Whether you want to spend the day on jaw-dropping thrill rides, put in hours chasing down the best fair food or bask in the sun as you float down a lazy river, the best amusement parks in the U.S. offer something for everyone. Theme parks are usually fairly easy to drive to depending on where you live, and they can be quite affordable to visit — especially if you book ahead. The best theme parks also tend to have lodging options nearby, including spacious, family-oriented hotels with pools, campgrounds and more.
That said, some of the best amusement parks focus more on dizzying coasters than family fun, and others offer more ride options for the little ones in your crew. With that in mind, it’s smart to plan your family trip based on park features and amenities in addition to geographic location.
To help in your decision, we wanted to highlight some of the best amusement parks from coast to coast. If you want to ride one of the nation’s tallest coasters, drop hundreds of feet out of the sky or continue your search for the world’s best funnel cake, read on to learn more.
Cedar Point: Sandusky, Ohio
Located along the shores of Lake Erie, Cedar Point is known for its diverse selection of 70 rides, including 17 world-class roller coasters. Notable coasters range from Steel Vengeance, boasting 30 seconds of airtime (the feeling of weightlessness), to Valravn, which drops riders 223 feet at a 90-degree angle before spinning on a 270-degree roll. Cedar Point also features events, festivals and live shows, so be sure to check the calendar before booking. The park is open from May through October, while the attached Cedar Point Shores water park’s water slides and pools provide the perfect spot for cooling off during the hot summer months. Both parks require separate admission costs.
To stay within walking distance of the park and all its amenities, book your vacation at Lighthouse Point at Cedar Point, a luxury campground with recreational vehicle (RV) sites, waterfront cottages and cabins that sleep up to 10.
Knott’s Berry Farm: Buena Park, California
Knott’s Berry Farm may have started as a small berry farm in the early 1920s, but it has grown into a family theme park destination since those early days. Today’s visitors will find a large theme park featuring four distinct regions, all with unique rides and attractions. The Old West Ghost Town features western-themed coasters and a saloon, Camp Snoopy provides rides and attractions designed for young kids, Fiesta Village recognizes California’s Hispanic influences in its architecture and rides, and Knott’s Boardwalk takes inspiration from Southern California while offering the park’s most extreme roller coasters and a stage for live entertainment.
Make sure to plan a dinner at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, where you can enjoy a fried chicken platter, a funnel cake with whipped cream and berries, and boysenberry-infused cocktails. Stay at the on-site Knott’s Berry Farm Hotel, which makes visiting Knott’s Berry Farm and the adjoining Knott’s Soak City Waterpark a breeze. Knott’s Berry Farm is open daily, and Knott’s Soak City Waterpark welcomes guests from roughly May through September.
Kennywood: West Mifflin, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania’s Kennywood offers thrilling roller coasters, family attractions and rides that range from mild to intense. Relaxed options for kids, like paddle boats and a merry-go-round, allow even the most tepid travelers to get a burst of adrenaline. Meanwhile, adventure-seekers can ride the Sky Rocket, which launches riders from zero to 50 mph in three seconds, or the Phantom’s Revenge, a steel roller coaster and one of Kennywood’s most popular rides.
Kennywood also hosts numerous events, from firework parties to parades and food festivals, depending on the time of year. The amusement park is typically open daily from May through August and during weekends in September. It is technically located in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, though downtown Pittsburgh is only about 11 miles up the Monongahela River. For a convenient stay nearby, book a room at the Courtyard by Marriott Pittsburgh West Homestead/Waterfront, which is just over 4 miles northwest.
Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari: Santa Claus, Indiana
Located in southern Indiana, Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari aims to offer family fun for thrifty travelers. Guests get free drinks, free sunscreen and free parking at the property, and admission includes both the park itself and the adjoining water park. Famous rides include the Thunderbird, which propels riders from zero to 60 mph in just 3.5 seconds, and the Cheetah Chase Water Coaster, which sends families on a wet and wild ride filled with water-powered launches.
Holiday World Theme Park & Splashin’ Safari typically welcomes guests daily from May through July and on weekends through September. Park guests can stay directly next door at Lake Rudolph Campground & R.V. Resort, which features RV and tent sites, rental cabins and its own water park on-site.
