With gas prices flirting with $3 a gallon and predicted to go even higher as the summer driving season gets into full swing, more than a few planned family vacations may be downsized or called off this year.
But there s good news, too, at least for people who live in Ohio or southeast Michigan: They have relatively easy access to a couple of the country s best amusement parks.
Cedar Point in Sandusky and Paramount s Kings Island near Cincinnati are both world-class seasonal theme parks, with each attracting upwards of 3 million visitors a year. On Monday, Cedar Fair LP owner of Cedar Point announced it will buy rival Paramount Parks, Inc. for $1.24 billion. The acquisition could be completed by July, but Cedar Fair chairman and chief executive Richard Kinzel said gate and food prices for all the parks will stay the same this year and likely won t change in 2007.
For the eighth straight year, Cedar Point was voted in 2005 as Best Amusement Park in the World in an annual poll conducted by Amusement Today, a monthly trade publication that s considered the Bible of the industry. In the same poll, voters said Kings Island had the best kids area of any amusement park in the world the fifth consecutive year that it s been awarded that honor.
Rounding out Ohio s Big 3 or more accurately, Ohio s Big 2 is Geauga Lake & Wildwater Kingdom near Cleveland, which continues to shake off the rust and dust of its former incarnations and make strides toward becoming a major player in the amusement-park game.
In 2006, like most every year, there are a few major additions at Ohio s theme parks. At Cedar Point, it s a giant $6 million swing ride called Skyhawk, which carries riders high into the air, then whips them back down.
At Kings Island in Mason, Ohio, the new addition, aimed at younger visitors, is Nickelodeon Universe, a collection of 18 rides and attractions themed to characters from Nickelodeon s many TV shows.
And at Geauga Lake in Aurora, a $5 million Caribbean-themed wave pool called Tidal Wave Bay has been added to the water park side of the sprawling complex.
Each of the three parks has opened for the season, but they don t traditionally begin daily operations until the Memorial Day weekend. From this point on, June and September are the least crowded months, while Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Sundays that s right, Sundays are the least crowded days.
Not surprisingly, Saturdays are the busiest days at all of the parks.
Here s a brief look at what s going on this season at Ohio s major amusement parks:
The park s new Skyhawk ride is more than 100 feet tall, and features two 85-foot-long swinging arms, each of which holds 20 riders. They are positioned back-to-back, so every rider has a front row view. As the arms swing back and forth on the two-minute ride, passengers are propelled more than 125 feet into the air at speeds of more than 60 mph.
The new ride is located near Snake River Falls in the park s Frontiertown.
Even bigger news for Cedar Point this season is the park s unprecedented cut in the price of a one-day admission ticket. The $5 price reduction for 2006 from $45 to $40 marks the first time since the park started a single-price admission program in 1970 that the cost of admission has been reduced.
In addition, a junior ticket (for those age 3 to 61 and under 4 feet tall), which was reduced last summer from $25 to $10, will remain at the lower price. And a senior ticket (for those 62 and older), which was introduced last August, will also stay at $10.
Cedar Point officials say the price cuts are an acknowledgement of the region s economic woes, and they are hoping to make up in volume what they lose in individual admission fees. Industry analysts add that the reduced admission fees are also an acknowledgement that the park, long known for its large collection of roller coasters, hasn t added a new coaster in the past few years.
A separate admission price is charged for Cedar Point s adjacent water park, Soak City. A small price cut was applied to the park s popular Ride & Slide ticket, which includes admission over two days to both Cedar Point and Soak City. The price of the combo ticket was trimmed from $68 to $65.
For 2006, the park, located 24 miles north of Cincinnati, has combined some existing rides and attractions with a few new ones to create a themed kids area called Nickelodeon Universe.
Among the new rides are: Plankton s Plunge, a free-fall ride that takes guests 20 feet in the air and lowers them in a jumping vertical descent; Phantom Flyers, which guests ride facing the ground to give them the sensation of free flight, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, a family roller coaster that whisks riders along on a giant skateboard.
Anchoring Nickelodeon Universe are a pair of the park s popular existing rides, the Rugrats Runaway Reptar roller coaster and the Wild Thornberrys River Adventure. The area also includes attractions themed to Dora the Explorer and SpongeBob SquarePants.
The park s big-screen Action FX Theater has a new animated feature, The Funtastic World of Hanna-Barbera, with characters from TV shows such as The Flintstones, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo.
Included in the Kings Island ticket price is admission to Crocodile Dundee s Boomerang Bay, a water park with dozens of water slides, rivers, activities, and children s play areas.
Late this year, Kings Island hopes to get a boost when a Great Wolf Lodge is scheduled to open just north of the park. The amusement park is part owner of the indoor water park and resort, which will be larger than the Great Wolf property in Sandusky.
With the venerable park 31 miles southeast of Cleveland entering its third season under the ownership of Cedar Fair, Geauga Lake continues to improve and expand its offerings, while keeping its admission prices lower than its competitors.
Regular adult admission is $25 at Geauga Lake, compared to $40 for Cedar Point and $50 at Paramount s Kings Island. Geauga has also lowered the price of its junior ticket from $15 to $10, and started a $10 senior admission price for guests age 62 and over.
Making a big splash this year is the park s new 30,000-square-foot wave pool, Tidal Wave Bay, which is on the water park side of the lake. The $5 million pool is ringed by 16 new VIP cabanas that can be rented by the day and feature full food and beverage service for guests.
Visitors are finding it easier this year to make their way across the lake between Geauga Lake s rides and attractions and Wildwater Kingdom water park. Free trams carry guests back and forth, a floating bridge has been moved to the center of the lake, and a new walkway around the lake has been opened.
Among the new entertainment offerings at Geauga Lake this season are a lumberjack show in the stadium by the lake, a magic show in the Palace Theater, and a seven-piece strolling marching band.
Included in the Geauga Lake ticket price is admission to Wildwater Kingdom, a water park with dozens of water slides, children s play areas, and the new wave pool.
Discounts on admission tickets to each of the amusement parks may be available online, at AAA and credit union offices, and at certain retail stores.