When it comes to family vacations, a certain mouse has a bit of a monopoly on the market. And while we 100 percent support Disney getaways of every kind, there may come a time when you want to explore other parks. Whether you’re scouting out cheaper or closer options, or just have a sense of “been there, done that” when it comes to the house that Walt built, we’ve got you covered. Here are our seven picks for Disney alternatives that still give you all those theme-park thrills and big-ticket fun.
1. Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California
Knott’s Berry Farm is often considered an alternative to Disneyland, which sits just over 10 minutes away by car. But the attractions here can hold their own against other parks, particularly Camp Snoopy. Here, gentle, Peanuts-themed rides — including suspended swings and miniature locomotives — give the youngest visitors age-appropriate fun. Older kids and adults looking for thrills can ride corkscrew coasters like the GhostRider or loop-de-loop around the Silver Bullet. As the name suggests, Knott’s began as a farm stand for berry preserves and pies, expanded to a fried chicken restaurant, and eventually added a faux ghost town and “country fair” rides like log flumes. Today, the newest additions include a water park dubbed Soak City.
Basic Ticket: $52 (online)
2. Hersheypark in Derry Township, Pennsylvania
One of the oldest theme parks in the U.S. (dating back to 1906), this spot dubbed “The Sweetest Place on Earth” began as a playful diversion solely for employees of the Hershey company. (Talk about a company perk!) Rides back then were classics: a carousel, a wee railroad, and bumper cars. Today, modern versions of those are in place, and they’re joined by plunging coasters like the Wildcat and the sooperdooperLooper. But there’s still a bit of classic Americana in the place, with attractions like miniature model-T cars that families can drive around a track. Naturally, there’s also plenty of stops where candy is at the ready, from blocks of fudge to bulk bins of Hershey treats.
Basic Ticket: $52.95 (online)
3. Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia
Welcome to Western Europe! Or at least as close as you can get while in Williamsburg, Virginia. This theme park is divided into various European regions, with corresponding rides like the Loch Ness Monster and Escape from Pompeii. Shows throughout the park also lean toward the theme, with the Riverdance-style troupe Celtic Fyre and the lederhosen-laced OktoberZest. But all this Old World entertainment doesn’t mean the park isn’t up-to-date with modern diversions, including the new virtual reality ride Battle for Eire. Its neighboring water park, Water Country USA, abandons the Euro-centric motif for wave pools, flumes, and six-lane waterslides. While the park is no longer owned by Anheuser-Busch, you can still find a stable of Clydesdale horses on the grounds.
Basic Ticket: $70 (online)
4. Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Dollywood stands as Tennessee’s top ticketed attraction, and with good reason: It’s a splashy, ultra-fun theme park that still manages to convey a sense of place. For the Pigeon Forge area, that means the Great Smoky Mountains. Themed rides like the massive seesawing Barnstormer and the Thunderhead roller coaster are set around other atmospheric extras like a faux schoolhouse from the 1800s or a replica of Dolly Parton’s mountain home complete with faded aprons and gas lamps. And as Dolly Parton is part owner, the park is also scheduled year-round with musical performances from up-and-coming country singers to drum lines. Things kick into high gear around Christmas when shows like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Christmas in the Smokies” take center stage. A sister water park and the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame add to the park’s overall appeal.
Basic Ticket: $69.95
5. Universal’s Islands of Adventure in Orlando, Florida
Our parent company, TripAdvisor, named Universal’s Islands of Adventure the top amusement park in the world. (Sorry, Disney fans.) And various five-star reviews calling it the best park or “the gold standard for teens and tweens” only confirm its standing. Two star attractions headline here: the thundering dinosaurs of Jurassic Park and the wizard wonders of Harry Potter. Expect water rides with T. rex and mini coasters shaped like a flying Hippogriff. But plenty of other characters are also on the loose, from the Cat in the Hat to Spider-Man. Two-park tickets can also be purchased, allowing travelers to hop over to Universal Studios Florida.
Basic Ticket: $115
6. LEGOLAND in Carlsbad, California
Hollywood’s bumper crop of Lego movies — with two more set to hit theaters in 2019 — are just further proof that our love runs deep for these interlocking bricks. And the LEGOLAND parks allow superfans to indulge in a toy dreamscape. Visitors can come solely to appreciate the master-builder creations of U.S. cities rendered in Legos. It’s possible to look at the Golden Gate Bridge or Las Vegas Strip and almost forget they were assembled with snap-together toys. The Life Zone and the Duplo Playtown give environments for hands-on assembly. But LEGOLAND can also be enjoyed as a classic theme park with rides like mini helicopters, jousting horses, and fire trucks complete with spray hoses — all resembling life-sized Legos. Those on the East Coast can hit the Florida outpost, or mark their calendars for the New York one, opening in 2020.
Basic Ticket: $95
7. Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio, Texas
They say everything is bigger in Texas, and this theme park would only strengthen that claim, as it stretches across 200 acres and holds 39 rides. The newest thrill rides have DC Comic themes, like the Wonder Woman Golden Lasso Coaster or the Superman Krypton Coaster. But old-school wooden coasters like the Iron Rattler are still on hand to give visitors a jolt along with classics like bumper cars, freefalls, and powerful tilt-a-whirls. Those looking for tamer kiddie rides can hop into tipping pirate ships or spiraling teacups. And while we’re focused on the Texas location, Six Flags has outposts across the country in California, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York, so there are plenty of opportunities to get your theme park on.
Basic Ticket: $47.99 (online)
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