Veterans of Texas’ four big theme parks will tell you that what separates a great time from a merely passable one is the quality of your inside information—how to beat the heat, where to find the tastiest food, which shows are worth the wait, when to visit the most popular rides. Some of this critical info is available through common sense: If you want to avoid long lines, forget Saturdays and plan your trip for midweek. But the rest is known only to true theme-park mavens—and that’s where we come in. Want the real skinny on the frills and thrills? Here’s our tell-all guide.

Six Flags

201 Road to Six Flags, Arlington (817-640-8900). Open daily May 23 through August 23; weekends only from August 29  to November 22; selected dates from Nov-ember 27 to December 31. Most days, gates open at 10 a.m., 9:30 when large crowds are expected. Closing times vary.

Six Flags Over Texas is the oldest and most visited park in the state. Over the years, several changes in ownership have transformed its 88 acres from a quirky theme park with the unique historical idea of Texas under six flags into a thrill-ride park populated by owner Time Warner’s Looney Tunes characters. In spite of the shift in emphasis and subtle signs of wear and tear (such as paint peeling off the seats of the parking lot trams), maturity has its advantages: Towering oak and pecan trees scattered about the premises provide an abundance of shade, and the staff is so cheerful and experienced that the park runs with a smooth efficiency no matter how crowded it gets.

Getting There Take the Six Flags exit from either Texas Highway 360 or Interstate 30; the park sits at the intersection of the two roads, fifteen miles from Dallas and Fort Worth. Parking is $5 a day; season parking passes are $15. On especially congested days, the management thoughtfully posts signs in front of the parking lot’s entrance, warning that you may want to turn back.

Cost One-day admission is $22.95 plus tax for adults; $16.95 for children less than 48 inches tall and seniors 55 and over; children 2 and under are free. A two-day admission is $28.95. Individual season passes are $59.95.

Getting Around A helpful if unwieldy color map describing the park’s layout is part of the admission price, but the basic premise is six sections, with an assortment of good and bad attractions in each. You’ll do a fair amount of walking from one end of the park to the other, so you might want to take the train that encircles the grounds to get acquainted. (On crowded days, though, you’re allowed to travel nonstop only halfway around.) Lost children are taken to the Lost Parents Caboose in Looney Tunes Land. If you anticipate being separated from the rest of your party during your visit, decide on a meeting spot—preferably anywhere other than the carousel near the main entrance, since that’s where everyone else seems to congregate.

The Rides Six Flags is a roller coaster enthusiast’s dream, with six fantastic coaster-style attractions. Nostalgic adults will love the Judge Roy Scream, a throwback to the Comet at the State Fair, while kids prefer the legendary Texas Giant, the gut-churning Flashback, the double loop Shock Wave, and the Texas Cliffhanger, which simulates a ten-story free-fall. Unfortunately, the wait for all rides—and sometimes even the bumper cars—can exceed an hour on some crowded weekends, which allows you to take in only five or six rides during a full day. (The only good news about the long lines: Video screens in many waiting areas show—what else?—Looney Tunes cartoons.) And beware the weather. Windy conditions can force the temporary closing of the Oil Derrick observation tower, the Air Racer plane ride, and the Texas Chute Out parachute drop. By early June, two new attractions should be on-line: the Batman Stunt Show, in a new 2,500-seat amphitheater, and a float ride called Yosemite Sam and the Gold River Adventure.

The Shows Each day seven shows are presented around the clock, including a Motown revue, a magic show, an old-fashioned western melodrama, and a Bugs Bunny production. “Do You Hear the People Sing?”—a tribute to freedom and world harmony performed at the Southern Palace—is the most popular; lines form half an hour before show time. As for the gunfight show, unless you plop down fifteen minutes early in front of the stores in the Texas section where the cowboys hang out, the action can be obscured by passersby drifting through the area. Name entertainment is presented for a small surcharge on weekends and holidays at the 10,000-seat Music Mill Theater.

Food Six Flags is home to the Pink Thing, a brightly colored creamy confection that has set a personal standard for theme-park junk food. Today, however, it takes a back seat to the state-of-the-art frozen novelty, the Lemon Chill, a slushy lemon-and-sugar concoction with the consistency of soft ice cream. Skip the cafeteria-style restaurants serving Mexican food and fried chicken; real fast-food places do it better. On the other hand, the Food Court in Looney Tunes Land cuts the mustard. The one-third-pound All-American Cheddar Burger rightfully earned top honors in Inside Track magazine’s annual poll of amusement-park aficionados. You’ll also find a decent quarter-pound hot dog, a passable chicken fajita salad, and edible pepperoni or sausage pizza slices. The skin-on homestyle fries are superb. No alcohol is served in the park. Joe Nick Patoski


9001 Kirby Drive, Houston (713-799-1234). Open daily May 25 to August 23; weekends only from August 29 to November 1. Gates open 10 a.m. weekends and 11 a.m. weekdays. Closing times vary.

