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.
Alaska: Mukluk Land (Tok)
When it comes to exploring Alaska, your best bet is to spend a lot of time outdoors. It is a total wonderland when the weather isn’t making it impossible to traverse (and even sometimes then). Go to a national forest. Take in some whale watching. Grab some reindeer facetime at a farm. But if you want to hit a theme park unlike any other, please allow us to introduce Mukluk Land — which isn’t wrong when it calls itself “Alaska’s Most Unique Destination.” Seriously, this spot is fifteen different kinds of bonkers.
This theme park with no clear theme (besides “Alaskan stuff”) is located in the Alaskan interior and is essentially a junkyard. The grounds are littered with rusting snowmobiles and punctuated with attractions like a giant cabbage and a vintage red and white vehicle with “Santa’s Rocket Ship” written on the side. But it’s inside that things get truly bizarre.
At first, it’s just a little grimy and junky, but the skee-ball and whack-a-mole seem to fit the theme. Then, there is the room of a million beer cans, one with a ceiling plastered in flattened cereal boxes, and the room of dolls. Man oh man, the dolls. A log cabin is home to hundreds of old dolls, who cover the floor, shelves, and all furniture. You can’t walk into the cabin, but you can look through a window, a window that every doll is facing with watchful eyes. Yeesh.
Arizona: Bedrock City
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So many ppl asked me “What’s in Arizona? 😕” when I told them about my vacation. Absolutely…NOTHING! I want to see the world, even if that means traveling domestically. We were driving in the middle of the desert + came across this vintage Fred Flintstone Park. It was UNreal how much fun we had for $5 lol (we had the park all to ourselves 🤣) #TravelLikeAG
We can’t write effusively enough about Bedrock City. Is it dated? Yes. Is there a roller coaster? No. And, that doesn’t matter because it is a truly charming way to connect with a modern stone age family. For visitors to the AZ, this is a must.
Bedrock City is literally open every day but Christmas, and the associated campground is a 365-days-a-year operation — so you can for sure make a visit work with your schedule. Seriously, you can’t truly call yourself a theme park enthusiast until you have spent a snowy day in January snapping pics of cement simulacrums of a 1960s animated show.
When you visit, you can expect a small rock movie theater that you can sit in all day watching cartoons featuring Fred, Barney, Wilma, and Betty. In addition, there are recreations of the couple’s homes, a small train, a schoolhouse, and a slide that lets you get a real Fred on while you pretend to hear the end of the day whistle at the quarry. You can also grab a bite at Fred’s Diner, home of Bronto Burgers and Chickasaurus Dinners.
This cross between a brightly colored, nostalgic acid trip and a ghost town will have you saying “Yabba Dabba Dabba Doo” in the best way.
Arkansas: Magic Springs Theme and Water Park (Hot Springs)
Arkansas has a couple of curious theme parks that are worthy of mention, but they aren’t taking the title of essential for a couple reasons, some are closed and one is aimed at born-again Christians.
The Great Passion Play in Eureka Springs is the theme park that turned the area into the most popular tourist destination in the state thanks to conservative Christian guests looking to enjoy a museum of Earth history without all that evolution stuff and to see a daily passion play. It’s clearly not for everyone, but it’s definitely worth mentioning. Also worth a mention is Dogpatch USA, the country’s most profitable hillbilly-themed park founded on a trout farm. Based on the Li’l Abner comic strip, it had a roller coaster called Earthquake McGoon’s Brain Rattler. And sadly, Dinosaur World also failed to go the distance despite having the world’s largest Noah’s Ark mural. But some of the old dinosaur and caveman sculptures remain on the old grounds, so go get pics while you can.
In the absence of the quirkier options that the state used to offer, we think Magic Springs Theme and Water Park is pretty cool. It’s a much more corporate affair than the smaller, weirder options that fill this list, but that doesn’t make it any less fun to take a ride on the Brain Drain and drop 13-stories. This park has changed hands a lot, and when that led to dips in attendance, the park consistently chose to add new rides rather than hold the fort as it was. Thanks to that philosophy, there are tons of family rides, thrill rides, kids rides, and a sizable water park.
California: Gilroy Gardens (Gilroy)
Why not Disney, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios, or Legoland? They are all great, right? But you’re going to go to those spots anyway and we knew that. Instead, we tussled over two lesser-known options, and the runner-up is worthy of a mention. Visitors to coastal Klamath, California (and residents, too) are perfectly positioned for a visit to Trees of Mystery, a park owned and operated by the same family for 67 years. The theme? Trees, we guess. Though, it seems to be best known for its 49-foot statue of Paul Bunyon and the 35-foot statue of his companion, Babe the Blue Ox. So, it’s really a tree and logging extravaganza.
Oddly, our essential pick is also tree-based. Apparently, we cannot get enough horticultural good times. Designed and built by Michael Bonfante, the park was originally known as Bonfante Gardens, and it took 25-years to construct. There are 19 garden themed rides, 27 attractions, and six gardens. The signature garden features 24 “circus trees” grown and shaped by Axel Erlandson, a Swedish-American farmer who appeared in Ripley’s Believe It or Not 12 times for his trees.
Ride the vintage carousel. Twirl around in the bulbs of garlic that operate like teacups. But don’t miss the trees (or the little garlic mascots; jeez, they are cute).
Colorado: World Famous Tiny Town and Railroad (Morrison)
Colorado has some awesome traditional amusement parks, like Elitch Gardens (which would have been our pic had it been Eldritch Gardens and the mascot was a Lovecraftian horror). But we think the truly essential visit comes on a smaller scale in CO. Literally. We bring you Tiny Town and Railroad, which began as a miniature village built by George Turner in 1921 to entertain his daughter.
If you watched Hot Fuzz and were into the model village at Hatfield House, this is for you. It is also for you if you are hyped about feeling like a giant. No shame. We get it. Sadly, as time marched forward the little town originally known as Turnerville fell into disrepair. But in 1977, a model train buff by the name of Lyle Fulkerson bought it. Were things about to be restored? They would have been, had Fulkerson not been killed by a runaway train car on his way to visit Tiny Town. It wasn’t until 1989 when the Northern Colorado Chapter of the Institute of Real Estate Management adopted the park as a civic project, that volunteers were able to rescue it. Today, it thrives.
There are over 100 buildings to check out and they make for excellent photos. Plus, there is a ridable miniature railway. Who doesn’t want that?
Connecticut: Lake Compounce (Bristol)
Is our Connecticut pick the very height of strangeness? No. But, Lake Compounce is the oldest continuously operating amusement park in the nation. Opened in 1846, the property spans 402-acres, which includes a beach and a waterpark (Crocodile Cove) that can both be used by guests for no additional fee. Sometimes you don’t need all the bells and whistles of a potential Scooby Doo frightfest of an abandoned park to get what you need. A long and storied history counts too.
If you are a roller coaster fan, for sure take a ride on the Wildcat, which is the 14th oldest wooden coaster in the United States. And visit its descendant, the Boulder Dash, which won the Golden Ticket Award for the #1 wooden roller coaster in the world for five consecutive years. The Golden Ticket Awards are voted on by experienced park enthusiasts from around the world. They have to have visited at least 40 different parks in their lifetimes.
