Eileen Ogintz, Taking the Kids, June 14, 2012
"Go Back!" I blurt out. "Go Back!"
My kids look at me as though I'm nuts, but I can't help it. On Walt Disney World's Tower of Terror, as we make that stomach-lurching drop, I'm begging to go back.
I screamed so loud on that ride, and another one as well, that I lost my voice, which convinced me to sit out big coasters from then on. I freely admit I'm the coaster coward in my family. I don't want to feel queasy for hours afterward, nor do I enjoy being scared out of my wits.
That's why I get upset when I see parents trying to make light of their kids' fears. I get that they've waited in a long line for the hot attraction of the summer. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, there are at least 20 new coasters and thrill rides this summer at theme parks across the country. And a lot of us will be heading straight too them: An estimated 300 million of us are expected to visit 400 U.S. amusement parks in the coming year.
I get that families have paid big bucks for their theme park experience. (It's not unusual for a family to spend more than $400 to $500 for one day.)
But when a child is reluctant - whether they are a kindergartner who barely makes the height limit or a teen - the worst thing you can do is force a child onto a ride. "If they get on a coaster scared and anxious, they won't enjoy it and they might never try it again," warns psychologist Dr. Susan Bartell, herself the mom of three. Bartell helped LEGOLAND Florida develop Roller Coaster Readiness tips, which you can download from http://florida.legoland.com/en/Plan/LEGOLAND-FAQ/Content-Plan-Your-Visit/, or pick up at the park.)
Dismissing a child's fears, comparing them to a "braver " sibling, trying to bribe them or calling them a baby won't help, Dr. Bartell says.
It's important to remember why you are at that theme park in the first place, she adds. You're there to spend family time, making happy memories in the process. "Keep your eyes on the prize," she says. "What you are paying for is for everyone to have a good time, not riding a particular coaster!"
And if you are the one who is skittish, don't push your fears onto your child, Dr. Bartell cautions.
It's not always the littlest park goers who are afraid either. Sometimes it is the tween or teen that is prone to motion sickness or gets claustrophobic. They might be afraid of losing control or of the speed. "Empower your kids to say no to something they know isn't good for them," says Bartell.
Certainly wherever you are vacationing, it is good to encourage kids to get out of their comfort zone, Dr. Bartell offers, but a little bit at a time. When you arrive at a theme park, especially with a young child, point out all of the fun attractions, not just the thrill rides. Explain that "Nervous is Normal" on a coaster and that that is part of the fun. Show them that kids coming off the ride are smiling and don't look scared.
Besides, there are plenty of other options, including the junior coasters at parks like LEGOLAND Florida and California and Disney World's expanding Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom - a great place to introduce kids to a thrill ride. There are more than 135 new attractions and rides this summer, the Association of Amusement Parks says - everything from the new Cars Land at Disney California Adventure Park (www.disneycaliforniaadventure.com) to the 3-D Despicable Me Minion Mayhem at Universal Studios Florida (www.universalorlando.com). There are animatronic dinosaurs (Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach, www.ripleyaquariums.com/myrtlebeach, and Cedar Point in Ohio, www.cedarpoint.com) and shows galore, complete with light-up costumes at "iLuminate" at Six Flags Over Texas, www.sixflags.com/overtexas.
Those ready for thrills certainly have their pick. SeaWorld San Diego (www.seaworldparks.com/en/seaworld-sandiego) unveils the Manta coaster where riders glide, swoop and dive like a ray through more than 12 twists and turns.
Sit with your feet dangling and turn upside down five times on X-Flight at Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Ill., (www.sixflags.com/greatamerica).
You can go up to 75 miles per hour on the new Skyrush at Hershey Park (www.hersheypark.com), the fastest and tallest roller coaster in Pennsylvania. And you'll feel like you're flying on the 210-foot-tall steel coaster the Wild Eagle at Tennessee's Dollywood (www.dollywood.com).
With Manta, SeaWorld San Diego's just opened new attraction (http://seaworldparks.com/seaworld-sandiego), you get the thrill of a double-launch roller coaster with a hands-on animal experience - multiple twists and turns, and a 54-foot drop. Plus, you see dozens of rays, in the 100,000-gallon aquarium through eight acrylic viewing windows. Reach out and touch them in the shallow pool.
You'll find plenty of thrill rides at water parks this summer too. LEGOLAND Florida's new Water Park has got "twin chasers" enclosed slides, as well as a terrific joker soaker water playground and Duplo Splash Safari for the little ones (http://florida.legoland.com/park-map/legoland-water-park/legoland-water-park/).
In case you are wondering, there are very few reported injuries, considering 290 million guests enjoy 1.7 billion rides each year, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions. To monitor safety and track injuries, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions works with the National Safety Council. The chances of getting seriously injured - defined as spending a night at hospital - on a permanently located amusement park ride in the U.S. is 1 in 9 million, IAAPA says.
That said, you have to take responsibility too by obeying all of the height, weight and health restrictions (no instructing kids to stand on tiptoes - those height restrictions are there for a reason!) Make sure you and the kids keep your hands, arms and legs inside at all times and remain seated until the ride comes to a complete stop. Don't ever allow your kids to wriggle free or loosen restraints.
And if the kids balk when you get to the front of the line, walk away. Tell your child there's always next year.
Just not for me, And, finally, I'm OK with that.