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What I've Done This Summer

The only day I love more than when I leave to start my family's summer vacation is the day I come back home. Everything in the middle is a blur at first. Clouded by dreamy exhaustion until the details gel in time through photographs, videotape, and conversation, reflection always replaces the hectic real-time moments with pleasantries as memories.

Perhaps that's why souvenirs sell so well. They are bookmarks in the chaos that ultimately swells into broadened, shiny smiles.

So, yes, I just completed a two-week trek through the dry heat of California, Arizona, and Nevada. In time, the Edible clan may look back at the trip as our best summer vacation ever. For now, we're just dragging along, a family of zombies wondering who swiped the three hours from us as we landed back home in Florida.

As an investor, I can't even begin to price the vast girth of the Grand Canyon or the grainy splendor of Sedona's red rocks. Even if I could, I'm told that they're not for sale. However, as an investor in both Disney (NYSE: DIS  ) and Cedar Fair (NYSE: FUN  ) , I had no problem in dabbling in a little field research out in Orange County, Calif.

It was only my fifth time out to Disneyland. By comparison, my trips to Disney World number in the triple digits. As a big fan of Cedar Fair's flagship Cedar Point amusement park in Ohio, I hadn't been to Knott's Berry Farm since 1990, years before the year-round destination was acquired.

Tied up in Knott's
We had chosen to make Knott's our hub for the first half of our trip. Cedar Fair is cool enough to furnish its investors with discounts at the adjacent Radisson, and the central location made it ideal to check out other area attractions before hitting the park for a couple of hours after the school groups board their yellow buses and move on.

The park itself is an endearing showcase of contrasts. You have a low-capacity stagecoach ride powered by four live horses galloping past spinning flat rides and tower-drop thrill rides. Trains and gold mine railcars circle gently around on their rustic tracks while a half-dozen varied roller coasters take a more adrenaline-fueled approach.

We weren't catching the park at its finest hour. A walled-off lake was drained as the park was laying down the groundwork for its next coaster. It forced the closing of two minor attractions and created a bottleneck at the entrance, but as a unit holder, I accepted it as short-term pain for long-term gain.

I relished the enthusiastic ride operators, and we had such a good time that we wound up spending more days at Knott's than we did at the two Disney parks combined.

However, it did fall short in some ways from the standards set at Cedar Point's peninsular thrill haven. There was no complimentary ride reservation system like the flagship park's FreeWay option. Some of the attractions weren't being run at full capacity despite queues that warranted that. At Cedar Point, the Midway Market buffet is a quality eatery, while Knott's Auntie Pasta's smorgasbord is a culinary disaster. When Cedar Point's new coaster proved to be temperamental last summer, the website provided daily updates. Over at Knott's, its newest coaster was down for three weeks, yet it was still being touted on the park's site as a featured attraction. Truth be told, earlier this week the Knott's site even had rides listed that have been closed for months.

Yet we also appreciated the wider variety of rides at Knott's. That park was shadier too, save for the incomprehensibly uncovered overflow area at the tiny pass-processing office. While I'm not sure how -- or even if -- the ride closings and in-park construction will hurt the 2004 summer season, the park is sprucing itself up nicely for a knockout 2005.

Disney's California misadventure
Disneyland rocked. While Tomorrowland felt hollow without Rocket Rods, Space Mountain, and the submarine voyage, Disney's original theme park was essentially the same vibrant oasis of guests, attractions, and long operating hours that it has always been during the summer. Across the way, the same couldn't be said for Disney California Adventure.

A lot has been written about the shortcomings of Disney's second West Coast park. Sadly, it's all true. It remains an incomplete destination. It opens later and closes earlier than its sister park as a silent bow of admission that it is not a full-day park.

The park's newest attraction, a scaled-down version of Disney World's Tower of Terror, is helping. It's the ride of choice after the rope drops at 10 a.m. A summer promotion with McDonald's (NYSE: MCD  ) got us Big Mac-consuming guests in an hour early, which proved to be plenty of time to knock off three quick rides on the new attraction before the rest of the park opened, but why did Disney give in to the cloning process? It's not a regional operator like Six Flags (NYSE: PKS  ) that can afford to dilute the magnetism of a new ride by copying it. Why would the masses that have already experienced the ride in Florida over the past 10 years head out to California? California Adventure has just one worthwhile original attraction, but that distinction will vanish once Soarin' Over California opens in Florida next year.

Yes, attendance is bouncing back at the park after horrifically sandbagged levels, but rather than wonder whether the park's initial flaws were the result of the concept or the execution, one is left wondering why Disney continues to open incomplete parks. Isn't it humiliating enough to have to list strolling characters as park attractions on the official website?

Lost Vegas
While the drives out to relish Arizona's natural wonders or the day trips to Magic Mountain and Legoland instilled nothing but excitement, during the planning process I was tenuous about our three nights in Las Vegas.

Taking our starry-eyed 5-year-old and impressionable10-year-old to Sin City? Were we nuts? Nope. Even though the mecca of decadence has backed off its family-friendly stance from the 1990s, we had a great time with plenty to do by simply sticking to kid-geared offerings. Racking up enough coasters so my 10-year-old credit-hound son could lap the 100 mark? Check. Splitting up so my wife could take my eldest son to go see Blue Man Group while I took the young 'un to M&M World and one of the many video-game arcades? Check. Enjoying our stay at MGM Mirage's (NYSE: MGG  ) lion-sized MGM Grand hotel, where we were pampered like royalty as we overlooked the dazzling Las Vegas Strip? Check, please.

I guess the selective amnesia is starting to kick in because I suddenly have a hankering to head on over to our Travel Center and start planning next summer's sojourn. Only scrapbook paper cuts and jet lag can stop me now!

Longtime Fool contributor Rick Aristotle Munarriz laments the fact that Legoland never opened in South Florida. He owns shares in Disney and units in Cedar Fair. Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.


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Rick Munarriz
TMFBreakerRick

Rick has been writing for Motley Fool since 1995 where he's a Consumer and Tech Stocks Specialist. Yes, that's a long time. He's been an analyst for Motley Fool Rule Breakers and a portfolio lead analyst for Motley Fool Supernova since each newsletter service's inception. He earned his BBA and MBA from the University of Miami, and he now lives a block from his alma mater.

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