5. Silver Dollar City (Branson, Missouri) and Dollywood (Pigeon Forge, Tennessee)
While these sister parks are distinctive I think they are interchangeable in what they represent in the American theme park landscape. They both celebrate Americana with more flair than any other parks in the country. Disney may have Frontierland and Main Street but Dollywood and Silver Dollar City take these concepts and embrace them throughout the entire park. Both parks combine this American nostalgia with elite roller coasters and spectacular food. The cinnamon bread and giant iron skillet meals are reason enough for the foreign visitor to experience these perfect slices of Americana.
4. Kings Island (Mason, OH)
After the success of Disneyland in 1955 numerous people and companies started looking at how they could replicate this success. One of the first successful parks in this vein was Six Flags over Texas which opened in 1961. With Six Flags’ success came a boom in regional park development that would last throughout most of the 1970s. There are many parks which came from the “regional park boom” but none is more representative than Kings Island which opened in 1972. Kings Island is often dismissed as overrated, after all it doesn’t have an “elite” coaster, the greatest theming, or the best location. What it does have is one of the most solid coaster line-ups in the world, charming theming from its original design, a wooded setting centrally located between multiple metropolitan areas, and some of the best park operations in the business. I also think the legendary Beast needs to be experienced by any enthusiast. This 40 year old wooden coaster continues to be the centerpiece of the park, cementing Kings Island as the definitive theme park of the “regional park boom.”
3. Universal Studios Islands of Adventure (Orlando, Florida)
In 1999 Universal Studios Orlando sought to beat Disney at their own game by building an immersive fantasy theme park. The result is arguably one of the best theme parks in the world. Universal explicitly designed Islands of Adventure to appeal to a broader audience and included massive thrill rides. This wasn’t the first time large scale roller coasters were integrated into a themed park but Universal brought the level of theming to a whole new level. Disney preemptively responded by opening Disney World’s first true thrill coaster Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and has continued to respond by increasing the level of thrills in their parks. Universal has continued pushing the boundaries of the theme park coaster with the seven launch Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and upcoming VelociCoaster. Islands of Adventure changed the landscape of theme parks and earned its palace as an essential American theme park.
2. Cedar Point (Sandusky, OH)
America’s Roller Coast still reigns as the ultimate amusement park. With an over 150 year history it is amazing how a small regional picnic park has become the most famous roller coaster park in the world. Driven by the coaster wars they started with the construction of Magnum XL-200 Cedar Point’s coaster lineup might be one of the most over-hyped around. 30 years after the construction of Magnum, Cedar Point is still the only park in the world with a hyper, giga, and strata coaster. These three icons stand with four large scale B&Ms, the original Intamin Blitz coaster, and an RMC monster that many consider the best roller coaster in the world. These landmark rides alone make a visit to Cedar Point a must for any foreign enthusiast. Cedar Point also boasts a solid collection of flat rides and a very scenic location on Lake Erie. Seeing the skyline of twisted steel rise up as you drive towards the park is still one of the most stunning reveals of any park in the world. Cedar Point continues to stand as a testament to the beauty of raw roller coaster engineering. I can’t think of another park that celebrates massive roller coasters as purely as Cedar Point and it certainly is unlike anything outside of the U.S.. Overrated? Maybe? Essential for coaster enthusiasts? Definitely.
1. Disneyland (Anaheim, California)
This is the one that started it all, not just in the U.S. but the whole world. I may be a biased West-Coast kid but I think Disneyland remains the essential American Disney Park and fills the role well enough to exclude Walt Disney World from this list. You can argue that Magic Kingdom or Epcot is grander but Disneyland remains the most concentrated example of Disney theme park magic. Disney packs over 50 rides and attractions into around 85 acres and the majority of these attractions are among the highest quality Disney has produced. There’s the groundbreaking Indiana Jones Adventure which cannot be found at Walt Disney World, a next-generation dark-ride masterpiece with Rise of the Resistance, unique classics like Mr. Toad and Submarine Voyage, and the largest mountain range of any Disney-style park. Though milder than other rides seen on this list, Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds are iconic coasters all enthusiasts should experience. The smaller footprint does a lot to make Disneyland more charming and more walkable. Better Disney parks may have been built since but none are as essential to the theme park industry as the original Disneyland.
I hope you find this list helpful in thinking about what parks you should visit next. If you’re an American reader what park would you recommend an international friend to visit? If you live outside of the United States what American park do you most want to visit?