Astroworld’s chief virtue and major drawback is that it is in Houston. The virtue is that the park is accessible to everyone from Beaumont to Victoria. The drawback is that summer visitors cannot escape the stultifying heat and humidity they left behind. Within the park’s 75 acres are about two dozen thrill rides set off by restaurants, arcades, and souvenir shops. AstroWorld has improved considerably since it was purchased by Time Warner in 1975; like Six Flags, though, it is overrun by Looney Tunes cartoon characters, and the Looney Tunes theme song is played incessantly on park speakers. It’s a fitting touch considering your mental state after a few hours of hot sun.

Getting There Take the Fannin exit off Loop 610 in southwest Houston; the parking lot is off the access road. Parking costs $4, in an utterly treeless area that AstroWorld shares with the Astrodome. Although you can walk from the parking area to the park entrance, trams pass by every ten minutes or so. Then again, they make only two stops—both of which are nowhere near many of the parking spots. Plan on a hike.

Cost $20.95 plus tax for adults; $14.95 for children less than 54 inches tall; children 2 and under are free; $11.95 for seniors 55 and over. Season passes are $54.95 for children and adults; $160 for a family of four. A two-day admission to AstroWorld and the adjacent WaterWorld is $23.95 plus tax.

Getting Around AstroWorld has a layout somewhat like Houston’s, only less logical. Imagine a serpentine loop with no intersecting freeways, just a train and a sky ride to get you from one end to the other. The park has a design that forces you to walk in circles unless you are very systematic about your ride choices. The divisions within the park (the Enchanted Kingdom, the Alpine Valley, the Oriental Village, and so on) are mostly irrelevant; they’re really fronts for one coaster or another. The Enchanted Kingdom is the only area for small children, while Americana Square, with its mall-like gaggle of shops, is a haven for teens.

The Rides AstroWorld has six coasters with an average wait of 45 minutes each on busy days. The screamiest is the 60-mile-per-hour Texas Cyclone, an old-fashioned wooden replica of Coney Island’s much beloved Cyclone. The Viper, a preposterously swift coaster that includes twisting turns and a murderous tunnel, runs a close second. The SkyScreamer, though not a coaster, is equally terrifying (the equivalent of an elevator drop of ten stories) but less ride for the wait. You should skip the Joustabout, a monotonous and nauseating whirligig that lacks an air-conditioned waiting area. The conventional wisdom holds that you put off water rides like the Tidal Wave, a water coaster that collides with a twenty-foot wall of water, until the end of your visit because you will get drenched; but if you don’t mind feeling a bit squishy for the rest of the day, they can provide early relief from the searing temperatures. For small kids and chickenhearted adults, there are tamer rides like the Bamboo Shoot log flume ride and the Gunslinger, which rotates riders sideways and straight up.

The Shows AstroWorld offers eight shows that serve mostly to give your feet a rest. They’re corny, predictable, and not always so relaxing; air conditioning and shade vary. Only young children will sit still through “Bugs Bunny’s All Star Revue,” which features grown-ups dressed as Looney Tunes characters singing and dancing to canned music. Much better is “Dolphins of the Deep,” where two extremely good-natured dolphins do front and back flips for about twenty minutes. (Beware: The first three rows are splash-intensive, and the covered, open-air arena gets very toasty. Sit on the east side as the sun sets or you’ll learn firsthand what a redfish feels like when its first side gets blackened.) Shows in the Southern Star Amphitheatre, adjacent to the park, feature big-time family and gospel entertainers, the better to attract more children and grown-ups and fewer rowdy teens.

Food Expect the usual junk fare, at sometimes inflated prices. Some burgers come plain unless you specify the works—but either way, they’re soggy. Ditto the french fries. Don’t be tempted by the exotic-sounding pita sandwiches; they feature shredded pressed meat and shredded fixin’s. Gut up, forget your cholesterol count, and eat the Popeye’s Fried Chicken. Also try the refreshing frozen lemonade coolers. Beer is served at two of the restaurants: Festhalle and Los Tios. Mimi Swartz

Fiesta Texas

17000 Interstate 10 West, San Antonio (512-697-5000, 800-473-4378). Open daily May 22 through September 7; Friday through Sunday from September 11 to 27; weekends only from October 3 to November 8. Most days, gates open at 10 a.m. Closing times vary.

