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I’ve Been to Every Theme Park in America—And These 13 Are My Favorites

You can definitely trust the opinion of a man who’s been to 333 amusement parks around the globe and ridden 903 different roller coasters.

Every editorial product is independently selected, though we may be compensated or receive an affiliate commission if you buy something through our links. Ratings and prices are accurate and items are in stock as of time of publication.

Paul Ruben riding a roller coaster at Seaworld Orlando Courtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

The origins of my obsession

I visited my first amusement park when I was five years old, and I fell in love. After that, I always preferred going to an amusement park over heading to the beach to play in the sand or in the water. I still do. As an adult in the 1970s, I was horrified to see some of my favorite childhood amusement parks being bulldozed to make room for new construction, and I decided to visit the parks and take pictures of the roller coasters, just so I had something to remember them by.

At the time, I was an optical engineer; I designed lenses for all kinds of cameras and secured 41 patents for optical design. But after my local PennySaver let me write an article about one of the coasters I had photographed, I found my passion. I learned that I could travel to amusement parks on vacation with my family and get paid to write travel stories. A light bulb went on. I kept working in the camera industry, but I’d go on a business trip and stay a few extra days to visit local amusement parks in the area. Eventually, I became an editor and writer who focused solely on amusement parks, and I turned my hobby into a career. In total, I’ve been writing about amusement parks for 44 years, the last 31 of which have been for Park World magazine, where I’m the North American Editor.

In my 83 years, I’ve visited 333 parks—including every major theme park in the United States—and ridden 903 different roller coasters. These days, it’s my so-called job, but it feels more like a 52-week summer vacation. It was tough to choose, but these are my 13 favorite theme parks in the United States.

Paul Ruben skull Island Universals Islands Of Adventure FlCourtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Universal’s Islands of Adventure

This theme park, located in Orlando, Florida, is my favorite for a simple reason: If you go through it, from island to island, the music changes. If you go from Marvel Super Hero Island to Toon Lagoon, whatever music is in the background changes to fit that theme. I haven’t found that anywhere else, and I think it’s remarkable. It does a lot to emphasize the theming of each of the islands around the park, and it’s one of the reasons I think Universal Orlando Resort does one of the best jobs with theming out of parks everywhere.

The most popular ride in the park is Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Get there early when the park opens or the wait quickly becomes longer than an hour. And the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man is a notable dark ride—don’t miss it. What else shouldn’t you miss? These 18 secret spots in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Roller coaster, Kennywood Park outside Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USAJames Schleich/Getty Images

Kennywood

Kennywood, located just outside of Pittsburgh in West Mifflin, Pennsylvania, is my favorite traditional amusement park in the United States. It reminds me of the amusement park I grew up going to in Buffalo, New York. It has rides with no particular theming, including some of the old-fashioned rides I loved back in my youth, like swings, bobsleds, and a swaying pirate ship. There’s also an arsenal of coasters that go from mild to wild. Start with the Jack Rabbit or Racer, don’t miss the Thunderbolt, and finish with Phantom’s Revenge. There are also several classic dark rides like Noah’s Ark and the Exterminator that are not to be missed. You can still visit these 8 oldest amusement parks in the world.

Paul Ruben Cedar Point Sandusky OhCourtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Cedar Point

If you’re looking for thrill rides, the best in the country are probably at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. This park is built on a peninsula on Lake Erie and is surrounded by water. It has some world-class, major-league roller coasters—some of the largest, fastest, most thrilling rides ever made. Like to go fast? You’ll definitely want to check out Ride Millennium Force, the world’s first 300-foot-tall coaster. And there’s more—maybe 18 different roller coasters, plus traditional rides like merry-go-rounds. They truly have one of everything there. Lake Erie is also one of the most beautiful lakes in America for swimming.

Six Flags Magic Mountainvia sixflags.com

Six Flags Magic Mountain

Some would argue that Six Flags Magic Mountain, located in Valencia, California, is the best park for thrill rides. Again, they’ve got some amazing, one-of-a-kind roller coasters, and some of my favorite coasters are out there. There are a world record 19 coasters, and while you’ll want to go on as many as possible, be sure to ride X2, Twisted Colossus, and The New Revolution. That last one is the coaster featured in the 1977 movie Rollercoaster. It’s the first modern coaster with a vertical loop.

Jack Rabbit rude at Seabreezevia seabreeze.com

Seabreeze

Another amusement park that reminds me of my youth is my local amusement park in Rochester, New York: Seabreeze. It’s a smaller park, but it’s lovely, with regular rides and a bit of theming around the Victorian era seen in the architecture and some rides, like the beautiful carousel. Seabreeze is the fourth-oldest operating amusement park in the country, and there’s a nice museum there that shows the park’s history.

The park has several good roller coasters, including the Jack Rabbit, the oldest continually operating coaster in North America, which is celebrating its centennial in 2020. Plus, there’s some great acrobatic entertainment along the midway, as well as an adjacent water park.

Did you know that the first roller coaster in America didn’t actually carry people?

