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The great thing about the best American theme parks is that they contain the world's most famous rides. Ones that are truly knuckle-whitening and hair-raising, with G-forces that will make your face appear like jelly. In addition, the facilities at some of them are incredible, making them appear to be more like top-flight resorts than permanent fairs. You'll find shows and parades, deluxe hotels and five star restaurants. You the Community, came up with a selection of them.
The Calgary Stampede in Canada prides itself on being 'the greatest outdoor show on Earth'. It combines wild rides, food, live music by bands from all over, chuck wagon races and huge agricultural events. All this takes place within 10 days at the beginning of July (usually the second week). It starts off with a big bang - the Calgary stampede parade, which usually has a famous marshall leading the way (Christopher Reeve, the actor who played Superman was a marshall once). The whole city booms with tourists dressed up in western gear. 'Yahoo' and 'Howdy!' are heard everywhere as the entire city takes a step back into the past.
Like Florida, the lucky residents of Pennsylvania are spoiled for choice with several amusement parks, though few of them receive the attention of their Sunshine State equivalents.
This park, run by the same Hershey company that makes chocolate, has several coasters, including an 'interactive' water coaster, a racing coaster (two trains race through pretty much the same ride), and a suspended steel coaster. There's also a coaster that is pulled back, then let go and jettisoned through a series of loops and turns, then sent back again, only backwards. There's an extremely tame coaster for the easily nauseated and a large assortment of other rides, from bumper cars to the scrambler and water slides, and several areas of 'kiddie' rides. There are numerous shops, selling a variety of chocolate and park-themed objects (but, more often than not, just chocolate). There are games to play (and usually lose your money on) and a water show, and various concerts on special days. The park also has a zoo that you can walk through, and you may go to Chocolate World - a ride-through tour about how Hershey chocolate is made. All the concession stands sell the normal food, and, almost always, Hershey's chocolate milk. Perhaps predictably, you may not bring in your own food, and unfortunately the park is almost always very crowded, and you will therefore have to stand in long queues for the most popular rides (usually roller coasters).
This is another family-oriented park. It was recently taken over by Hersheypark and given a facelift, but it is still a good place to visit. Most of the rides are tame, geared towards children. There are two coasters - nothing fancy, but thrilling when you're not even five feet high. There are diving shows and boat rides, and picnic tables for your enjoyment (so you can bring in your own food), while the food stands sell normal amusement park food. A major attraction is the giant slide; it takes a while to run to the top, and the ride lasts only a minute, but it's a fun thrill, and worth riding over and over again. Though the park is clearly aimed towards the younger generation, it's still a fun place to go.
Knoebels is an older, family-oriented amusement park, and with no entrance fee, you have the option of paying for each ride as you go or paying for a pass that lets you go on the rides as much as you want. There's three roller coasters (two wooden and one steel): The older wooden coaster, the Phoenix, was recently rated one of the top ten coasters in America and many visitors have been known to get off the ride and run around to the end of the line again. And, according to one Researcher, the park also has the best bumper cars:
They're the fastest I've ever been on! Also, there is an old carousel - the kind where if you ride on the outside, you can try to catch the rings on your finger for a free ride - very fun! There's even a haunted house that you ride through. I went on it once, and screamed (with my eyes shut) the entire time. I don't want to go on that thing ever again! Especially since it was raining after I got out and that just added to my terror...
There are several places for food, selling the usual amusement park types of food - hot dogs, pizza, pretzels. It also has a large picnic area with lots of pavilions, so you can bring your own food in if you want. If you want to spend more than a day at the park, or live really far away, the park includes a campgrounds. You can use your own trailer or rent a cabin (small or double sized). The larger cabins can house at least 16 people (eight double beds) and the campgrounds include restrooms and showers (although it's difficult to use the shower; the water turns off after a few minutes to conserve resources).
Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom
This park has something for everybody, from rides built for kids to menacing roller coasters. The food is typical fairground fare (but there's nothing wrong with that). There is also a large water park with kiddie pools and water slides galore. It's a good park to spend the day at, maybe even watch a show or see a concert. The queues are relatively long, but they usually move pretty fast. There is one coaster, 'Hercules', that whips you around a lot; it's a wooden coaster, which might make your neck and back a little sore afterwards.
As far as I remember, all of these parks have clean facilities and polite staff. Any time you visit eastern Pennsylvania, I would definitely recommend attending at least one of these parks!
It's pretty much an accepted truth that if the best theme parks in the World are in the United States, then the best of the best can be found in Florida.
