The simple summer pleasures of amusement parks
With a handful of amusement parks within easy driving distance, Baltimoreans can spend their summer weekends sampling breath-taking roller coasters, cavorting with some of their kids' favorite animated characters or getting soaked even though they're miles from the nearest ocean. And for those who haven't been in a few years — maybe it's time to once again sample the simple summer pleasures that only an amusement park can provide.

Here's a look at five parks within 200 miles of the center of Baltimore, along with a sampling of what new rides and attractions they have to offer.

Six Flags America

Why you should visit in 2010 New this year, says Six Flags spokeswoman Julie Filz, is the decidedly kid-friendly Thomas Town, the largest Thomas the Tank Engine-themed area in the U.S. (Ask your 5-year-old about Thomas if you're clueless.) The area features eight rides and attractions, including the Cranky the Crane Tower (a 30-foot drop that should leave kids gasping, and smiling) and the Sodor Carnival Ferris Wheel, which gives riders a bird's-eye view of the whole area. And of course there's Thomas himself, taking riders on a tour of his entire town.

"In most kids' areas, Mom and Dad can usually put the kids on the rides, then step back and watch," Filz says. "Here, you can ride everything with your child. You're not taking the kid to the amusement park, standing back and watching him or her have all the fun."

Also this year, says Filz, park workers have redone much of Six Flag's water park, Hurricane Harbor, and its wave pool, Hurricane Bay. They've ripped-up the old Astroturf-like surface and replaced it with a more attractive, foot-friendly surface. And shows have been added that revelers can watch from the pool deck.

Address 13710 Central Ave., Bowie

Miles from the Inner Harbor 34

Wow factor A half-dozen roller coasters, including the classic Wild One, an all-wooden wonder that dates to 1917, when, as the Giant Coaster, it began thrilling visitors to suburban Boston's Paragon Park. It was moved to Six Flags in 1986.

Hours through August Park opens at 10:30 a.m. daily through Labor Day, closes at 8 p.m. weekdays, 9 p.m. Fridays and Sundays, 10 p.m. Saturdays. Water park hours are 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily.

Admission $29.99-$49.99; season passes, $54.99

Information 301-249-1500 or

Dutch Wonderland

Why you should visit in 2010 The determinedly kid-friendly park boasts a new ride called the Twister, Dutch Wonderland spokeswoman Bethany Alwan says, "a circular ride that sort of tilts on its axis and goes forwards and backwards. It's very cool." (Actually, the ride was new last year, but it's probably new to you, right?)

The park also has included a free round of miniature golf at the nearby Wonderland Mini-Golf in its ticket price.

Plus, if you haven't been since 2003, you haven't seen Duke's Lagoon, a 1.5-acre, pool-less water park known as the sprayground — a perfect place for young kids who want to get wet. "We don't want to have standing water or a swimming pool," Alwan says, "because a lot of our guests might not be able to swim yet."

Address 2249 Lincoln Hwy. East, Lancaster, Pa.

Miles from the Inner Harbor 82

Wow factor An amusement park in the heart of Amish country — it doesn't get any more low-key or kid-friendly than that. And the parking is free.