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Fun in the fast lane: winning the white-knuckles crowd

HIGHER, faster, wetter, darker. With ever-larger doses of high-tech gadgetry, America's amusement executors and scream-machine mongers are unabashedly pushing to part starry-eyed thrill-seekers from their cash and coins.

Early returns show a banner year for the nation's 600 theme parks - up about 10 percent over last year's records - riding a steady wave of demand that began in the early '60s, but which began to rise sharply about five years ago. The surge is being called by some a major renaissance in North American roller-coasterdom, whose profits - and waiting lines - seem ever on the up and up.

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``This is the second golden age of roller coasters,'' says Paul L. Ruben, editor of Rollercoaster! magazine and an executive committee member of American Coaster Enthusiasts (ACE), a 10-year-old organization that rides coasters worldwide. He cites nine major rides - costing up to $10 million each - that opened this season alone, 35 in the last five years. ``Coasters are coming back in a big way because they are more creative, safer, and at the same time more thrilling,'' he says.

(The Consumer Products Safety Commission, which keeps statistics on accidents on amusement park rides, says there is no discernible trend in safety patterns over the last 20 years. But it says 7,700 people were treated in hospital emergency rooms for amusement ride-related injuries in 1985, compared to 198,000, for instance, from playground equipment. From 1973 to 1987, there were 77 reported deaths from amusement rides.)

About 235,000 people spent $4 billion in amusement parks in 1987, up about 10 percent over the previous year. Parks are hiring growing legions of pollsters to find out what people want; then they're building it.

If you haven't been to your local amusement park lately, the results may surprise you.

Higher: Mr. Ruben's highest rating this year goes to Shock Wave, at Six Flags Great America park in Gurnee, Ill. Opened in April, the world's highest steel coaster (170 feet) also has the largest first drop (155 feet) and turns its riders over no less than seven times. ``They've set a new record for coaster dementia,'' Ruben says.

Faster: Though there are already two suspended roller coasters in parks on the East Coast, the new, state-of-the-art award goes to Ninja of Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, Calif. With train cars suspended from an overhead track, delivering the feeling of free flight as passengers swing up to 180 degrees from side to side, Ninja reaches a speed of more than 55 miles an hour.

Wetter/darker: Although there are hundreds of log, rafting, and flume rides that splash riders, the trend of the '80s has been a circular raft carrying up to 12 people, developed by Intamin Corporation. This year, Knotts Berry Farm, near here, followed its market polling to increase raft speed and introduce geysers, darkened, mist-filled tunnels, and two major water falls, guaranteed to soak riders to their underwear.

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``People want water, so we give it to them,'' says Knotts's Stuart Zanville. A million riders since Memorial Day have produced only 41 letters complaining of oversaturation. ``Of course now we provide lockers so people won't ruin their watches and cameras,'' Mr. Zanville adds.

High-tech: Besides speedier speeds and higher heights, amusement lovers are demanding and getting more interactive and computer-run fare. Tops among the former is the Top Gun ride that debuted in June at Dorney Park, Allentown, Pa. Riders climb into one of 10 spaceships to peer at TV screens depicting other ships in a flight pattern. When players shoot down the other ships via computer, the actual car drops in position. The last of 10 cars to remain ``up'' wins a free encore battle.

Rides to nowhere: In the past few years, about 20 parks have introduced ``rides'' in which riders enter flight simulator cabins equipped with TV screens. As screens depict visual motion, the hydraulic action of the simulator cabin tosses riders up, down, and side to side. The state-of-the-art award goes to Disneyland's Star Tours ride, which opened last year: a rocky, intergalactic excursion to the fictitious moon of Endor. Close behind is the new Mindscaper at San Francisco's Pier 39.

And theme parks are doing much to attract visitors besides rides.

``There is a major trend towards increased family entertainment,'' says Peter Irish, director of association relations at the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA). Country music is the main attraction at parks such as Nashville's Opryland or nearby Dollyland. Others feature sports figures, such as gymnastics Olympian Kurt Thomas at Six Flags Magic Mountain, or world professional skating silver-medalist Shawn McGill in Knotts Superstar Ice Spectacular.

``There is also a move back to tablecloth restaurants instead of fast food; concerts way into the night,'' notes Mr. Irish, ``anything to keep turning heads and keep things fresh.''

But if there is a move toward more and better rides as the main attractions, there seems to be a near saturation for numbers of parks themselves: Twenty-eight of the 40 major metropolitan areas in the country have at least one park within 100 miles.

``The competition here is so fierce,'' says Magic Mountain's Sherrie Bang, ``that we need to be able to talk about something new and fresh every year.'' Fresh on the heels of Star Tours, Disneyland will introduce a new flume-and-water ride next January. The new concept? Thrills in one half, robotic entertainment in the other. Not to mention the biggest water drop of all - in the dark.

According to the IAAPA, roller coasters originated in Russia in the late 1700s, and were imported to France by Russian 'emigr'es, who added wheels to their primitive concept. Le Marcus Thompson built the first roller coaster for commercial purposes in 1890. The oldest wooden roller coaster still operating in the US is the Jack Rabbit (1919), in Clementon, N.J.

With all the emphasis on high-tech rides, it's still easy to find those who love the old ``woodies,'' which have dwindled but far from disappeared.

``The old-fashioned roller coasters had a thrill a minute,'' says 37-year-old Gloria Matre, who says she has attended amusement parks eight to 12 times a year since she was 16. ``I loved wondering if age or termites would suddenly send a car careening off into the ocean. With these new rides, you know nothing will happen, it takes something away from the experience.''

A front-page story in Tuesday's Monitor incorrectly stated that about 235,000 people spent $4 billion in amusement parks in 1987. That amounts to about $17,000 per person, which is a lot of cotton candy. The correct figure should have been 235 million people.

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