11 regional theme parks that are closer to home but just as fun as the big names

Mar 23, 2022

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When you are planning a fun theme park vacation, major players like Disney and Universal may be the first to come to mind. But while those are certainly the most popular theme park destinations in the U.S., there are dozens of other really enjoyable theme parks scattered all across the country just waiting to be explored.

Even better, these attractions may be closer to home and, let’s face it, can be less pricey and less complicated than the popular theme park destinations in Central Florida and Southern California.

Here are 11 such theme parks that may be worth a visit (or two!) this year.

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In This Post

Holiday World

(Photo courtesy of Holiday World)

Location: Santa Claus, Indiana (one hour west of Louisville, Kentucky).

Cost: $59.99 for a one-day ticket. Children 3 and younger are free. Includes admission to Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari.

Highlights: Holiday World touts itself as the world’s first theme park. The park opened as Santa Claus Land in 1946 and was originally themed only to Christmas. For context, Disneyland opened in 1955, followed by Disney World in 1971.

As the park grew, the holidays that are represented expanded. There are now lands themed to Thanksgiving, the Fourth of July, Halloween and Christmas, as well as the Splashin’ Safari water park.

In addition to holiday-themed attractions, games and food, Holiday World is well known for its world-class coasters.

The Voyage, one of the park’s three wooden coasters, has been named one of the top wooden coasters in the world by Time magazine and Amusement Today. Thunderbird, a steel coaster in the Thanksgiving section of the park, is the nation’s first launched wing coaster.

Tips for visiting: You can save a few dollars and free up some space in your park bag when you visit Holiday World. The park doles out free soft drinks, sunscreen and, as a result of the pandemic, hand sanitizer (labeled as “Hand Santa-tizer”).

Dollywood

(Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

Location: Pigeon Forge, Tennessee (3 1/2 hours east of Nashville).

Cost: $84 for a one-day adult ticket, $74 for children ages 4 to 9 and seniors ages 62 and up. Children 3 and under are free.

Highlights: Dollywood is named for country music legend and all-around gem of a human being Dolly Parton. Her involvement extends well beyond her name at the entrance to the park – you’ll feel the star’s presence in everything from the two-room replica of her childhood home in the Smoky Mountains to the “Harmonies of the Heart” show performed by Dolly’s own friends and family. 

Attractions at Dollywood range from relentless coasters like the Lightning Rod to kid-friendly rides and play areas and even an elbow-grease-required ride called Lumberjack Lifts where you and a partner pull a rope to lift yourself up a 25-foot tower.

On site you’ll also find Dollywood’s Splash Country water park and Dollywood’s DreamMore Resort and Spa. The all-new Dollywood’s HeartSong Lodge & Resort is currently under construction and is expected to open in the fall of 2023.

Tips for visiting: If your dates are flexible, we recommend planning your trip during one of Dollywood’s seasonal festivals when you can experience even more entertainment and dining options. Speaking of food, you cannot visit Dollywood without ordering a freshly baked loaf of cinnamon bread at the Grist Mill. You can thank us later.

Hersheypark

Aerial view of Hersheypark
(Photo courtesy of Hersheypark)

Location: Hershey, Pennsylvania (two hours northwest of Philadelphia).

Cost: $76.95 for a one-day adult ticket. Children 2 and under are free.

Highlights: Hersheypark figured out how to combine two of our favorite things — chocolate and roller coasters — to create the perfect recipe for family fun. Rides have candy-coated names like the Cocoa Cruiser family coaster, the Kissing Tower and Candymonium, the park’s tallest, fastest and longest coaster. You can even meet larger-than-life versions of your favorite Hershey candies.

Related: 7 easy Philadelphia escapes you can get to in 3 hours or less

In 2022, Hersheypark opened a new land called Hershey’s Chocolatetown, inspired by the company’s founder. Here, you’ll find Canymonium, the park’s historic carousel, an immersive VR game, shopping and dining.

Tips for visiting: Hersheypark isn’t the only chocolate-themed attraction in town. Just outside the park’s entrance, you can visit Hershey’s Chocolate World, where you can take a delicious free tour and learn how Hershey’s chocolate is made.

Silver Dollar City

Roller coaster at Silver Dollar City
(Photo courtesy of Silver Dollar City)

Location: Branson, Missouri (four hours southwest of St. Louis).

