Amusement Today, a popular trade publication in the theme park industry, can't be accused of bad timing. Earlier this week, it announced its annual Golden Tickets awards, recognizing operator excellence in various categories.

We'll get into the winners in a moment, but let's not gloss over that timing. It's been a mixed bag for the sector lately. Six Flags (NYSE:PKS) has pulled off three straight strong quarters at the turnstile, but Cedar Fair (NYSE:FUN) has suffered a slight dip in attendance. In Disney's (NYSE:DIS) June quarter, the family entertainment empire's theme park resorts turned in solid performances, but attendance wasn't growing at Walt Disney World the way it had at Disneyland.

With seasonal attendance peaking this time of year, the Golden Tickets now give the awarded chains one last flex of marketing muscle. That will come in handy now that fears (and, in some cases, realities) of $3-per-gallon gasoline threaten to have some folks rethinking that one last summer trip to their regional amusement park.

The top prize for the world's best overall park went to Cedar Fair's Cedar Point. It was the eighth straight year that the Ohio-based roller coaster haven rose above the competition. With a significant lead over the second-place finisher, General Electric's (NYSE:GE) Islands of Adventure, it's hard not to imagine Cedar Point failing to make it nine in a row next year.

Then again, it just might miss the mark next time around. Cedar Point has posted a decline in park attendance this year. There was no major attraction added for the 2005 season, and the park recently ended its ride reservation system. Granted, its Freeway stamps were a bit rudimentary when compared with the electronic Q-Bot systems found at many Six Flags parks or the ticket-dispensing ride allocation plans in place at theme parks run by Disney and GE. But they still offered a way for park guests to avoid the tedious sun-soaked switchback queues.

Thankfully, Cedar Point's collection of top-notch steel coasters has made the lines worth waiting in. In the Golden Ticket award for best roller coasters, Cedar Point houses three of the top seven steel-based scream machines. That also includes the top spot for its coast-hugging behemoth Millennium Force.

That's all comforting news for parent company Cedar Fair, which Mathew Emmert recommended earlier this year in his Motley Fool Income Investor newsletter. Established as a tax-advantaged master limited partnership, Cedar Fair distributes units that come with hefty dividend distributions. The company's gradual yet consistent operating improvement has led to dividend increases every year over the past decade. The payout yield currently stands at 5.95%.

That's why something as simple as a Golden Ticket can brighten up what's been a rather lackluster operating season so far. Cedar Fair's parks have helped offset the small decline in turnstile clicks by growing guest spending and building out their destinations into overnight resorts. It would be awfully nice to see what Cedar Fair can do if it grows on all three fronts next year -- with or without that ninth consecutive Golden Ticket.

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Longtime Fool contributor Rick Munarriz is a coaster fan. He has been to Cedar Point a few times -- and is already planning on a visit in 2006. He owns shares in Six Flags, Disney, and Cedar Fair. T he Fool has a disclosure policy. He is also part of the Rule Breakers newsletter research team, seeking out tomorrow's ultimate growth stocks a day early.