Saturday, February 24, 2007

Theme Parks - the Not-So-Usual Suspects

Do you and your family enjoy theme parks? Ok, silly question. What family doesn't enjoy theme parks? Kids love them because there's always something fun to do. Parents love them because they give their kids such joy. And, let's face it, many parents love the roller coasters and other rides as well.

Many families try to visit all the major parks at least once while their kids are young. It's almost like the tradition of putting a sticker on your luggage to show where you've been. You want as many stickers on that suitcase as you can collect. They become badges of honor for your travels. As far as theme parks go, there are the usual suspects:

California

--Disneyland

--California Adventure

--Knott's Berry Farm

--Magic Mountain

--Universal Studios

--Legoland

--SeaWorld


Florida

--Universal Orlando

--SeaWorld Orlando

--Walt Disney World

But what about the Not-So-Usual Suspects? Those are the theme parks you might not know about, but should, particularly if you have younger children. Here are a few not-so-knowns that you might want to consider as well:

Bonfante Gardens - Gilroy, California

Gilroy? Where's Gilroy? Chances are many of you haven't heard of Gilroy, California. Gilroy is the Garlic Capital of the World, located off the 101, approximately 42 miles southeast of Monterey and just over 80 miles south of San Francisco. So, if you're visiting the San Francisco, Monterey or Santa Cruz areas of California, a side trip to the Bonfante Gardens should be on your list.

Bonfante Gardens has the distinction of being California's only horticultural theme park, designed for garden lovers and families of small children. It's like a Legoland, only instead of trees and flowers made of Legos, these trees and flowers are real. Imagine that, a theme park with something real. And, while you won't find the amount of thrill rides you would at the other parks, there are some rides to keep the kids (and ride-loving parents interested). Rides include a sky monorail, a roller coaster billed as a "thrilling mine coaster" surrounded by nearly 600 trees, a carousel which dates back to 1927, and a giant banana which swings back and forth. Okay, maybe not the most thrilling, but definitely appropriate for younger children.

For the garden buffs among you, Bonfante Gardens has several gardens to astound you, such as the Monarch Garden, filled with hundreds of tropical and sub-tropical trees, flowers and shrubs; the Camellia Gardens displaying many different varieties of camellias; and the Holly Garden, which features over 20 different varieties of hollies.

Bonfante Garden's season begins March 31.

Silver Dollar City - Branson, Missouri

Silver Dollar City is an absolute must-see theme park. Why? It has what the other theme parks don't have. An actual living cave. As a matter of fact, Missouri is chock full of caves, and is known as the "Cave State" due to it containing over 6,000 surveyed caves. One of them is Marvel Cave, which is now part of Silver Dollar City amusement park. Admission to Silver Dollar City also gains you admission to the Marvel City Cave tour, a tour which lasts approximately 60 minutes and takes you 500 feet below the surface. You do have to climb 600 stairs down, but will have a cable train to take you the ½-mile trip back up to the surface.

Other rides include a giant swing, which launches you 7 stories into the air; a 20-minute steam train ride; a funhouse called Grandfather's Mansion; an 80-foot tall, high-speed, roller coaster with a great view of the Ozarks; and several water rides.


Dollywood - Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

For those of you not familiar with Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, it’s one of the towns close to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, one of the most popular National Parks in the United States. So, a vacation to Pigeon Forge will get you close to peaceful vacation cabins and all the outdoor activities you can handle: boating, fishing, hiking, etc. Plus, you can give the kids a day at a fabulous nearby theme park: Dollywood.

Dollywood is a great place for families with children of all ages. The younger children will really like it because of the mix of rides with educational amusements, such as the Dreamland Forest Treehouse full of kid games, an interactive Dreamland Forest playground area, and the Eagle Mountain Sanctuary, which houses the country’s largest collection of non-releasable bald eagles. There are numerous thrill rides as well for parents and older children, including the new coaster ride, Mystery Mine, where you travel on a 1,811-foot track through an abandoned coal mine, and take an 85-foot vertical plunge.

Five of the South's largest festivals occur at Dollywood between March and December, including KidsFest from mid June to early August. Dollywood is open March 31 through the end of December.

While every kid wants to visit Disneyland, Disney World, Universal Studios, and all the other usual suspects, do give some thought to some of the lesser-known, not-so-usual suspects which can delight, educate and thrill you and your family.