There’s no doubt that Americans love theme parks, even many adults look forward to the atmosphere, cuisine – even the roller coasters! Other countries may have surpassed us on building the world’s tallest building or the world’s largest hotel but the worlds two most visited theme parks are still in America, thanks to Walt Disney (Wikipedia lists the worlds most visited amusement parks and water parks). Personally, I have visited Walt Disney World over a dozen times and visited many theme parks across the nation so I hope I can help you plan your next vacation.
One of the top theme park sites on the internet is ThemeParkInsider.com. If you have time, check out my interview with Robert Niles, the founder and editor of Theme Park Insider. See their list of what’s under construction at top theme parks. Wondering where the closest theme park to you is? Check out the Theme Park Insider map of US theme parks. Six Flags is the largest theme park chain in the USA with parks in eleven different cities so they are most likely to have a theme park closest to you. InsideTheMagic.net is another great resource, especially for those looking to visit one of the Disney parks; check out my interview with the founder, Ricky Brigante.
Top 10 Most-Visited Theme Parks In America:
1. Walt Disney World (Lake Buena Vista, FL): 50 million annual visitors
The happiest place on earth may be a little cheesy, but offers plenty of magic to make up for it. Spread across 30,000 acres, it’s home to the 4 of the 5 most visited theme parks in America, including the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom and the two most-visited water parks in America, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. The Magic Kingdom, which is the most-visited theme park in the world, recently saw the expansion and renovation of their Fantasyland, with the addition of the highly-anticipated “Little Mermaid” ride Under the Sea and a state of the art restaurant themed to “Beauty and the Beast.” Next, theme park fans are looking forward to the grand opening of Animal Kingdom’s Avatar Land, which is currently under contraction and set to open by 2017. Admission to the Magic Kingdom is $95 for adults and $89 for children, while admission to the other 3 parks is $90 for adults and $84 for children.
Where dreams come true.
2. Disneyland Resort (Anaheim, CA): 24 million visitors
Disneyland is where all the magic began and remains a true classic, as the 2nd most-visited theme park in the world. It’s also home to Disney California Adventure Park, which is home to the new Cars Land addition. Admission is $92 for adults and $86 for children.
3. Universal Orlando Resort (Orlando, FL): 14 million visitors
This beautifully themed complex is home to to two theme parks, Universal Orlando and Universal’s Islands of Adventure. he Wizarding World of Harry Potter addition at Islands of Adventure has quickly become a hit, showing a level of innovation that matches, if not even surpasses, Walt Disney World. Even thought the last Harry Potter film debuted in 2011, 2014 marks the opening of a large expansion of this popular land into Universal Orlando, with a train connecting the two similarly themed lands. Other popular attractions include Jurassic Park, Transformers, The Incredible Hulk, Dr. Seuss, E.T. and Spider-Man. Admission is $92 for adults and $86 for children.
4. Universal Studios Hollywood (Universal City, CA): 6 million visitors
This theme park opened in 1964 and features 6 rides, including 1 water ride. Rides include their signature 40-60 minute Studio Tour, Shrek 4D, The Simpsons Ride, Jurassic Park: The Ride, Revenge of the Mummy, Transformers: The Ride and the new Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, They are currently constructing their own version of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which is set to open in 2016. They actually have a subway ride that connects them to downtown LA for easy access. Admission is $84 for adults and $74 for children.
5. SeaWorld Florida (Orlando, FL): 3.3 million visitors
This 200 acre park opened in 1973 and has grown to have 2 neighboring water parks called Aquatica and Discovery Cove. This marine park features 7 “Shamu’s” (killer whales), 4 beluga whales, nearly 50 dolphins, many penguins, sharks, sea lions, seals, flamingos, pelicans, walruses, a polar bear and 4 whales. They have 8 shows (many of which involve animals) and they also have 11 popular rides, 4 of which are roller coasters. Admission is $92 (save an additional $10 by buying off their website) for adults and $84 for children (save $10 by buying off their website).
6. SeaWorld California (San Diego, CA): 4.4 million visitors
This 189 acre marine mammal park has 10 “Shamu’s” (killer whales), 5 species of dolphins, walruses, 5 balugas, over 300 penguins and 2 polar bears, as well as 8 rides (2 of which are roller coasters). 2013 marked the opening of their nearby Aquatica San Diego water park. Admission is $79 for adults and $71 for children.
7. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (Tampa, FL): 4.3 million visitors
This 335 acre theme park is owned by the same people who brought us SeaWorld. They have 24 rides, including 8 roller coasters and 3 water rides. It’s an African-themed animal park with cheetah, giraffe, gorilla, chimpanzee, komodo dragon, zebra and even ostrich. Children will especially enjoy their Sesame Street Safari of Fun land, featuring a children’s roller coaster a swing ride and play areas. Admission is $89 for adults (save an additional $10 by buying off their website) and $81 for children (save $10 by buying off their website).
8. Knott’s Berry Farm (Buena Park, CA): 3.5 million visitors
Since opening in 1940, “America’s 1st theme park” has grown to include 42 rides, 10 of which are roller coasters. Their tallest roller coaster, Xcelerator, accelerates riders from 1 – 82 mph in 2.3 seconds and climbs 20 stories up into the air. They also have a sectin geared towards younger visitors called Camp Snoopy which has 14 rides, including a mini roller coaster. Admission is $62 for adults (save an additional $22 by buying your tickets off their website) and $33 for children and seniors (save $3 by buying your tickets online).
9 Cedar Point (Sandusky, OH): 3.2 million visitors
The most visited amusement park in America and the self proclaimed “Roller coaster capital of the world” opened in 1870 and is home to 72 rides, including 16 roller coasters (the second most roller coasters in the world) and it recently launched a 4.5-acre Dinosaurs Alive! attraction, with nearly 50 life-size dinosaurs. It’s the second oldest amusement park in the US, right behind Lake Compounce. It’s the only amusement park in the world with 4 roller coasters higher than 200 feet. Admission is $58.99 (save an additional $10 by buying tickets off their website) for adults and $29.99 for children and seniors.
10. Kings Island (Kings Island, OH): 3.2 million visitors
Located 24 miles northeast of Cincinnati, this 364-acre amusement park opened in 1972 and has grown to include 46 rides, including 13 roller coasters. Admission is $56.99 (save and additional $24 by buying tickets off their website) for adults and $34.99 for children (save $4 by buying tickets off their website).
Always try to avoid Visiting during peak season – be sure to avoid visiting during holidays and weekends.
Arrive early in the morning and go straight to the back of the park (if you are in the Magic Kingdom, take the train straight back there!). You want to see and do as much as you can before the park closes, so don’t get too caught up in the gift shops and all that – restaurants and shops typically stay open after the park officially closses. Whenever you see a lake in front of you (such in Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure, you should go left instead of right. People tend to choose to go right first. Do the research so you know what rides normally have the longest wait times and do them first. Then around midday you are going to want to head back towards the front of the park, because by then, everyone should be towards the back.
Most parks have a system similar to Disney’s FastPass, which allows you to avoid waiting in a long line (be sure to check the wait time before you do this). While Disney’s FastPass system is free, other parks charge for this feature so those who enjoy thrill rides will want to head to the place where they are sold first thing in the morning to see how long wait times are and how long they are projected to be throughout the day; just way out your options and see how much you want to do and if you think you will be able to get it all done (and have enough energy to do it!) before the park closses. Real queue times are often a little bit shorter than what is posted so keep that in mind as well.
Also, if you have a person in your party with special needs, then you may be able to get a disability pass for the entire family. Just head to guest services and see what they have to say. It may even give you an incentive to bring them along! For example, my brother has Down Syndrome and every theme park we have ever visited has been more than happy to let him (and us!) go through the FastPass entrance (or the rides exit), hassle free.
Never buy your tickets right at the gate. Not only will you have to wait in an extra line, but you are also likely to be paying full price. Instead, look online (and if you have AAA, the only way to get your discount is to buy ahead of time; also pick up one of their complimentary travel guide books).
1. Schlitterbahn (New Braunfels, TX)
This 65 acre water park is a true game changer, even giving Disney World a real run for its money. This ingenious 65 acre park features an uphill water coaster and tone of other unique features. They also have parks in Galveston, Texas, South Padre Island, Texas, and Kansas City, Kansas.
Bonus (here are some more unique parks that deserve an honorable mention):
Dollywood – Country music super star Dolly Parton is the owner of this incredible theme park in Pigeon Forge, TN.
See the Sha-Kon-O-Hey show at Dolly Parton’s Dollywood theme park.
Holiday World – Located in scenic Santa Claus, IN, this theme park is themed to various holidays!
Hersheypark - Imagine a fun Philadelphia theme park themed to you favorite snack!