Vote of the week: The best 'little' theme park in America?

May 15, 2009, 8:40 AM · Let's show a little love for the "little" parks today, shall we?

What is your favorite "small park" in the United States? And by small park, I'm not talking specifically about physical size. I mean parks that fall below the top 20 in annual attendance, as estimated by ERA, and that are not owned by one of the big five U.S. chains: Disney, Universal, Busch, Six Flags and Cedar Fair.

I've selected eight of these parks, which either are listed here on Theme Park Insider, or that readers have written about in the recent past. Pick your favorite, then tell us in the comments why you think more folks should visit this park. (I've added a "none of the above" option in case you've not been to any of these parks.)

Thanks, again, for reading Theme Park Insider, and have a great weekend!

Replies (60)

May 15, 2009 at 9:05 AM · I think Dollywood is the best of the the group. Pretty well established, good food, and great music!
May 15, 2009 at 9:23 AM · I keep wondering when Disney will put a theme park in at Branson, Mo. A Disney Mid America would be great. They had a park called Celebration City, and if it had been a Disney it would have gone over great. So many people wonder why we don't have a Disney Park here. Maybe Disney could get the Celbration City to let them take it over. They would do great in Branson. We go there all the time, and kids would love to have a Disney Park there.
May 15, 2009 at 9:29 AM · Knobels, for sure. Used to visit it almost regularly when I lived in NJ, and NE Penna. Its a small. park with great rides, many new, and many old, one of kinds. And its a great place to go and just spend a day. Very faimly orineted and great local foods, besides then normal theme park fare. And a satff that is very friendly and pleasent..the settings in the woods of central Pa. They also have a picnic grove right in the park. Camp sites, and cabins.
Never had a bad experince there and would highly recomend it to anyone whos enjoys good old fashion fun, food..And is passing thru with a day to spend. Not to mention a few great coasters, many made and designed in house by the Knobels faimly.
As a matter of fact they recently built a coaster modeled after a old design called the Flying Turns...Check out their websight for pics and updates...
May 15, 2009 at 9:28 AM · Too bad, but many small parks are a thing of the past. Remember Frontier Village in San Jose(The lost Dutchman's mine still one of the best independent dark rides ever!) Too bad Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk didn't make this list. No entrance fee & the being oldest surviving seaside amusement, recent winner of the Golden Ticket award as Best Seaside Amusement in the world! We actually keep ride tickets in the visor of the car & anytime we are heading north or south along the coast we park right outside the Giant Dipper & 15 minutes later we're back in the car on our way, having had our fix. The Dipper is still my favorite woodie even though I've ridden them around the world. The benchmark in 2007 proved that over 55 million riders can't be wrong!
May 15, 2009 at 9:44 AM · I'm going to try to get to Kennywood and Knoebels this summer (really want to check out that Haunted House). I'm throwing in my vote for Dollywood. Thunder is an excellent wooden coaster, and Mystery Mine is truly one of the better rides in the country in terms of overall experience, on par with much down in Orlando. I was dissapointed that it didn't do better in the Tournament a few weeks back.
May 15, 2009 at 10:20 AM · What about Enchanted Forest/Water Safari in Old Forge, NY?
My favorite local, small water park!
May 15, 2009 at 10:22 AM · My vote was for Dollywood!

Amazing coasters (Thunderhead, Mystery Mine, Tennessee Tornado, and even Blazing Fury is good for more of a family style coaster).
Spectacular shows
Good atmosphere (with plenty of shade)
Friendly hosts
And did I mention the FOOD?

May 15, 2009 at 10:32 AM · I haven't been to any of these which is a shame since many are very close to Cincinnati. I definitely have poured over their websites. I am certain that there are great experiences to be had at some (or all) of these parks.

Well, I do have a trip planned to Holiday World in early June. I'm really excited - 3 great coasters, free soft drinks, free parking, water park looks cool too.

[disclaimer - I am going to Holiday World in the capacity as a writer for Orlando Attractions Magazine's "Out of the Loop" column writer, i.e. I cover news outside central Florida, but the family is coming too!]

May 15, 2009 at 10:43 AM · This is a tough vote for me. Holiday World has something to it that other parks just don't have. Knoebels has personality, Freestyle was good as Hard Rock Park...time will tell what happens with it. I tend to see Silver Dollar City and Dollywood as pretty much the same, because frankly...they are. Both are equally great parks.

