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6 All-American Theme Parks For a Fun Summer Vacation

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The summer vacation season is heating up, which means it’s prime time for taking the family to one of these classic American theme parks. Having worked in theme park operations for more than two decades, TPG Contributor Joel Ward — who recently shared his picks for must-see theme parks around the world — shares some of the best summertime destinations in the US for thrill-seekers and their families.

Cedar Point Panorama
Panoramic view of Cedar Point. Photo by Andrew Borgen on Flickr.

1. Cedar Point – Sandusky, Ohio

Cedar Point is the most visited seasonal park in the US, and with good reason. With 16 roller coasters, this is a thrill ride junkie’s dream. The number of variations inside the park is enough to test the limits of marketing creativity — giga coasters, strata coasters, inverted impulse coasters and many more.

What’s not commonly known is that Cedar Point is also the second oldest amusement park in the United States, starting way back in 1870 when it featured little more than a beer garden, dance floor and boat ride. The first roller coaster was added in 1892, with a top speed of 10 miles per hour.

New rides open every year, but the park’s signature attractions — Millennium Force and Top Thrill Dragster — are still at the top of any devoted rider’s list.

How to get there: Fly into Cleveland Hopkins International Airport (CLE). The park is about 70 miles away in Sandusky, right on Lake Erie.

Where to stay: Sandusky’s Fairfield Inn is a solid, reasonably priced choice for a family vacation, with rooms starting at $149 or 30,000 Marriott Rewards points.

Disneyland Castle
Sleeping Beauty’s Castle along with the “Partners” statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Photo by Anna Fox on Flickr.

2. Disneyland – Anaheim, California

Disney World in Orlando may be a whole lot bigger, but everyone should make a pilgrimage to Anaheim, where it all began. The original Disneyland didn’t just launch a theme park juggernaut, it re-invented and set the standard for the entire genre of family entertainment.

Mickey and friends have become the pillars of the park’s identity, however its original theme was more focused on Walt Disney’s romanticized vision of America than it was on fairy tales. As Disney said in his speech on opening day, “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America, with the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”

This year is the 60th anniversary of the park, so it’s a great time to see the attractions that made the place an international icon. If you wait too long, you never know when some of those classics might close to make way for new attractions based on Marvel and Star Wars.

How to get there: Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the primary airport in the area, but if you have the option, fly into Orange County’s John Wayne Airport (SNA). It’s a quieter and closer choice, located only 15 miles away. Shuttles to nearby hotels are plentiful, including the Disneyland Resort Express.

Where to stay: Dozens of hotels surround Disney property, along with a few of the Disney-owned and -operated offerings. One good choice is the Hotel Indigo Anaheim, located only steps away from the Disneyland Resort and available for $156 per night or 30,000 IHG Rewards Club points.

For more about the “Happiest Place On Earth,” check out Kathy McDonald’s Destination of the Week: Disneyland.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups brought to life at Hersheypark. Photo courtesy of Hersheypark via Facebook.

3. Hersheypark, Hershey, Pennsylvania

If you want a break from all the history of Philadelphia and Washington, take a day to visit the closest thing Americans have to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

Hersheypark was founded in 1906 as the chocolatier’s way to keep factory employees entertained on the weekend. Today, more than a dozen roller coasters of all kinds keep families entertained, while there’s plenty of live entertainment to provide a break from all the adrenaline. Anthropomorphized chocolate bars make for some unusual costumed characters, but the park has a wonderfully playful attitude and a reputation for excellent service.

Neighboring Hershey’s Chocolate World is also worth a visit if you want to dive more deeply into the chocolate business. The attraction features a ride showcasing the chocolate-making process, a taste test experience and the chance to “create your own candy bar.”

How to get there: Most people from outside the region will want to fly into Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) or Baltimore/Washington International Airport (BWI), then rent a car for the 90 minute drive to central Pennsylvania.

Where to stay: Country Inn and Suites by Carlson is located right in Hershey, with rooms available for $110 per night or 30,000 Club Carlson Rewards points.

If you’re in the Baltimore/DC area, find more ways to fill your vacation with TPG Travel Editor Melanie Wynne’s Destination of the Week: Washington DC.

The brain-melting Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure. Photo by Coasterman1234 at Wikimedia Commons.

4. Six Flags Great Adventure and Safari Park — Jackson, New Jersey

Six Flags operates 18 parks in North America, but for a true thrill ride aficionado, the Jackson location is the one to visit. While it doesn’t have quite as many coasters as some of its sister parks, this park excels with its adjectives: biggest, tallest, fastest.

Bring comfortable shoes, because after merging its two parks into one in 2012, it became the world’s largest theme park — at a staggering 510 acres.

It’s the rides that are the real highlight here. Ruling over them all is the mind-blowing Kingda Ka — a launch coaster that soars up to a dizzying 456 feet after propelling riders to 128 miles per hour in 3.5 seconds. Just watching it on YouTube is enough to turn stomachs.

How to get there: This is another park that’s not far from Philadelphia, so you can fly into Philadelphia Airport (PHL), which is a quick 30 miles away. If you have time to spare while waiting for your flight, check out Adam Erace’s Layover Guide to Philadelphia. To couple the visit with the Atlantic City boardwalk, fly into Atlantic City airport (ACY) and drive the 36 miles to Jackson.

Where to stay: Stay in Philadelphia and make a day trip out of it. The outstanding Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia is one option, starting at $257 a night or 70,000 Club Carlson Rewards points. A more family-oriented choice would be the Candelight Suites Philadelphia – Mount Laurel, which starts at $66 a night or 15,000 IHG Rewards points.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg
The classic beauty of the European gardens at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. Photo courtesy of Busch Gardens Williamsburg.

5. Busch Gardens Williamsburg — Williamsburg, Virginia

In a city known as a hub of American heritage, you’ll find a gorgeous haven of European style at Busch Gardens Williamsburg. The park is regularly ranked by theme park fans as one of the most beautiful in the world, bringing aspects of Ireland, Italy, Germany and more to life in its 10 themed hamlets.

While the park is renowned for its stellar architecture and landscaping, it’s not lacking in rides. Seven roller coasters and a variety of family attractions provide plenty of entertainment to fill a summer day.

Combine the trip to the park with a visit to Colonial Williamsburg for a taste of the American Revolution, rolling US history and European character into one great vacation.

How to get there: The best option for flying in will take you to Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport (PHF). From there, it’s only a 15-mile drive to the park.

Where to stay: The Courtyard Williamsburg Busch Gardens is only a mile from the park and a great option for families. Rooms start at $109 a night or 25,000 Marriott Rewards points.

FireChaser Express
FireChaser Express entertains families at Dollywood. Photo courtesy of Dollywood.

6. Dollywood — Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

What kind of attractions will you find at Dollywood? Both kinds – country AND western. The concept of a park named after and inspired by country singer Dolly Parton is a little bit of kitsch, but the pioneer style and down home charm makes it a welcome relief from the intensity of city life.

The park supplements its rides with attractions and shows that celebrate the history and culture of Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains. As you might expect, regular concerts, festivals and local musical acts are a highlight for most visitors and have helped turn Dollywood into Tennessee’s number one tourist attraction.

How to get there: Fly into McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville (TYS). The park and resort are about 35 miles away, taking you deep into the beauty of the Smoky Mountains along the way.

Where to stay: The Country Inn and Suites Gatlinburg starts at $129 per night or 44,000 Club Carlson points.

To maximize your benefits when you visit these parks (and others), see these posts:

How Credit Card Issuers Classify Travel and Dining Purchases
Maximizing Purchases and Redeeming Awards at Disney Resorts

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