Theme Park Thrills Revealed: Get the Best Bang for Your Buck

Summer… it’s fast approaching, and that means it’s almost time to load up the kids, fly them across the country and give them a vacation that will make them love you forever. We’re talking about the theme park experience!

According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, there are more than 400 theme parks operating in the United States today. That means it won’t be easy to pick out the best one to take your family to. There are a ton of factors to consider, from ticket cost to park size to how much they’re going to overcharge you for a bottle of water inside the park. Well, we want to help. That’s why we’ve put together a breakdown of 10 of the biggest theme parks in the country. Use it to figure out which one will give you the best bang for your buck and give your family the best vacation ever.

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Disneyland: Built in 1955 under the direct supervision of Walt Disney himself, this was the place that transformed theme parks from one-day pit stops into multi-day experiences you could build a whole vacation around. Disneyland features some of the most famous, family friendly rides in the world, including Splash Mountain, The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Caribbean and Dumbo’s Flight. It also features nearly all the characters your kids love right now, with chances for them to meet their favorite Avenger, Jedi or princess waiting around every corner. It’s hard not to make some amazing family memories at Disneyland, and the people at Disney know it. You’ll be lucky to get away with spending less than $1,000 a day at this park on a family of four, especially with half the attractions now relegated to a second park: Disney California Adventure. Get ready to pony up for a second ticket if you want the full experience.

Walt Disney World: Disney’s Florida park is a few hundred times bigger than its California counterpart, and that extra size is reflected in its extra expensive ticket prices. Is the added space worth the additional cost? It all depends on your family’s tastes. Disney World lacks some of Disneyland’s more popular attractions, including the kid-favorite Cars Land. You can also forget about any appearances by your favorite Marvel characters (Disney doesn’t have the theme park rights to them in Florida). However, there are a ton of unique attractions, including the Test Track which, at $300 Million, is still the most expensive coaster ever built. They also have a 600-acre animal preserve and the soon-to-be-opened Avatar Land.

Universal Studios: While Universal Hollywood is technically bigger than Disneyland, a majority of its space is taken up by the Studio Tour, a tram ride that takes you across the Universal Backlot. If you come from a family of film buffs, it might be worth the visit, but if they’re more interested in the traditional theme park experience, Universal doesn’t have quite so much to offer. With fewer than 20 rides and attractions total, you could traverse the entire park in just a few hours. Of course, you may still find your kids begging to go if they’re big Harry Potter fans; the newly opened Wizarding World of Harry Potter offers every wannabe wizard his or her very own acceptance letter to Hogwarts. Smaller muggles can jump on The Flight of the Hoppogriff if they want a fun first roller coaster experience, while those with advanced degrees in witchcraft and wizardry can try Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey which combines 3D movies and animatronics to give you the full Hogwarts experience. Just be warned, the new attractions are so popular that people are reporting having to wait in line over five hours to get on.

Busch Gardens: With two locations — one in Williamsburg, Virginia, and one in Tampa, Florida — the Busch Gardens parks offer their visitors a slightly more adult theme park experience. The Tampa park is Safari themed with dozens of wildlife attractions. The Williamsburg park has a European theme with sections modeled after villages in England, France, Germany, Italy, Scotland and Ireland. But both parks’ true attractions are their rides; Busch Gardens features some of the most innovative and thrilling roller coasters in the world. While each park also has a kid-friendly Sesame Street area, the scary coasters and readily available beer (this is a park owned by a beer company, after all) make them a much better vacation for an older crowd.

Knott’s Berry Farm: Built on the site of an old berry farm (that’s how it got the name, folks!), Knott’s is an ideal park for families looking to strike a balance between entertainment for all ages and affordable prices. Tickets are only $72 for adults and $69 for kids — one of the cheapest on our list. The rides also range from completely kid-friendly to absolutely terrifying; there’s something for every level of thrill seeker in your family. The hotels are also shockingly cheap, with a four-night stay running you less than $700 (breakfast included). The park’s one big drawback is its location. Situated in Buena Park, California, there are no other tourist locations in the immediate area. So if you want to do anything on your vacation besides tour the park, you’ll have to pay for extra transportation.

Cedar Point: Located on the coast of Lake Erie in Ohio, Cedar Point calls itself the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. And even though it only has the second-most coasters in the world, that title is still hard to dispute. Amusement Today has named it the best theme park in the world for 16 consecutive years. It’s also the only park in all the globe to feature coasters in all four height classes (kiddie coaster, hyper coaster, giga coaster and strata coaster), including the Top Thrill Dragster which holds the American speed record for coasters at 125 miles per hour. This may not be the ideal park for a family visit, but with tickets costing only $39.99 apiece, it’s the perfect park for a group of teenagers or young adults on their first solo vacation.

Hersheypark: Built in 1903, this is the oldest park on the list. Tickets only cost $32 a day, and there are more than 70 rides and attractions, including a fully-functioning zoo, making this a great vacation spot for families on a budget. The big draw, however, is the chocolate. Anyone obsessed with Hershey’s will be in heaven touring its factory or indulging in the exclusive sweets and snacks available in the Hershey’s Chocolate World Visitor’s Center.

Six Flags Magic Mountain: There are 19 different Six Flags parks operating today, but this is the only one that can boast of having the most roller coasters in the world. With 19 separate coasters, all designed with a huge range of speeds and heights, this is another great park for thrill seekers of any age. They even have a Looney Tunes themed drop ride called Sylvester’s Pounce House, which allows younger riders to experience a less intense free fall. Located in California — just outside of Los Angeles — it makes a great day trip for families visiting the West Coast.

Six Flags Great Adventure: Situated in New Jersey right between New York and Pennsylvania, Six Flags Great Adventure is an ideal vacation spot for families that can’t travel too far from the East Coast. But its location doesn’t mean it lacks anything in size. In fact, Great Adventure is the second-largest theme park in the world after Disney World. It comes complete with a full water park and wildlife preserve to go along with its more traditional attractions and rides, including the Kingda Ka which, at 456 feet, is the tallest coaster in the world. And, like Magic Mountain, the tickets are very affordable; they’re less than $60 a day for kids and adults.

Legoland: Do your kids love Lego? Do they really, really love Lego? If the answer is yes, then you could give them the vacation of their dreams by taking them to this park inspired by their favorite building blocks. But keep in mind you’ll be sacrificing all your adult vacation fun; more than any park on this list, Legoland caters mainly to children. All the rides and attractions are designed with little riders in mind, the most intense one being described as a “family coaster.” The tickets aren’t cheap, with both adults and kids costing more than $100. But it might be worth it if your child has always wanted to see a Lego model of Mount Rushmore.

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