If you've "outgrown" theme parks - or at least think you have - consider a stop by Six Flags Discovery Kingdom next time you're in the San Francisco Bay area. It's quite amazing, really, but Six Flags seems to have included enough attractions to keep every member in the family fully engaged during your visit.
Some parks are a little too focused on aggressive, stomach-churning rides that older members of the family are much less likely to do than to watch. Other parks focus more on educational exhibits that will leave the teenagers bored to tears. Still others are for the kiddies -- which is fine if you have kiddies.
Six Flags Discovery Kingdom -- formerly Marine World -- takes all of those elements and wraps them into one big 140-acre package that holds surprises around every corner. Eight world-class roller coasters and numerous thrill rides will keep the teenagers happy. An extensive kiddie area includes miniature roller coasters and a big assortment of rides gentle enough for even the smallest small fry. And Mom and Dad - or Grandma and Grandpa - will enjoy the many creatures found in the oceanarium and animal exhibit areas where you can have such unique experiences as touching dolphins or riding elephants.
To be sure, a visit to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is like any other large theme park in one respect: traffic. Brace yourself because, on any warm summer weekend, you'll be crawling the last couple of miles as thousands of people all seemingly arrive at the same time to begin their day at the park. Suggestion: arrive well in advance of the park's daily opening.
We drove to the park from Oakland, about 25 miles away, where we used the Waterfront Plaza Hotel as a base of operations for exploring Bay area attractions. The passenger ferry leaves from a dock near the hotel to take visitors right to San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf, which allows you to avoid downtown San Francisco traffic altogether. And, the hotel is located in Jack London Square, a redeveloped dockside area that features unique restaurants and shops. Getting to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom from Oakland is easy - it's just about a half hour freeway drive north from Oakland in Vallejo.
If you arrive at the park around the time the park opens, be prepared for either a wait or a hike. The parking area is maybe a half-mile from the entrance and trams shuttle visitors to and from the parking lot. The wait for a tram looked too long for us, so we joined thousands other visitors who decided to walk. It was good exercise but, as we were to find out later, exercise was not something in short supply at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom.
One hundred forty acres may not sound like a huge park - SeaWorld San Diego is slightly larger, Disneyland California is about twice that size - but we found ourselves criss-crossing the park many times throughout the day as we let the various shows dictate when we would do what. When you enter the park, you get a map and schedule of live events such as the killer whale show, dolphins show and water ski show. Those performances have a way of controlling your day.
Note to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom brass: While the park has put together an incredible assortment of rides and attractions, they seem to skimp a little bit on signs. Maybe it's an aesthetic decision but we got lost pretty easily without signs pointing to major attractions. The map helps somewhat, but it's printed in a small format that, for us anyway, caused a little head-scratching while we were trying to figure out the best way from Point A to Point B.
But that was a small inconvenience relative to the depth of entertainment available at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. Among the attractions not to miss:
Ocean Discovery - the big new frilly attraction for this summer is a new two-acre area in the park that allows visitors to get up close and personal with dolphins, stingrays, penguins and sea lions.
Dolphin Encounter - this seems to be the top attraction in Ocean Discovery and is where visitors can observe Atlantic bottle-nose dolphins playing inside a custom designed 200,000-gallon touch and feeding pool. At various times of the day, the park's dolphin trainers show how it's done and guests are allowed to feed and touch these playful animals. Underwater viewing areas help give all guests a better view as the dolphins glide through the water and show their various antics.
Stingray Bay - also part of Ocean Discovery, this 12,000-gallon pool is just waist-high and allows visitors easy access to reach in and touch and feed the stingrays.
Sea Lion Show - new this year is a theatrical comedy entitled Bermuda Rectangle that has sea lions and river otters performing in the same show.
Penguin Passage - South African penguins are new to Six Flags Discovery Kingdom this year, and visitors can observe a colony of them playing inside an 8,000-gallon pool as well as on a rocky "shoreline" specially constructed to replicate their natural habitat.
Shouka Splashtime Show - Shouka, the killer whale, has been with Six Flags Discovery Kingdom since April 2004 and now appears in several shows each day. Judging from the crowds at the show - all available seats in the huge outdoor theater were taken during our show - this is one of the park's most popular offerings.
Tiger Island Splash Attack - The park features both Bengal and Siberian tigers and, during various times during the day, visitors can watch the park staff conduct "hands-on" training sessions.
Looney Tunes - Over in Looney Tunes Seaport, Bugs Bunny performs in an all-new '80 musical review called "Looney Tunes - We Got the Beat!" Co-stars: Daffy Duck, Foghorn Leghorn, Tasmanian Devil and Sylvester the Cat.
Bad-to-the-Bone Ski Show - Audiences watch top water ski athletes competing in acrobatic jumps, high-speed precision skiing and freestyle stunts. The skiers demonstrate barefoot skiing, tandem skiing and ski jumping.
Elephant rides - No more elephants are being exported from Africa or Asia so this is a rare chance for guests to get up on top of the elephants and ride - under the careful supervision of a park employee, of course. This ride is short, but popular - even though its price of $6 per person is in addition to the park admission price.
Roller coasters - these are the first thing you see when driving into the park - and they seem to rival Six Flags' other California attraction, Magic Mountain. There are eight of them altogether including Vertical Velocity, which is Northern California's fastest coaster, launching riders from 0-70 miles per hour in just 3.7 seconds. Boomerang speeds riders along several inversions and then takes riders back to do it all again backwards. Two of the eight coasters are milder, family-style rides.
Monsoon Falls - one of several thrill rides in the park, this one's main attraction is a plunge over a 60-foot waterfall with the falls getting you soaked. Just to make sure no one escapes without a getting completely wet, the ride includes several fire department style water nozzles drenching unsuspecting riders just when they think they're home free.
WHERE: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is located in Vallejo, at the northeastern edge of San Francisco Bay. It's about a half hour freeway drive from Oakland via Interstate 80 and State Highway 37.
WHAT: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom is America's first combination wildlife park, oceanarium and theme park and offers 140 acres of rides, exhibits and attractions. The park is appropriate for all ages. It is one of the major Bay area theme parks and tourist attractions so be on the lookout for travel deals and vacation packages that include tickets at a reduced cost.
WHEN: The park is open daily in summer, with more limited operation in the off-season.
WHY: Six Flags Discovery Kingdom appeals to all ages and is bound to offer something of interest for everyone in the family. Rides range from wild to tame, entertainment is plentiful and wildlife exhibits are rare and fascinating.
HOW: One day adult admission is $47.99, although you can save nearly half on tickets purchased online and kids' tickets. For more information, phone 707-643-6722 or go to www.sixflags.com/parks/marineworld. Lodging is available in Vallejo or you can visit the park easily while staying anywhere in the Bay area. In either case, local lodgings will often offer travel packages that can lower the cost of your lodging. For a list of recommended Bay area hotels, please click here.
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