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At theme parks, new focus on family fun

Dark rides and parades for visitors of all ages are in. Bigger, scarier roller coasters for teens are out.

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Grampa John Brady is standing beneath a roller coaster sign reading, "Tatsu: Fly at the Speed of Fear," but he has other ideas.

"Guys, you ride the coaster," he says to son Jeff and four grandchildren. Halfway through a day at Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park here, two kids munch on purple snow cones, two pack their cheeks with cotton candy, and Mr. Brady could use some air conditioning and a chair. "Your grandmother and I will take [5-year-old granddaughter] Karen, go watch the Chinese acrobats, and meet you here in 90 minutes," says Brady.

Like a resounding "ding" of the sledgehammer bell, the wishes of older and younger Americans for alternatives to "higher, faster, scarier" roller coasters have been heard by theme parks across the US. The result: A more family-friendly, less teen-centric (translation: "roller-coaster dominated") experience than in recent years.

For the Bradys, that means watching plate-spinning, bungee-jumping contortionists, and hoop divers from Hebei Province, China, while sitting in air-conditioned comfort on a southern California desert hillside where it's 105 degrees F. in the shade. At some of the other 420 US parks from Arizona to Maine, it means more parades, arcades, and games for younger kids; and more variety/stunt shows, music, and entertainment for the over-50 set; and more attractions that all ages can enjoy together.

"The biggest trend we are seeing is a family focus – a good, solid, multigenerational experience," says Beth Robertson, communications director for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. There are more midway rides for young and old together; more with four seats together (instead of two); and more fireworks, laser shows, light extravaganzas, and stunt shows for all ages.

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