Monday, August 27, 2007

Amusement Parks (August 2005)

We just got back from Coney Island, so this column seems especially appropriate!

Not being thrillseekers in general, we only made our first trip as a family to a “big kid” amusement park, The Great Escape in Lake George, this year. But all those giant rides and extreme roller coasters sure looked exciting (at least from the ground). If you want to know what you’re getting yourself in for when you make your pilgrimage to a major amusement park, or just want to enjoy some vicarious thrills, try swinging by some of these amazing websites.

The idea of amusement parks goes back to ancient Rome, but the early 1900s was when trolley companies looking to drum up weekend business built waterside picnic groves, which soon morphed into lively places like Coney Island. Midway Plaisance (the name means “pleasure ground”) is a site about the history and design of parks and rides; it also tells you how to get the most out of a visit. For hardcore advice, turn to Theme Park Insider, an award-winning, independent consumers' guide to parks in Orlando, Anaheim, and around the world. There’s news, rumors and safety information, and users’ opinions of attractions, restaurants and hotels. For Disney deals, MouseSavers has coupons, discount codes, and membership bargains for theme parks and resorts at and around Disney World and Disneyland.

If you’re a roller coaster fan, the Roller Coaster DataBase has information and statistics on over 1800 roller coasters worldwide. The site Joyrides is a bit out of date, sadly, but contains excellent still photos of some US amusement parks, along with links and tips for taking exciting roller coaster photos of your own. And on the brand-new website you can listen to podcasts online, with links, or join the discussion in the forums.

Of course, you don’t have to leave your computer to experience the ride of your life. Build your own coaster on the Travel Channel theme parks page, using loops, corkscrews and boomerangs, and then see how it scores on the Fear-o-Meter. Funderstanding’s simulation lets you see how thrilling you can make your coaster without sending the riders into outer space. Set the height of the hills, the size of the loop, the speed and mass of the cars, the amount of friction on the track -- even how much gravity your park has – and then let ‘er rip. Learn how rides work and why they’re scary in the Physics of Amusement Park section of the animated Virtual Science Center Virtual Science Center, a Japanese site, which includes directions for a soda bottle gravity meter you can test at the playground. Or find out how to make an accelerometer from an old tennis ball tube and a fishing weight at ThinkQuest.

There’s do-it-yourself, and then there’s people who design their own real-life amusement park rides. All the animals on the Totally Kid Carousel in New York City’s Harlem were adapted from kids’ drawings, and they are amazing: Adriana Francisco’s chihuaha, Tanya Garcia’s lobster, Taji Okolo’s beautiful blue rabbit. And some pretty neat videos can be found by searching for backyard roller coasters, like metalworker John Ivers’ single-loop “Blue Flash.”

Food is a big part of the park experience. Cotton candy’s been around since the 1890s, and Nathan’s hot dogs are still a boardwalk favorite. But if you grew up in the sixties the fries from Palisades Amusement Park in Fort Lee, NJ may bring back fond memories. Here’s a recipe to try at home: Peel and krinkle-cut five potatoes into large pieces and place in a half gallon pitcher filled with about 5 ounces of malt vinegar and the rest filled with water. Fry in corn oil at medium temperature for two minutes until almost done. Remove and drain. Raise the heat to high, and just before serving, drop the potatoes back into oil for 70 seconds. Drain and sprinkle liberally with salt. Serve in a cone-shaped paper cup, topped with more vinegar. And remember to give yourself time to digest before getting on the Ferris wheel…

Family Online Picks:

The Great Escape (
Midway Plaisance (
Theme Park Insider (
MouseSavers (
Roller Coaster DataBase (
Joyrides (
CoasterRadio (
TravelChannel (
Funderstanding (
Virtual Science Center (
ThinkQuest (
Totally Kid Carousel (
Blue Flash video (
Palisades Amusement Park (

Saturday, August 18, 2007


Kids are full of ideas, and some of them turn out to be great inventions. Chester Greenwood of Maine came up with the idea for earmuffs while out skating in 1873, when he was 15 – and later made a fortune selling them to U.S. soldiers during World War I. The Popsicle was accidentally created by 11-year-old Frank Epperson when he left a sugary drink with the stirring stick still in it on his back porch during a cold snap in 1905. And in 1963, Tom Sims built the first snowboard in his eighth-grade shop class. Today you’ll find all kinds of websites on inventors of the past and present, as well as information, games, and contests to help inspire inventors of the future. Here’s just a sampling of what’s out there:

If you’d like to find out about inventions and inventors, Enchanted Learning’s page of brief but inclusive descriptions includes gadgets ranging from adhesive tape to zippers and US and Canadian notables from Mary Anderson, developer of the windshield wiper, to Frank J. Zamboni, who perfected his ice resurfacer in 1949. The Virtual Museum of Ancient Inventions at Smith College is a collection of impressive student-made replicas of artifacts dating back thousands of years, including household items like looms and candles, as well as a battery from 250 BCE and a steam engine from the first century., the website of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, contains biographies of nearly 400 innovative honorees from the 1700s to today. Among the present and past names added to the list this year were King Gillette, famous for his razors, and stained glass lampmaker Louis Tiffany. And since 1996, six bright minds have been added every year to the National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors, where you can read comic strips explaining how each inductee came up with their award-winning idea.

Some invention websites don’t just talk about the subject, they let you participate as well. When you’re done browsing the Inventor of the Week archives at MIT’s Invention Dimension, you can try your hand at games that look at the connections between inventions, test yourself with “Which Came First, or take a trivia challenge. There’s also links on science and invention education, news, and contests. The MIT program was established by Jerome Lemelson, one of the world's most prolific inventors, and his wife, Dorothy, who also are behind the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation at the Smithsonian Institution. The Center’s website, Invention at Play, shows how fooling around leads to new discoveries. Along with inventors’ own stories and articles on the importance of play, and an online exhibit of toys, the site has all kinds of interactive opportunities for solving puzzles, doodling, writing collaborative stories, and more. Then there’s The Great Idea Finder, from the Vaunt Design Group. It’s not only full of invention resources on the Web, the bookshelf, and the screen (TV and DVD, that is), there’s even an Idea Wish List, where you can suggest something – sugarless chocolate, hair straightening shampoo, or a tool to make your hamster quiet at night – that YOU would like to see someone invent. (My only quibble with the site is that the grammar in the articles is sloppy.)

Inventors can share their ideas with the world through contests, online, and even on TV. (The Ellen DeGeneres Show invites kids 5 to 10 years old to show off their inventions.) By Kids For Kids goes further, by actually researching, developing and marketing kids’ ideas, for free. But the first step in selling an invention is to protect your idea, so you’ll get the credit due AND the profits! The US Trademark and Patent Office Kids Page walks you through the steps (and it’s also lots of fun – try the Trademarked Sounds page). So get your family thinking – you’ll never know where it’ll lead!

Family Online Picks:

Enchanted Learning - US and Canadian Inventors and Inventions

Smith College Ancient Inventions

National Inventors Hall of Fame

National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors

MIT Invention Dimension

Invention at Play

The Great Idea Finder

US Trademark and Patent Office Kids Page

Ellen DeGeneres

By Kids For Kids

Solar Wind and Water has its own blog!

Scoot over to to find all the posts from this summer's ACC class. I'll be posting new info as I find it from time to time as well. Enjoy!