DESTINATION U.S.A.: America's Top 10 Best, Most Thrilling Theme Parks

Jun 18, 2009

The Bottom Line Greatest theme parks in America? Have I got your Top 10 Best Theme Parks List!! Here's Ten Excellent Family Theme Park Experiences!

Nothing says "summer fun" quite like the thrill of racing through the steel loops of a great roller coaster, riding the waves of a classic whitewater rafting ride, or gently bobbing up and down to the clanging calliope of a classic carroussel. Kids get a taste for mechanized thrills at small town carnivals and boardwalk amusement parks, but the biggest fun potential comes from the biggest parks, full of mammoth thrill rides. These are the places where fun memories are made. They're places where a kid can spend an entire day (and a week of Dad's paycheck) and still want to come back tomorrow for more.

If you're looking for a great park full of thrilling rides, here are the places I consider to be "best of the best" in America, from sea to shining, without further ado, let's count 'em UP, starting with my pick as the very BEST theme park experience in America!!


1. Cedar Point, Sandusky Ohio
Web: (Read Reviews)

Adrenaline junkies get ready for a rush! This is America's hands-down, slam-dunk winner as the best theme park in the nation. It's a mammoth spread just peppered with great roller coasters and thrill rides. There's state-of-the-art steel coasters with loops and corkscrews galore, and spectacular old-style woodie coasters that creak and ricket and sway with the added element of uncertainty that no steel coaster can ever quite capture. It's also a park of superlatives with coasters claiming to be the world's tallest and others claiming to be the fastest. If all that's not enough for you, they've got their Soak City water park to cool you down on those scorching August afternoons. Only adding to the park's great rides is the added attraction of reasonable prices. A day at Cedar Park will cost you about HALF what a Disney day ticket costs (and the rides are EASILY twice as good!) If you've never been, get on out to Cleveland where you'll find Sandusky on the west side of the city with a dramatic setting on a point jutting into Lake Erie. 17 roller coasters this a GREAT park, or WHAT?!?!

2. Schlitterbahn, New Braunfels Texas
Web: (Schlitterbahn Review)

When the scorching sun of a Central Texas summer sky is roasting you alive, you can do like Texans of generations have done and head in between San Antonio and Austin where, in the town of New Braunfels, you'll find America's BEST water theme park --- Schlitterbahn! There's more water rides here than you can shake an inner tube at, and the park is extremely family friendly with free parking, free shuttles between the park areas, and where you're always welcome to bring in a picnic cooler of snacks and drinks (no need to pay high theme park food prices here!) Don't miss the Master Blaster --- it's the most incredible water ride imaginable!

3. Disneyland, Anaheim California
Web: (Disneyland Review, California Adventure Review)

There's a timeless magic to Walt Disney's original theme park in the Los Angeles suburb of Anaheim. Classic rides can be experienced again and again, just as gentle and light hearted as they've ever been. Some of the Tomorrowland concepts are a hoot now that we see how odd the future was envisioned. We always like Splash Mountain with its Song of the South themes and a boat ride over to Tom Sawyer's Island is de rigeur, if a bit tame by today's standards. Food is overpriced, but there's some acceptable quality stuff in Downtown Disney (or the Blue Bayou over in the New Orleans section isn't too bad). Save a day for the adjacent California Adventure park too...especially since the rides are better and the crowds less.

4. Universal Studios, Orlando Florida
Web: (Universal Studios Review, Islands of Adventure Review)

No trip to Orlando is complete without visiting Universal Studios. In many ways, a couple days at Universal Studios will prove more enjoyable than spending the time at more Walt Disney World parks. Universal Studios costs less once you get to the second day, and their Islands of Adventure park has better rides and better food than ANY of the Disney properties (by a fairly substantial margin). Universal Studios itself is a bit tame with too many simulation attractions and too few recent film attractions. Islands of Adventure is better, more exciting, more ride and adrenaline oriented. But you'll discover that for yourself...