Delaware: Funland (Rehoboth Beach)
There is something wonderful about an old-fashioned boardwalk amusement park with a giant arcade and indoor and outdoor rides. It speaks to the roots of amusement park culture and to a mythical Americana period to which so many people wish they could return. Funland not only brings that to the table, it does so as a family run park since 1962.
During a 1961 beach vacation, Allen and brother Don Fasnacht, their wives, and their parents visited the future site of Funland as part of a family vacation and fell in love with the place. There was a small “picnic park” operating there at the time and the owner made them a very attractive offer to assume ownership. The Fasnacht’s couldn’t stop thinking about it when they got home. And, even after the Great Atlantic Storm of 1962 devastated the eastern seacoast, the family still went ahead with the sale, buying Funland and establishing memories and traditions for Delaware residents and tourists. Now, there are seemingly dozens of family members from multiple generations running the theme park.
When it comes to rides, you have to hit up the Haunted Mansion, the perfect creepy counterpoint to a day at the boardwalk. And The Sea Dragon is the biggest, most thrilling ride available, so it’s worth jumping on the dragon boat and holding your breath because you are sure during an upswing it is going to hit a neighboring home. Plus, they have a Zoltar machine.
Florida: Weeki Wachee Springs State Park (Spring Hill)
We know that we mentioned Weeki Wachee in our recent swimming hole line-up, so we look a little obsessed at this point. We don’t care. If we can’t love a city of live mermaids that dates back seventy years, then why did we go to all that therapy? And yes, we could pick Disney or Universal Studios or Epcot (which all rock) but you already know about them. So let’s go somewhere kitschy and cool. We don’t want to hit the hotel bar, we want to find the Tiki bar where the locals hang.
Since it first welcomed visitors in 1947, Weeki Wachee has been a popular roadside attraction, attracting tourists and mermaids from across the globe. The park is 538 acres of Florida beauty and home to the deepest naturally formed spring on the continent. It is also the state park where “mermaids” dance and swim and eat bananas in an underwater theater built 20 feet under the spring’s surface.
How do they do this without drowning? Good question. Thanks to Navy man Newton Perry, who built the theater, a new way of breathing underwater was created and it is the method still used today. In order to master the breathing and the use of free-flowing tubes of oxygen, the performers are involved in rigorous training. This allows them to perform synchronized song and dance routines and to swim in place, buoyed by the five mile per hour currents in the theater area.
We say the mermaid theme is enough, but the park also offers riverboat rides, animal shows, camping, and scuba diving.
Georgia: Lake Winnepesaukah (Rossville)
Yes, yes, you expected Six Flags. And you know that we wanted to pick The World of Sid and Marty Krofft (which made it until the 1970s). But let’s split the difference and get a good dose of history and character plus some fun rides?
Lake Winnepesaukah, named for the Native American word meaning “bountiful waters”, debuted to over 5,000 visitors on June 1, 1925. In 1926, the park boasted the largest swimming pool in the southeast. The Boat Chute, designed by owner Carl Dixon, was a huge hit in 1927, making it the third oldest mill chute ride still operating in the US. It started as a water-themed attraction but later expanded onto dry land with a historic carousel that dates back to a 1916 manufacture and the Cannon Ball roller coaster, added in 1967. Now, it’s over 80 acres — with 38 rides and a seven-attraction water park.
We genuinely dig the old Cannon Ball with its 40-foot drop and 2,272 feet of track that extends three-quarters of a mile. It’s a 90-second bit of whiplash with a top speed of 50-miles-per-hour. And it is fun. So fun. Must be why the park’s motto is “Come On, Get Happy!”
We appreciate a motto that puts The Partridge Family theme in our head. Don’t act like you don’t too.
Hawaii: Wet n Wild Hawaii (Kapolei)
There aren’t a lot of theme parks in Hawaii either. Get it together, western states. We imagine it’s because the islands are themselves are already a tropical paradise theme park of sorts. However, there is Wet n Wild Hawaii located in Oahu’s “Second City.” And it is certainly the essential theme park of the state.
Wet n Wild Hawaii opened in May 1999 as Hawaiian Waters Adventure Park and it has grown to occupy 24 acres of land covered in 25 rides and attractions. It is also literally the only water park in the state, which is likely why it is among the top 10 most visited attractions on the island of Oahu.
We are fans of Shaka, which plummets adrenaline seekers down a sheer 36-foot drop almost vertically into a u-shaped slide, causing the sensation of zero gravity. The Tornado is also a lot of fun. It catapults you through a swirling 45-foot funnel until you are in the eye of the storm and pass into smoother waters.
Idaho: Silverwood Theme Park (Athol)
Silverwood Theme Park may not have the sort of beat-you-over-the-head weirdness that we are into, but it is exceptional in quite a few genuine ways. First of all, it is the northernmost theme park in the continental United States. And with its 413-acre site, it is also the largest theme and water park in the American Northwest. Pretty awesome for a simple park opened by a man named Gary Norton in 1988.
At first, the park was just a few carnival rides with a “main street” lined with fun shops and eateries. There was also an authentic steam train that circled the property in 30-minute loops. But it stopped being a small, local amusement locale a while ago. Now, it’s literally a regional theme location that draws people from across the country.
One of the big draws of this park is Aftershock — one of only five giant inverted boomerang coasters in the world. After being relocated from Six Flags Great America, the coaster opened in 2008. It is considered part of the third generation of the boomerang and it’s super thrilling. No lie, this coaster goes 86.8 miles per hour and at one point it drops riders 177 feet. There is a g-force of 4.6. To put it in perspective, that is 1.6 g faster than the maximum g-force of a space shuttle during launch and re-entry. Wowza.
Illinois: Navy Pier (Chicago)
The closing and subsequent conversion of Rockome Gardens to Aikman Wildlife Adventure stymied us because we really wanted to choose the Amish theme park as our essential Illinois pick. Built in 1937, this park was operated by members of the Old Order Amish Community (though ownership of the actual park over the 80 years of ownership shifted many times). There was a recreation of an Amish village, buggy rides, a cheese shop, and a horse-drawn buzz saw. And don’t forget the tic-tac-toe playing chickens. But, alas, it’s no longer in business.
In the absence of an Amish good time, we opted for Chicago landmark Navy Pier. We will admit that the 50-acre lakefront entertainment destination isn’t a traditional theme park, but we can’t help but be seduced by the 150-foot-high Ferris wheel modeled after the one built for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. It’s a seven-minute ride that both excites riders and connects them with the past.
Navy Pier is really what theme parks used to be when they were still traditional pleasure gardens. It doesn’t have water slides or rides that delight and nauseate. But it has a 4,000-square-foot maze, a one-acre botanical garden in a six-story glass atrium, a carousel, and remote control boats. It is both super fun and a community hub — which is what the theme park is at its core.
Indiana: Holiday World And Splashin’ Safari (Santa Claus)
We would be lying if we said we weren’t jazzed to talk about this theme park. So. Jazzed. Many people argue the story of this destination is that of the first theme park in the nation.
Like many of the other genius inventors and entrepreneurs that have been mentioned in our essential theme parks lists, industrialist Louis J. Koch was looking for a retirement project and for a way to make children happy. He was struck by how disappointed young people were to visit the city of Santa Claus and find it without its namesake. The man had nine kids of his own and was super attached to children and holidays.
The park debuted in 1946 with a heaping helping of the North Pole in the form of a toy shop, a restaurant, some themed rides, and…of course…Santa! Over the decades, the park has grown exponentially, but it hasn’t left the family. It is still run by the Kochs.
