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Theme parks with history entice eclectic fun seekers

By LaTrina White

Knott's Berry Farm's 50s-themed roller coaster, Xcelerator, takes riders upside down in Buena Park, California.
Knott's Berry Farm's 50s-themed roller coaster, Xcelerator, takes riders upside down in Buena Park, California.

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(CNN) -- For some, a family vacation means a visit to a crowded theme park. But if you've done Orlando and are looking for something different this year, America's lesser known (and less expensive) theme parks offer an offbeat alternative.

In the Pennsylvania hills, on the California coast and in the Missouri mountains, chocolate, ghost towns, Legos and a Big Bird await eclectic fun seekers.

And travelers don't need to go broke looking for something different. "Many facilities offer special pricing or package pricing to provide visitors with the biggest value for their dollars," said Beth Robertson of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA).

With some 600 parks and attractions in the United States, options are almost unlimited for thrill-seeking travelers. According to the IAAPA, amusement parks entertained 324 million visitors in 2002 and generated $9.9 billion in revenues. That's a 2 to 3 percent attendance increase in almost every year in the last decade.

On average, the smaller attractions offer prices cheaper than their larger counterparts. One-day tickets for two adults and two children would cost about $120 at Hersheypark, $152 at Knott's Theme Park and $188 at Disney's Walt Disney World.

So, where can you go and what can you do when you get there?

Travelers can learn their "Kisstory" at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania, mill around the Ghost Town of Knott's Theme Park in Buena Vista, California, and hone glassblowing skills at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri.

These three disparate parks have much in common. None are in the nation's biggest cities, many were not intended to be theme parks and all have a history that spawned their individuality.

Dress comfortably and wear sunscreen
Observe ride rules and instructions
Obey age, height and weight restrictions
Use seatbelts and safety equipment
Watch young children closely
Don't overeat or drink alcohol
Be aware of park emergency information

Source: International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions

Milton Hershey, creator of the candy bar bearing his surname, planned a picnic ground for his employees in 1907. It has evolved into an oasis of thrill rides, the "Sweetest Parade on Earth" complete with dancing candy bars -- and chocolate spa treatments.

"You get bathed in chocolate, scrubbed in chocolate, whatever you want," said Kathy Burrows, Hersheypark's public relations manager. "It's really, really popular. ...You have to book a date, like, three or four months in advance."

Deals abound on Hersheypark's Web site, where you will find group savings and two- and three-day package deals. Children aged 2 and under get in free.

And beyond those cocoa borders, the hosting town features Hershey kiss-shaped streetlights, a children's garden, an outdoor butterfly house, 72 holes of golf and a lip-licking smell.

"It, honest to God, smells like you're baking brownies," Burrows said.

At Silver Dollar City in the Ozark Mountains, vacationers can relax in an American town circa the 1880s and learn crafts.

Visitors to Hershey, Pennsylvania, can enjoy several chocolatey bath treatments at the spa.
Visitors to Hershey, Pennsylvania, can enjoy several chocolatey bath treatments at the spa.

"The Ozarks are known to be a part of the world where the hill folk made do with what they had," said Lisa Rau, Silver Dollar's public relations director. "They had to weave their baskets. They had to make their knives. They had to come up with pottery and glassware. We bring all that life in a very colorful way."

Nestled among the Ozarks, Silver Dollar's thrills mesh with the landscape. "The rides are somewhat hidden in the trees and the hills," Rau said. "So you don't have any steel roller coasters staring in your face."

The park offers deals for the budgeting vacationer. "We do something called the CityHopper where you have the flexibility to travel at will ... at a very low price and with seven days to use the park," said Rau.

The town offers boating, skiing and high-end lake resorts. "There is something literally for everyone, from neon to nature to music to camping for the Branson visitor," Rau said.

In California, Walter Knott, founder of Knott's Berry Farm and an agriculturalist who helped to cultivate the boysenberry, wanted a few distractions for dinner guests waiting to dine at his wife's popular chicken restaurant. Those distractions and the farm grew into the 160-acre Knott's Theme Park with a mine ride, a balloon race and a camp full of Peanuts characters.

Knott's offers $299 family getaway bargains through their Web site for a family of four. The package includes two nights of lodging and two-day admission passes to the park.

Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, takes visitors back in time with historic arts and crafts.
Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, takes visitors back in time with historic arts and crafts.

"We also own a hotel on our property and we do have one-, two- and three-night packages at the hotel that include tickets to our theme park and water park," said Susan Tierney, Knott's director of public relations.

And when visitors are finished in the park, the city of Buena Park offers shopping, museums and jousting.

Other unique American theme parks include Sesame Place in Langhorn, Pennsylvania, which caters to children younger than 13; and Legoland in Carlsbad, California, where visitors can indulge their mechanical whims.

While at Sesame Place, young visitors can dine with Big Bird and jump on Ernie's Bed Bounce. Budding engineers can construct and test robots at Legoland, while future physicists pull themselves to the top of the KidPower Towers.

While large, jaundice-colored fowl, tiny plastic pieces and sweet treats draw many vacationers, those aren't requirements for all theme park fans. Some still just want a cheap thrill.

"A (12-hour) visit costing $24 per person equals an entertainment cost of only $2 per hour," Robertson said. It's what keeps theme parks -- innovative or cookie-cutter -- perennial vacation favorites.

"Visiting an amusement park, theme park or water park is one of America's summertime passions," Robertson said. "It has become an American tradition."

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