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King's Dominion pilgrimage evokes childhood memories

(This is the fourth in a weekly series of articles on road trips within reasonable reach of the University.)

"I think you're all f-d in the head! We're 10 hours from the ... fun park and you want to bail out! Well I'll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It's a quest. It's a quest for fun. I'm gonna have fun, and you're gonna have fun. We're all gonna have so much ... fun we'll need plastic surgery to remove our ... smiles! You'll be whistling 'Zippity Doo Da' out of your a-holes!"

-Chevy Chase as Clark Griswald, in National Lampoon's "Vacation"

Clark Griswald was determined to have fun. Come hell or high water, Aunt Edna or a skinny-dipping Christie Brinkley, Clark Griswald was going to make it to Walley World. Whether or not the park was open was only a small detail. A BB gun and a blubbering John Candy helped his quest come to fruition - and he and his family finally had fun as the film ended.

They traveled across the country for pre-packaged, artificial, neon-colored, structured, constructed fun. They found it in a place where people pay big bucks to make themselves nauseous, to have their bodies flipped upside down, soaked with water, spun in circles and defy gravity. An amusement park is a place where kids are kids and adults try to remember what being a kid is like. And it's a place that puts those in between in a precarious position: Are we, as college students, closer to old or closer to young? Does being wedged in between serious adulthood and carefree childhood leave any room for a place like Paramount's Kings Dominion?

The answer, like the age, is in a gray area, caught somewhere between yes and no.

In Doswell, Va., just north of Richmond on Route 95, Kings Dominion is a playground gone mad, a cathedral of consumption where fun is for sale and the asking price is high. It attracts hordes of people each year during its annual awakening from hibernation in March and throughout the sweltering summer. They come to wait in long lines for a few seconds of excitement. And they do it over and over and over again.

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    I've been to this amusement park probably a dozen times. As a child, it was an annual summer trek, whether with my soccer team, by forcing my parents to bring me or on collective teenage outings. I hadn't been since I took my then-seven-year-old neighbor for his first taste of roller coasters two years ago. I figured it would be pretty much the same experience as always. I was wrong.

    Some things were similar. The excitement of seeing the mock Eiffel Tower and the park's huge sign from the highway still is palpable and pulse-quickening, if for no other reason than its making you realize you're ready to go play. The anticipation of getting into the park - from finding a parking space to paying for your ticket and going through the gates - makes you giddy like a child and gets you revved up for a day of fun.

    At this age, however, the results are a bit different.

    The excitement can fuel you for a few hours. On this particular visit, on a Sunday in April with hardly a wait for any ride (except an unbearable 15-minute wait for the Shockwave), enthusiasm for the place will carry you through several rides.

    It's best to kick off a trip to Kings Dominion with a ride on the Grizzly, a wooden coaster that, as my first, scared the hell out of me. The coaster fuels its velocity from a huge drop that is magnified by the seemingly endless climb up the first hill. (This endlessness was especially evident on that Sunday, when the supervisor of the coaster stopped the train a third of the way up the first hill to come and confiscate a certain writer's camera.) The Grizzly is no longer the paragon of fear it was when I was eight years old, and I must admit, being able to keep my hands up the whole way gives me an idiotic sense of accomplishment.

    This is also true on the other worthwhile wooden coaster in the park, the Rebel Yell, on which you can choose to ride either front or backward. My suggestion: Jump in the front cart of the backward train and be surprised at every jerk, twist and drop. You can't see the track in front of you or anyone else on the train. It's a great ride.

    The other visible major roller coaster at Kings Dominion besides the Volcano (which was closed during my visit due to high winds!) is the Anaconda, which is an elongated twist of steel that ventures over and through (well, kind of) a body of water. The Anaconda is smooth and sleek, so it doesn't hurt your head, but it isn't for wussies either. It has a huge initial drop through a mirage of sorts, then the coaster travels underwater and comes out into a series of flips and turns. And the corkscrew that culminates the ride is an exercise in defying gravity that shouldn't be avoided.

    Near the Anaconda is a sketchy grouping of buildings dubbed the Center for Paranormal Activity. In reality, this structure is a front for the Outer Limits Flight of Fear, another great ride. Each roller coaster has a gimmick, and while the Grizzly and Rebel Yell instill fear through rickety wood, and the Anaconda has its flips and underwater dive, the Flight of Fear has mystery.

    Getting in line for it, you have no idea what kind of ride it will be. You browse through all kinds of extraterrestrial folklore before coming face to face with, well, with nothing but a small room and a train that enters with no one on it. You hop on the coaster and BOOM! you're off at what seems the speed of light without the traditional hill climb. It's as if the employees let off a bomb each time the train takes off - sending the inhabitants of the train into a knot of steel in virtual darkness.

    Now I'm not a screamer when it comes to roller coasters. I laugh, I hold still, I put my hands up, but I don't scream. But the Flight of Fear makes me wail like a little girl, no matter how many times I ride it. If it wasn't for the incessant head-banging that comes with the thrashing of the ride, it would be the premier attraction of the park. It's great, but it hurts pretty badly. The park could make some serious cash by selling Advil outside the ride's exit.

    The excitement of being at an amusement park fuels you right through these rides. But then you have to eat, and you find that a corn dog, fries and a Sprite will put you out $10. And when you're the one paying, it hurts almost as much as the Flight of Fear, especially since it tastes disgusting. Opt for the carnival favorite, funnel cake, and you're out another $5.

    The magic of a place like Kings Dominion fades quickly when money is called into question. The park's entry fee is a whopping $35.99, though one normally can find coupons for up to $8 off. Parking costs $6. Games are at least $2, and the better ones are $5. The Xtreme Flyer attraction, a simulated skydive, costs an additional $15. It's fun when you're the little child asking mommy and daddy to hand over the dough. It's a bit different when you're deciding between buying groceries and being dropped from a few hundred feet up. (Sadly, I had to opt for the eventual thrill of Harris Teeter.)

    But every couple of years, it's worth it. The fun of the first few hours reminds you of the frenzy of childhood. And it's a feeling that shouldn't be forgotten.

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