If you are wondering why it’s called Holiday World now, it’s because the Koch family saw an opportunity to expand the scope of the park to include other celebratory holidays, including 4th of July and Halloween. Then, in the early 90s, they added a 40-acre water park which includes a water coaster. Seriously, this place is rad in so many ways.
Iowa: Adventureland (Altoona)
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Another beloved family-owned theme park, Adventureland markets itself as Iowa’s Largest and Most Complete Family Resort Complex, which is kind of intense. It’s really a lot more fun than that description implies. John F. “Jack” Krantz began construction of the park in 1973 with some reported help from the Disney company during early planning. A tornado delayed the opening (because of course, it did), but the park was up and running in full by August of 1974. And, Krantz’s son reportedly said his dad came into work happy every day thereafter because he loved what he was doing.
The park has added a lot of attractions that are noteworthy. As early as 1975, it added rides like the Skyride from the World’s Fair in Spokane, Washington. These days, there are a ton of thrill rides — like The Monster Infinity coaster and Dragon, a double-looping steel coaster.
In addition to the awesome rides, Adventureland also has some pretty charming themed areas like the rural-themed County Fair and Iowa Farm. We love that they work to keep the character of their state present throughout the property. We think that’s the kind of attention to detail that comes from being owned by a local family.
Kansas: The Big Pool (Garden City)
Kansas has some legit amusement park history. Great examples are the Electric Park sites built in the late 1880s and early 1900s by the Heim brothers, who were aiming to attract people to their breweries. Spoiler: it totally worked. One person they attracted was a nine-year-old Walt Disney who moved to Kansas City with his family in 1911. Disney’s time at the park made a real impact. And aspects of Disneyland and Disneyworld (that we take for granted as central to their DNA) are actually inherited from Electric Park. When Disney was developing plans for his first park in 1955, he brought in a train whose track circled the grounds and daily fireworks at closing because he grew up with them and loved them.
Sadly, a 1925 fire burned most of the second park to the ground, ending its time as an amusement park. So we obviously aren’t choosing it as the essential park, but we are searching for a book about it because we want to know everything.
Kansas is hard because there aren’t any really substantial parks still operating. So we went with a bit of a curiosity with great history and a few water slides. We know The Big Pool is technically a municipal pool, but we didn’t have a lot to work with. And it is the World’s Largest Hand Dug Swimming Pool — so that’s cool. When Garden City mayor H.O. Trinkle conceived the 72.600-foot swimming pool in 1921, citizens were freaked about the potential cost, so they were encouraged to participate in its construction. The pool was dug and lined by the people of the town. It has been central to the childhoods of area swimmers ever since. There was even a period when the local zoo’s elephants were allowed to swim in it.
Kentucky: Beech Bend Park (Bowling Green)
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Happy #RollerCoasterDay! Get ready to celebrate this weekend with a ride on the Kentucky Rumbler at Beech Bend Park. . . . #BeechBendPark #BeechBend #BowlingGreen #Kentucky #SplashLagoon #AmusementPark #Waterpark #FamilyFun #Friends #Fun #Staycation #FunintheSun #RollerCoaster
Beech Bend Park began as a picnic grounds with river swimming. People also attended formal dances at the park’s pavilion. It was a very traditional early amusement park. But Charles Garvin bought it for $12,990.98 in 1942 and went to work turning it into a glitzy theme park. However, the transformation was slow going. Garvin didn’t believe in borrowing money and so he had to raise the funds for every improvement independently. He literally saved all of the cash for his first Ferris wheel and the classic carousel from the 1904 St. Louis World Fair before he was able to purchase and install them. The man paid as he went and didn’t spend a dime in interest.
The 1960s were the park’s salad days. Guests were paying ten cents to enjoy the park and promotions like “County Days,” which spotlighted different counties within the Bowling Green region. Mid-way games like Skee Ball were a huge hit, as were carnival rides like Wild Mouse, a modest style of roller coaster. And the associated campgrounds are large enough to be billed as the world’s largest.
Sadly, Garvin’s health started to decline in the 1970s and competition from nearby Opryland USA began a period of decline for the theme park. It closed a few times in the 1980s after the 1979 death of Garvin but is currently on the other side of a multi-million dollar remodel and expansion that has updated and improved Beech Bend, making it a really fun park (as well as one with close ties to the community and to the state).
Louisiana: Carousel Gardens Amusement Park (New Orleans)
Louisiana (like many of the states on this list) isn’t much of a theme park Mecca. At one point the former Jazzland became a Six Flags, but Hurricane Karina put a dent in that, leaving the state largely without an amusement park. In the past, however, residents of the state and visitors from neighboring ones frequented the popular Hamel’s Amusement Park in Shreveport. In the 1960s it was a dairy barn, but the owners invested in a few llama, goats, and lambs (as you do), and a petting zoo was born. That evolved into the acquisition of wild cats, primates, elephants, and peacocks, and suddenly there was a full-on zoo in place. By the 1970s, it was a prime attraction.
By the mid-1970s, Hamel’s had children’s rides going and then it was time to go total amusement park with a coaster and a log flume and chain swings. The mid-1980s were a peak time, with Louisiana residents associating the park with all the fun they could possibly want. And then, it became another theme park casualty of unpredictable weather. A tornado straight up bent the Ferris wheel in half and started a decline that the park could not fight out of. The rides were removed and by 1999 it was legit defunct. However, many argue spirits lingered. So, if you are a ghost enthusiast, the abandoned grounds could prove interesting for spirit conjuring. You could meet the late Mr. Hamel or a worker killed in the construction of the log flume. There are some solid ghost hunting options in this group.
If you’re more interested in an easygoing afternoon of fun without the dead speaking to you, Carousel Gardens Amusement Park may be the best the state has to offer. There is a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel, and a drop tower. There’s also, you know, a carousel. The park has been going for over 150 years and the carousel has logged a century of use. It is one of 100 hand-carved carousels left in the nation and the only one in Louisiana. It was crafted by Charles Looff (who you will recognize from our Washington entry) and Charles Carmel. And you may recognize the locale from films like 22 Jump Street and Now You See Me, which both filmed there.
Maine: Palace Playland (Old Orchard Beach)
We love a theme park with a pedigree, and Palace Playland has operated in the exact same location since 1902. That’s a lot of happy memories…and probably ghosts. Definitely ghosts. Also, a guidebook writer once called the park something that would appeal to “aficionados of the garish.” That’s a “must visit” destination if we’ve ever heard one.
In the early hears, Palace Playland was a roller rink and a carousel. Visitors could also enjoy simple snacks, like lemonade and saltwater taffy. Now, there are more than two dozen rides and attractions, as well as a 24,000-square-foot arcade that is one of the largest in the Northeast. Think skeeball and fortune telling machines, as well as more traditional arcade options. There are midway games, good food, lots of gift shopping options, and the beach is steps away. And, every Thursday during the peak season, there are fireworks.
Maryland: Trimper’s Rides (Ocean City)
Let’s ease into this with a defunct park that we think has a curious progression. The Enchanted Forest is similar to many parks that opened in the mid-century. It was aimed at families with small children and featured a nursery rhyme theme highlighted by fairy tale buildings and characters (there weren’t any mechanical rides at first). Unlike contemporary parks of the 1950s, it was an integrated park from day one. It had a period during which it thrived, but after The Harrison Family who opened it sold the park, it floundered — eventually closing entirely in 1995. What we find interesting is that unlike many abandoned theme parks, Enchanted Forest had all of its structures and statues moved to a farm for display and preservation. That’s heartwarming.
