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
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.