Six Flags Magic Mountain: Valencia, California
California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain is perfect for families with kids of all ages and for adults who want to enjoy some thrills. Family rides include everything you would expect, from bumper cars and a swing ride to a miniature train for all ages. Meanwhile, the park’s thrill rides will spin you every which way or drop you up to 255 feet from the air. The WONDER WOMAN Flight of Courage ride will be the tallest (131 feet) and longest (3,300 feet) single-rail coast on the planet when it opens to park guests in the summer of 2022.
Six Flags Magic Mountain is open every day of the year and sits about 35 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Nearby lodging options are plentiful, whether you want to stay in the Best Western Valencia/Six Flags a mile from the park or at the Embassy Suites Valencia a few miles farther away; both options offer free breakfast and an outdoor pool.
Walt Disney World Resort: Orlando, Florida
Arguably the most famous amusement park in the world, Walt Disney World Resort inspires awe in children and adults alike. Four distinct theme parks make up the larger Walt Disney World Resort. Magic Kingdom is the resort’s most iconic area, with the striking Cinderella Castle and whimsical “it’s a small world” boat ride. EPCOT delights visitors with unique dishes, rides and festivals. Disney’s Hollywood Studios boasts the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge attraction, which puts guests squarely in a galaxy far, far away. Finally, Disney’s Animal Kingdom houses rare animals and numerous rides, plus the unforgettable Tree of Life.
Each area offers its own on-site lodging options, which often include exclusive activities and areas to explore. See our list of the best hotels in Orlando-Walt Disney World to help narrow your choices down. And remember, the park is massive, so be sure to plan ahead and prepare by checking out our Orlando-Walt Disney World travel guide before your visit.
SeaWorld San Diego: San Diego, California
While SeaWorld San Diego is known for housing amazing animals such as beluga whales, dolphins and orcas, there’s more to see here than entertaining animal shows. Rides and roller coasters are dotted throughout the park, including swing rides, spin rides and tantalizing drop rides. Guests can also discover large coasters, like the Emperor, which is the tallest, fastest and longest dive coaster in California.
SeaWorld San Diego is open 365 days a year. The park does not have any hotels on-site, but they do offer vacation packages in partnership with nearby resorts. One option in close proximity is the Bahia Resort Hotel, which boasts a waterfront location in San Diego’s Mission Bay.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay: Tampa Bay, Florida
Busch Gardens Tampa Bay offers theme park action and its own water park, plus a full zoo with more than 200 species of animals, including giraffes, cheetahs, alligators and one of the largest tortoises in the world. The park’s rides include an exhilarating triple-launch roller coaster, a family-friendly spin coaster, a 335-foot freestanding drop tower, simulated whitewater rafting and more. Live shows also take place throughout the park, whether you want to hear stories from Sesame Street characters or watch talented athletes skate on ice to pop music.
Busch Gardens Tampa Bays sits about 11 miles northeast of downtown Tampa, Florida, and is open every day of the year. If you’re seeking a stay nearby, consider booking the Embassy Suites by Hilton Tampa USF, which features free breakfast and shuttle service to the park.
Silver Dollar City: Branson, Missouri
Silver Dollar City boasts both a theme park and a water park, and it sits within 10 miles of the shows and attractions in downtown Branson, Missouri. The 1880s theme park itself features more than 40 rides and attractions, including spinning coasters, drop rides, swing rides and more. Meanwhile, the White Water water park is home to 13 acres of water rides, slides, a 500,000-gallon wave pool and a lazy river.
Silver Dollar City is open daily from late May through early August and on weekends through early September. Consider staying at the Silver City Campground, which offers complimentary shuttle service to and from the park, free internet access, a swimming pool, cabin rentals, and sites for tents and RVs.
Disneyland Park: Anaheim, California
California’s Disneyland Park dubs itself as one of the “happiest places on Earth,” and it shows on the smiles of the children who are lucky enough to visit. This park boasts its own Sleeping Beauty Castle, the famous Pirates of the Caribbean boat ride and multiple themed “lands” meant to create unique experiences that families will never forget. The most recent addition to Disneyland, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, features lightsaber building workshops, Star Wars-themed food, a large collection of rides and more.
Disneyland welcomes guests year-round. Travelers looking to splurge should stay at the award-winning Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa, one of the area’s top hotels. And check out our Anaheim-Disneyland travel guide to learn how to plan the perfect Disney vacation.