Our pick for the state has an even longer history, having been founded in 1893 as The Windsor Resort. Daniel B. Trimper and his wife Margaret, the great-grandparents of the current park manager and president moved to Ocean City in 1890, and they owned boardwalk property, including two hotels, by 1893. It was this property that constituted the resort. In 1912, Daniel Trimper purchased a simply huge carousel that was 50-feet in diameter and with a specialness seen only in a sister carousel at Coney Island. The ride featured 45 animals, three chariots, and a rocking chair all powered by a steam engine. It is classified as one of the oldest carousels in the nation still in operation. Over time, other rides were added, and though many of the present ones date back to the 1920s, they have all been well preserved.
Massachusetts: Edaville Family Theme Park (Carver)
We freaking love this theme park that cemented its reputation by focusing on cranberry harvesting and railroading. Tons of two-foot gauge railroads covered the state in the late 1800s, but between the depression and competition from autos they began shutting down in the 1940s. Ellis D. Atwood started buying the remaining rails and had them trucked to the cranberry bogs of Carver. He was a man with a plan. He built a five-and-a-half-mile railroad around his 1,800-acre plantation and started charging people to sightsee. That evolved into Family Fun Park, with an emphasis on the carnival rides you expect in a period theme park.
In 2002, Jon Delli Priscoli purchased all 250-acres of the current park. He opted to reconfigure the railroad and incorporate vintage rides, like an antique carousel and an illuminated Ferris wheel. The park introduced Thomas Land in 2015 — so if you or someone you know has fond feelings for Thomas the Tank Engine this will be your jam.
Michigan: Nelis’s Dutch Village (Holland)
We are enthusiastic about theme parks with rich pasts, a fun origin story, and a celebration of a culture. So when we were deliberating, we considered Michigan’s Adventure and all of its thrill rides but ultimately were so swayed by Nelis’s Dutch Village we couldn’t possibly recommend anywhere else.
The true story of the park’s creation has roots in Beverwyk, the Netherlands in 1910 — when Frederick Nelis asked son Harry to travel to the United States in search of rich farmland. The 17-year-old traveled to Missouri where he purchased land and began growing vegetables. In 1911, the rest of his family joined him. He and his parents and eleven siblings ultimately moved to Chicago (when farming lacked the profit they anticipated). After a few years, they heard about the settlement in Holland and purchased 80 acres north of town, first growing veggies and then tulips. By the late 1930s, their farm was a hotspot for tourism and they started selling little souvenirs and flowers.
1n 1952, the present site of Nelis’ Dutch Village was purchased to retail tulip bulbs and gifts. And, in 1958, Harry’s sons, Harry and Fred, built the first building in what is now the essential theme park of Michigan. Now, visitors can enjoy rides, a petting zoo, and a ton of topnotch photographic opportunities.
Minnesota: Paul Bunyan Land (Brainerd)
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@paulbunyanland with the kiddos. They had a great time in spite of the rain. Even the littlest were tall enough to ride a couple attractions which thrilled them. So many squeals and giggles! #paulbunyan #paulbunyanland #mn #exploremn #onlyinmn #brainerd #amusementpark #rides #fair #carnival #roadtrip #babetheblueox #rainorshine #fun #kidslife #minnesota
When we mentioned Trees of Mystery in our California entry, we said the park includes giant effigies of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. But those are nothing compared to the 26-foot-tall animated, talking statue of the popular folklore character at Paul Bunyan Land. Literally, he welcomes the children who walk past him by name. That is so cool. Or creepy, depending on your feelings about giant statues coming to life and knowing who you are.
This one-of-a-kind celebration of one of the nation’s greatest legends got its start in Baxter in 1950, when Sherm Levis built a park around the statue of Bunyan he had purchased the previous year. In time, the park grew to include 40 rides distinguishing itself as a quirky little destination in The Gopher State. Visitors were shook in 2003, when the park announced that — due to high operational costs — keeping it open was unsustainable and they would be auctioning off everything. Luckily, a local family-owned business called The Old Farm bought the entire park, Paul, Babe, rides, and all. Then, they moved everything six miles east of Brainerd to its present site.
Now, Paul Bunyan Land is adjacent to the This Old Farm Pioneer Village, where people can enjoy 40 buildings decorated with period features. There is a music store, post office, gazette, schoolhouse, saloon, mill, and more. Bonus!
Mississippi: Geyser Falls (Choctaw)
When it comes to theme parks in the southern states, water parks are the real draw because it can be, as people say, hot as fish grease down there. When people need some thrills and amusement in the summer months, you can’t beat slathering yourself in a heaping helping of sunscreen and heading to the water slides. When it comes to the essential, we are sans historical oddity to offer up here. Instead, we think the one not to be missed is Geyser Falls, the waterpark at Pearl River Resort.
This is a place that takes a theme seriously, leaning into the geyser name in a big way. And they use the natural topography of their property rather than reducing it to a uniform concrete pad. Because of this, people who take on Mt. Everwet (total porn name), a collection of three-speed slides, get to shoot down a 60-foot hill. Similarly, Whitewater Express (four-lane mat-racing slide) is totally built into the park’s hillside.
They also have Backsplash, this bizarre half-pipe slide that sends guests in two-person passenger tubes shooting down a u-shaped track and up into a bunch of water that pushes the tubes backward. There is no other ride like it in the nation.
This is a new park. It is a corporate park. And we tried to avoid it, but there was no helping ourselves. It’s just too fun.
Missouri: Worlds of Fun (Kansas City)
We have a bit of a crush on Branson, Missouri. Come on, who doesn’t love the “Live Entertainment Capital of the World”? So it makes us a bit down in the mouth to be unable to urge readers to run to Celebration City, which was a park themed after America in the 20th century. There were areas based on Route 66, a beachy boardwalk in the 1920s, and small-town life in the 1900s. It was built on the site of the former Branson USA and had some success, but only lasted five years.
For an essential park currently in business, we are all about Worlds of Fun and its slogan “Thrills Connect” — which actually resonates with us. It’s almost a perfect motto for our travel philosophy. As the name suggests, the theme here is lifted straight out of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and the park is divided into five primary sections to create a global environment. You can hang out in Scandinavia, Europa, Africa, Americana, and the Orient. Sorry Australia, you got boned on this. There is an Australian-themed coaster called Boomerang, but it’s located in Africa. Guests who are taking their geography clues from visits to this park, probably aren’t going to win any trivia contests.
Montana: Amusement Park Drive-In (Billings)
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Is this a bit of a cheat? Yes. Let us happily explain why. Montana primarily has water parks and none of them come with a particularly cool history or a quirk that makes them essential in our eyes. Though, certainly, they are damn good fun. So we picked a drive-in movie theater. But we picked one with carnival rides and the term “amusement park” in the title. We think that’s an allowable bit of slippery skullduggery on our parts.
Though the drive-in boom certainly sits early mid-century, this little oddity isn’t a remnant of the 50s, 60s, or even 70s. Nope. Owner Riley Cooke tore down the screen from the Park Drive-In in Cody and drove it to Billings, where he started rebuilding, in 2004. On June 26, 2005, the place was open for business and locals flooded in to enjoy films from their cars, lawn chairs, and air mattresses.