Cost: $79 for a one-day adult ticket, $69 for children ages 4 to 11 and seniors ages 65 and up. Children 3 and under are free.

Highlights: Silver Dollar City has all the requisite coasters, children’s rides and even a water park. But what makes this Midwest park stand out is that it also plays into its pioneer theming with a pair of walk-through log cabin attractions and craftsmen demonstrating skills such as candle-making, pottery and blacksmithing. And the adjacent campground even has rustic log cabins where you can stay. You can also tour Marvel Cave, the natural underground attraction Silver Dollar City was built around. A tour of the cave is included with your park admission.

Silver Dollar City is billing 2022 as its “biggest entertainment year ever” with a full schedule of music and food festivals on deck. New this year: High-wire artist Nik Wallenda will perform with other aerialists, jugglers and acrobats in “Nik Wallenda’s Zirkus,” a show exclusive to Silver Dollar City, during the park’s National Kids Fest (June 11 to July 24).

Tips for visiting: If you love cuddly creatures, stop by the Homestead Animal Barnyard during your visit. You can visit with goats, rabbits, a miniature horse and other friendly farm animals.

Cedar Point

Cedar Point aerial view
(Photo courtesy of Cedar Point)

Location: Sandusky, Ohio (one hour west of Cleveland).

Cost: $45 for a one-day ticket. Children 2 and younger get in free.

Highlights: Cedar Point is located on the sandy shore of Lake Erie. Dubbed the “Roller Coaster Capital of the World,” Cedar Point has 17 high-speed roller coasters, though we’re not sure it’s a good idea to ride them all in one day unless you have a stomach of steel.

Among the highlights are the 300-foot-tall, 93 mph Millennium Force steel coaster and the Steel Vengeance hybrid (wood and steel) coaster that broke 10 world records when it opened in 2017.

Of course, there are plenty of family-friendly attractions that’ll keep you closer to the ground and a “Peanuts” area with themed rides where kids can meet Charlie Brown, Snoopy and the gang.

Tips for visiting: Thanks to its lakefront location, you can spend part of your day on the beach or out on the water. Kayak, paddleboard and Jet Ski rentals are available, as well as boat charters. If you’d rather stay on dry land, you can take a guided pedicab tour of the boardwalk.

Knott’s Berry Farm

(Photo courtesy of Knott’s Berry Farm)

Location: Buena Park, California (30 minutes south of downtown Los Angeles).

Cost: One-day tickets start at $69 for adults. Children 2 and younger are free.

Highlights: Knott’s Berry Farm isn’t just a clever name. The park began as a berry farm (the first to grow and sell boysenberries, in fact) in 1920 and over the years added a berry marketplace, gift shop, chicken dinner, ghost town and other attractions until it became the theme park it is today.

Now, Knott’s Berry Farm has everything you’d expect in a theme park, including colossal coasters like Xcelerator The Ride, which tops out at more than 80 mph, a wet-and-wild water park and lots of kid-friendly fun in the Camp Snoopy area. In pre-pandemic times, Snoopy even provided a tuck-in service for kids staying at the park’s on-site hotel.

You can still experience pieces of the park’s history like the famous fried chicken at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, panning for gold (one of the early attractions in the park’s ghost town days) and, of course, eating anything and everything boysenberry. 

Tips for visiting: For maximum boysenberry menu options, visit during the annual Boysenberry Festival. Think: elote with boysenberry butter, sushi with boysenberry aioli and boysenberry beer.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

(Photo courtesy of Six Flags Magic Mountain)

Location: Valencia, California (40 minutes north of downtown Los Angeles).

Cost: One-day tickets start at $65 for adults. Children 2 and under are free.

Highlights: If you’re looking to level up your coaster experience, skip nearby Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood and head instead for a day at Six Flags Magic Mountain. The park has more than a dozen coasters, including the soon-to-open Wonder Woman Flight of Courage, the world’s tallest and longest single-rail roller coaster.

Related: Beyond Disney: 17 new theme parks and attractions we’re looking forward to this year

Wonder Woman isn’t the only DC superhero saving the day at Six Flags Magic Mountain. There are also coasters themed to Batman, the Riddler, Superman and Lex Luthor, and a 4D ride where you join the Justice League as they battle supervillains. Young kids will enjoy the more mild thrills over in Bugs Bunny World.

