Image: Storm Runner roller coaster
Carolyn Kaster  /  AP file
Cars on the Storm Runner roller coaster fly overhead at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pa.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 6/12/2007 3:54:46 PM ET 2007-06-12T19:54:46

They’re shuttering a piece of my childhood — and that’s fine with me.

This fall, Astroland, the antiquated New York amusement park, will shut down after 45 years on the Coney Island boardwalk. When it does, I’m sure it’ll unleash a flood of memories among the millions who have walked through its gates.

As a lapsed Long Islander, I’ll have just one — the dry-mouth fear I felt as a generally timid kid staring up at the glaring devil that loomed over Dante’s Inferno. The ride itself is a faded blur — skeletons? mummies? — but that devil creeped me out for years.

I’m older now and living a good 3,000 miles from the bogeyman of southern Brooklyn. I’m also less fearful: these days, I’m up for any scare that doesn’t involve a doctor’s appointment or a letter from the IRS. (Or, for that matter, being left hanging upside down 150 feet above the ground as riders on an Arkansas roller coaster were recently.)

Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities for chills and thrills this summer, and even as the amusement park of my youth gets ready to go dark, new attractions are opening. Here are some of the latest offerings:

Saddle up, splash down
Wild West World
: The nation’s newest theme park opened in early May in Park City, Kan., 20 minutes north of downtown Wichita. Designed to be more family friendly than fright-inducing, the park features 24 rides, a 1,400-seat theater and an Old West theme that celebrates the state’s cowboy roots.

This summer, the park will also host the China Wuqiao Acrobats, a 10-person gymnastic troupe that will perform three shows daily during June, July and August. All-access admission is $25.50 for adults ($20.50 for children under 48 inches), plus tax.

Hersheypark: This Pennsylvania theme park is celebrating its 100th anniversary with new rides, new shows and new family-friendly policies. Making the biggest splash is The Boardwalk, a 200,000-square-foot water play area. With seven slides, two crawl tunnels and nearly 600 interactive water toys, its centerpiece, East Coast Waterworks, is said to be the largest water-play structure in the world.

This year, guests can also enjoy Saturday-night fireworks (through September 1), healthier dining choices (all foods are now trans-fat-free) and five new musical and theatrical productions. Single-day tickets are $45.95 (ages 9–54), $26.95 (ages 3–8 and 55–69) and $18.95 (age 70 and up).

Kennedy Space Center: For those of us without reservations on Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital space flights (and $200,000 to spare), KSC’s new Shuttle Launch Experience is probably as close to outer space as we’re going to get. Sure, it’s a simulation, but as part of the center’s $40 admission ($30 for children ages 3–11), it may be the best travel bargain in the solar system.

Strapped into seats in the shuttle’s cargo bay, guests experience the intensity of a launch through the use of a powerful sound system, high-definition monitors and vibrating seats that mimic the feeling of rocket-powered acceleration. Moments later, the cargo bay doors open to reveal a view of the earth floating in the emptiness of space — no space suit or supplemental oxygen required.

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Scream machines
The Cyclone, Astroland’s iconic roller coaster, opened 80 years ago this month and is expected to continue operating after the park closes. Meanwhile, coaster enthusiasts have several new rides to experience this summer:

Griffon: Billed as the world’s tallest dive coaster, this behemoth at Busch Gardens Europe climbs 205 feet, plunges 90 degrees back down and pulls four G's in its 75-mph, three-minute run.

Maverick: Cedar Point’s 17th coaster kicks things off with a 95 degree drop —  that’s beyond vertical — before hurtling through two corkscrew rolls, eight hills and one 400-foot-long tunnel, all at speeds of up to 70 mph.

Mystery Mine: Think runaway mine cart. Using audio, special effects and elaborate set design, this themed coaster at Dollywood takes riders on a twisting, 60-mph tour of an abandoned coal mine with an eerie past.

Renegade: This next-generation wooden coaster at Valleyfair is the first woodie to feature a twisting first drop. A ground-hugging S-curve and high-speed station fly-by make its 52-mph top speed feel even faster.

Tony Hawk’s Big Spin: Inspired by the skateboarding superstar, this family-friendly coaster is now open at Six Flags St. Louis and Six Flags Fiesta Texas. It’s not the fastest (top speed: 31 mph), but the cars spin 360 degrees as riders grab air and grind through helixes, mouse turns and a camelback.

SheiKra: Originally opened in 2005, this pioneering ride at Busch Gardens Africa will up the stakes when it reopens on June 16. It will still climb 200 feet, plunge 90 degrees and hit speeds of 70 mph, but now it will do it all in fully exposed “floorless” style.

From Coney Island to the Gulf Coast, it’s going to be one wild summer.

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