The 468-car theater also has a bunch of rides (including a roller coaster) because Vicky and Riley Cooke were in the carnival attraction game prior to opening the drive-in. There’s even a 9-hole mini golf course. How could this not be an essential piece of fun and history?
Nebraska: Fun-Plex (Omaha)
The Fun-Plex is the largest amusement park in Nebraska and used to be home to the state’s only roller coaster, the strangely named Big Ohhhhh!. After an eleven-year run at the park, the coaster was removed before the 2018 season, with management citing maintenance costs. So it feels a little odd to forward the now coaster-less Fun-Plex as essential, but the bottom line is that there aren’t a lot of other options and we like the scrappy way this park built itself up to the largest in the state from such humble beginnings.
In the late 1970s, the future Fun-Plex opened its doors as a simple go-kart track named The Kart Ranch. After a short period of time, they added a miniature golf course and a couple of pinball machines, but things were pretty lowkey. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the park, now officially named Fun-Plex, took on a major expansion and added rides like bumper boats and bumper cars. Lots of bumping. By the time they added two five-story typhoon water slides and the Motion Ocean ride, they were the biggest ride and water park in the state.
But Fun-Plex didn’t stop once it achieved that goal. Rides continued to be added, a newer go-kart track was constructed, and a 5-million dollar water park expansion was undertaken. The best perk of all: This park is home to the only swim up bar in the state.
Nevada: Adventuredome (Las Vegas)
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We went with a theme park that is a bit expected when we opted for this Circus Circus Casino property. That may feel like it runs counter to our other attempts to explore the strange and forgotten. So, to balance this out, let’s briefly discuss Dig This Las Vegas — the heavy equipment playground.
If you aren’t looking for a traditional theme park experience with roller coasters, thrill rides, and carnival games and are instead dying to operate construction vehicles…we got you. Dig This does cost at a couple hundred dollars for an experience and there’s a 30-minute training and orientation, but after that, lucky folks in the Vegas area can work with heavy equipment. Always wanted to truck around a five-acre theme park on a Caterpillar D5 track-type bulldozer, then this is your jam. We honestly can’t help wondering if this is a really clever way to get low paid labor to construct a housing development or something, but people who can afford to purchase time on a hydraulic excavator seem to… dig it.
So, why pick Adventuredome over Dig This? Honestly, we just love the idea of a completely indoor five-acre theme park nestled under a dome on the strip. Perhaps, the film Biodome impacted us too greatly as children. With 25 attractions, including a killer coaster and an 18-hole golf course, how can you go wrong? It may have started in 1993 as Grand Slam Canyon, a dinosaur-themed amusement park, but we understand the move from animatronics and theming to activities. Go to Adventuredome and you’ll have a ton of fun without ever leaving the strip.
New Hampshire: Story Land (Glen)
We completely accept that this is a park that is geared to children and not to thrills for adults. But, we also have rowdy, controlling inner children, so what do you do? Plus, we love this park’s origin story (the story of Story Land, if you will). It was the 1950s and Bob and Ruth Morrell were living in Germany when the husband and wife from Conway New Hampshire were surprised by a visit from Frau Edith Von Arps, who had created dolls based on fairy tale characters. She was selling them door-to-door. The couple befriended her and bought dozens of the dolls before returning home. In addition to the colorful characters, the old woman gave them an idea: build a small village around her dolls.
The Morrells opted to build more than a doll village. They wanted a destination where storybook animals could live, and storybook characters could come to life. The idea was planted and it grew to include rides and play areas. In 1954, they bought affordable land and using local help, they constructed a wonderland. And, this was before Walt Disney changed the game. By the 1960s, the park had a steady flow of visitors, and new rides and attractions, including an ancient German carousel and a fleet of Swan Boats, were added.
We love the park. We love the lore. And, we love the spirit of a million happy visits that permeates this place.
New Jersey: Bowcraft Amusement Park (Scotch Plains)
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In our Nevada entry for this series, we wrote about a theme park that allowed adults to use construction equipment. Well, Diggerland is kind of that in miniature. There are four Diggerlands in the UK and one here in New Jersey, and they do run Diggerland XL for adults as well. As for standard Diggerland, it invites people over 42 inches to operate small-scale construction vehicles and equipment, and we know that is good stuff. We also can’t help thinking it is secretly a small-scale construction project with a shifty way of arranging labor. If, in a few years, there is a strangely erected housing community in its place, we won’t be surprised.
We think construction is a cool theme, but we couldn’t pick a theme park other than Bowcraft for New Jersey. In 1946, Ted Miller, and archery and skiing enthusiast, opened a store dedicated to his twin hobbies. It had been his dream for years, but World War II put it on hold. However, while stationed overseas, his intention intensified, and upon his return, he made it happen. Unfortunately, changes in leisure pursuits and competition caused visitation to diminish. So, the park was sold to the Markes family who made it more traditional. In 1998, having cemented itself as a legit attraction, Bowcraft added its first roller coaster. In 2000, three even larger rides were added. Now, there are over 30 rides in total — with a few that are total thrills.
Fun-ish fact: the site was featured in both the films North and Mortal Thoughts.
New Mexico: Cliff’s Amusement Park (Albuquerque)
Okay, we will admit to being slightly amused by a place name Cliff’s Amusement Park. It just feels funny. However, between its opening in 1959 and a name change in 1963, it was known as Uncle Cliff’s Kiddieland, so this is a big improvement name-wise and creep-wise.
The original Cliff’s was an itty affair built by Cliff and Zella Hammond on Lomas Blvd but neighbors petitioned to have it removed. Things were not looking good for Uncle Cliff and the kiddies. But it relocated to its present location in 1963, which was the outskirts of town at that point. Now they are pretty centrally located, thanks to urban sprawl.
If you want to join the fun, we recommend the Super Fire Ball — which will whip your ass upside down on an 80-foot high loop 13 times a minute. Or try the New Mexico Rattler, which has been voted one of the top 25 wooden roller coasters in the world in an internet poll. It works its way through the whole park and is nearly 3,000 feet long.
New York: Magic Forest (Lake George)
Located on Route 9 in Lake George, New York, Magic Forest is likely to make people scoff at its designation as essential because it is more of a roadside attraction. But we were won over by the fact that it boasts the largest Uncle Sam statue in the world, has a regular magic show, and has the last remaining diving horse act in existence. We are a little torn on the horse thing, but we are sure Lightening’s owners take good care of him between his two daily dives. Plus, he is the son of Rex who used to dive in Atlantic City, so we think diving may be in Lightening’s blood. There are also 19 children’s rides, the Mile Long Safari, a train, four adult rides, and a Fairy Tale Trail, where people can encounter cottages and attractions. Magic Forest opened in 1963, and we think it still carries the energy of a forgotten time in a way that other options in the state simply don’t.
You probably thought we were going to shout out Adventureland, didn’t you? It is awesome and has rightfully been rocking Long Island since 1962. There are 30 rides, three of which are water rides and two of which are roller coasters. And it all began when Herb Budin and Alvin Cohen purchased seven-acres of property and slapped down a restaurant, an arcade, and some mini golf. To spice things up, they also added four rides: a carousel, the Iron Horse train, the Little Dipper coaster, and boats. It was all called Adventureland 110 Playland, and it was a million-dollar undertaking. The park was purchased in 1977 by Willy Miller who went ham with development, really making it what it is now. It changed hands a few times in the intervening decades and now boasts a water park as well.