The original House of the Mouse Theme park was founded in Los Angeles by Walt Disney himself (and you can click here to read all about that), and there are now similar Disney-themed parks in France and Japan. But arguably the most popular Disney resort is the one in Orlando, Florida:
I didn't make my first visit to Disney until my 40th birthday, and I am truly glad that's how it happened. A couple of my friends kidnapped me and headed for the Mouse. I literally didn't have a clue where we were going until we hit the gates. This was a five-day visit, staying at the Contemporary Hotel, with passports to all of the parks. Total immersion. All paid for.
Without a doubt, plenty of time to see and do everything makes a difference to the experience. There's no rushing to see it all in a short time, and there's an opportunity to do the fun things twice or three times. And out of all the fabulous rides and things to do, the one thing that really pulled me back time and again, was the 'Dancing Waters' fountain at Epcot. Free, no lines, just an instant show every quarter hour with incredible music, an incredible fountain, and an amazingly different experience every time. Since they thoughtfully provided a pretty good pub right next door, it was nice to while away an hour or two at this location.
Money absolutely evaporates at an incredible rate of speed. Even with everything paid up front, including meals, I was easily spending a hundred dollars a day. Pleasure Island is way too tempting. There are some exceptional restaurants, but after five days, all of the food started to taste exactly the same, as if there were some central grill in the park, and all orders were ported to the various locations by some mysterious food transporter. One exception: The Coral Reef, which was classic French, served under the Living Seas exhibit at Epcot. There was an entire wall of the very seafood we were eating swimming right in front of us.
I'm a roller coaster fanatic, and 'Space Mountain', conducted totally in the dark, really freaked me out completely. Riding up front with the captain of the monorail is pretty groovy, too.
All in all, everything you hope it will be, and then some. You really cannot anticipate what you are going to experience, no matter how jaded and cynical life has left you. It literally took me two weeks to pry the inane smile off my face. I highly recommend it for kids; I especially recommend it for 40-year-old kids.
A popular ride with Researchers here is the terrifying 'Twilight Zone Tower of Terror', at Disney/MGM is certainly worth two repeat visits:
I've been on this and found it very unsettling.
The overall theme is that of an old hotel. The participants are led through the 'hotel' (complete with appropriate 1930s decor) by bellboys and then shown into a large lift fitted with a two-row seating area. The doors close and the platform with the seats on it rises up into the huge tower. The lift doors open on a floor higher up in the 'hotel' to show the ghosts of some of the former residents, then they close again and the platform moves up to another floor and then out through an area that looks like the title sequence of the old Twilight Zone TV show, with the familiar voice-over telling the passengers that they are about to enter a realm of imagination. The platform then reaches a section of doors that open up to give a startling view of the entire theme park from the very top of the tower. It is then that the floor below gives way and the entire floor plummets to the ground, then stops, then soars back up half-way and plummets down again until eventually the lift comes to a stop.
The best bit was when the front opened and you could see the whole park... That's also the worst bit though. or rather, the worst bit is when that stunning view suddenly disappears as the lift-car drops. Aargh!
For the best experience, request the only seatbelt seat on the ride - but only if you're not prone to vomiting!
The most famous Florida theme park without the name 'Disney' in its logo is Universal Studios, in Orlando. As well as the chance to 'meet' Jaws, King Kong and ET, the park offers some seriously good experiences like the Twister - a set that allows you to experience being in the middle of a tornado - Back to the Future (an I-max-style ride with a motion simulation that convinces you you're flying through the air and through time) and 'Terminator 2 3D' which is part stunt-show, part 3D movie and all action.
But the most unusual element to Universal Studios is their theme nights which occur throughout the year. Throughout October, for example, the park plays host to a series of special Halloween nights where the park is given a bit of a gothic restyle and guests are allowed to wander the streets of the park in semi-darkness. The park is flooded with artificial fog while staff-members dress up in costumes and leap out at the guests at unexpected moments - often with chainsaws or other implements guaranteed to help even the most sturdy of visitors involuntarily void their bowels.
This might sound like a lot of fun, but it is genuinely terrifying and not recommended for anyone of an even remotely nervous disposition. Then there are the added 'events' in the park. In 2001, there was a claustrophobic maze themed around the movie The Mummy in which patrons shuffled slowly through the semi-darkness of a tomb while mummies leapt out at them from all directions; 'Pitch Black', in which visitors walked through a similar maze but in total darkness with the odd strobe light going off to reveal a werewolf standing right in front of you; and a magic show in which the magician was clearly much more impressed by his stunts than the polite audience. Best of all though was a live stunt show in which the characters Bill and Ted had a race through time with Indiana Jones, Rick from The Mummy and... er, the women from Sex in the City (actually startlingly convincing lookalike performers). With songs, stunts and some very corny jokes, the audience whooped it up.
