If it's tough to leave work this summer and grab the kids for a weeklong family vacation, taking a long weekend or a day trip to an amusement park could be a welcome diversion.

Theme parks within a few minutes or hours of Philadelphia will be featuring new attractions and deals that could make you wonder why you ever considered a big trip.

Savvy trip planners can save on tickets by going early in the season - June offers the most discounts - or by using package deals to get the best prices at places like Hersheypark in central Pennsylvania, Clementon Amusement Park and Splash World and Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey or Six Flags America in Maryland, near Washington. Parks like Sesame Place in Langhorne and Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom near Allentown are introducing new expansions or attractions to draw crowds this summer.

Hersheypark is just under two hours from Center City and adjacent to Hershey's Chocolate World visitors center. It is not only adding two water attractions with a theme of local beaches called the SEAquel, but also is introducing a "Family Stimulus Package" that will make a trip more affordable. For example, at general admission prices, a family of four could spend more than $200 to simply enter the park. With the Family Stimulus Package, kids ages 17 and younger whose families stay at the Hotel Hershey or Hershey Lodge this month get a day's free breakfast and free park access. By doing this, a family of four can save up to $245 on an overnight stay with park admission.

"We are certainly well aware that the economy this year is much different than last year," said Kathy Burrows, public relations manager for Hersheypark. "People still want a vacation and they probably need it now more than ever."

Hersheypark also offers combo tickets with Dutch Wonderland, a children's theme park in Lancaster about a half-hour drive from Hershey. An additional $17 on top of the $51.95 general admission price to Hersheypark includes admission to Wonderland for use on another day and saves $13 per ticket.

Booking early in the season can also be a money-saver. In Hershey, anyone who books a stay at the Hershey Hotel or Hershey Lodge before June 30 for a visit in July or August will get a $50 Family Stimulus spending card to use in the park.

Clementon Park in South Jersey has a two-tier season-pass special that also benefits folks buying early. For $15 more than a regular-day pass, which is $34.99, a purchase before June 21 will get you a season pass that includes four free guest tickets. Two of the passes can be used any day this summer; the other two are redeemable on specially designated days. Season passes purchased after June 21 but before July 13 will include three free guest passes.

Sesame Place in Bucks County this summer has opened a water attraction, the Count's Splash Castle. The multi-level area has more than 90 kid-friendly play elements, including multiple water slides, bridges, hydro blasters, bubbler jets, and a 1,000-gallon, eight-foot tipping bucket that will dump water on families every few minutes.

"The beauty of Count's Splash Castle is that it offers a playful setting parents can enjoy with their children," said Paula Pritchard, spokeswoman for Sesame Place.

The Castle, covering more than 38,000 square feet, is the park's first water attraction since 1996.

For teens and kids beyond Sesame Place's target demographic, summer concerts should be big draws at Dorney Park and the Six Flags parks.

Dorney Park has built a concert venue called the Good Time Theatre to host live entertainment that will be included with a regular day pass. The theater's first production, "Snoopy Rocks on Ice," will feature world-class skaters performing routines several times a day throughout the week.

Six Flags America near Washington is expanding the Starburst Concert Series, including the show with any park tickets.

A revamped Bizarro roller coaster is not the only thing Six Flags Great Adventure and Wild Safari in Jackson, N.J., is introducing this season. The park welcomed two rare African lion-cub births at its safari this spring. The male cub, Bakari, and the female, Zahra, were moved from the rest of the pride to a nursery to be cared for by the park's safari staff.

"Our lion cubs are doing great," said spokeswoman Angel Aristone. "So far, the feedback and reaction has been amazing."

Visitors can see the cubs at the Exploration Station of the Wild Safari. When the cubs can care for themselves, they will be reintroduced to the lion pride.

Theme Parks

Contact the following parks for hours and admission prices.

Clementon Amusement Park and Splash World: 856-783-0263. www.clementonpark.com. 144 Berlin Rd., Clementon, N.J.

Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom: 610-395-3724. www.dorneypark.com. 3830 Dorney Park Rd., Allentown

Dutch Wonderland: 1-866-386-2839. www.dutchwonderland.com. 2249 Lincoln Highway East, Lancaster

Hersheypark: 1-800-437-7439. www.hersheypark.com. 100 W. Hersheypark Dr., Hershey

Sesame Place: 1-866-464-3566. www.sesameplace.com. 100 Sesame Rd., Langhorne

Six Flags Great Adventure: 732-928-2000. www.sixflags.com/greatAdventure. 1 Six Flags Blvd., Jackson, N.J.

Six Flags America: 301-249-1500. www.sixflags.com/america. 13710 Central Ave., Mitchellville, Md.

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