North Carolina: Land of Oz Theme Park (Beech Mountain)
This theme park is heavy on theme, and we cannot resist that sort of single-minded design. And it is a completely curious landmark that has only recently been resurrected. This experience cannot be duplicated and that counts for a lot. The Park opened in 1970 on Beech Mountain as a way to keep crowds flocking to the resort after the ski season had come to an end. It worked. The park was a total hit, attracting 400,000 visitors in its first year. It was on track to become the most popular attraction on the east coast. Until it suddenly wasn’t, and the park was clinging to solvency.
A fire in 1975 damaged the park to the point that it never fully bounced back, and the park finally closed its doors in 1980. Abandoned attractions became fodder for vandals and thieves, turning Land of Oz into a textbook abandoned theme park: great for photos and equal parts creepy and sad.
But resurrection came, in the early 1990s. Ever since, the park has opened a few weekends a year to sellout crowds. In the summer, visitors are part of “Journey with Dorothy,” which is a tour guided by a singing actress in the role of Dorothy. In September, visitors experience “Autumn at Oz,” which is still a tour but lets guests get off-leash a bit more. When visiting prepare to be drafted into the performances. It’s actually really fun.
North Dakota: Super Slide Amusement Park (Bismark)
We’re not gonna lie: If you’re jonesing for a theme park, pickings are slim af in North Dakota. We went with a bit of a gimme: Super Slide Amusement Park. The park has been in business since 1967 and offers a 6-lane super slide, Bankshot Basketball, a Ferris wheel, and other traditional carnival rides.
The entire park is incredibly well kept and very inexpensive because admission is free. Every damn day. It might not be as weird as some of the parks on this list, but when you want a carnival vibe, this is a pretty great one to pick.
Ohio: Cedar Point (Sandusky)
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It would be nearly impossible to overlook The Roller Coaster Capital of the World when making an Ohio pick. Well, it’s actually the Self-Proclaimed Roller Coaster Capital of the World (which totally makes it better because now we know there are a lot of coasters and not an ounce of humility). Respect.
In more irrefutable titles, this park is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the US, and we respect the hell out of that too. Before 1870, this area on the shore of Lake Erie was used for fishing and hunting. But in 1867, the local newspaper issued a call of action to “some enterprising person: to make something out of the stunning beach on the lakeside of Cedar Point.” So in the summer of 1870, Louis Zistel, a local businessman opened a park that included a beer garden, dance floor, and bathhouse. He used his steamboat, Young Reindeer, to bring people to the area for a quarter a ride. It was wildly popular to hang out there.
It wasn’t until 1892 that the park’s first coaster debuted. The Switchback Railway was 25-feet tall and reached a top speed of 10-miles-per-hour. Now, there are 18 coasters, and they are each different than one another and often different than anything you will find anywhere in the world. For instance, in 2016, the park unleashed Valravn — the tallest, fastest, and longest dive on the planet at the time.
Oklahoma: Frontier City Theme Park (Oklahoma City)
Yes, this property is owned and operated by Six Flags and that makes choosing it stick in our craws a little — because while that kind of corporate oversight may improve safety and guest experiences, it can also sap character from a theme park. However, how do we not pick this western-themed park? It’s too cool to deny.
In 1957, Boomtown, a replica of an Oklahoma pioneer town debuted at the state’s semi-centennial celebration, and Jimmy Burge, the leader of the committee that managed its construction, decided he would open a park with the same theme. In 1958, the park debuted along famed Route 66. It was free to enter, but you had to pay a quarter for the gunfights. Otherwise, you cruised around and checked out the mine train, haunted farm, jails, and robberies without spending a cent.
Burge is a fun character. He was a Hollywood publicist for 20 years — representing the likes of Robert Taylor and Joan Crawford — and his visits to Disneyland when it opened in 1955 made him fall in love with the theme park business. He must’ve known in his heart that Oklahoma was the perfect place for such amusement and saw his chance with Boomtown.
For 50 years, people have come to the property for a wild good time. As for coasters, we like the Gunslinger — which whips 24 riders 60-feet in the air through motor-driven rotations. And don’t forget the water park, on hot days it’s also a must!
Oregon: Enchanted Forest (Turner)
This theme park has it all. It has been family owned by the Tofte family since construction began in the mid-1960s. It has history. And… it’s genuinely a bit creepy.
Though Enchanted Forest is beloved by nostalgic Oregon adults, its genius wasn’t initially appreciated when Roger Tofte determined the Salem, Oregon area was lacking in family entertainment and set out to correct what he saw as a problem. He bought some land off of Interstate 5 and started painting fairytale inspired attractions all by himself. His co-workers thought it was the stupidest thing they had ever seen and started calling the project “Idiot Hill.”
Obviously, things worked out for Tofte — the park has been popular for over four decades. The attractions are fun. There is a log ride and a bobsled roller coaster. But the real draws are the cement sculptures depicting a variety of fairytales. Humpty Dumpty chills at the entrance. That’s pretty normal. Later, there are the psychedelic mushrooms, the giant witch face tree, and the flowers with fairy and rabbit and dog heads coming out of them. It’s a trip.
One neat aspect of the park is the 359-jet fountain that is used for a water light show. The music was written by Tofte’s daughter Susan Vaslev, who penned all the muzak heard in The Enchanted Forest.
Pennsylvania: Knoebels Amusement Park (Elysburg)
Before we get to the amazing Knoebels, let us at least spend a little time discussing Dutch Wonderland, a 48-acre theme park opened in 1963. It was the brainchild of a potato broker and hotel owner named Earl Clark, who actually built the stone façade of the park entirely by himself. He (like many of the other innovative theme park owners on this list) saw the need for family entertainment in his region of the state. It’s geared toward children, but the park is so special and sweet that we couldn’t help but include a mention. With 35 attractions, a water play area, and live entertainment, it’s worth a visit.
Knoebels opened in 1926 and has remained the nation’s largest free-admission park for its entire period of operation. And it’s not the bare bones operation a lot of our choices have been. It has more than 60 rides, three wooden coasters, a steel roller coaster, and a 1913 carousel (can you tell we love a vintage carousel yet?). Plus, the park is still owned and operated by the Knoebel family, who also have a lumber yard next door. In the early 20th century, the area where Knoebels now stands was known as Peggy’s Farm, and Henry Knoebel who farmed nearby, took to tending horses of picnicking visitors and later selling them refreshments. Over time, Knoebels Grove grew more and more popular, so he began leasing land for summer cottage sites (some of which still exist in the park). In 1926, Knoebel added a restaurant, a cement swimming pool, a steam-powered carousel, and some games.
Rhode Island: Atlantic Beach Park (Westerly)
The first parcel of Atlantic Beach was purchased in 1920 by Julia and Harry Trefes, and ultimately between the couple and their sons, a total of 12-acres was acquired. To this day, the family still owns and operates the area. Originally, this section of Misquamicut was called Atlantic Beach Casino, Now, just referred to as Atlantic Beach Park, this park on the southern shore of Rhode Island is more of a family beach, but people with an appreciation for history and a carnival vibe will love visiting. The big draw is the three-row carousel built in 1915 and shipped to the park from Warwick, the Rocky Point Amusement Park that went under in 1995. There have been a few restorations, but many of the OG horses and chariots are completely intact. You can also play some mini golf and ride Flying Chairs and the like. It is a great way to connect to the excellent theme park history of the state.