Universal Orlando Resort: Orlando, Florida
Three distinct parks are located within Universal Orlando Resort, meaning the complex truly does offer something for everyone. Universal Studios Florida showcases characters from movies and TV series such as Harry Potter, “Transformers,” and “Despicable Me” with family-friendly rides. Universal’s Islands of Adventure also features popular characters but ups the ante with more, larger rides. Finally, Universal’s Volcano Bay Water Theme Park provides slides and pools galore for soaking up the sun. Passes to all three parks are priced and sold separately, though a handful of bundled ticket options are also available.
Guests can also pair their resort visit with a stay at Universal’s Cabana Bay Beach Resort, which has its own bowling alley, two huge pools, a meandering lazy river and several restaurants and lounges to choose from.
Kings Island: Mason, Ohio
Kings Island is a 364-acre theme park with its own water park located about 25 miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Rides for little kids are front and center here, with a carousel, bumper cars, small roller coasters and more at Planet Snoopy. However, thrill-seekers won’t be disappointed since this park also offers more than 10 adventurous rides for older visitors. These rides include The Beast, which opened to the public in 1979 but still holds the record for the longest wooden roller coaster in the world, and Orion, the fastest, tallest and longest steel coaster at the park.
Park visitors who want to stay at the park should check out Kings Island Camp Cedar, which offers luxury rental cottages and camping facilities. Alternatively, stay in one of the best hotels in Cincinnati and visit the resort park after you’ve had time to explore the city.
Knoebels Amusement Resort: Elysburg, Pennsylvania
Pennsylvania’s Knoebels Amusement Resort offers three kinds of rides to maximize family fun — kiddie rides, family rides and thrill rides. While their family-oriented options are just what you’d expect, rides for older and more adventurous guests include the Black Diamond mine car ride through spooky coal mines, the Giant Flume ride, which whisks guests through various areas while getting them wet, and the Impulse coaster with four upside-down turns and a 90-degree free fall.
The park’s hours and offerings vary significantly depending on the season. Several lodging options are offered on-site at the Knoebels Park Campground, including cozy log cabins that can sleep up to 16. The park is located in the Poconos, a mountainous region of Pennsylvania with numerous additional attractions nearby.
Hersheypark: Hershey, Pennsylvania
Hersheypark gives chocolate lovers a cause to rally around. Not only does this theme park boast an array of roller coasters, family rides and water rides, but it is home to Hershey’s Chocolate World with every possible chocolate concoction and dessert imaginable. A ticket to Hersheypark also includes access to ZooAmerica, which lets you get a close look at more than 200 animals, including vampire bats, alligators and snakes galore.
If you want to spend a few days exploring the park, stay at the iconic Hershey Lodge. This nearby resort features roomy guest suites with plenty of space for families, its own indoor pool complex and chocolate-themed treatments in its on-site spa.
Dollywood: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Dollywood is home to 160 acres of theme park and water park fun with more than 40 rides and a family-friendly atmosphere. Top attractions at the Dolly Parton brainchild include the Tennessee Tornado coaster, which takes you on a 128-foot drop through a mountain at speeds nearing 70 mph, and the Lightning Rod, a wood and steel hybrid coaster. Little kids will also stay happy and entertained thanks to small rides like Black Bear Trail and Busy Bees. The resort’s water park features water coasters, a lazy river and plenty of slides.
Dollywood even boasts its own Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa, which has two pools and kids activities on-site.
Universal Studios Hollywood: Universal City, California
Universal Studios Hollywood is a great place to enjoy themed rides and see characters and sets from stories you love. Attractions are based on popular franchises, including Jurassic Park, Harry Potter, King Kong, The Simpsons and Transformers, to name a few. While many of these attractions include rides, Universal Studios Hollywood also offers memorable entertainment running the gamut, from meeting animal actors from films like “Ace Ventura Pet Detective” to playing “Despicable Me” carnival games. Families can also book the World Famous Studio Tour, which takes them behind the scenes of a working movie studio that spans 13 city blocks.
Universal Studios Hollywood is open 365 days a year. Because the park is only 10 miles from downtown Los Angeles, plenty of hotels and resorts are available nearby, including The Garland, Sheraton Universal Hotel and Loews Hollywood Hotel.
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