Home to over 400 theme parks, the U.S. offers some dizzying choices when it comes to high-octane amusement. Disney takes top honors when it comes to the plethora of options, but there are plenty of surprises for those wanting to explore America’s lesser-known gems. You can enjoy sky-high views from clifftop rides in the Rockies, get your fill of Appalachian music and country-themed rides in Tennessee, and snorkel amid vibrant marine life in an Orlando park that does a fine imitation of Caribbean paradise. Here’s a rundown of our top 10 favorite parks.
Bay Lake, Florida
One of the best-loved parks on the planet, Disney’s Magic Kingdom draws over 20 million visitors each year (well, when there’s not a pandemic at least) and is home to the iconic Cinderella Castle, old-fashioned Main Street, U.S.A, and the whimsical Haunted Mansion. There are also galactic thrills on Space Mountain and slow-boating among the bearded swordsman on Pirates of the Caribbean. Nighttime fireworks cap the day’s activities.
Going strong since 1870, America’s second-oldest theme park likes to think of itself as the roller coaster capital of the world. In fact, it has 18 roller coasters (Six Flag’s Magic Mountain in Santa Clarita, California, has one more, but who’s counting?) and over 50 other rides. It’s hard to match the excitement (terror?) of riding the Millennium Force, a 6,595-foot-long coaster that reaches speeds of 93 mph and has a 300-foot drop. Set on a peninsula jutting into Lake Erie, the park is halfway between Cleveland and Toledo.
One of the few amusement parks you can reach by public transportation, Luna Park is a Brooklyn icon and enjoys a fine seaside location along the Coney Island Boardwalk. Riding the Cyclone is a must. This vintage wooden roller coaster has been in operation since 1927 and still delivers the goods with a dozen drops and 60 mph speeds. You can also get a quick glimpse of the NYC skyline as you launch through the air on the 90 mph Slingshot. Get there on the D, F, N, or Q subway lines — and be sure to stop for a hot dog from Nathan’s Famous along the way.
Read more: Seattle Travel Guide
The park that brings the silver screen to life has some of America’s best rides and shows. Split into two separate areas — Universal Studios and Islands of Adventures — it’s worth springing for a multi-park pass to make the most of your visit here. You can ride the Hogwarts Express, sip Butterbeer in Hogsmeade, and geek out while wand shopping in Diagon Alley at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. You can also check out the Simpsons-themed Springfield, follow the minions on a Despicable Me 3-D ride, and enjoy the creepy special effects while riding Revenge of the Mummy.
Read more: Florida Travel Guide
Orange County, Florida
For a break from roller coasters and animatronic amusement, spend the day relaxing waterside at the tropical-themed Discovery Cove. You can snorkel a reef full of brightly-hued fish, relax in a lazy river, feed exotic birds in the aviary, or just dig your heels in the sand while watching the flamingos strut past. Unlike other Orlando parks, visitor numbers are capped at 1,300 people per day, which means it never feels crowded. The admission price to the park includes food, drink (including select beer and wine), a wetsuit, towels, and animal-safe sunscreen.
The African-themed park in Tampa has one of the best new roller coasters in the works. The Iron Gwazi has a 206-foot drop that’s just beyond vertical (91 degrees) and reaches speeds of 76 mph, making it one of America’s fastest rides. There are half a dozen other top-notch roller coasters, as well as more easy-going jaunts, like the Serengeti Express Train, where you can spot giraffes, zebras, antelopes, and other wildlife from the open-sided carriages. When the temperatures soar, cool off on a white-knuckled soak by riding the Congo River Rapids.
Bay Lake, Florida
Part of the Walt Disney World largesse in Orlando, Epcot has a split personality. Future World features rides and attractions related to space travel and underwater exploring. The World Showcase, on the other hand, celebrates the world’s diverse cultures (well, a few of them, anyway) in 11 different pavilions where you can travel and taste your way around the globe, no passport required. Epcot also has one of Florida’s most recognizable landmarks: A 180-foot geodesic sphere called Spaceship Earth that’s visible from any part of the park — a helpful navigation tool to find your way around.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Sitting pretty in the Great Smoky Mountains, Dollywood is the creation of Tennessee’s favorite native daughter, Dolly Parton. It has Appalachian-themed rides, including the 21-story-high Wild Eagle that gives a fine panorama of the mountains, a 19th-century steam train (come in the fall for dazzling autumn blazes), and a separate water park. Not surprisingly, live music is a big part of Dollywood’s appeal, with shows throughout the day, and you can also get an eyeful of the dazzling costumes Parton has worn over the years at Chasing Rainbows. The equal-parts museum and shrine documents Parton’s metamorphosis from a dirt-poor child (one of 12) growing up in a one-room cabin in East Tennessee to international stardom by the age of 25.
Glenwood Springs, Colorado
Set at 7,100 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies, Glenwood Caverns has the best views of any park in the country. Here, you can ride America’s highest-elevation roller coaster, soar above the horizon on the Giant Canyon Swing, or slow things down a notch aboard an aerial gondola that takes you on a scenic ride from valley floor to clifftop. On hot days, you can quickly escape the heat on a tour of the park’s impressive caves, where the temperature is always 52 degrees.
Bay Lake, Florida
Another star in the crown of Walt Disney World, Animal Kingdom has been wowing visitors since its opening in 1998. The stars of the show aren’t jovial oversized rodents or blue-eyed princesses but real-life animals: Lions, giraffes, zebras, gorillas, elephants, and myriad other creatures. You can board an open-sided vehicle to see Africa’s finest on the Kilimanjaro Safari, watch animals at play from the walkways of the Oasis, and spy Bengal tigers and Komodo dragons on the Maharajah Jungle Trek. Of course, this being Disney, there’s plenty of fantasy woven into the park, with Avatar-style 3D rides through the land of Pandora and a river raft adventure on the Kali River Rapids.
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