Speaking of which, we are terribly sad that both Rocky Point Amusement Park and Crescent Park are no longer in business. Rocky Point operated from the late 1840s until 1995, but its most popular period was between the 1950s and its closing. Unfortunately, its financial stability became shaky, and it was too costly for the park to stay current. There is a great documentary called You Must Be This Tall: The Story of Rocky Point Park, which covers the park’s evolution. Crescent Park opened in 1886 and made it until 1979 when low attendance forced an end to the fun. However, the restored 1895 Crescent Park Looff Carousel remains.
South Carolina: Family Kingdom Amusement Park (Myrtle Beach)
Before we get to our pick, we have a few things of great importance to pass along. First, South Carolina used to be the site of the Gay Dolphin Amusement Park which we think sounds fabulous. And it was also the home of Hard Rock Park — that literally lasted from April 15, 2008 to September 24, 2008. If we are completely transparent, it was reopened the following year…and then immediately closed again. Are you surprised no one in the aughts cared about the Hard Rock brand? Nor are we.
Thank you for letting us share. Now, back to the current essential park. We will admit our decision ultimately came down to the presence of the largest Ferris wheel in the state, the 1923 Philadelphia Toboggan Company carousel with horses cast from the manufacturer’s original molds, and Family Kingdom’s position as the Grand Strand’s only seaside amusement park. We love a theme park right up on the water. It is so awesome to ride a waterslide with a view of the ocean.
The park has been in business since 1966, when it was known as Grand Strand Amusement Park. The name was changed to its current incarnation in 1992 after the Ammons family, owners of the Sea Mist Oceanfront Resort, bought it. The Ammon family has spent more than five decades developing Myrtle Beach into a family vacation destination, and this purchase and their subsequent ownership are an aspect of that.
South Dakota: Rushmore Mountain Adventure Park (Keystone)
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Unlike North Dakota, South Dakota has a few more theme park options and we think the one that can’t be missed is Rush Mountain Adventure Park, a curious little theme park in the Black Hills. You can take a tour of the Rushmore Cave, fly down the Rushmore Mountain Coaster, scream down the Soaring Eagle Zipline Ride, and get the adrenaline pumping at the new Wingwalker Challenge Course. It takes the stuffy presidential tribute and makes Mount Rushmore into something that’s actually fun.
Rushmore Cave is the closest to Mount Rushmore and it includes something they call the legendary Big Room, one of the largest decorated cavern rooms seen on any area cave tour. It is full of stalactites dangling from the ceiling and even the walls. Throughout, visitors can see stalactites, mighty columns, massive flowstones, and ribbons, draperies, and helictites.
Tours have been given of this cave since 1952, at which point kerosene lanterns were the only source of illumination. But they literally gave tours 24-hours-a-day. Every dollar counted. Profit, yo. To clear spaces for visitors, cement was conveyed into the far reaches of the caverns using old inner tubes slung over muscular arms. How else do your build steps? In 1956, they finally added electric light by laying wires in. So it’s not the most natural feeling cavern you’ll ever visit, but it’s super accessible for the whole family.
Tennessee: Dollywood (Pigeon Forge)
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If you didn’t see this coming, you don’t know us at all. Yes, it is pretty corporate, but we don’t think that has robbed it of an ounce of personality or uniqueness. And there’s a great past embedded in the property because Dolly Parton bought an interest in an existing theme park that she’d loved since her youth.
All right, here it goes: In 1961, a pair of brothers from Blowing Rock, North Carolina brought their dreams of owning a small tourist trap to life. The name was Rebel Railroad and the theme was pretty much what you would imagine. Inspired by the centennial anniversary of the Civil War, there was a saloon, a blacksmith shop, a general store and a steam train from which guest could experience “attacks” by union soldiers, train robbers, and Native Americans. So…it was racist. Let’s just get that out there.
In 1970, the owner of the Cleveland Browns football team, Art Modell, bought the park and renamed it Goldrush Junction. And, in 1976, it changed hands and names again, emerging as simply Goldrush before becoming Silver Dollar City Tennessee. Finally, in 1986, Parton bought an interest in the park and it reopened as Dollywood.
Now, the park is the largest employer in the area, fulfilling her promise to give back to her community. It has been over 30 seasons and things just keep getting better. In addition to the great rides, there are topnotch musical shows and demonstrations of Tennessee crafts (like glass blowing artisans who then sell their specialties). Plus, its location in the mountains makes it a genuinely beautiful place to walk around. It’s just the right amount of cheesy Dolly Parton entertainment, rides that highlight Tennesee’s past (we particularly recommend a coal mining ride that ends with the town on fire and everyone’s death. It’s fun for the whole family), and newer coasters and thrill rides. You can’t go wrong.
Texas: Zero Gravity Amusement Park (Dallas)
Before we get to all the thrills at Zero Gravity, we want to take a minute to mention Morgan’s Wonderland, one of the best theme parks in Texas. It was designed for children with special needs and it’s a non-profit and the first park of its kind in the world. Admission for those with special needs is free and caregivers are only asked to pay a nominal admission amount. Rides are custom-designed to accommodate wheelchair riders, giving people who would never have the chance to enjoy a Ferris wheel, a carousel ride, or tooling around in a go-cart the chance to do so. It rocks. But, it has a pretty targeted audience, so we want to acknowledge it, but pick an essential that serves a wider range of visitors.
Zero Gravity has been in business since 1992 but it only operates five rides. Why? It is a very focused park and considers itself the world’s only “Thrill Amusement Park.” So, your options are bungee-jumping from a seven-story tower, free falling from a 16-story tower, riding a towering propeller that pulls 4Gs, sitting in an ejection seat that blasts the rider 150-feet in 1.2 seconds, and hopping on a 100-foot high flying simulator that speeds 60-miles-per-hour.
If you are looking for sheer adrenaline, sans the family element of most theme parks, this is your go-to. You won’t find anything like it anywhere else.
Utah: Lagoon (Farmington)
Lagoon has a lot going for it. The obvious perks are the ten roller coasters, five of which remain unique, including Colossus the Fire Dragon, the last Schwarzkopf Double Looping coaster operating in the US, and the bluntly named Roller Coaster, one of the oldest in the world and in operation since 1921. Plus, they design a lot of their attractions in-house and we love that.
We also love Lagoon’s rich history, which dates back to 1886, when the park included “Bowling, Elegant Dancing Pavilion, Fine Music, A Shady Bowery and Good Restaurants.” In 1899, they added their first thrill ride, Shoot-the Chutes — sort of a log flume but with a bigger boat and only a single big drop. In 1900, folks were rowing boats and swimming in the lake associated with the park. After that, it just kept growing with additional rides and acreage.
There is something about a park with a rich history that includes weathering World War II and hosting Big Band greats on its stage and a wooden roller coaster designed by John Miller (considered the father of the modern high-speed roller coaster). We can’t get enough of walking in the footsteps of generations of thrill seekers and adventurers past.
