There’s nothing like an American theme park in the summer. As waffle cones waft, treats like meat on a stick are nibbled, and rides whoosh to and fro, families are gathering a sensory overload of memories for an indelible emotional scrapbook. Maybe your family loves to scream as you get hurled about by a monster coaster. Or perhaps you appreciate the quieter pleasures of Whac-A-Mole and a stroll on the boardwalk, snow cone in hand. Whatever your speed, don’t miss a day or two at a theme park full of wonders. From insane gravity-bucking thrill rides to quaint, old-timey pursuits, this list has something for fun lovers of all ages and temperaments. These are the nine amusement parks every kid should experience before they grow up.
1. Cedar Point – Sandusky, OH
If your family’s idea of fun is ascending into the sky before plummeting at 93 mph, Cedar Point is the place to plunge. Billed as the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World” with 18 roller coasters, the Ohio park will have your family of coaster crazies up, up, up and–whoosh!—down, down, down all day long. Ride the signature Millennium Force giga-coaster (with the 93 mph drop), the 120-mph Top Thrill Dragster, and Steel Vengeance—voted the tallest, fasted, and longest hyper-hybrid roller coaster in the world.
Tired of being flung around the atmosphere at jet speeds? You and your junior thrill seekers can decompress at the Forbidden Frontier, a new part-show, part interactive storytelling attraction where guests interact with the character actors to solve puzzles. Or unzip on the mile-long beach, with the blue waters of Lake Erie on one side and park views on the other.
Even adrenaline junkies need to eat (if they can), and treats abound at the 364-acre destination. Take a lick at the roller-coaster-themed Chocolate Cookie Mint Madness, created to match the Rougarou coaster with its greens and browns representing a swamp-dwelling werewolf.
Recommended Hotel: Cedar Point’s Hotel Breakers
2. Knoebels Amusement Resort – Elysburg, PA
Make newfangled memories at an old-fashioned amusement park. Nostalgic Americana is one of the main attractions at Knoebels, a theme park, picnic grove, and campground. Nestled in the Pennsylvania woods, this park hearkens back to a simpler time, when families dressed in shirts with suspenders and dresses with puffed sleeves ate cotton candy and grabbed for the brass ring on the carousel. Your family can still time travel at Knoebels, with its 1913 Grand Carousel (one of the largest carousels in the world), classic wooden coasters, and free admission.
Don’t miss the Carousel Museum, the fabled haunted house dark ride, and the bald eagle habitat. There’s something for everyone at Knoebels—puffed sleeves optional.
Recommended Hotel: Knoebels Campground
3. Schlitterbahn Water Park – New Braunfels, TX
Water is your family’s superpower at Schlitterbahn, where you can float, boat, glide, slide, and blast fast, propelled by H2O jets. Encompassing 65 acres, Schlitterbahn has held several titles for best water park and is considered one of the world’s biggest and most diverse collection of water rides. With 51 rivers, slides, chutes and rides, this park also features a cool nature bonus: Miles of rivers are powered by natural river water from the Comal River.
Water, water everywhere, but what to do first? Surfers can use body boards to test themselves against 50,000 gallons of water per minute at the Boogie Bahn, the world’s first surfing ride. Let the Master Blaster shoot you six stories high, uphill, before plunging you three stories down, up again, and into a huge, watery pretzel spinner. You can also revel in some downtime by floating for 45 minutes in an inner tube, past the Schlitterbahn’s landmark Castle, between the Downhill Racer speed slides, underneath the Castle Entrance building and along the edge of a cliff overlooking the Comal River.
Recommended Hotel: Courtyard by Marriott New Braunfels River Village
4. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter – Orlando, FL
Fizzing Whizzbees, anyone? That’s just one of the Harry Potter-themed confections on sale at Honeydukes Sweets Shop, a candy store in Hogsmeade Village. (You can wash it down with pumpkin juice or butterbeer, cold, hot or frozen, also available here). It’s all part of the magic of entering Harry Potter’s world, which immerses fans into all things Hogwarts. Hop aboard the Hogwarts Express train, connecting Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade, tour Hogwarts Castle, and be conveyed on enchanting rides, including the all-new coaster, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Here, fans board magical motorcycles and fly deep into the wilds of the Forbidden Forest, flinging past impossible obstacles and darting past bookish beasts.
