Roller coasters still rule the amusement park, but in the shadow of twisting steel serpents and rumbling wooden towers, a gentler landscape has been taking shape this summer.
Parks have been adding more family fun to the entertainment equation, balancing out the thrills.
This doesn't mean the carousel is making a comeback as a park headliner, though. The rides in this new, less-white-knuckled world have their own scariness.
Take the SkyScreamer at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, N.J., which lifts riders 242 feet into the air and swings them at speeds of 40 m.p.h. That may not have the same thrill as being slammed back into your seat by an impressive G-force, but swinging in a 98-foot circle 24 stories above the earth isn't exactly like riding a park train or a paddleboat, either. And the name SkyScreamer hardly promises a sedate experience.
"My friends pushed me" to ride, said Ozge Gokten, who ventured onto SkyScreamer on a recent afternoon. She said she was less worried about the height than about feeling dizzy and nauseated. "I was afraid, but I wasn't afraid of the top of the SkyScreamer. . . . I thought my stomach would be up and down."
The 20-year-old college student from Turkey said she wouldn't want to go through the hour-long wait again, but rated the ride a 10 out of 10.
SkyScreamer is the cornerstone of the newly designated Adventure Alley area, said park spokeswoman Kristin B. Siebeneicher. Adventure Alley has rides for all ages: Air Jumbo flying elephants, Déjà Vu scrambler ride, a 15-story Ferris wheel, and "Fender Bender" bumper cars.
"Our theme was sort of retro, kind of going back to basics," she said. "These are rides that we anticipate being here a really long time because they're very classic."
The new direction stems from a surprising shift in attitude by park patrons, Siebeneicher explained. A survey of park patrons in 2011 produced some unexpected feedback.
"We're very well known for our thrill-ride collection, and we were anticipating our guests' saying they wanted more thrill rides," Siebeneicher said. "And actually what they told us was that they wanted more rides that the entire family could ride together. What we realized was that although we had done a really great job of paying attention to children . . . and we certainly have a lot of thrill rides catering to our teens and adults, there was a segment of the audience that we were missing, and that was older children and tweens."
Other regional parks have gone in a similar direction.
Dorney Park in Allentown never targeted coaster-riding adrenaline junkies, according to spokeswoman Carrie Basta, but has always aimed to provide a balance among coasters, family rides, and entertainment.
"We don't want to solely focus on the thrill-seekers that we have, or solely focus on the families that we have; we want to make sure that no matter who's in your group, they're going to have a good time," Basta said. "So we want to make sure we have attractions, and have entertainment and things available."
Last year, Dorney opened Planet Snoopy, a kid-focused area with smaller versions of the coasters and Ferris wheels available elsewhere in the park. This year, chasing the other end of the market, Dorney unveiled Stinger, a roller coaster where riders sit facing each other as they go 138 feet in the air and 55 m.p.h. through three inversions.
Also new this season is a walk-through area, Dinosaurs Alive!, where 30 animatronic dinosaurs move and make noise when sensors detect visitors nearby. The motions are small - a snapping lower jaw, a twitching tail - but well done, and a few dinos can be controlled by means of a push-button control panel. The trail is clearly designed to fascinate and educate children, although they can be as scary as a coaster for toddlers, and there's no age limit to the attention a towering T-Rex captures.
Sixty miles to the southwest, in Hershey, a new coaster lets riders choose where to sit in the four-seat row: The two interior seats are traditional and floored, but the "outer wing" seats feature a seat and lap bar without floor underfoot or restraint overhead. That option, said spokesman Kevin Stumpf, is indicative of Hersheypark's philosophy.
"We want to appeal to as many people in the family as possible," Stumpf said. "That's why this coaster isn't the world's tallest or world's fastest, but it is a thrilling ride, and you can kind of choose your thrill level based upon your own needs."
The choose-your-thrill-level coaster, Skyrush, was this season's new attraction at Hersheypark. Skyrush takes riders 200 feet into the air and flies them at speeds up to 75 m.p.h. There are no inversions, and the initial ascent is quick, forgoing the slow, agonizing climb that tends to be a mainstay in coasters.
Skyrush fits Hersheypark's self-image as an extension of the Hershey brand. "We have something in the uniqueness of having that chocolate brand supporting us that no one else can obviously deliver upon, which is just fun," Stumpf said. "We don't have the tallest, fastest coasters. Our attractions in the park, we've already had that mind-set of looking to deliver on family expectations."
With their new attractions, events for Halloween, and ticket options that allow park patrons to buy their way into shorter lines for certain rides, the parks are competing on a whole-package basis rather than on the strength of individual attractions.
"I think we always try to make sure we have something new for people to be able to experience, but really what has always been our focus is making sure that people have a good time while they're here," said Basta, the Dorney Park spokeswoman. "We're in the business of fun. It's a good business to be in."