The Islands of Adventure
The Islands of Adventure is situated right next to Universal Studios. Conveniently, Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure do special all-day deals where you can go to both parks on the same day on just one ticket.
Islands of Adventure consists of five areas or 'islands' linked around a lagoon.
Jurassic Park - a tropical jungle inspired by the hit dinosaur movie. The pterodon ride is a 'suspended roller coaster' only for kids 36 inches to 56 inches and one adult accompanying them (in other words, if you're a party of adults, you won't get on). Then there's the pterrifying 'Jurassic Park River Adventure' - ostensibly a river tour around Jurassic Park where you get to see the very tame herbivores in their 'natural' habitat, but inevitably it all goes wrong when the raptors escape. Your boat goes up a ramp into the JP complex where raptors leap at you in the dark. As you get to the apex of the track, a T-rex lunges forward through a cloud of smoke just as the track beneath you gives way and your boat soars down the track into the water down below. There's also the discovery centre and the triceratops encounter, which are interactive, educational areas.
Seuss Landing is an area based on the books of Dr Seuss like Cat in the Hat. Although it's aimed at the very young, it's still quite enjoyable.
Lost Continent contains the 'Duelling Dragons' double roller coaster that's possibly one of the best value rides in the world - lots of loops and dips to keep the stomach afloat. There's also a 20-minute themed show deep within the bowels of the island called 'Poseidon's Fury' in which the audience witness a battle between the gods that's very dramatic. Look out for the Sinbad stunt show.
Toon Lagoon is an unexpended gem featuring two rides: 'Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls', which takes you high above the park and then plummets you straight into a log-flume, and the 'Olive, Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges', which one Researcher described as follows:
This is the single best rapid ride I've ever been on - our group went round four times and got utterly drenched!
Finally, Marvel Super Hero Island offers 'The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man' a superb 3D ride; 'Doctor Doom's Fearfall', where you're catapulted straight up 150 feet amid the petrified screams of your fellow 'victims'; and the 'Incredible Hulk Coaster' which jettisons your carriage straight out onto the ride - a heart-stopping zero to 40mph!
The Rest of the United States of America
Cedar Point, Ohio
There's something to be said about having a fair come right into your hometown and make one weekend out of a summer a thrilling experience, but I have to say that my favourite fair/theme park is Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. If you're a fan of roller coasters, this is the place to go.
It's been a while since I've been there, but the last time I was there it was the home of the two tallest and steepest roller coasters at least in the US, if not the world, not to mention a bunch of other ones that are fast and amazingly nauseating. They have at least two rides that take you straight up and let you fall with gravity (one of them is bungee-like so you go back up and drop a few times) to a point where you think you're going to smack the pavement and die, but then you don't and the world seems like a better place.
For pure, unadulterated roller coaster excitement, this is the place. I'd never heard of it until earlier this year when a group of my online friends were organising a trip. I threw sense to the wind and joined them on the peninsula in Lake Erie.
There are 15 coasters, I believe, including Millennium Force, the highest coaster (300-ish) with the steepest drop (80 degrees). There is a stand-up coaster, a sit-underneath-with-your-legs-dangling, a sit-underneath-safely-tucked-in-a-car, and a couple of wooden coasters that are pretty to look at as well as fun to ride. There is also the Wicked Twister - it defies description.
The park is actually a resort - there are hotels, cottages, and campsites. Plan to stay for at least two days as the lines can be long. I rode a total of eight different coasters and had a great time.
Six-Flags Over Texas
The entire Six Flags Chain, which, as we've seen, covers the globe, originally started in one park, located in Arlington Texas. 'Six Flags Over Texas' was more of a storyland when it started. It mostly revolved around the history of Texas, and was a very interesting park. They sold carriage rides in antique carriages, had actors everywhere, and it was an amazing experience, especially the France section, which was home to a pond where you were on a boat with the French explorers, being raided by unhappy natives. However, the park was bought by a large company, and instantly started evolving. Although the Texas Theme remained, many new thrill rides opened up... The France section was turned into a theatre, but later, that disappeared. Now, the park still has a few Texas themes, but is covered in a shell with Looney Toons everywhere.
The rides are very good though. There is the Ozarka Splash, a ride which had its name bought by the Ozarka Water Company. It is a log ride that has existed for years in the park. On it you ride log carts through miniature canals and get a big splash... As well as humping the person in front of you. Though this ride seems small, follow the same rules as you would on a roller coaster and never wear sunglasses or hats.
La Vibora is a wonderful experience. It is a roller coaster with no rails, just tubes and a cart with wheels on every side. A great thrill and the best way to start a trip to Six Flags.
