‘Fraid O’Heights Friday: America’s 5 Most Underappreciated Amusement Parks

Herzog Jeff (26)
So … any guesses why they call Cedar Point the “Roller-Coaster Capital of the World”? Anyone? (Jeff Herzog photo, via Lake Erie Shores and Islands.)

By Natalie Rivera

A mix of long lines, scorching heat, and bubble gum, rubbed on the bottom of a flip-flop and mixed with a slightly used rainbow snow cone – that’s the world of amusement-park “enjoyment.”

The quotation marks may seem to be cruel and unusual punctuation, but sorry, Disneyland and Six Flags; your family fun comes at a heavy price of sunburn, impatience, irritability, and chocolate-ice-cream stains.

Whether or not you agree with that assessment, sooner or later you’re going to find yourself contemplating an amusement-park vacation, and you’re going to have to decide whether to follow the herd to Orlando or L.A., or say no to the peer pressure and go off the beaten roller-coaster track.

If you find yourself more attracted to attractions that don’t start with the word “Disney” or overflow with celebrity impersonators, here are five amusement parks that will put a smile on even the most profoundly unamused.

Cedar Point Amusement Park, Sandusky, Ohio: Cedar Point isn’t called the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World” for nothing. Though the Six Flags parks are known for their terrifying – er, wondrous – selection of roller coasters, Cedar Point tops them all in loops and scares. Its “Millennium Force” roller coaster, one of 16 (!) at Cedar Point, still holds the Golden Ticket Award for “#1 Steel Coaster in the World.” Cedar Point’s coasters attract hundreds of thousands of customers every year, but are far from its only attraction. The park has more than 150 other rides, shows, and attractions. And did we mention that it’s located super-close to the Soak City waterpark and the Cedar Point Beach? (Not to mention Put-In Bay and the Lakeside region of the Lake Erie shores.) Cedar Point is one of those rare non-Disney locations that has something for everyone.

Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Va.: Along with Williamsburg, actually. Busch Gardens is turning 40 this year and celebrating its status as one of America’s most beloved amusement parks, effortlessly merging family fun and history without favoring either. Walk through the tiny villages of Busch Gardens, all modeled after classical Europe, and you’ll feel like you’re walking down the streets of France and Germany. Located near the banks of the James River in Williamsburg, Busch Gardens isn’t just a park of rides, but also has attractions involving animals and nature. The park takes conservation very seriously and gives guests unique experiences, like learning about and interacting with bald eagles. This version of Busch Gardens has the added plus of being adjacent to Colonial Williamsburg and its 18th-century amusements, which include a Tower of Terror powered by sturdy Quaker women turning a large crank. (Just kidding.)

Epcot World Park, Orlando: Okay, we admit to playing semantic games. Epcot is a Disney World, not the Disney World. It’s also pretty darn cool. Another amusement park with education mixed in, Epcot is perhaps the most interactive amusement park in the U.S, blending the past, present, and future without seeming too dated or fantasy-like. Epcot, the second of the four Disney theme parks to be built at Walt Disney World, opened in 1982 and incorporates many of Walt Disney’s original ideas for his empire. It’s home to different “worlds,” like Future World and the World Showcase, a collection of pavilions from Africa, China, England, France, Italy, Mexico, Japan, and Germany. Though Epcot might not be the most “Mickey Mouse” of Disney parks, it’s actually the most visited, and the sixth-most-visited theme park in the world. Maybe mouse ears aren’t everything.

Hersheypark, Hershey, Pa.: Chocolate and roller coasters? What? Did the Nile just collide with the Amazon? Yes it did, and if you think Disney is historic, take a peek at Hersheypark’s timeline. It opened in 1901 – that’s right, 1901 – and was known as Hershey Park until 1970, when it dropped the space and the second capital. So if there’s any amusement park that knows about customer satisfaction and great attractions, it’s Hersheypark. The park has 70 rides and attractions, the ZOOAMERICA zoo, a boardwalk, and the Hersheypark waterpark. If that’s still not enough for you, you can visit the Hershey chocolate factory right next door and scarf up some cocoa-based deliciousness. We advise you not to eat too much chocolate before boarding Hersheypark’s famous rides, especially the “SooperDooperLooper,” which has a name that says it all. We’re just looking after you.

Universal’s Islands of Adventure, Orlando: Universal Studios is mostly known for two things: its famous “Hollywood” tours and live entertainment shows. The glitz and glamour of Hollywood are nice, but Marilyn Monroe impersonators and giant SpongeBob heads are best taken in small doses. That’s where Universal’s Islands of Adventure comes in. Its motto is “Live in Adventure” — perfect for this park and its seven islands full of rides, activities, and … well, adventure. Marvel Superhero Island is where the comic lovers scurry to, while Jurassic Park Island, though not the exact home of Chris Pratt, is still terra firma to some amazing dinosaurs. And of course there’s Universal Island’s seventh and newest island, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We’re worried that your head might not be able to handle a Harry Potter v. Jurassic Park brawl just yet.

Natalie Rivera is a freelance writer who encourages you to follow her @byNatalieRivera.

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