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Now Open: 8 New Thrill Rides at America's Theme Parks

Whether it's for a day trip, a getaway weekend, or a full-blown vacation, there's a theme park near you, and many of them have new rides to deliver the biggest thrills yet -if you're into that sort of thing.

1. Dollywood: Wild Eagle

The big trend in roller coasters is the "winged" ride, in which the carriage is much wider than the tracks, and riders are seated over ...nothing. Not only does this add to the thrill, but it also enables the ride to carry many more people on a trip. Dollywood, Dolly Parton's theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, unveiled the new Wild Eagle winged coaster in March, in order to say it had the first winged coaster in America. You can see some POV videos of the ride at the ride's website. My two eighth-graders went to Dollywood a couple of weeks ago, but only one could ride because you have to be 50 inches tall to be admitted. She is, in fact, 57 inches tall, but was told she was too small to be secured in the ride. That's okay with me.

2. Six Flags New England: Goliath

When I was a child, I was envious of those who could visit Six Flags Over Texas. So when Six Flags Over Georgia opened, my family drove ten hours to see it (the interstate has been completed since then). Now you can't swing a cat without hitting a Six Flags park, so there should be one near you. Springfield, Massachusetts is the home of Six Flags New England. Their new roller coaster called Goliath lives up to its name, as the structure soars to twenty stories tall and has a 102-foot-tall vertical loop. Riders are suspended underneath the track, which adds more thrill. Goliath is the "tallest inverted boomerang coaster in the world," and joins ten other roller coasters at the park.

3. Busch Gardens: Verbolten

Busch Gardens, a division of Sea World, has opened a German automobile-themed roller coaster named Verbolten at their park in Williamsburg, Virginia. Part of the ride is through a tunnel with a immersive "driving" experience projected around the riders. Riders feel as if they are traveling through the scary Black Forest, and if you follow the projections, they don't always stay on the road! Watch a video of a journalist's ride on opening day.

4. Hersheypark: Skyrush

Skyrush is the new partially winged roller coaster at Hersheypark in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The train is arranged with four seats across each row, the outer two of which are floorless.  The first climb is 200 feet up, then a rush down at 75 miles per hour! Skyrush, which opened this past weekend, had to be super big and super fast, as it joins 11 other roller coasters in the park. A poll by those who have ridden Skyrush gives it mostly high praise.

5. Holiday World: Mammoth

The new ride Mammoth at Holiday World in Santa Claus, Indiana, is the world's longest water coaster. At seven stories tall, this ride boasts "air time" even in boats, due to its hydromagnetic drive. There are two styles of boats: round boats that mean part of your ride might not be forward-facing, and long boats in which you'll be able to see where you're headed. Well, maybe not always, since some of the water drops are enclosed in darkness. The Mammoth has been open only since May 11th. Early reviews say the feel of the water ride is surprisingly similar to a mechanical roller coaster.

6. Six Flags Great America: X-Flight

Six Flags Great America is in Gurnee, Illinois, which is a suburb of Chicago. The new ride there for 2012 is X-Flight, a 3,000-foot-long winged roller coaster. It features a barrel roll and a zero-gravity roll, giving you the sensation of complete weightlessness -for a short time.

7. SeaWorld San Diego: Manta

The new roller coaster named Manta at Sea World in San Diego is appropriately ocean-themed. Not the biggest or the fastest coaster around, the Manta has some unique features: it travels through an aquarium full of manta rays, then into a tunnel with images projecting an underwater show for riders that wraps almost all the way around them. The ride opened to the public this past Saturday.

8. Six Flags Fiesta Texas: SkyScreamer

Six Flags Fiesta Texas is in San Antonio; not to be confused with Six Flags Over Texas in Arlington. The San Antonio park recently debuted the SkyScreamer, which is not a roller coaster, but an aerial spinning ride. You'll be taken 200 feet up and slung around in a 98-foot-diameter arc at up to 40 miles per hour. The promotional materials mention the lovely view from that height; the view would be the least of my thoughts. The SkyScreamer opened this past Sunday. Photograph by Wikipedia user Jpp858.

Opening Soon

Some rides are still in the preparation process, and should open later this summer. Check the websites for updates before you book your trip, if the new ride is what you're going for.

Several Six Flags parks already have Superman-themed rides, and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California, will be joining in the fun soon with Superman: Ultimate Flight.

Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California has their own archvillain version called Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom, which should open to the public some time this summer.

In the Baltimore/Washington, DC area, Six Flags America is preparing a ride called Apocalypse.

Universal Studios in Orlando, Florida, will open a new thrill ride based on the film Despicable Me.

Are any of these thrill rides enough to send you on a trip to a park? Or do you have one planned already?

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8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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