Fun Fact: Even a trip to the bathroom is themed: Audio of Moaning Myrtle’s ghostly utterances are piped into every restroom.
Recommended Hotel: Loews Sapphire Falls Resort at Universal Orlando
5. Silver Dollar City – Branson, MO
If your family wants to be charmed back into the last century (or the century before that), this 1880’s-style theme park celebrates old-timey Americana. Enjoy the thrill of rides, such as the Fire-in-the-Hole—the park’s first—and oldest—roller coaster, where guests ride in a dark building with scenes that tell town tales while dodging trains, fires, and broken bridges. Take in some vintage entertainment, such as the Old-Time Storytime, or watch as over 100 resident craftsmen demonstrate America’s heritage crafts, such as pottery, knives, and blown glass. Between rides and shows, tour one of Missouri’s deepest caves by lantern light.
Recommended Hotel: Hilton Branson Convention Center
6. Funland – Rehoboth Beach, DE
Generations of people looking for summer fun have found it on the boardwalk. Funland takes fun at the beach to a whole new level. Geared to families with smaller kids, this amusement park has a reputation for affordability and safety, with 13 rides for little ones, including a carousel and kiddie wheel. Older kids and grown ups who want to scream themselves hoarse have that option too: Six major rides, including the Superflip and the Freefall, offer tummy-tickling adventures. For gentler pursuits, play classic midway games such as Whac-A-Mole and Frog Bog and take a spooky stroll through the highly rated haunted mansion. The best part of all may be Funland’s location right on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach. After a day of amusements, families can take a ramble on the boardwalk, stopping for old fashioned treats such as hot roasted peanuts, ice cream, and cotton candy.
Recommended Hotel: Avenue Inn and Spa
7. Six Flags Great America – Gurnee, IL
Daredevils big and small will relish the chance to have their hair blown back at this popular Midwest destination. With 17 roller coasters, this buzzing park is a great place to indulge in g-force insanity, or introduce the shorties to their first taste of ups and downs at the tame Little Dipper ride. If your family is ready for something a little more adrenaline pumping, you can brave the Maxx Force, the park’s newest coaster featuring the fastest launch in North America (zero to 78 mph in under two seconds). If you still have an appetite after being hurled around like that, grab a famous funnel cake and head up the Sky Trek Tower for gorgeous views of the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. Next door, Hurricane Harbor offers a chance to drift down the lazy river or take on the five-story drop of the Dive Bomber water ride.
Recommended Hotel: Courtyard by Marriott Chicago Waukegan/Gurnee
8. Knott’s Berry Farm – Buena Park, CA
Ever since the mid 1920’s, when Walter Knott and his family began selling berry jams and jellies at a roadside stand, families have been coming to Buena Park for a good time and lip-smacking eats.
The park consists of four themed areas: Ghost Town, Fiesta Village, The Boardwalk, and Camp Snoopy. The park’s most beloved ride, Timber Mountain Log Ride makes a giant splash with the log flume’s 42-foot drop into water. As you’re drying off, check out the All Wheels Extreme Stunt Show in Calico Square. If your family is a bit younger, or can’t ride the park’s more aggressive rides, you’ll want to spend time with Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus et al in Camp Snoopy, which focuses on rides and attractions specifically built for children and guests who want a milder experience.
Kids and grownups of all ages and abilities, however, will love topping off the day with a Boysenberry ice or a dollop of the Berry Market signature jams.
Recommended Hotel: Knott’s Berry Farm Resort Hotel
9. Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park – Glenwood Springs, CO
Perched 7, 100 feet above sea level in the Colorado Rockies, Glenwood Caverns is America’s only mountain-top theme park. Your adventuresome family can ascend to dizzying heights, literally, and then further flout gravity with a thrill ride. What could be more fun? How about an outdoor alpine coaster which has you in the driver’s seat, controlling speeds through hairpin turns as you whip around a mountain slope? Not scary enough? Try the Giant Canyon Swing if you dare. It swings four passengers back and forth, takes them nearly vertical at the height of each swinging arc, and hits a top speed of 50 mph, dangling a mere 1,300 feet above the Colorado River. Every ride boasts a panoramic view of stunning scenery, except for one which will leave you dropping in the dark: The Haunted Mine Drop sends riders on a free fall of 110 feet in a black mine shaft. Eerie cave tours and a zipline round out this peak experience.
Recommended Hotel: Glenwood Canyon Resort