Where do you want to go? Let's think about the possibilities.
Again, I said to forget about money, for now. So don't toss aside an option simply because you think you can't afford it. We'll start pricing theme park vacations in the weeks ahead. But a "bargain" deal - an "affordable" vacation - will turn out to be a waste of money if you don't have a good time.
The key to getting the best possible deal on a theme park vacation is value. Value goes two ways. Most people think about what you give - the money you spend on a trip. But what you get is just as important in establishing value. If you don't have a good time, you're not getting value, no matter how little you spent on the vacation.
So, what are our options? For today's article, we'll look only at U.S. theme and amusement parks. (We'll take on the international parks later.) Think about your family, their ages and interests, as well as where you live and your preferred method of travel. Again, let's keep money out of it. If you prefer to get the travel part of your trip over quickly by flying, but you worry about airfares, don't, for the moment.
Let's take a look at six of the big reasons why people visit theme and amusement parks. Think about which of these categories best describes you and your family. (Of course, you might fit into more than one!) Then read though these categories and note which parks' names you see most often in your favorite categories. (Links to more information about all these parks can be found in the green column on the right side of this page.)
Are coasters the reason you visit theme and amusement parks? Do you judge a vacation by the amount of airtime you had? Do you find yourself passing times in queues debating with others at what point a corkscrew becomes a heartline roll?
If you're looking just for coasters, your first choice for a destination ought to be Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. If you would prefer a west coast trip, think about Six Flags Magic Mountain, with an additional visit to nearby Knott's Berry Farm.
Other parks with multiple highly-rated coasters include Busch Gardens Europe in Williamsburg, Virginia, Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee and Universal's Islands of Adventure at Universal Orlando in Florida.
Story-driven rides and shows
With classics like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion, Disney has been the king of the category. But fans of these rides should not overlook the Universal and Busch theme parks, either. Universal Orlando's Amazing Adventure of Spider-Man is one of the world's best dark rides, and the Busch Gardens and SeaWorld parks have created some memorable attractions in this space, as well, including Busch Gardens Europe's Curse of DarKastle and SeaWorld Orlando's Journey to Atlantis.
Kids' rides, shows and characters
Where you choose to go here will depend upon your kids' ages, as well as what their favorite characters are. Here is a list of popular cartoon, comic book and kids' entertainment companies and the theme parks where their characters can be found.
Disney: Walt Disney World, Disneyland
Nickelodeon: Universal Orlando, Kings Island
DreamWorks: Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood
Warner Bros: Six Flags
Marvel: Universal Orlando
DC Comics: Six Flags
Sesame Street: SeaWorld, Busch Gardens
Peanuts: Cedar Point, Knott's Berry Farm
Thomas the Tank Engine: Six Flags
Wiggles: Six Flags
Barney: Universal Orlando
As you can see, this category isn't a slam-dunk for Disney, though many families will opt for Disneyland and Disney World. Legoland California might be the best park in the country for families with kids ages 3-9, though its options for kids younger than 3 are limited. Cedar Point has a large Peanuts plays areas aimed at Toddlers, Kings Island's got the Nick 'toons, and several Six Flags parks have extensive play areas aimed at pre-schoolers, as well.
The SeaWorld parks are obvious favorites among many animal lovers, but be sure to think about Busch Gardens Africa in Tampa, Florida, Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Six Flags Great Adventure, too. SeaWorld's San Diego park might be a top choice here, given its proximity to the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal park.
Theme parks provide immersive, sensory experiences - so why should taste be left out? Many foodies visit Walt Disney World's Epcot just for its variety of international restaurants, as well as its annual Food and Wine Festival in the fall. Other Walt Disney World parks offer outstanding food selections, too. On the west coast, Disneyland's famous Blue Bayou restaurant inside Pirates of the Caribbean packs 'em in, but the Napa Rose restaurant inside the Grand Californian Hotel has won many industry honors.
Universal Orlando features the world's top theme park restaurant, as voted by Theme Park Insider readers (Mythos at Islands of Adventure) as well as restaurants from Emeril Lagasse and other noted chefs.
Home cooking fans rave about Dollywood, and the Busch and SeaWorld parks put out a good spread, too. (Makes sense, since they are the only parks owned by a food and beverage company.)
Close to something else?
Theme parks don't have to be your only stop on a vacation. Many parks lie close to other attractions popular with families.
Almost every theme park these days has a water park either next door, or nearby, so swimmers will find plenty to do no matter where you choose to go. But if you are looking to combine a theme park vacation with a trip to the beach, here are your options:
Parks with beaches with a few minutes' walk or drive: Legoland California, SeaWorld San Diego, Cedar Point (okay, it's Lake Erie, but it is a beach.)
Parks with beaches within a couple hours' drive: Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott's Berry Farm, Busch Gardens Africa, Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Europe, Six Flags Great Adventure
If your family has national park fans, consider Dollywood, located next door to the very popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Families with kids studying American history in school should think about Busch Gardens Europe, which stands just down the road from Colonial Williamsburg and nearby Jamestown settlement and the Yorktown battlefield.
Finally, movie fans should consider Universal Studios Hollywood, the closest theme park to the tourist areas of Los Angeles. (Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm lie in Orange County, which is a tough drive away from the westside of L.A. and Beverly Hills - up to 2-3 hours in traffic during rush hour.)
Got some ideas? Great! Too many ideas? Well, remember, you don't have to do it all in one year. Please feel welcomed to submit your thoughts or questions as a comment below, and let other Theme Park Insider readers share their opinions with you.
Also, it's good to have several options in mind at this stage, just before we start confronting your dreams with your budget realities. That's what we'll do next Thursday, when I write about how to price your options for a theme park vacation.
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