Paul Ruben at Carowinds Charlotte Nc Courtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Carowinds

My favorite roller coaster in the United States is the Fury 325, located at Carowinds in Charlotte, North Carolina. They call it Fury 325 because it’s 325 feet tall and it’s so big that it falls around the park, outside the park, and dives underneath people who are coming into the park. It’s big and fast, and like any really good coaster, it is nonstop action from the lift hill until you get back to the loading platform. Carowinds also has a nice selection of rides, and it’s a fun park all around, but the way that Fury 325 sprawls inside, outside, and even underneath the park is the most exciting part for me, and makes it worth a visit. For something closer to home, here’s the best amusement park in your state—and every other.

Paul Ruben at Six Flags New England Agawam MaCourtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Six Flags New England

Before the Fury 325 was built, my favorite roller coaster was Superman The Ride at Six Flags New England, outside of Springfield, Massachusetts. I love the Superman ride because when riding it, you spend so much time in the air that seats seem superfluous. Superman The Ride made Reader’s Digest‘s list of the scariest roller coasters in each U.S. state. This amusement park started out as a classic and was called Riverside Park formerly, but was purchased by Six Flags and improved greatly. The Six Flags takeover has added some big rides and I really enjoy going there.

Paul Ruben at pandora Disneys Animal Kingdom FlCourtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Walt Disney World

The Walt Disney World parks kind of wrote the book on how to operate an amusement park. The imagineers do everything to make each ride immersive and one-of-a-kind. The problem with Disney is they have four parks, and there are rides I like in every park, so I have a hard time deciding which park to visit each time I go to Florida.

If I could only ride one ride in each Walt Disney World park, here are my picks:

  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios: The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, an elevator nightmare that’s a lot of fun.
  • Epcot: Spaceship Earth, a nice ride through history inside the iconic geodesic dome at the entrance to the park.
  • Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a ride through the story of Snow White that really shows what a great job Disney does with theming.
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Avatar Flight of Passage, a flight on the back of a banshee character from the Avatar film that you won’t believe.

My biggest tip for Walt Disney World is to know you’ll really need at least four days to experience the destination fully, maybe more. But at the end of the day, it’s really about deciding what’s important for your family to see and focusing on those things. You can always make another trip.

Paul Ruben in knotts Berry Farm Buena Park CaCourtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Knott’s Berry Farm

I’m always looking for different rides, not off-the-shelf ones that you can find at any park, and over and over again, Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, California, has proven to be unique in what they offer. From dark rides to roller coasters, everything there is a little different, and it’s just a fun park to visit. Some of my favorite things here are the classic Calico Mine Ride—a bumpy ride through the mines with animated miners—and the Ghost Town area of the park, which is a nice, themed Western town area. There’s also a great children’s section. And be sure to enjoy a meal at Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant, a restaurant that’s been open since the 1930s and has amazing fried chicken. Knott’s Berry Farm is also one of the theme parks with the spookiest Halloween celebrations.

Plr@mickeys Toon Town Disneyland Anaheim CaCourtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Disneyland

This California park is the original theme park. It’s not as spacious as Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, but it has a few attractions that are only found at Disneyland—like the Casey Jr. Circus Train, a classic train ride that’s been a part of the park since it opened in the 1950s and has a nice, nostalgic feel—and I really enjoy that. There’s also the Matterhorn Bobsleds, a fun thrill ride, and the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. Check out these differences between Walt Disney World and Disneyland you never knew existed.

Paul Ruben at lightning Rod Dollywood Pigeon Forge TnCourtesy Paul L. Ruben Archives

Dollywood

Located in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, Dollywood is themed around Dolly Parton’s career. It probably has the best entertainment out of any park in the country, in my opinion—from the Smoky Mountain String Band, a really great bluegrass performance, to Dreamland Drive-In, a performance of hits from the ’50s and ’60s. There are also several unusual rides and roller coasters, like the Lightning Rod hybrid coaster, as well as a lot of reenactments of Dolly Parton’s heritage. They also recently added a new children’s area that’s really beautifully done and even included a calming room, along with other ways to help children with autism experience everything the park has to offer.

While you’re in the area, save some time to visit the many attractions in Pigeon Forge and nearby Gatlinburg, which is home to the world’s largest selection of two-seat mountain coasters.

Silver Dollar City via silverdollarcity.com

Silver Dollar City

Themed around 19th-century America, Branson’s Silver Dollar City sits atop one of Missouri’s deepest caves, and it has some really interesting rides and entertainment. It’s also home to Time Traveler, a giant spinning coaster, and a coaster called PowderKeg, the longest ride at the park. While there, it’s worth your time to tour the adjacent Marvel Cave and have a dinner cruise aboard the Showboat Branson Belle, two other attractions operated by the park. And, if you’ve got time, take in a few of the country-music shows held in Branson—an added perk that comes with the area.

Ki Orion Cta Desktop Newvia visitkingsisland.com

Kings Island

This park, located outside Cincinnati, Ohio, has some wonderful roller coasters. In fact, Kings Island is primarily roller coasters and has several that I really enjoy. The wooden coaster, the Beast, is the longest roller coaster ride in the world. And the park’s newest coaster, Orion, which is supposed to open sometime this year, features a 300-foot first drop and hits a top speed of 91 miles per hour. If you like traveling at illegal speeds, this will work!

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