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By Ivan M. Lincoln, Staff Writer

The theme of this story is . . . theme parks.

Not just any theme parks, but those located near what is probably the theme park capital of the United States: Orange County, Calif., and the neighboring Greater Los Angeles and San Diego areas.Within this southern California region you'll find Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal Studios and Sea World, plus such almost-theme-park attractions as the San Diego Zoo, the Queen Mary/Spruce Goose and San Diego Wild Animal Park.

A United Press International story last summer listed the top 10 amusement parks in the U.S. Half are in Southern California. (Of the remaining five, three are near Orlando, Fla., and the other two are in the Northeast and the Midwest.)

But, for the majority of Utah families, Southern California is probably the most accessible and frequent vacation destination.

We're listing up-to-date admission prices here, but most motels and travel agents have a supply of discount coupons for many of the major parks, good for a couple of dollars off for each person.

In the best "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" tradition, amusement parks annually add new attractions in an effort to woo a continuous stream of visitors.

Here's a brief park-by-park look at what to expect this year. In-depth looks at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, based on recent visits to the two Orange County parks, are elsewhere in today's Travel section.

SIX FLAGS MAGIC MOUNTAIN, Valencia, Calif., is about 25 miles north of Los Angeles. We visited the park two summers ago and my children thought it was more fun than Disneyland possibly because we stopped there during the middle of the week and saved our Disneyland visit until later on a Saturday, when lines were l-o-n-g.

Magic Mountain is a good, old-fashioned amusement park. There are some "themed" sections here and there, but its stock-in-trade is a collection of really great white-knuckle rides.

New this year (opening in May) is Ninja, nicknamed "the Black Belt of roller coasters." They should play Sammy Kaye music in the background during this coaster ride. It's the first coaster with suspended cars on the West Coast, and passengers will really swing and sway. The passenger cars hang from

pan overhead track, propelling riders through the trees and along the hills at angles of up to 110 degrees and at speeds up to 50 miles per hour.

Other noteworthy rides at Magic Mountain: Colossus, the largest dual-track wooden coaster in the world; Shock Wave, the area's only stand-up, 360-degree vertical looping roller coaster; Revolution, which was the first looping coaster ever built (and featured in the movie "Roller Coaster"); Free-Fall, which simulates the feeling of weightlessness with a 10-story drop (watch out below!); Roaring Rapids, the closest thing to shooting the rapids this side of the Colorado River; and Z-Force, a high-speed ride that puts you in the cockpit of a Navy jet fighter.

Season: Weekends through May 22, then daily May 27-Sept. 5. Admission: $18 for a ride-all-day pass (half price for children under 48 inches tall or senior citizens 55 or older). Children 2 and under are admitted free. Phone: (818) 992-0884.

UNIVERSAL STUDIOS TOUR OK. Some may quibble that this is not a genuine theme park, but I disagree. The main theme at this complex is the very item that built Hollywood the movies.

Visitors climb aboard trams for a behind-the-scenes look at the backlot of one of the world's largest movie studios. (And, we were reminded on our visit two years ago, Universal Studios is still a "working" studio. I didn't really believe that, until Angela Lansbury waved to us from the door of her trailer on the set of an episode for "Murder, She Wrote.")

A man-made lake on the lot serves two purposes for a heart-stopping surprise visit by Bruce, the shark from "Jaws," and as an occasional shooting site for the Cabot Cove exteriors in "Murder, She Wrote."

New this year: a thrilling "Earthquake San Francisco" experience, along with such live-action attractions as "Back to the Future" and "Miami Vice." But still undoubtedly king of the lot is the 2-year-old King Kong exhibit. He may not be as dashing as Clark Gable or as suave as Cary Grant, but this 30-foot beast, complete with snarling teeth and banana breath, never fails to cause passengers on the tram to shriek with delight and/or fear.

Other behind-the-scenes fun includes the Comedy Screen Test Theatre, where audience members are picked at random to take part in the actual taping of a comedy sequence. And you can stop at the gift shop and buy your very own miniature of a gold statuette closely resembling an Oscar.

Season: Year-round except Christmas and Thanksgiving. Address: 3900 Lankershim Blvd. (via the Hollywood Freeway), Universal City. Admission: $15.95 for adults, $11.50 for senior citizens and $11.95 for children 3-11. Youngsters under 3 are admitted free. Phone: (818) 508-9600.