Roaring Rapids is an Amazing ride where you ride in circular boats in a raging canal. This ride shows evidence of the reason so many people wear swimsuits...
If you are a girl, remember not to wear a white shirt. The last one I saw on the ride learned that the hard way. Roaring Rapids has an extremely small chance of malfunctioning and killing you now that new safety features were added after a death in 1997. Also, there are new weight limits, because the woman who died was overweight - these two elements combined led to disaster.
The Runaway Mine Train is a fun ride where you get to ride around in 'mine carts' in a death-defying ride. Remember not to raise your arms in the tunnels, they are extremely tight. There's also a Mini-Mine Train in case you are a tiny tot.
The Runaway Mountain is a proven super G-force ride. It is completely enclosed and has some of the tightest turns of any roller coaster in history, and the room is dark except for a few mysterious red lights. At a few points, it apparently exceeds the G-forces of the Space Shuttle!
The Chute-Out is a giant parachute ride. It's not a thrill, but offers 'the nicest view you could imagine'.
Shockwave is a simple ride, yet a bit scary with its two loops. It's fun to watch people ride it from the tower.
The Batman is the second best ride in the park. Though it looks death-defying, it's fun, has little G-force. You get to stand up, and it's overall a great experience.
The Mr Freeze is a terrifying ride - chilling, even. You ride around on a huge course at 100mph, Then travel straight up. Then you come to a stop and go backwards.
There's also a train which encompasses the park, and features a narrow gauge steam engine. One of its stops is near the Mr Freeze, and the other...
...is at the Texas Giant. The Texas Giant is a giant wooden roller coaster, rated one of the best. It rattles your head like mad.
Be sure to meet the guy at the lookout point and yell at him: 'You're not funny!'
If you're searching for a superthrill, or a heart attack, go to the Titan. It's a huge roller coaster that drops you so high and so steep, the ride actually has to go underground to turn back up. Close your eyes on the drop - but keep them open after that. Don't ride in the back, the anticipation after hearing the screams of those ahead can kill you. The Titan has a twin sister named Goliath, which is in California.
But we have it on good authority that the best ride there is called Dive Bomb Alley. It is huge, and definitely the most thrilling. But why?
Imagine that you are hanging on a rope attached one end to your back, and the other to the top of the Gateway arch in Saint Louis. Now, there is another cord attached to you that is connected to a pulley on top of a giant building behind the Gateway Arch (I know there aren't any, just listen). Anyway, the pulley retracts and pulls you up to the top of the building... Then they cut that rope and you are swinging under the Gateway arch!
That's Divebomb alley for you. The best ride in the park! Scary, but rewarding! You feel like you're flying. When I rode it, the audience below was very surprised that I hadn't screamed the whole time!
The park is at its best on a hot and sunny day before school is out in the area. That way you can avoid the huge crowds and lines. Wear a swimsuit if you are going to ride a wet ride, or if you are going to visit the Waterpark on the other side of the street. The people there are very nice. Visit the Tower, because it is a spectacular sight. though be warned - you can get kicked out for spraying water off the tower.
The best section is the Boomtown Section (once CSA section, but that angered too many people), because it has the best access to the surrounding rides. The nicest section to take a seat in is the Spain section, a quiet and nice place to get some Tex-Mex. The worst section is France, which no longer has any of its old glory, just the Runaway Mountain, A few stands, and some bathrooms.
Personally, I wish they would bring back more of the Texas theme...
Jamestown 'Feesh Fry', Indiana
Not every fair and park came in for positive attention from our Researchers though. One in particular, to be found in Jamestown, Indiana, left this researcher distinctly unimpressed:
Without a doubt, the worst 'fair' you will ever attend is the annual Fish Fry (pronounced 'feesh fry') in Jamestown. Every summer, the Feesh Fry is held in the Jamestown 'park' - a 20 feet by 20 feet patch of dead grass with a broken swingset and a filthy dining shelter. One sweaty fat guy will either over- or undercook your fish (or 'feesh') for you, slap some tartar sauce on mouldy bread, cram the whole thing together and drop it on a paper plate. As he hands it to you, it will inevitably fall upon the ground. This, of course, is far better than actually eating the feesh sandwich anyway. For entertainment there is a small wading pool filled with dirty water and rubber ducks. An angry fat woman smoking a cigarette will yell at you to pick a duck. If the number on the bottom of the duck matches the 'secret number' the angry woman has picked in her head, you win a free drink.
No one ever wins.
Rather than actually going to the Jamestown Feesh Fry, just stay at home and make yourself a microwaveable burrito and watch reruns of The A-Team.