I think that if everybody had been to some of the other parks on the list, the voting would be a little more scattered. All of these places are worth a visit and have unique things to offer.

Another park that isn't on the list that I feel deserves to be there is Kennywood in Pittsburgh. Not sure if Hershey Park fits the category of "little" theme park. If it does, then it should be here as well.

May 15, 2009 at 10:48 AM · All of these places are great...tough call. Never been to Wild Adventures though.

Smaller places like these tend to have things that the big boys just don't of them especially is excellent customer service. They are always glad to see you at these parks.

May 15, 2009 at 11:17 AM · Knoebels is by far the best small park - no fee to get in and you can ride a roller coaster for $2.25. Knoebels has been growing over the years and only continues to get better. The food is great, the rides are great, the environment is clean and it is a place with just good clean fun.
May 15, 2009 at 12:11 PM · ^Yea but I'd rather just pay for admission and ride those rides over and over and over again. but then again if you just want to ride the rides once i guess it's good.
May 15, 2009 at 1:06 PM · I have not visted every park on this list, but need to make an effort to do so. Far too often we overlook places like these and miss out on great customer service, delicious food, great shows, and top notch rides.

For me, Dollywood and Silver Dollar City are tops in pops on this list. Between those two, it is a bit of a toss up as they are very similar parks, however I will go with SDC because it is only 3.5 hours from my house.

May 15, 2009 at 12:55 PM · What ???
No Silver Springs on this list ?
May 15, 2009 at 1:03 PM · On behalf of everyone who lives in this area and works at Dollywood, thank you for the comment about friendly hosts. I know East Tennessee prides itself on being friendly to visitors, and I'm glad it's working.

Yes, the food there is fantastic. If you've never been in the late fall/Christmas, that's a treat as well. The rides are mostly still open fairly late in the season, and it's interesting to ride a roller coaster in the cold :)

