Theme parks are miniature universes, each one a special mix of genius and insanity. And some are a little crazier than others. These personality-filled parks sometimes fly under the radar, but that’s part of the charm. Every one of them is an antidote to the strip-mall sameness of our modern world. Here’s a look at oddball theme parks worth a trip … or at least a laugh.
Getting scooped up for a ride at the construction-themed Diggerland (Courtesy: Diggerland)
Diggerland — West Berlin, N.J.
Finally, America has a Diggerland to call its own. The attraction where both kids and adults work the controls of heavy machinery was so popular in its native UK that it opened its first U.S. location on June 14. Construction workers might wonder why people would pay for something they get paid to do, but digging a big hole in the ground is undeniably a great way to work off some aggression. And it’s not all excavation; the park also features amusements like the Spin Dizzy, which involves climbing into the mouth of a backhoe that lifts and spins. Once guests are hot and sweaty from their exertions, they can cool off at Sahara Sam’s Oasis water park next door.
New Jersey’s terrifying Action Park (Courtesy: Action Park)
Action Park — Vernon, N.J.
What’s not to love about a place once labeled “America’s most dangerous theme park”? Besides the fact that a half-dozen people have died and lawsuits forced it to declare bankruptcy and close in 1996, anyway. That was then; this is now. Action Park, charmingly referred to as “Class-Action Park” in the old days, just reopened with the old name after online videos prompted a wave of fan nostalgia. The good news: The worst of the water park’s rides have been revamped to improve safety. For some die-hard (ha!) fans of the old incarnation, that’s also the bad news, although recent visitors say the rides still feel pretty scary. Upon Action Park’s return, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey tweeted, “WOW! Action Park is back! I still have scars from long ago visits but I so want to go again.”
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Reliving the Wild West at the Tweetsie Railroad Wild West Theme Park. (Courtesy: Tweetsie Railroad Wild West Theme Park)
Tweetsie Railroad Wild West Theme Park — Blowing Rock, N.C.
First, there’s the name: What could be sweeter than a Tweetsie (whatever that is)? Then there’s the park itself, an unabashed Wild West throwback with an atmosphere firmly rooted in the days when everyone still played cowboys and Indians. Old coal-powered locomotives are the park’s heart, but a small zoo, thrill rides, and live shows featuring can-can girls, outlaws, and magicians rounds it out. Put the kids to work panning for gold, and see if they can strike it rich enough to buy something at the Happy Trails Toy Shop on the way out.
Wrestling a gator in Gatorland (Photo: Rusty Clark/Flickr)
Gatorland — Orlando, Fla.
Celebrate Florida’s second-coolest animal (come on — nothing beats the manatee!), with activities ranging from tame (watching professionals wrestle gators) to terrifying (the Screamin’ Gator Zip Line above alligator-filled pools). Visitors can hand-feed and even pose for photos with live alligators, crocodiles, and various lizards. But that might not be the park’s most frightening feature: “The oversized birds will chase you and steal turkey dogs from your kids, so watch out,” one TripAdvisor reviewer warned.
Orlando’s Holy Land Experience (Photo: Joshua Yopsyn/Flickr)
Holy Land Experience — Orlando, Fla.
You don’t need to travel thousands of miles to visit the Holy Land, because it’s right here in Florida — a version of it, anyway. Marvel at replicas of the Great Temple of Jerusalem and Jesus’s Tomb, behold God’s glory revealed in the Ark of the Covenant, and pick up a snack and a soda at the Jerusalem Street Market. Kids can visit Jonah in the belly of the whale, while adults might be more interested in recreating the Last Supper or learning Biblical history in the Scriptorium. (Side note: The Creation Museum theme park in Kentucky, which began construction earlier this year, will soon be giving the Holy Land Experience a run for its money.)
Florida’s Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (Photo: Daniel Oines/Flickr)
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park — Spring Hill, Fla.
Let’s admit it: We can’t get enough of synchronized swimming. The mermaid shows at this beloved family-oriented park, going strong for 60 years now, can help sustain us until the next Summer Olympics. Plying the clear waters of a beautiful natural spring, the charming “mermaids” perform “underwater feats from the past six decades, including eating and drinking underwater,” as the website claims. After the show, practice on your own at nearby Buccaneer Bay water park.
The Blue Ox at Minnesota’s Paul Bunyan Land (Courtesy: Paul Bunyan Land)
Paul Bunyan Land — Brainerd, Minn.
Paul Bunyan Land earned some well-deserved fame when a replica of its giant eponymous statue was featured, along with the fictional Blue Ox Motel, in the movie “Fargo.” You can see the real thing at this 23-acre park, along with rides, a “petting barn,” and the Old Farm Pioneer Village, which the website bills as “the largest one-man collection of antiques from the late 1800’s to early 1900’s in Minnesota.” (You can only imagine how happy that guy’s wife was to get all his stuff out of the house). Attractions include a dentist’s office that lets visitors imagine how cool it was to have teeth pulled 150 years ago. Oh, and there’s a schoolhouse with a terrifying teacher mannequin, a replica of an old feed store, and a pumpkin big enough to walk inside.
The milk “climbing wall” at Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Adventure. (Photo: Anders Porter/Flickr)
Fair Oaks Farms Dairy Adventure — Fair Oaks, Ind.
If you think “dairy adventure” sounds like an oxymoron, then clearly you’ve never entered the Birthing Barn at this working dairy farm. No roller coaster compares to watching cows deliver their young right there in front of you. (Stadium seating ensures a clear view). According to the farm’s website, “The Dairy Adventure offers experiences to you that you couldn’t imagine and you’ll never forget” — no matter how hard you try.
Rockome Gardens, in Illinois. (Photo: Meagan/Flickr)
Rockome Gardens — Arcola, Ill.
Come for the imaginative rock garden decorations, buggy rides, and horse-powered buzz saw in this Amish-themed park. Stay for freshly made cheese, honey, and baked goods. The park also pays homage to Arcola native son Johnny Gruelle, who created the Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls nearly 100 years ago.
The cast of actors at the San Francisco Dungeon. (Courtesy: San Francisco Dungeon)
In this one-of-a-kind immersive experience that just opened on Fisherman’s Wharf, live actors portray the lighter side of San Francisco’s dark history. What could be more fun than being locked up in Alcatraz or kidnapped and forced to serve as a sailor? The concept is an import from Europe, where real-life dungeons flourished. Here in the New World, we have to make do with more democratic brands of debauchery: gangs, mines, saloons, and plague. (If the dungeon were in the city’s Tenderloin or Castro neighborhoods, of course, it would likely be an altogether different kind of establishment.)
The Peter Peter Pumpkin Eater exhibit at Oregon’s Enchanted Forest (Photo: Ben Brooks/Flickr)
Enchanted Forest — Turner, Ore.
The name does not say it all. Parts of this fairy tale-themed park are more creepy than magical, more Brothers Grimm than Walt Disney. The place looks like something straight out of a Rankin/Bass stop-motion TV special. Subject matter can be a bit dark: Parents might find it hard to persuade young kiddies to walk inside the open mouth of a wrinkly old witch, for example. Things get real with “an interactive target-shooting adventure,” and the haunted house is “not for those easily scared.”