Tips for visiting: There is no on-site hotel, but you can see the park from the nearby Hilton Garden Inn Valencia Six Flags, which offers a complimentary shuttle to the park.

Belmont Park

The Giant Dipper Roller Coaster (1)
(Photo courtesy of Belmont Park)

Location: San Diego.

Cost: One-day unlimited “Ride & Play” tickets are $56 for guests 48 inches and over and $46 for guests under 48 inches.

Highlights: Belmont Park was founded in 1925 on the bustling Mission Beach Boardwalk. In the park’s early days, the star attractions were the Giant Dipper roller coaster and a 400,000-gallon saltwater swimming pool.

Guests who visit the park today can still experience both of these attractions, along with other boardwalk staples like bumper cars, the tilt-a-whirl and a carousel. You’ll also find quintessential boardwalk treats like corn dogs, ice cream, pizza and burgers.

Tips for visiting: There’s no fee to enter the park and explore the area. You only need to pay if you want to hop on the rides and attractions.

Kings Dominion

Roller coaster
(Photo courtesy of Kings Dominion)

Location: Doswell, Virginia (30 minutes north of Richmond).

Cost: One-day tickets start at $39.99 for adults. Children 2 and under are free.

Highlights: Tickets to Kings Dominion include admission to the theme park and Soak City water park. Although the park is located in the U.S., don’t get too confused when you see the Eiffel Tower looking down at you.

A one-third replica of the real Eiffel Tower is one of the park’s original attractions. You can take an elevator ride to the top for panoramic views of the park —  and beyond.

For 2022, Kings Dominion opened an entirely new area of the park called Jungle X-pedition. The signature attraction in the land is Tumbili (the Swahili word for monkey), a 4D spinning coaster that will send you flying and tumbling along the track like a … monkey.

Tips for visiting: Download the Kings Dominion mobile app before you visit. You can view wait times, access an interactive map and save your car’s location in the parking lot so you can find it at the end of the day without obsessively pressing the panic button on your key fob.

Luna Park

(Photo courtesy of Luna Park)

Location: Brooklyn, New York City.

Cost: A four-hour unlimited ride wristband is $62 for guests 48 inches and over and $38 for guests under 48 inches.

Highlights: Luna Park is located on the historic Coney Island Boardwalk. It was built on the site of another amusement park called Astroland, which operated from 1962 to 2008. Most of the attractions are new to Luna Park, but two rides – the Astro Tower drop ride and the Coney Island Cyclone coaster – were inherited by the park. The latter of the two has been in operation since 1927 and is a New York City designated landmark and holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

You can also play all your favorite boardwalk games like whack-a-mole and ring toss, visit the arcade, shop for souvenirs or get a temporary (and painless) tattoo at Luna Park Ink.

Tips for visiting: If you only want to get on one or two rides during your visit, Luna Park offers pay-per-ride tickets that can be purchased during your visit.

Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park

(Photo courtesy of Glenwood Adventure Park)

Location: Glenwood Springs, Colorado (two hours and 40 minutes west of Denver).

Cost: One-day tickets in the summer and fall (when all attractions are open) are $67 for adults and $62 for kids ages 3 to 12. Kids 2 and under are free.

Highlights: Glenwood Caverns Adventure Park bills itself as America’s only mountain-top theme park and you have to take a gondola ride just to reach the entrance. Whether you opt for the park’s thrill rides or tamer family rides, the panoramic mountain views make each attraction even more exciting.

Related: 6 epic train trips to take this summer

Most rides only operate in the summer, but if you visit in the spring, you can still ride the Alpine Coaster, Soaring Eagle Zip Ride and Giant Canyon Swing and take a tour of the historic caves on which the park is built. In the summer, all rides are open, including the new-for-2022 Defiance roller coaster.

Tips for visiting: Back at the bottom of the mountain, visit Iron Mountain Hot Springs. It has numerous soaking pools overlooking the Colorado River, as well as a large family pool heated to a rejuvenating 95 degrees.

Bottom line

Regional parks have their own storied histories and unique attractions that we love just as much as meeting Mickey Mouse or visiting the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Whether you live close enough to plan a day trip to one of these parks, or are looking to add items to your vacation itinerary, you are probably much closer to a fun-filled theme park than you think.

Featured photo of Dollywood by Steven Bridges/www.stevenbridges.com.

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