If America incontrovertibly leads the world in anything, it is in the creation of huge, colorful and intricately designed theme parks. And as this collection of ten of the best demonstrates that a great theme park now has to do a lot more than simply bring together a mix of white-knuckle and family friendly rides. These parks all have concepts binding together their disparate attractions; they are not just jumbles of rollercoasters and restaurants, but whole fantasy worlds. If anyone pioneered this change, it is, of course, Walt Disney.
Hersheypark first opened in 1905 as an amusement park for the employees of the Hershey Chocolate Company, and has grown since then into one of the most popular family theme parks in the United States. It is very much a family focused park, somewhat smaller than behemoths like Six Flags Magic Mountain and thus more manageable if you’re steering a collection of kids. There are lots of colorful rides to keep them entertained, and there’s a great waterpark on site too. Hershey’s Chocolate World is just adjacent to the park, and can be easily included in a day trip. And the park does have a smattering of wild thrill rides, too, for those seeking a more intense rush.
Topping SeaWorld for the prize of the most unique theme park to make this list is Dollywood, in Tennessee. Owned by country singer Dolly Parton, it has a terrific range of rides, imaginatively based on events and settings drawn from the state’s history. Visitors can outrun a fire that swept through an 1880s Tennessee town, or mimic 1920s stunt pilots who practiced their craft over the fields and farmyards of the rural south. But Dollywood goes beyond theme park rides, and also showcases the culture and music of America’s South, in a rather audacious challenge to the cultural dominance of Hollywood. Craft stalls and workshops can be found throughout the theme park, and live music pops up everywhere. And all this is backdropped by the forest-covered peaks of the Smoky Mountains.
If Dollywood delves into the culture of the Southern States, Busch Garden turns its gaze back over the ocean to Europe. It is designed on an "Old World" theme and is divided into sections modeled on various European countries. Each "country" has its own music, architecture and food. Hang out in Shakespeare’s Globe Theater; meet Scottish-breed sheep, cows, owls and dogs; eat Irish cuisine while listening to traditional Celtic folk music;munch pizza while wandering Da Vinci’s Garden of Inventions. Alongside the food and music are a host of inventive rides; the park is particularly well known for its roller coasters, such as the Alpengeist in the German section.
While Disney’s theme parks have increasingly come to be synonymous with Orlando, its original incarnation was in California. The design of Disneyland was supervised by Walt Disney himself, who envisaged a project that would celebrate "the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America." Alongside the original Disneyland, a second park was opened in 2011, Disneyland California Adventure, dedicated specifically to the state of California. Both parks are divided into eight themed districts, packed with colorful streets, thrill rides, entertainment, unexpected encounters, shops, restaurants and more.
SeaWorld mixes the sea creature-based encounters of an aquarium with the rides and thrills of a theme park. In some instances the two elements are kept separate, as in the case of The Kraken, a twisting floorless roller coaster which, unsurprisingly, does not include a real-life version of the legendary sea monster. But many of the rides morph suddenly into aquarium exhibits. The Manta flying roller coaster introduces visitors to rays, sea dragons and other species as they journey round the track. Other experiences aim to transport visitors into far-flung worlds, such as Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. And perhaps the highlight of the whole place is Turtle Trek, an encounter with several reptiles which culminates in a film showing the epic journey of an average sea turtle, screened in a giant 360-degree dome which makes excellent use of 3D content.
A companion piece to the grander and more ride-focused Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios takes visitors into the world of American movie-making. In fact, it’s a microcosm of American glamour and visitors stroll between sets based on iconic cultural scenes. Drop into Hollywood to meet either Terminator, or red-head Lucy, or both. Then pop over to San Francisco and star in your own disaster film when an earthquake measuring 8.3 on the Richter scale suddenly hits. Finally, mosey up to New York, where the Blues Brothers are partying on Delancey Street and the evil undead of ancient Egypt lurk around dark corners. For those more interested in films than rides, there are some good short screenings and behind-the-scenes expositions, too.
Cedar Point draws on a history of holidaymakers around the pretty shores of Lake Erie in Ohio, and first opened in 1870. It’s clung to its position as one of the top amusement parks in the United States in the decades since, remaining immensely innovative and opening at least one new ride annually. It has its thrill rides, with a particular penchant for hoisting visitors into the air on the outer edge of huge wheels and spinning them at face-warping speeds. But in contrast to Six Flags it is less focused on inventing the next tallest/fastest/loopiest ride in the world, and instead puts lots of effort into its family and kids areas. Here there’s a great deal to choose between, with one of the largest and most colorful fairgrounds kids are ever likely to find, and lots of well-conceived rides for smaller guests who will have to wait a few years before hitting the white-knuckle roller coasters.
For generations of Western children, the pink turrets of Walt Disney World are akin to the Great Mosque of Mecca. As with the Studios themselves, Disney World hasn’t stood still, but has continually evolved to keep drawing in new children once previous pilgrims, like Toy Story’s Andy, have moved on to worship at new shrines. This in part means that recent characters such as Brave can be seen stomping around the park alongside soft-voiced traditionalists like Snow White. But whole new kingdoms have sprung up, too, such as Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which mixes theme park thrills with the animals and exhibits of a normal zoo.
Orlando’s alternative faith is Universal Studios, the production company behind Despicable Me, Shrek, Transformers, and Harry Potter. Its main theme park is the Islands of Adventure, a colorful self-contained universe with some wonderfully eccentric rides based on the company’s most popular films. There’s a whole archipelago of comic crusaders at Marvel Super Hero Island, but the biggest draw is inevitably Harry Potter, and visitors can stroll round Hogsmeade, take on a Hungarian horntail, and explore Hogwarts and its grounds on the back of a Firebolt.
Six Flags Magic Mountain is a venerable theme park located just north of Los Angeles. It is king of the roller coaster, with 18 of them in total, more than any other park in the world. While it is divided into several themed areas, it’s not quite a cohesive kingdom in the manner of Disney World or Universal’s Islands of Adventure. In the midst of Samurai Summit, for example, with its Japanese folklore theme, you’ll be surprised to stumble across the Superman: Escape from Krypton ride. Really, it’s all about the exhilarating white-knuckle thrills, of which there are an immense quantity and variety. Scream round Full Throttle, the world’s fastest vertical looping rollercoaster; plunge 78 meters into a subterranean labyrinth on the appropriately-named Goliath; or lose your stomach on the world’s tallest drop ride, the Drop of Doom.