Barry from Knoxville

May 15, 2009 at 3:14 PM · What about Idlewild & SoakZone? Best little getaway for families in the world. Most Beutiful park in America hands down. Kennywood and Dollywood are Great too. I would have to vote for one of those with the list provided.
May 15, 2009 at 3:22 PM · I love the great escape in lake george NY. I know it is now a six flags property, but it retains so much of its former sixflags-less self, not to mention tons of themed story-book stuff from "storybook land" that was in the area way before it. I see six flags branding it more and more every year with loonytunes and super heros. I wish six flags would see that people like each park to be diffrent and special....they have really become the wal-mart of theme parks.
May 15, 2009 at 5:02 PM · The only park on this list I've been to is Kennywood but I wouldn't put it at number one. I suspect Dollywood would be my vote, had I been there.
May 15, 2009 at 5:37 PM · I've only been to Legoland Ca and it's a GREAT park, but is really a "kiddie" park.
Although it's owned by Merlin and in terms of worldwide attendance Merlin is 2nd only to Disney. According to the current attendance report Merlin gets almost 10 million more guests than Universal (number 3 on the list) and almost 13 million more than Cedar Fair (number 7 on the list).
May 15, 2009 at 5:46 PM · Kennywood is the best. Small park feel, but with great rides.
May 15, 2009 at 8:34 PM · I've been to six of the eight, so I guess I'm qualified to vote. A close one for me, between Dollywood and Holiday World. I went with Holiday World by a bird's beak -- the Raven, that is. Yeah, Dollywood's Thunder Road is an awesome coaster, but it takes a back seat to the aforementioned Raven and the Legend, which is even better. And need I say "the Voyage"? Though not a pure wood coaster, it's AWESOME. So, DW has one awesome coaster (and a few decent ones), Holiday World has three awesome coasters... OK, so "Theme"?? Well, Dollywood is all one theme (and it's a good theme). Holiday World's theme's are rather weak (Halloween, Christmas, etc.), so in both cases, they're about even.
And though I haven't been to them all, Wild Adventures is last on my list (sorry...).
May 15, 2009 at 11:13 PM · Yes, Merlin's huge worldwide, but its presence within the U.S. is minimal, so I let Legoland onto this list.
May 16, 2009 at 5:48 AM · Unfortunatley being from the UK I have heard of a few of these, but haven't been to any yet. Will have to try and make it to at least one in the future.
May 16, 2009 at 5:57 AM · I'm a 'big' theme park fan, but I've got to say how much I love Knoebel's as well. I've been to several of the parks on this list, but nothing embodies the feeling of the 'old time amusement park' like Knoebel's does, without even trying to. From the fact that it's still free to get into the park for those that choose not to ride, to the reasonable rates for ride tickets (much cheaper than your local county fair!), to the covered bridges, the Crystal Pool, and the absolute natural beauty of the park. When I was a child, we would go to small parks like this across the country as we traveled about in our Winnebago. Now, most are gone, or are replaced with blacktop and concrete roller coaster parks. This is a great place to take your young family, or your 'not so young' family, and have a great day out at an enjoyable place for a family friendly price! If you haven't tried it, I highly recommend it if you're passing through. Can't wait until Flying Turns opens!
May 16, 2009 at 6:25 AM · Just to add a note Konebels does offer a P.O.P. band ....
May 16, 2009 at 10:34 AM · Dollywood should get the votes from everything mentioned above. It's a beautiful place and Mystery Mine and Thunderhead were knocked out of "Best Ride in America" tournament way too soon.
May 16, 2009 at 10:57 AM · Kennywood is DEFINITELY the best! People come from all over the U.S to visit Kennywood! They get new rides every year, and the fun never stops. I have gone there every year for my whole life! The Phantom Revenge, Pitfall, and Swingshot, are a real thrill, but if you want a calm ride just go on the turnpike, or the Kennywood Train. They offer great fun for all ages, and nobody ever leaves without a great memory. If you have never been to kennywood you have got to go now!
May 16, 2009 at 3:43 PM · Kennywood has a funky oder to it. If you can stand the smell of the place then you might enjoy going there.
May 16, 2009 at 4:31 PM · Kennywood hands down. It's not flashy, or has the biggest and baddest rides, but has that timeless "small park" feel. It feels modest, at home with what it is, a brilliant small family park. Rides, food (deep fried oreos), shows, fantastic, not to mention reasonably priced. One of my all time favorite parks.
May 16, 2009 at 6:00 PM · Kennywood has been here forever.From school picnics to company picnics it is the all family park.You have rides for everyone and the food.Potato shack is the best.The thunderbolt is the best and Phathoms revenge tops it all.Everyone always meets at the Merry go round which is a CLASSIC.The park is so clean and family friendly.They have new rides every year.When you enter the park everyone ride the Jack Rabbit first and then you just circle the park.The water ride are perfect.Everyone loves Kennywood.
May 16, 2009 at 6:49 PM · Frankly, I'm surprised. I will always be the number one advocate for Hesrsheypark, which I guess you believe is a "large" park.

I agree that Knoebels is wonderful! The prices for both the food and the rides are very reasonable.If I must vote for a "small" park, I would say Knoebels.

But what about "Dutch Wonderland"? It is owned by Hersheypark, has some of there old rides, and is a traditional "little" park. Give it some love, please!

May 16, 2009 at 6:56 PM · I do hope that the new FreeStyle Music Park does alot better then Hard Rock Park did,it's a shame it did'nt make it.
I do know they reduced the gate admission which was $50.00 for all ages last year to $39.95 for Adults.
If this park does better then last year,they may add new rides for 2010,they have added 4 kiddie/family rides for 09.
Also thier signature B&M coaster formerly Led Zeppelin is now "The Time Machine" and will have onboard music from the 1960's 70's 80's 90's to present day so you can ride it 5 times and get a different expeariance.
May 17, 2009 at 1:40 PM · Kennywood, just outside of Pittsburgh, has been MY park all my life. Free parking, great coasters and reasonablly priced good park food. Maybe I am biased but it measures up to the mega parks. 62 years for me and over 100 years for Kennywood.
May 17, 2009 at 1:40 PM · If Knoebel's is only getting 5% of the votes, too many people voting here have never been there!

Just left an event there yesterday and it's still one of the very best out there. It's not fair to group it in comparison to a Kennywood or Dollywood.

Boo to the author.