DISNEYLAND Scheduled to open this year in Bear Country is an atmospheric log flume called Splash Mountain. Characters from Walt Disney's beloved "Song of the South" will be featured in this new Magic Kingdom adventure. (For details on Disneyland, see the related story in today's Travel section.)

KNOTT'S BERRY FARM Bigfoot Rapids, the centerpiece of the park's new Wild Water Wilderness, is expected to open Memorial Day. The $10-million attraction will replicate a California river wilderness park of the early 1900s, with a raging river, cascading waterfalls, geysers and lush landscaping. Big Bass Lake will be stocked with fish and park rangers will tell stories about the ecology of the area. Bigfoot Rapids will be the longest man-made white water river in California, featuring a wet and wild six-minute ride in free-floating rafts. (And, we've been forewarned, you may even catch a glimpse of the elusive Bigfoot itself along the way.) See related Knott's Berry Farm story for other details about the park.

SEA WORLD Popular exhibits at this Mission Bay, San Diego, park celebrating its 25th annivjersary this year, include the delightful Penguin Encounter, a chilly environment for more than 400 real live penguins; more than 30 sea life exhibits; and shows by dolphins, a sea lion and the park's most famous inhabitant, Shamu, the killer whale.

Open year-round. Admission: $17.95 for adults and $11.95 for children 3-11. Phone (619) 226-3901.

(The bulk of the sea life from the now-defunct Marineland, a similar but smaller park closer to Los Angeles, now thrives in some of Sea World's tanks, we're told.)

Other major attractions in Orange County and vicinity, not exactly in the "theme park" category, but definitely popular with families, include:

MOVIELAND WAX MUSEUM Just one block north of Knott's Berry Farm, this is an unusual collection of life-like, life-size stars, many of them in authentic settings from their most famous movie scenes. And, if you dare, wander through the 15-scene Chamber of Horrors. Newest additions include Mel Gibson, Toshiro Mifune, Gavin MacLeod of "Love Boat" and comedian Jonathan Winters. Roger "007" Moore is among the coming attractions.

Open seven days a week, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Admission: $9.95 for adults and $5.95 for children (4-11). Under 4, admitted free. Phone: (714) 522-1154. Free parking.

THE SAN DIEGO ZOO Considered one of the finest zoos in the world, this calls for a day-long excursion. It's undergoing a 15- to 20-year renovation to completely renew the 100-acre, 71-year-old complex. Eventually, the park will be organized into different bioclimatic zones. Opening this spring is Tiger River, a tropical rain forest featuring indigenous species of birds, reptiles, primates, tigers and other animals.

Season: Year-round, seven days a week, 9 a.m. until dusk. Location: San Diego's Balboa Park. Admission: $8.50 for adults and $2.50 for children 3-15. Phone: (619) 234-3153.

SAN DIEGO WILD ANIMAL PARK This 1,800-acre wildlife preserve is operated by the San Diego Zoo. There are more than 200 species of exotic animals displayed in an open, natural environment.

Open year-round, it's located six miles east of Escondido. Admission: $12.95 for adults and $6.20 for children (3-15). Phone: (619) 234-6541.

QUEEN MARY / SPRUCE GOOSE This is a "two-fer" attraction. The legendary Queen Mary, once the most luxurious ship afloat, is right next door to Howard Hughes' 200-ton, all-wood aeronautical wonder, the Spruce Goose, now housed under the world's largest geodesic dome. Tours of both the ship and the plane are included in one day-long admission price.

Location: Long Beach Harbor at the end of the Long Beach Freeway (710). Admission: $14.50 for adults, $10.50 for juniors (12-17), and $8.50 for children (5-11). Senior citizens' and group rates available. Phone: (213) 435-3511.

SHOPPING MALLS Some of Orange County's largest malls, specifically the new South Coast Plaza, Anaheim Plaza and The City Mall, have low-cost shuttles running from hotels around Disneyland. Check the Orange County Rapid Transit schedules, too, for trips to and from the malls.

For brochures, maps and information about lodging and sightseeing in Orange County write to:

Anaheim Area Visitor & Convention Bureau

800 West Katella Ave.

Anaheim, CA 92802

Phone (714) 999-8999