The United States remains one of the most important countries for roller coaster and theme park enthusiasts around the world. A country the size of the United Sates can be overwhelming for visitors trying to decide which parks to go to. This list seeks to focus in on 10 American parks I think are essential for international visitors to experience. Note that this isn’t intended as a ranking of the best parks in the U.S., rather it is a list of parks that encapsulate the landscape of the American amusement industry.
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10. Six Flags Magic Mountain (Valencia, California)
I had a hard timing leaving Great Adventure off this list but I think Magic Mountain still reigns as the definitive Six Flags park. The prioritization of quantity of rides over theming, park experience, and the quality of those rides is 100% Six Flags. That being said, Magic Mountain’s collection of coasters is staggering. If there is a type of roller coaster you haven’t had the chance to experience there’s a good chance Magic Mountain has it. For the international coaster enthusiast, the ability to experience the only 4D coaster outside of Asia and the only remaining Arrow mega-looper make this an important destination.
9. Kennywood (West Mifflin, Pennsylvania)
Trolley parks were once the cornerstone of the American amusement park landscape. Few continue to exist with more flair than Kennywood. While not the oldest of the operating trolley parks it is hard to find one with a better collection of coasters. Its three big woodies, Jackrabbit, Racer, and Thunderbolt are all fun rides that are representative of the periods in which they were built. Phantom’s Revenge is an elite creation of the coaster wars sparked by Magnum XL-200. Skyrocket continues to be an excellent example of what Premier Rides can do with a limited footprint. Steel Curtain marks the return of the large scale American built looping coaster. In other words, a day riding Kennywood’s coasters acts as a representative history of the American rollercoaster. Put all of this in a unique location that is unmistakably local and you have a park which captures the core of the American amusement park.
8. Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (Santa Cruz, California)
I can already see eyes rolling at me for including this but hear me out! The American boardwalk amusement park is so iconic and I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better example than the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. Like the trolley park, the seaside or lakeside amusement park was one of the cornerstones of the American amusement park industry. While other examples exist including more modern amusement piers none have the charm or energy of Santa Cruz. Much of this is due to the use of the iconic Giant Dipper as a backdrop for the entire park along with the preservation of some of the park’s original structures and buildings including the Coconut Grove and Casino Fun Center. While not a pristine step back in time, the blend of old and new seen at the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk captures the spirit and charm of the seaside amusement park better than any other in America. A chance to have the iconic “Laughing Sal” haunt your nightmares is just icing on the cake.
7. Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (Tampa, Florida)
While both Busch parks are rooted in the post-Disneyland park boom Tampa distinguishes itself by blending theme park sensibilities with one of the largest Zoos in the US. No other American Zoo/theme park combo does this better. Busch Gardens is also home to some of the best rides in the country. Kumba, Montu, and SheiKra are a trio of elite B&Ms which continue to be among the best in the world. Falcon’s Fury is easily one of the best flat rides around. The opening of Iron Gwazi is sure to make this park even more of an enthusiast destination but as it is Busch Gardens Tampa deserves its place among the essential American theme parks.
6. Universal Studios Hollywood (Universal City, California)
The original Universal park continues to be the ultimate studio park. While tours of the studio lot date back to its opening in 1915 the Universal Studios we know today began in 1964 with the first organized tram tours. The evolution of this tram tour to full blown theme park paved the way for a different kind of themed experience distinct from the formula Disney had introduced with Disneyland. Throughout the years Universal Studios has added more and more unique thrill rides and immersive themed experiences, however the highlight continues to be the studio tour. It continues to be replicated by many, including Disney, but few have been able to capture the sense of movie magic that the original Universal Studios has.