May 17, 2009 at 1:50 PM · Kennywood is the best all time small theme park in the country. I have been an employee there at Kennywood for 6 years now and it is the best family theme park in the Pittsburgh area since 1898. I really like the Funnel Cakes, Potato Patch Fries and all the rides in the park.
May 17, 2009 at 2:49 PM · I grew up going to Kennywood Park every single summer. Now that I live in SC, I still manage to get home every summer, and now my husband and I take our children there. It is extremely clean, lots of gorgeous flowers everywhere, and has that wholesome feel to it. It truly is a great amusement park. The Thunderbolt is my favorite roller coaster, and my favorite food there is the square ice cream dipped in chocolate and rolled in nuts with the cherry on top. Can't remember what they call it. I hope Kennywood wins!
May 17, 2009 at 3:58 PM · Kennywood all the way! How can you compete with John Miller roller coasters! Kennywood is as improtant to Pittsburghers as our sports teams and we are just as loyal to it. It might not have all the glam as other places, but to be able to get through a que line in less than 25 mins per ride is awesome. Not to mention it has been a National Historical Landmark since '87 or so. Did I mention how fair the price is? And don't get me started on the food... one phrase- "Potato Patch" french cries with cheese and gravy! I can taste them now!
May 17, 2009 at 4:08 PM · KENNYWOOD KENNYWOOD KENNYWOOD the best. One of your readers wondered what the smell was. Creosite used for the great wooden coasters!
May 17, 2009 at 4:13 PM · I would have to go with Holiday World.They offer 3 world class wooden coasters for the thrill aspect.They also have a top 5 waterpark.It is the cleanest park in the world.Has a very friendly work staff.They attract a good crowd there.I never have problems with other people that come to the park.I travel all the way from Pa to go there every year so that says something.Just an overall great experience there every year.
May 17, 2009 at 4:19 PM · Kennywood is my favorite place in all the world! It has been since I was a small child in the 1940s. I even dream about it sometimes. We went every year at least once to the town picnic and often on other occasions. There's just something about the place that feels good. After I moved away i still came to visit every few years or so, and I'm hoping to take my grandchildren there this year, even though we live in AZ.
May 17, 2009 at 4:29 PM · My vote is for Kennywood. It's the last surviving Trolley Park and is a traditional amusement park in everyway. It has many rides that haven't been made in many years such as Noah's Ark, the Turtle, and the Kangaroo. Plus there's the roller coasters like the Racer, Jack Rabbit, Thunderbolt, Phantom's Revenge, and the Exterminator. Then there's the immaculately maintaned Grand Carousel from Dentzel with it's opperating Wurlitzer band organ. Combine all that with the parks historic old buildings and you have a great old amusement park called Kennywood.
May 17, 2009 at 5:36 PM · I went with Dollywood. Only because of the investment they have made to keep the park up to date and haveing room to expand. I love there show line up and the food is excellent. I also like Kennywood and Knobels . Because of the old time feel of these parks. Free Parking and great staffs.
May 17, 2009 at 6:17 PM · Our first trip ever to Kennywood was last summer for Magee Women's Hospital's 25th birthday. We took our two-year-old granddaughters, Mary and Megan. It was a magical day. The babies were enthralled with everything, especially the parade. We adults were impressed with the courtesy and attentiveness of the entire staff. We felt like members of the Kennywood family. Even though it was a busy, crowded day, employees approached us often to ask if they could help us, and suggesting activities for our little girls. We loved the variety of rides that were for children and adults together. And the grown-ups in our group really enjoyed the adult rides. Kennywood has the friendliest staff I have ever seen. We will definitely come to Pennsylvania again this summer for another magical day.
May 17, 2009 at 6:23 PM · I was raised at Kennywood Park. From riding ponies, to coasters, Kennywood holds great memories. I even worked there one season. The food is great especially the french fries. I have been to many other parks, but It's always a thrill to go to Kennywood. Miss the swimming pool. learned to swim there. To me Kennywood spells fun and memories.

Dennis Johnson West Mifflin, PA

May 17, 2009 at 9:14 PM · FWIW, the criterion is in the post - not in the top 20 for attendance (that excluded Hersheypark) and not owned by one of the top five chains for U.S. theme park attendance (Disney, Universal, Six Flags, Busch and Cedar Fair). Of those, I listed parks that we'd gotten a significant amount of discussion about on the website over the years, some of which getting enough discussion to merit listing on the ratings and reviews pages.