Ads for Fiesta Texas brag that it’s “the darndest theme park built in America in the last twenty years.” While it hardly poses a threat to DisneyWorld, the latest addition to San Antonio’s growing collection of tourist destinations is impressive nonetheless. The 85-acre park that has been fashioned from an abandoned rock quarry is smartly designed, pleasantly landscaped, and absolutely spotless. It is new enough that the staff still seems genuinely excited to be there; they all stop work to wave at the locomotive’s passengers whenever it passes by. The downside of that newness is a dearth of shade, a shortcoming that should be corrected once all the recently planted vegetation takes root. In the meantime, hats are strongly recommended.

Getting There From downtown San Antonio, go ten miles west on Interstate 10 and take the La Cantera—Fiesta Texas exit just past the FM 1604 interchange. On weekends, to avoid potential gridlock, take the La Cantera—Fiesta Texas exit off 1604. Parking is $3.

Cost One-day admission for adults and teenagers is $22.95 plus tax; $15.95 for children four to eleven. Admission for two consecutive days is $34.95 for adults; $24.95 for children.

Getting Around The park is relatively simple to negotiate. It’s divided thematically into Los Festivales (Mexican), Spassburg (German), Rockville (fifties nostalgia), and Crackaxle Canyon (twenties boomtown). Almost all routes pass through Los Festivales. To get a comfortable perspective on the park, cut through to the Pilgrim Station in Spassburg and hop the train.

The Rides Fiesta Texas’ centerpiece is the Rattler, a wooden roller coaster said to have the steepest drop in the world, plunging riders 166 feet down at a 61-degree angle at a speed of 73 miles per hour. (As much as two and a half hours, though, is a long time to wait for two minutes and twenty seconds of heart-attack-level pleasure.) Otherwise, the park has considerably fewer kicks than Six Flags or AstroWorld—even if you count its overabundance of gift shops and arcade games. The Gully Washer, a whitewater rapids adventure full of spouting jets of water, is a fixture in almost every theme park in America. Ditto the Power Surge, a water coaster ride. Bring a bathing suit, however, for one of several water slides that should be in full operation by late May. Something to keep in mind: The height minimum for many of the rides (from 48 to 52 inches) can be a problem. Many kids are too tall to drive the little bumper cars in the otherwise excellent kiddie ride section, but they are technically too small to drive the adult-size cars without a parent.

The Shows Fiesta Texas bills itself as a musical show park in the tradition of its prototype and sister park, Nashville’s Opryland USA. For the first year it’s staying away from name entertainers, instead favoring slick productions starring hundreds of fresh-faced teens and young adults. Shows are presented throughout the day in seven theaters and outdoor pavilions (schedules in English and Spanish are distributed at the park’s entrance). They range from the “Heart of Texas” celebration and “Music Country Music” to “Festival Folklorico” (a Mexican tribute) and “Rockin’ at Rockville High”  (a bland middle-American West Side Story). The shows for kids—the silly western melodrama “They Went Thataway,” for example—may not hold their attention. To get a seat at the big shows (“Heart of Texas,” “Festival Folklorico”), be sure to arrive at least half an hour early on busy days, not fifteen minutes early, as the park advises.

Food Here Fiesta Texas has a decided edge. El Rincon de las Delicias, near the entrance, serves authentic Mexican bakery goods, as well as breakfast tacos. Stands throughout the park offer somewhat exotic fare like churros, the Mexican version of the donut, and fruit whip cones, alongside such old standbys as popcorn and snow cones. Sängerfest Halle in Spassburg serves tasty cafeteria-style food ranging from roast beef to cucumber salad. Mi Pueblito, the nicest restaurant on the grounds and the only one with wait service, goes beyond the usual Tex-Mex to delve into such semi-exotic specialties as Cholula grilled shrimp and flan with strawberry, peach, plum, and mango sauces. There are kids’ meals almost everywhere, though they’ll probably prefer the nostalgia fast food at Pete’s Eats (burg-ers, fries, and the like) and the pizza at Lou’s. Beer is available at Sängerfest Halle; frozen margaritas are served at Mi Pueblito. J.N.P.

Sea World

10500 Sea World Drive, San Antonio (512-523-3611). Open weekends only through May 31; daily June 1 to August 30; weekends only September 1 to November 29. Gates open at 10 a.m. Closing times vary.

If you’re not the least bit amused by dolphins leaping in unison into the air, little sea otters stealing the hat off the head of a grown man, or killer whales happily splashing water on you with their tails, get ready for a very long day at Sea World. There’s not much else to see at this 250-acre park devoted almost entirely to sea life. There are only two amusement rides—if “amusement” is the right word—and a four-acre Texas Walk scattered with statues of Texas heroes, an acre-size map of the United States, and a Garden of Flags. If Shamu is your thing, though, you’ll have a fabulous time. It is simply breathtaking to watch him come ripping up out of the water. And the other trained seals, dolphins, and sea lions are so entertaining that your kids will want to take them home.

