I've spent the last two days at Magic Mountain, Six Flags' (NYSE:SIX) resident park in Southern California. It's the last of the four area amusement parks I've hit over the past week and change, after stops at Legoland, Cedar Fair's (NYSE:FUN) Knott's Berry Farm, and Disney's (NYSE:DIS) Disneyland last week.

This kind of summer was made for the regional amusement parks. With gas prices spiraling out of control, and rebate checks timed to go out before the summer vacation season, a day at the local park is a more cost-effective getaway than trekking across the country. It's as good a reason as any to explain how -- despite the soft economy -- multiplex ticket sales are running ahead of last year's pace, and how regional self-contained destinations like Great Wolf Resorts (NASDAQ:WOLF) are showing improvement in 2008.

So why did I find myself with a little more elbow room at all of these parks -- save for perhaps Disneyland -- than I did during a similar visit three years ago? Naturally, the economy isn't on the same kind of footing that it was on three years ago. Back then, the Fed was hiking rates, instead of running out of room on the way down.

And things can always get worse. A fatal accident at a Six Flags park in Georgia -- where a teen snuck into a restricted area and was hit by a passing coaster -- may lead some to recall last year's accident at a Six Flags park in Kentucky, where a girl had her feet severed while on a freefall ride. Six Flags has singled out the Kentucky Kingdom accident last summer as having a negative impact throughout the chain toward the latter half of the 2007 season. Will history repeat itself?

I don't think so. Everyone is still pointing fingers over the cause of last year's accident, but no one blames the rider. This past weekend's gruesome accident, which occurred after the 17-year-old scaled two fences to enter a restricted area, is not a ride safety issue, and it's unlikely to weigh on the minds of parents like last year's incident.

The death is a tragedy, of course. It also comes at a time when the chain is clawing its way back under CEO Mark Shapiro.

Magic Mountain has certainly improved since my previous visit, during the last season before Shapiro took over. Coasters that were running just one train, like Riddler's Revenge, increased capacity. The park's most popular coaster -- X -- was given an upgrade with flamethrowers and on-board audio, transforming an already intense ride into a spectacular one. The park was cleaner. There were more costumed characters around, engaging with guests.

The park has also improved its sponsor magnetism. The queue to X -- now called X2 -- was loaded with flatscreen monitors. Television displays during rides are old hat, but X2's monitors show clips of extreme sports and blunders from Break.com and Fuel TV, with ads for video games, soft drinks, and candy thrown into the mix. China's Focus Media (NASDAQ:FMCN) excels at this sort of thing in public areas of the world's most populous nation, but Six Flags knows what to do with a captive audience, too.

The sponsorship opportunities continue throughout the park. Whether it's a watch maker sponsoring the queue-length signs, or the stand-alone store with Nintendo (OTC BB: NTDOY.PK) Wii systems to play, Six Flags is positioning itself well, even if the surrounding economy isn't cooperating at the moment.

Like the park's gravity-pounding Tatsu flying coaster, the industry may be in for a doozy of a loop, but it will still be quite the ride when conditions improve.

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