By Christy Karras
One of the best things about the United States is its plethora of theme parks. And with plenty of good weather left before we turn our attention to more serious matters, now is the perfect time to plan that late-summer theme-park trip. Each of Yahoo’s most-searched theme parks has its own personality, entertainment, and thrills. Here’s a look at the top 10.
The Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse statue in front of Cinderella Castle at Disney World Magic Kingdom (Photo: Michael Orso/FlickrVision)
Disney World is, as the name implies, a world of its own — complete with a Cinderella Castle, movie royalty, and unique attractions. And of the four parks that constitute Disney World, the Magic Kingdom is the granddaddy, open since 1971. With more than 18 million visitors in 2013, it’s the world’s most visited theme park. Thoroughly soaked in the Disney theme, the park creates an immersive experience that plays out in its six “lands,” each with its own flavor. Rides range from old-fashioned and kid-friendly (Mad Tea Party) to fast and a bit scary (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad). And since you can sleep, dine, and relax onsite, there’s no reason to leave this Disney fantasy world until it’s time to go home.
Location: Just outside Orlando, Florida
Admission: $99 for an adult day pass.
Superman: Tower of Power at Six Flags Over Texas (Photo: David R. Tribble)
Built in 1961, the Six Flags Theme Parks’ flagship park capitalized on two concurrent trends: the Texas oil boom and the growing number of families with free time on their hands. While it was far from the first amusement park, in true Texas style, it soon became one of the nation’s biggest. From the beginning, it focused on scream-inducing, cutting-edge rides, especially roller coasters. Younger kids play in their own Looney Tunes-themed areas, where characters like Marvin the Martian make appearances. Among the park’s many firsts: the first log flume and the first mine train coaster, both built in the 1960s. Its Superman: Tower of Power is the world’s tallest free-fall combo tower, at 325 feet, and the Texas Sky Screamer (400 feet) is the tallest swing ride.
Location: Arlington, Texas
Admission: $64.99 for an adult day pass, with discounts for advance online purchase.
Top Thrill Dragster (Photo: Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio)
3. Cedar Point
Cedar Point calls itself America’s “roller coaster capital,” and who are we to argue? Coasters have always been its centerpiece, making it a must-do destination for adrenaline aficionados. Originally opened in 1870, it’s one of the country’s longest-running amusement parks. At 364 acres, it’s one of the largest. It’s also the nation’s most visited seasonal park (it’s not open in winter, for reasons that are obvious if you’ve been to Ohio in winter). With more than 70 rides total, this is the perfect spot for those who want to spend a whole day — or more — just climbing onto one ride after another. Many of its 17 coasters are classics. A few, like the 120-mph Top Thrill Dragster, are downright terrifying. Some of its plentiful children’s rides follow a Peanuts theme, so coaster-shocked softies can always run into Snoopy’s soothing arms — er, paws.
Location: Sandusky, Ohio
Admission: $59.99 for an adult day pass.
Goliath at Six Flags Magic Mountain (Photo: rogerwiss/Flickr)
While it has entertainment, food, and a water park component like most theme parks, this place is all about the rides — inventive creations that seem to have sprung from the mind of a mad scientist with a keen interest in the human body’s limits. It has more coasters (19) than any other park. Speed along at 85 mph on Goliath (which the park describes as “a nerve-destroying series of high-speed moves”), fly face-down on Tatsu, or let X2 whip you around 360-degree spins as you careen at nearly 80 mph. As at other Six Flags parks, families and scaredy-cats can chill out with the likes of Daffy Duck and Elmer Fudd. Because it’s close to Los Angeles, Magic Mountain has played a role in many movies, including “National Lampoon’s Vacation” (it was “Walley World”) and “Zombieland.”
Location: Valencia, California
Admission: $69.99 for a day pass, with discounts if you buy online in advance.
The Intimidator at Carowinds (Photo: Carowinds)
Straddling the border between North and South Carolina, the “thrill capital of the Southeast” is Southerners’ go-to park for coaster action. Its signature ride, the aptly named Intimidator, is the longest, tallest, and fastest coaster in the Southeast. An homage to race-car legend Dale Earnhardt, it features a replica of his No. 3 Monte Carlo as well as steep, giant drops. The Carolina Cobra sends riders through three inversions — including a cobra roll and a 360-degree loop — forward and then backward. My favorite ride name: the Hurler, which might describe weak-stomached visitors after they ride this undulating wooden coaster. Like others in the Cedar Fair group, it features a “Peanuts”-themed kids’ area and an interactive animatronic Dinosaurs Alive! exhibition.