Getting There Take Loop 410 to Texas Highway 151; follow 151 to Westover Hills Boulevard and turn left; Sea World’s entrance is straight ahead. Parking is $3. (There is also a city bus from downtown San Antonio to the park.)

Cost $22.95 plus tax for adults and children twelve and over; $15.95 for children three to eleven; kids under three are free. During the 1992 season, if you purchase an adult ticket, you get a free children’s pass.

Getting Around This park doesn’t have nearly as many attractions as the others, and if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself spending the majority of your time walking from place to place or standing around in the seemingly infinite number of gift shops. To make the most of your trip, focus your attention on the animal shows and plan your route accordingly. (Sea World provides an informative color map listing all the show times and special events for that day.) Crowds at the park can be huge—up to 40,000 a day—so you should keep an eye on your watch as you set out for particular destinations.

The Rides Sea World’s offerings are mediocre at best. Although the three-to-five-minute Rio Loco is designed to be like a white-water adventure—you ride in a huge trucklike tire that twists through a man-made river—it’s largely a disappointment. To get you wet, the ride’s operators stop your tire midway through and lamely spray water at you. The only other ride to speak of, a log flume called the Texas Splashdown, is more fun, since it has two five-story drops. But the sixty- to ninety-minute wait doesn’t seem worth the thrill, especially for kids used to high-speed coasters. This summer the park will add a much-needed children’s playground. Shamu’s Happy Harbor has three acres of net climbs, sway bridges, and a replica of a ship that kids can climb through.

The Shows The shows are Sea World’s main selling point, so you should decide in advance what you want to see and arrive there at least fifteen minutes early to get a good seat—preferably near an aisle, so you can take off the moment the show is over and beat the crowd to the next one. Most popular are the big animal shows; each is 20 to 25 minutes long. If you get to the park at ten in the morning, head to the Whale and Dolphin Stadium and start with the least exciting one, “Wet, Wild and Wonderful,” which features four dolphins and a group of white be-luga whales. Then head over to Shamu Stadium for the eleven-thirty show. You’ll be early, but you’ll get a good seat in the first twelve rows, called the “splash zone.” (In the sweltering San Antonio heat, the water feels fine.) Next, amble on over to the “Spooky, Kooky Castle” show, in which two absolutely hilarious sea lions go through a haunted castle looking for their dead Uncle Schmedley’s will. Elsewhere in the park are a water ski show (featuring humans) with an Old West theme, a flamingo island, and a dolphin pool, where you can pet friendly dolphins on the head and feed them fish. Two dark, cool places that beat the heat: the penguin house, where a moving sidewalk takes you past an icy scene of rock hoppers and dozens of other varieties (kids love this); and the giant aquariums at the shark and tropical fish house.

Food Sea World isn’t about to serve you seafood after you’ve spent all day watching cute sea animals frolic, but it does serve just about everything else. With five restaurants and its own bakery making fresh bread and homemade cheesecake daily, the park’s fare is wonderful by theme-park standards. (That despite rather ordinary fast food, which you should avoid.) The Bluebonnet Grill, a full-service restaurant with waiters, serves excellent Southwestern food (try the mesquite-grilled fajitas), and the Di Lido restaurant specializes in tasty Italian food. The best item in the park, however, could be the Oaks Cafe and Grill’s Gobbler—a sandwich of tasty fixin’s and thick turkey sliced before your eyes from a freshly roasted bird. Skip Hollandsworth

Before You Go All four parks accept major credit cards for admission. None allows pets, although all but AstroWorld have limited-space kennels. All but Sea World have money machines; all have lockers and electric cart rentals for senior citizens near their main entrances. All have private diaper-changing areas around their kiddie rides. Only Sea World permits paging of lost persons—and only as a last resort.

No matter which park you visit, plan ahead. Call or write beforehand for brochures and information on special hours, special events, or anticipated crowds during your trip. Check the Friday and Sunday newspapers in your destination city for reduced hotel rates, restaurant discounts, and package plans. Unless you want to pay exorbitant prices, buy film, hats, and sunscreen in advance, and bring your own strollers and wheelchairs. Most important, dress for comfort, not style. Leave your heels, boots, and loafers at home and wear sensible shoes. And be sure to wear belt pouches. They’re preferable to purses—especially if you plan on riding on contraptions that toss your body around.