5. Busch Gardens, Williamsburg Virginia
Web: (Busch Gardens Review)

I've always liked the family friendly atmosphere of Busch Gardens and its immense variety of attractions. The theme focus on villages of European countries is kind of neat (not to mention handy for arranging meeting points.) There really is "something for everyone" at this park, whether its a thrill ride on one of the park's big steel coasters, like Apollo's Chariot, easy going family rides, a mug of beer in the fest haus, or a visit to the wilds of Jack Hanna's Wild Reserve.

6. Kings Island, Mason Ohio
Web: (Read Reviews)

Just outside Cincinnati is Paramount's Kings Island, a park that's oddly similar to other "Kings" parks --- like Virginia's Kings Dominion, which was a personal favorite of mine when I was growing up. King's Island has similar roller coasters, similar character attractions and entertainment, and even a similar fake Eiffel Tower. Families will like the kid-friendly areas with plenty of Hanna Barbera characters and if you're getting burnt to a crisp in the heat of a summer afternoon, cool off the in Boomerang Bay water park area.

7. Knoebels, Elysburg Pennsylvania
Web: (Read Reviews)

The great thing about Knoebels is how old fashioned the whole place is. It's a large amusement park that charges ZERO for parking and ZERO for admission. You can bring the whole family and have a blast and Grandpa doesn't have to pay big bucks for a day pass when he'll never get on ride 1. Knoebels understands that most theme parks rip off their clients, so they do things different: they treat people fairly with common sense and common decency. You don't always realize how cool this is until you experience it. Not only are they cool people, but they have some pretty decent rides too....I'm addicted to their classic woodie coaster, the Phoenix!

8. HersheyPark, Hershey Pennsylvania
Web: (Hershey Park Reviews)

I kind of hate to mention this, but the first time I visited HersheyPark, Richard Nixon was sitting in the White House. A few years have passed since then, and the park is a whole lot different than it was when I was but a poor little urchin. You can't actually go into the chocolate factory itself like you did when I was a kid, but the theme park is quite a lot larger with a ton more rides. Some of the classics are still there, like the magnificent Comet --- one of the grand old ladies of the wooden roller coaster crowd. I like the Sidewinder and the Canyon River Rapids too (though I love white water raft rides in just about any guise!)

9. Walt Disney World, Orlando Florida
Web: (Magic Kingdom Review)

Walt Disney World is an American institution --- more popular than free beer in some circles! (Certainly not mine.) Walt Disney World is actually several parks in one destination. It includes the Magic Kingdom (a near replica of Disneyland), as well as Epcot, MGM Studios, Animal Kingdom and Downtown Disney --- if not others I'm forgetting about. The parks are very family friendly, highly marketed, overpriced, and the whole place is unsettlingly average once you get there and realize the rides aren't nearly as good as any Six Flags or Busch Gardens park located elsewhere. Kids will love the Magic Kingdom, adults love Epcot, and the whole family can usually find some common ground in the other parks. Themes are very well done, the parks are generally clean and orderly, and their Fast Pass is the best, most intelligently designed priority system in the theme park industry. It's expensive. It's crowded. The lines are terrible. But somehow people forget the myriad shortcomings and come back's certainly the most famous theme park central in America!

10. SeaWorld (San Diego CA, San Antonio TX, Orlando FL)
Web: (SeaWorld San Antonio Review)

Shamu the killer whale is the star attraction of this watery themed park with three locations, each a bit different but all featuring Shamu (will the REAL Shamu, please stand up!) Shows and animal experiences outweigh thrill rides at SeaWorld, though there's still some good coasters and a handful of other rides to keep the tweens and the thrill crowd busy. We like the Loch Ness Monster steel coaster with its many coiled corkscrews and we like cooling off in the water park when the sun gets up to its mid day apex. There's also a brewery hospitality house serving up free cold beers (always a bonus), and the Budweiser clydesdales prance through the park at least once a day. Great deal too because the FunPass gives you a whole season of theme park experiences for the price of a single day ticket!


Bottom Line:
Summer's a great time to get out and do something FUN! And what can be more fun than taking the kids to a great theme park for a day or more of thrill rides, water parks, and overpriced greasy food! It just don't get more all-American than that!

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