Favorite Destinations: Amusement Parks

Those people who know me know that I’m a bit of a roller coaster fanatic. I’ve been to more than seventy amusements parks in 25 states, and one Canadian province, in search of the best rides. As a result I’ve also visited some of the oldest operating parks in North America and have ridden four of the oldest roller coasters, too.

Everyone, of course, has an opinion on which is the best park and/or attraction so I thought I’d toss out my favorites. What follows are not trip reports or a list of what to do in each park. I’ll save those for later.

So with that in mind and for what it’s worth here are my top five in a reverse order:

Fifth Place: Dollywood

Last Visit: December 2015
Favorite Ride: Thunderhead

Photo by David P. Wahr

I’ve only been to Dollywood a couple of times but it holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know if it’s the location, the great food at the park (I had my first fried Twinkie there believe it or not), the wonderful shows or just that I like Dolly Parton. This park has a good blend of thrill rides and family shows/attractions that makes it good for all ages. In my last visit, during the Christmas Holidays, my mother was able to go off and enjoy several shows while us “youngsters” went off to ride the coasters. Then we all met up to stroll through the shops and have a delicious meal. It’s location in the Smoky Mountains is a plus and the whole park has a relaxed, country feel to it. If it turns out that somehow the park doesn’t satisfy your needs for entertainment my family and I thoroughly enjoyed Dolly’s Dixie Stampede (Christmas edition). Even the cheesy parts of the show worked!

Fourth Place: Knoebels

My friend Bob’s terror is real! The Haunted House at Knoebels in 2001. Photo by David P. Wahr

Last Visit: July 2001
Favorite Ride: Haunted Mansion

I know that as a coaster afecinado that if a Pennsylvania park was going to make my top five it should be Kennywood or even Dorney Park. But even though it’s been a while since I’ve last been to Knoebels my memory of that visit is still fresh as if I visited just last summer. This is a quaint park tucked into a Pennsylvanian valley very near Elysburg. There are some traditional rides, a wonderful collection of classic style coasters (not a loop or launch coaster in the place), a giant swimming pool, delicious fudge, and a Haunted Mansion dark ride that actually startled me when I went through it – and I’m the guy who can usually spot the “shock” coming before it happens. I enjoyed the chair lift to the top of the mountain, too.

In the age of the mega theme park I think we all could use a few more places like Knoebels in our neighborhoods. Because the admission is free you can spend an afternoon or a day without any worries. You do have to pay for the rides, of course, and at the time I visited there were several ticketing options including an all day pass.

By the way, interestingly enough Pennsylvania has several of these “old fashioned” parks. It took me two vacations to get to them all!

Third Place: Disneyland

Last Visit: July 2019
Favorite Ride: Indiana Jones Adventure

Perhaps the second most famous castle in the world. Photo by David P. Wahr

What more is there to say about Disneyland? It is the epitome of theme parks and the model that most others are based upon today. The only reason it didn’t rank a little higher is that in my opinion the folks in Florida handle customer service just a little better – which is saying a lot as Disney is renowned world-wide for customer service at their parks!

A lot of rankings would look at Disneyland and California Adventure as two separate parks. Though this is technically true, I have chosen to rank the two parks plus Downtown Disney – the out door mall between the parks – as one experience. In fact, on my last visit I was able to do both on the same day. I do not recommend trying to see both parks in one day however. It’s only because I’ve visited so often that I was able to do this. I have my favorites and made full use of the single rider lines!

Second Place: Walt Disney World

Where else can you stand in front of the Millennium Falcon? Oh yeah, there’s one in California too! Photo by Robert J. Yoman.

Last Visit: February 2020
Favorite Ride: Star Wars – Rise of the Resistance and Avatar – Flight of Passage (tie)

Again, I take the entire “world” in as one experience. I’ve been going to Walt Disney World since 1975 (about four years after it opened) on a family vacation to Florida and the place just keeps getting better and better. In fact, the only reason WDW did not make number one on my list is because of the crowds at the Magic Kingdom.

First Place: Cedar Point

Last Visit: October 2019
Favorite Ride: Millennium Force

Best coaster ever! Photo by David P. Wahr
For my money the scariest ride ever – Cedar Point’s Wind Seeker. Three hundred feet up, no floor. Photo by David P. Wahr

This park is the obvious sentimental favorite for me. Located on a peninsula sticking out into Lake Erie in Sandusky, Ohio, Cedar Point started life as “The Queen of America’s Watering Places.” Today, it’s known as “America’s Roller Coast.” I’ve been visiting since my aunt and uncle took me and my sister and brother there as kids. This, by the way, was an aunt who “snuck” me out of the house one evening when siblings were asleep and took me to the local carnival to ride a couple of the rides. I think that my love of roller coasters was inherited. I worked there as a captain on “The Western Cruise” (which is sadly gone today) for two summers during my college years and I’ve gone back nearly every summer since. If you like coasters and other thrill rides this really was for decades the best place to find the tallest, fastest, and most extreme coasters in North America. It still has a fabulous selection of coasters today even though it ceded it’s title for most coasters to Six Flags Magic Mountain some years ago. Pity.

The emphasis today is on a more family inclusive experience. In fact, in recent years they’ve increased the number of family friendly attractions and have significantly upped their dining service game. You can now reasonably spend two days there and not do everything in the parks (there’s a waterpark which is a separate ticket). Like Walt Disney World though I worry that it could become a victim of it’s own success. My last visit was during their Hallow Weekends event on a beautiful October Saturday. I spent three hours stuck in traffic on the Cedar Point Causeway just trying to get into the park as it had reached capacity. In hindsight, I probably should have turned around but the old “we’ve come this far” mentality took over. Fortunately the park was open late and we got our rides in.

I can only go so long without a ride on the Millennium Force after all!

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