Monday, July 19, 2004

Parents let parks amuse their kids

Teens turned loose to earn trust, learn independence

By Erica Solvig
Enquirer staff writer

MASON - By the carload, teens like Miranda Dubis and Daniela Brunicardi emerge, wielding their season passes, chattering about what ride to hit first and what other friends they'll run into at Paramount's Kings Island.

After last-minute reminders and instructions from parents - "You got your phone?" and "Be good!" - they and other teens trek across the park's parking lot with miniature bags on their backs and towels in hand, heading to a day of fun and activity, a day without parental supervision.

Renee Dubis of Kettering says goodbye to her daughter Miranda (center) and her friend Daniela Brunicardi as she drops them off for a day of fun at Paramount's Kings Island.
(Enquirer photo/GLENN HARTONG)
For thousands of Greater Cincinnati youths, Kings Island is a summertime mecca. For parents, it's like a twist on the day-camp idea: a fun, safe place to leave the kids for the day. The kids check in via cell phone and get picked up when the folks get off work.

Miranda and Daniela, both 15, head to the park from the Dayton suburb of Kettering about once a week, arriving first thing in the morning and not leaving until after the sun goes down.

"We never stop moving," Miranda says. "When we don't check out boys, we're riding the rides. I don't think we ever sit down, except to eat."

Miranda's mom, Renee Dubis, says she wasn't completely sold on the idea of her daughter hanging out with friends without an adult there.

But Dubis says Miranda calls in during the day, and so far, it's worked out.

"It took a lot of convincing and a lot of negotiating," Dubis recalls of this summer, Miranda's first season solo. "I wanted to make sure she didn't leave the park."

Some people question using amusement parks as "baby sitters," especially for preteen children left without adults to monitor them. But parks welcome the business and report few problems.

Theme parks target the age group in advertising their big rides and special events, and Kings Island has even added special teen-oriented events. While national research shows that theme parks as teen hangouts still aren't as popular as malls, studies show that during the summer, 20 percent of teens say they've been to a theme park in any given week, says Rob Callender, senior trends manager with Chicago-based market research firm Teen Research Unlimited.

"That's certainly not only a phenomenon, but it's part of the lifeblood that keeps amusement parks going," he said. "A lot of teens may go to the mall more often, but that's usually because there's more malls and there's usually only one amusement park. If they had an equal chance to go to either, I think the answer would be quite obvious."

Just a day in the park

This is the first season that 15-year-old Julie Griesinger and 14-year-old Katie McIver, of Loveland, have been allowed to be at Kings Island without parents. Standing in line for The Racer on a recent afternoon there, they chat about boys and the summer school project that Julie has almost finished.

• Try letting teens loose for short periods of time at first. This gives them the sense of independence without letting them have the whole day without the parents right there, according to Dr. Kathy Burklow, a clinical child psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.

• Set ground rules. Burklow says communication from parents about good behavior is key.

• Make sure teens know who to turn to when they need help. Jerry Niederhelman, Kings Island manager of the parking and security department, says he often sees parents pointing out the security officers and park employees wearing the royal blue shirts.

• Encourage teens to have a meeting time and check in, experts say. But Burklow warns, "Cell phones are an indirect form of supervision, but they're not foolproof."

• Only bring the bare necessities. Besides lost children, one of the biggest problems Kings Island security deals with is children and teens leaving their backpacks unattended and the items getting stolen, Niederhelman said.

Both have season passes, priced at $95.99 for an individual age 7 to 59, and $319.99 for a family of four (they were a little cheaper before the season began). That's a bargain compared to local day camps, which cost about $70 to $110 a week.

The girls are armed with cell phones, and have to check in regularly with their moms. They are under strict orders to stick together and to not talk to strangers.

"If we get separated, we call," Julie says.

Season-pass holders Allison Kolish, 13, of Mason, and Emily Keeton, 13, of Green Township, were among a dozen or so teens who came together on a recent July day, riding Delirium and The Beast, but spending most of the time just walking around and talking. They had three adults in the park with them.

"Usually, we meet them for lunch and then usually go hang out," Emily says.

Security issues

Officials at places such as Kings Island, Coney Island in Anderson Township and Six Flags Kentucky Kingdom in Louisville say there's no magic age for when children should be free to roam the park alone, but that the parents should make the decision based on their child's maturity.

Six Flags spokeswoman Carolyn McLean warns that the park doesn't want to become "a baby-sitting service."

"We don't feel it's our place to tell (parents) that, but we get a little disheartened when we see 8- and 9- and 10-year-olds dropped off without supervision," McLean said.

Daniela Brunicardi and her friend Miranda Dubis ride Scrambler, Daniela's favorite ride, as they enjoy a day of fun at Paramount's Kings Island.
(Enquirer photo/GLENN HARTONG)
Experts say age 13 typically is when kids start showing that level of independence, said Dr. Kathy Burklow, a clinical child psychologist at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center. At that age, kids start baby-sitting other children and hanging out solo at places such as the mall and theme parks.

"There's no hard and fast rules - it really depends on the decision-making capabilities of the teenager and the maturity level," Burklow said. To encourage parents to stay in the park, Cedar Point near Sandusky has a "parent swap" that encourages one parent to wait with the younger kids while the other waits for a ride with the older. After the ride, the other parent can ride the ride without waiting in line again.

They also provide wrist bands that parents can write their cell phone number on, so if the child gets separated from the family, they can go to a park employee and the parents will be called.

Even with the influx of teens during the summer and with Kings Island's new "Xtended Play Party" (which includes a DJ and Action Zone access until midnight on select Fridays for teens 16 years and older), Mason Police and park security say there's not a lot of problems with young park guests.

Of the more than 200 calls to Mason police from Kings Island since May 2003, the vast majority involved traffic accidents or incidents, according to reports. Only about 40 of the cases involved juvenile park guests.

Park security handles most of the smaller incidents, such as general horseplay or thefts, by bringing those involved to the security office and calling their parents.

"Another option for us, because of how popular we are, is to take their season pass away," says Jerry Niederhelman, manager of the parking and security department. "Oh my golly, talk about tough love. That's a big stick we can carry with the kids."

Niederhelman, who has been in security here since the park opened in 1972, says the teen influx began growing after the park started selling season passes in 1981.

"It's more fun to go here than the pool," says Joseph Cardiasmenos of Milford, a 15-year-old who bought his own season pass and meets friends from Miami Valley Christian Academy about once a week. "We just talk, hang out, you know. We do the same thing about 20 times, but it's still fun."



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