Lists that attempt to pick the “best” of any category are designed to fail. We’ve done the best food trucks, the best micro-adventures, the best swimming holes, and the best burgers in every state in the nation, and though they are all awesome posts (shouts to us!), there are missteps in every one of them. Because obviously, what makes something the best is subjective. In the case of theme parks, is it the history? The theme? The rides? The fried food? The memories? The Instagram potential? Or some alchemical blend of every factor?
And, how do you weight those? Shit. Gets. Complicated.
We opted to skirt the issue somewhat, by focusing on “essential” parks rather than asserting that one is better than the rest. We think the theme parks on this list are must-visit destinations. We skewed historical and odd, and ended up with is a list we’re ready to stand behind (some super popular, some hidden treasures).
Dig into the list and learn about the history of these places, the big names in the industry, and the defunct parks we fervently wish were still in business. Some of our picks are gimmes, some are controversial, and one is a municipal pool because some states (ahem, Kansas) don’t have much in the way of parks. Above all, every place on this list is perfect for having insane-levels of fun.
Alabama: Waterville USA (Gulf Shores)
You may have noticed a lot more water parks on the list than a theme park post implies. But when it comes to the long, hot, oppressive summer highs in the high 80s, walking around an outdoor park — founded on cement and without any tree cover to provide shade — a watery respite from the elements is a must.
Waterville USA opened in 1986 and has continued to add water and amusement attractions over the years. It’s not as wildly creative as some of the locales we view as essential, but we think it makes for a fun day. And, though they aren’t the only park to do it, we are charmed that the park has multiple free sunscreen stations to keep burns and long-term skin damage at bay.
When you visit, be sure to ride the Screamin’ Demon, a 60 foot, steep as hell drop down a slide, and its neighbor the Triple Dog Dare, a turbo body slide that makes you feel weightless. Both require riders to be older, so you won’t have to stand in line with too many kids or fight them for your turn.