Location: Just outside Charlotte, North Carolina
Admission: $57.99 for a day pass, with discounts for advance purchase online.
The Intimidator 305 at Kings Dominion (Photo: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post/Getty Images)
Celebrating its 40th birthday this year, this Virginia park (the name refers to Virginia’s nickname, Old Dominion) opened a preview of its now-defunct Lion Country Safari in 1974. The Intimidator 305, the tallest and fastest coaster on the East Coast, now looms in the spot where lions once roared. The old Kings Dominion attractions spoke to its Southern heritage with names like Rebel Yell and the Mason Dixon Music Hall. While some of the quaint original attractions are gone, a few remain, including an Eiffel Tower replica. Among its unique rides: Volcano: The Blast Coaster, which shoots right out of a volcano’s top, and Shockwave, which takes a big loop with riders standing up. Kings Dominion also has the largest of the Cedar Fair group’s “Peanuts”-themed play areas.
Location: Doswell, Virginia (about 20 miles north of Richmond)
Admission: $64 for a day pass, with discounts for advance purchase online.
Flying Turns at Knoebels Amusement Resort (Photo: knoebels.com)
The tagline “America’s largest free-admission park” might generate a double take. And you can indeed park, walk in, and wander around for free. This is one of those old-fashioned parks that sell tickets to one ride at a time (great for those who just want to do a couple), although it also offers all-rides passes on many weekdays during the summer. The enterprising Rev. Hartman Henry Knoebel originally opened the park in 1926 as a swimming pool with a carousel and a restaurant, and the family later added rides, a water park, and a golf course. Attractions are charmingly old-fashioned at this independently owned park; think carousel, bumper cars, and log flume. While Knoebels was a latecomer to the coaster craze, it’s recently added more thrills, starting with the wooden Phoenix. Its Flying Turns is the country’s only modern wooden bobsled-style coaster, where cars slide in freefall down a wooden track.
Location: Elysburg, Pennsylvania
Admission: Individual rides cost 75 cents to $3. All-rides passes start at $36 for basic rides, $44 including coasters.
Skyrush at Hersheypark (Photo: Hersheypark)
Hersheypark is just one of many chocolate-themed attractions in the company town of Hershey. Candy magnate Milton S. Hershey famously felt that his workers should have a place to recreate, so he had a simple leisure park built surrounding a pool. Then as now, food and live entertainment were part of the focus. Soon, Hershey added a carousel and miniature train. In the 1970s, the park changed from a simple amusement park to a mature theme park, doubled in size, and started adding groundbreaking rides like the SooperDooperLooper, the East Coast’s first steel looping roller coaster. After you careen through modern rides like Skyrush or the inverted Great Bear, take a tour (and find sweet sustenance) at Hershey’s Chocolate World next door.
Location: Hershey, Pennsylvania
Admission: $59.95 for an adult day pass.
Timber Mountain Log Ride at Knott’s Berry Farm (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Yes, there was once a berry farm here. Then the Knott family started serving popular chicken dinners … which led to shops and entertainment for the admiring crowds … and soon, the family added a replica ghost town and started charging admission. While it was more known for live entertainment and family-friendly rides before the Knott children sold it to Cedar Fair, the park has added many more thrills in recent years. The old charm still remains in rides like the Timber Mountain Log Ride (which opened in 1969 with John Wayne as a passenger) and the Calico Mine Ride, both recently refurbished.
Location: Buena Park, California
Admission: $65 for an adult day pass, with discounts for advance online purchase.
Diagon Alley (Photo: Universal Studios Florida)
Movies and TV are the themes at this park, part of Universal Studios Orlando (which also includes Islands of Adventure) and a sister to Universal Studios Hollywood. It licenses ride rights to both Universal Studios’ and other studios’ productions, so it hosts attractions featuring a wide range of famous characters from Shrek to the Terminator to Gru from “Despicable Me.” You’ll hear the real movie actors’ voices in ride soundtracks. Of course, the big news lately is the just-opened Diagon Alley, part of the larger Wizarding World of Harry Potter (shared with Islands of Adventure). Potter fans can zoom through goblins’ vaults on the Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts ride, then grab Quidditch supplies and wizard robes on their way out.
Location: Orlando, Florida
Admission: $96 for adult all-day admission; $136 for multipark pass with Islands of Adventure.