning to the movies for inspiration. This year, the park unveiled Revenge of the Mummy, a thrill ride for people who like to be scared witless as they're being, well, scared witless. Riders are warned to turn back (who would after waiting in line for an hour?) or risk facing the Mummy's wrath. The indoor coaster charges past mounds of scarab beetles and swings under a ceiling of flames.

The classic: Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the hotel, Jaws, a water ride with attitude, pulls you back into the park. Riders come face to face with the big fish -- all 11 metres of its mechanical wizardry and urethane.

Best-kept secret: Universal's second Orlando theme park, Islands of Adventure, offers more fast and furious rides than its sibling. For roller-coaster junkies with kids who are too small to ride nine of the 14 major rides, there are "child-swap" areas where one parent can keep little tots in an enclosed area while the other parent rides with the bigger kids.

If rides aren't your thing: Tour the sound stage at Nickelodeon Studios. The 45-minute tour gives visitors a behind-the-scences look at this popular kids' TV network.

Information: Adults pay $54.75 (U.S.) and children aged 3 to 9 pay $44.95 to visit Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure for a day. For more information, call 1-800-711-0080 or visit universalorlando.com.

Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio

The new: For most Brits, Sandusky, Ohio, is hardly a vacation spot of choice. But there's a good reason why the Roller Coaster Club of Great Britain visited the area's Cedar Point this month -- and the American Coaster Enthusiasts will hold its national convention there this week. Cedar Point is thrill-ride heaven with 67 rides and 16 roller coasters. Last year, the park opened the tallest and fastest coaster in the world: the 130-metre-tall, 190-km/h Top Thrill Dragster. There are no new record-breaking rides this year, but Cedar Point plans to open its Castaway Bay indoor water park resort in November.

The classic: Built in 1964, the Blue Streak coaster is the oldest operating scream machine at Cedar Point. Blue Streak has given more than 50.8 million rides since it was unveiled 38 years ago.

Best-kept secret: Go looking for Chaos if you're in the mood for rocking, rolling and rotating with 35 of your closest friends. Chaos debuted in 1997, the year it won best new product from the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. The spinning, tilting platform whirls riders 360-degrees -- sideways, upside down and every which way but right side up.

If rides aren't your thing: Until Sept. 6 (weather permitting), families can head over to Camp Snoopy Theater for a 25-minute musical show featuring Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. There are no shows on Mondays.

Information: Adults pay $43.95 (U.S.) for a day pass, while kids over 3 years old and under 48 inches tall pay $24.95. For more information, call (419)-627-2350 or visit the website at http://www.cedarpoint.com.

Playland, Vancouver

The new: Playland had added Crazy Beach Party to its collection of vomit comets this year. Also known as the Frisbee, the ride sends hapless victims spinning, while the huge disk they're strapped to swings like a pendulum to 90 degrees. There's also the new mine car Kid's Coaster opening this month.

The classic: Every park has got to have a flume ride, especially when the temperature spikes and families need to cool down. The Flume water ride starts out gently, before plummeting down a 14-metre drop, soaking riders and onlookers.

Best-kept secret: It's an oldie and a goodie. The Wild Mouse has been around since 1958 and it looks tame, but riders can expect hairpin turns, steep drops and anxiety that they're going to flip off the track.

If rides aren't your thing: Visit the Glass House, a maze of windows and walls ready to trip you up.

Information: An adult general passport is $24.95, while a junior passport runs $11.95. For more information, call (604) 252-3583 or visit http://www.pne.bc.ca/playland.

La Ronde, Montreal

The new: Kids understand SpongeBob SquarePants, so they'll be ready to try the new simulator ride and travel underwater with him in hot pursuit of an elusive pickle. Guests sit on a platform that moves in sync with the 10-minute movie. If rocking around in a chair isn't your thing, there are 30 fixed seats too.

The classic: True to its name, the Boomerang coaster hoists riders into the air before they whip back to earth -- after a few loops. At its highest point, it comes to a virtual stop before plunging at speeds of up to 75 km/h. The ride was installed in 1984 when riding upside down was the newest thing and it's still cool.

Best-kept secret: It's always nice when little kids and weary parents can ride together. That's why Tchou Tchou is tops. For two minutes and 27 seconds, tots can imagine they're conducting trains and wagons. And for once, mom and dad can just sit back and enjoy the ride.

If rides aren't your thing: Starting daily shows today, ride refugees can escape the whirling and looping to watch acrobats-cum-divers-cum-actors from Productions Haut-Vol dive 30 metres. Make your way into the castle for the show.

Information: Adults pay $29.55 for the day and kids aged 3 to 11 pay $18.25. For more information, call (514) 397-2000 or visit laronde.com.