Vermont: Bromley Sun Mountain Adventure Park (Peru)
In 1935, three men (John Perry David Parsons, and Rolando Palmedo) planned the “Bromley Run” while in an airplane. And, the following year, Ralph Hitchinson and the Works Progress Administration went to work cutting the first trail on the west side off of Bromley Mountain in southern Vermont. But, there was no resort until Fred Pabst Jr. (yes, of that Pasbt family) opened Little Bromley Ski Area in 1938. When Bromley installed a 5,700-foot chairlift in 1958, the area became a major player in the New England ski industry. It was one of only four ski areas in the state that had this technology in play. In the years that followed, the resort continued leading the pack — by doing things like investing in a large snowmaking system after a difficult winter season.
It was this kind of innovation that prompted Bromley to install the first triple-tracked alpine slide in 1976, which signaled the start of the current Adventure Park. These days, visitors enjoy attractions like a climbing wall, trampolines, mini golf, a waterslide, a giant swing, space bikes and chairlift rides. Most recently, the park installed the Sun Mountain Flyer — a zipline that whizzes up to 50-miles an hour over a half-mile.
Virginia: Dinosaur Kingdom II (Natural Bridge)
You’re probably catching on to the fact that we consider things essential when they are singular oddities, and there is literally not a stranger theme park on this list than our pick for the lovely state of Virginia. If you are not familiar with Dinosaur Kingdom II, strap in and hold on.
The year is 1863, and a Southern family of paleontologists has discovered a valley filled with living dinos. The Garrison family are overjoyed and begin quietly and peacefully observing the dinosaurs…until the Union Army discovers what is happening under their very noses. Their response? Take control of the creatures as powerful weapons and use them against the South. But it is a terrible flipping plan and the Yankees are boned.
Yeah. It’s weird. And being all “revisionist history” about the Civil War is only fun until you realize the horrifying implications.
If you can suspend your disbelief, Artist Mark Cline is the man behind this theme park and Foamhenge, Professor Cline’s Haunted Monster Museum, and Dinosaur Kingdom, and his work should never ever be confused with Virginia’s other (decidedly more normal) dinosaur park, Dinosaur Land, because this park is whacky pants.
Prepare to be given a guided tour along a path punctuated by scenes of Yankees at the claws of the huge predators. And their defeats are damn bloody and often quite strange. But, for our money, the Civil War death by dino is less weird than Cyborg Stonewall Jackson. Oh yes, that happens too.
Washington: Wild Waves Theme Park (Federal Way)
Before we get to our pick for current parks in WA, let’s talk a little about Luna Park — a Seattle amusement park that was only in business from 1907 to 1913. It was designed and operated by Charles I.D. Looff, who both carved and installed Coney Island’s very first roller coaster. In fact, the park took its name from Coney Island’s Luna Park. We would have gone with Looff Park if we designed it, but whatevs.
Fun fact: Luna Park was the site of Seattle’s first manned flight on July 4, 1908. Plus, there were acts like Uncle Hiram the clown, Don Carlo’s Trained Monkey and Dog Circus, and the Original Human Ostrich. How big is the human ostrich competition getting in the US when you have to emphasize you are the OG Human Ostrich? If this park had made it to today, we know it would have been our pick. Sadly, people kept snapping their necks and things of that nature on the rides and sustaining sufficient patronage was impossible.
Okay, back to present day. We think the must-see theme park in Washington is Wild Waves Theme & Water Park, opened in 1977, the same year as The Enchanted Village (lots of enchantment in the Pacific Northwest). It was opened by Byron Betts and was initially only 12-acres with a half-dozen rides. Now, it is over 70-acres and serves as a destination for the entire state.
We are big fans of the 1906 carousel. But the Ring of Fire, a 60-foot, 360-degree looping coaster that propels you up, down, and upside down, is a can’t miss thrill ride. And, the I-5 Dive Skycoaster, which is one part bungee jumping and one part skydiving is also hella cool.
West Virginia: Camden Park (Huntington)
Obviously, we will get to our pick and tell you why it is essential and then you will balk, and we will have to fight you in the parking lot. But before we do that, let’s talk about an abandoned amusement park because We. Love. That. Shit.
Lake Shawnee Amusement Park was erected on the site of a tragedy. Called “the Clay family massacre,” it took place in the late 1700s — when a group of Native Americans kidnapped and killed members of a family “settling” the area. It’s a story that probably could tell us a fair bit about history and forced colonization — but instead of learning those lessons, an amusement park for the family of coal workers was built right on top of the spot in 1926. When the park closed in 1966 (due to the deaths of two children), people began to wonder if the land was cursed. Like any good horror movie, the only way to find out is to bring something to record and go for a visit to the former park. Warning: The old equipment and attractions remain in a state of advanced decay and it is creepy af.
If ghosts aren’t totally your thing, then our second pick would be Camden Park. In 1902, the Camden Interstate Railway Company established a picnic spot. It remains one of only 13 trolley parks still in business. Soon after it debuted, the park was augmented with a carousel and other attractions. It is also the state’s only official amusement park. Though it has over 30 attractions and rides, we are all about the Big Dipper, a traditional wooden roller coaster that opened in 1958. There are other cool vintage rides, too, like: The Whip, Scrambler, Dodgem Cars, Tilt-A-Whirl, and Paratrooper. Plus, we’re easily charmed by the swan-shaped paddle boats.
Wisconsin: Bay Beach (Green Bay)
A municipal theme park is a beautiful thing. So many theme parks are outside the boundaries of what a family or an individual can spend, and this can (especially for young people) create a real sense of being a “have not.” That strikes us as deeply unfortunate. Which is why we are always happy to stan for any park dedicated to giving everyone the chance to get their theme on.
In the 1890s, an entrepreneur named Michael Nejadlo bought land with the intention of dividing it into parcels and selling them for summer homes. Instead, he turned it into Bay View Beach which had a dance hall, bathhouse, and a bar. But, the park was swampy and filled with mosquitos, so people didn’t exactly flock there.
The park changed hands in 1908, when Captain John Cusick bought the resort and built a sizable dock. He then used a steamboat to transport people to the beach, and the rising popularity of swimming allowed him to rent bathing suits to guests. Yes, rented swimsuits. Normal. In 1901, it was roller coaster time, and in 1908, he added a chute ride with a flat-bottomed boat.
In 1911, the park was purchased by Frank Emery Murphy and Fred A Rahr. Both were prominent in the city and its government and donated the 11 acres and its buildings and attractions to the city to be used as a city park called Bay Beach Park. Now, residents and visitors alike have access to a fun park with a cool past. And, to keep costs down, a ticket to ride is still just a quarter.
Wyoming: Snow King Mountain (Jackson)
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Look, we get it. This isn’t a theme park either. And we don’t even have some cool weird olde timey nonsense to write about because Wyoming is more cowboys, dude ranches, incredible mountains, and sprawling plains. It is breathtaking country. It is not, however, rife with water slides and coasters.
Given the dearth of amusement attractions of a conventional sort, we opted for this mountain resort, which features a bungee trampoline, a roller coaster, and an alpine slide when there isn’t snow to attract guests. In October 2015, construction was completed on the Cowboy Coaster. Riders climb 465-feet up the mountain and hit top speed on twists and turns as high as four stories on the way down. You’ll also find Jackson’s only alpine slide, which lets guests ride down 350-feet of track, at up to 25-miles-per-hour.
It is fun, and it is unlike anything else in the state.