By the way, a belated welcome to the folks from Legoland's Twitter feed, and hello to the folks referred by Kennywood. Welcome to Theme Park Insider! Feel free to click around; hope you enjoy the site.

May 17, 2009 at 9:58 PM · Kennywood All the way!!! My daughters, my Husband and I go every year. OMG The arrow 360 is awsome! My daughters got me to ride this they are 13 and 18. I would of never road this when I was their age. I guess the older you get the more daring you are. My husband goes to watch us! He rides one coaster and he is done he will ride the smaller rides after that but that is all. I am like a kid in a candy store now I can't get enough of the rides and my daughters love it. We have gone to the Phantom Fright Nights they are the best. Holloween is one of my favorite Hollidays next to Christmas. ( I know Weird) I love to be scared and Kennywood is one of the best places for this. The Grave yard, the scarey people walking around, the clowns (my kids hate them). and the rides of course many more stuff! Oh ya I am 44 years young. Keep up the great work!!! Kennywood is the best!!!
May 17, 2009 at 11:27 PM · Another good small park is Waldameer in Erie, PA but my vote goes to Kennywood. I really like the fact that you can take your own food and drinks in and have a picnic in one of their many picnic areas or pavilions. That saves you a lot of money when you are on a tight budget. I try to go at least once every year. The one thing I do like so much about Waldameer is that you don't have to pay to get in. You can just go over and play some games or get something to eat and watch the people enjoying theirselves. Their latest ride, the Ravine Flyer II, which is a coaster gives you a phenominal view of the lake and Presque Isle Park. I would recommend it to anyone. I must admit I haven't been to any of the other nomintated parks but I would pick a small park over a large one anyday. They are so quaint and I just like them better.
May 18, 2009 at 9:32 AM · I grew up in Western PA, but now live 20 minutes from Disneyland. I still love Kennywood Park more. The roller coasters are terrific and so is the food. I want my ashes taken for a last ride on the Jack Rabbit!
May 18, 2009 at 1:14 PM · HERSHEY PARK?!
May 18, 2009 at 2:42 PM · Kennywood is a great place. I worked there when I was in college - but the memories of growing up and going there are forever in my heart. I love the old wooden coasters, but especially am impressed with the National Historic Landmarks that they are - as well as several other points throughout the park. I think Kennywood does a great job seamlessly blending the old and nostalgic, with the new and technological aged rides and attractions. Great place to work and definitely a great place to visit, ride, and eat! (I've been to most of the other parks on the list - and still voted for Kennywood!)
May 18, 2009 at 4:53 PM · Is it me, or was there more vote stuffing going on here? Kennywood with almost 60%? Really?
May 19, 2009 at 4:31 AM · As much as I loved my sole visit to Hard Rock Park last may, I'm disappointed at the new theming and the loss of the Hard Rock brand and song/theming rights. There was virtually no one there about a week and half after opening when I was there...which made it better for me, but was an early sign of troubled times ahead.

I was tempted to vote for Holiday World, mainly because of Voyage, Raven, and free drinks. But Kennywood is a more complete park experience.

Mike Gallagher

May 19, 2009 at 12:32 PM · I'll vote Knoebels. Twister and Phoenix are world class coasters. Fun haunted house. Free parking and admission. Flying Turns will be one of the best traditional rides in the country. Can't beat it.

Although it's not on the list, I also have to give a big up to Lake Compounce in Bristol CT. Boulder Dash is one of the best coasters you could ever go on.

- Jim A. (ACES member)

May 19, 2009 at 1:05 PM · Where is the love for Knoebels? Has anyone who goes to this site visited there? And why not??? Hey, I love Kennywood, but there's only one park I simply can't go without visiting every single year, and that's Knoebels.

Start with the free parking and free admission; add Phoenix, the greatest coaster on the planet; throw in the best Haunted Mansion, Bumper Cars, Carousel and Flyers anywhere, an awesome Log Flume, a great kiddie area, spectacular food and desserts everywhere you look; top it off with the fact dogs are allowed in (who doesn't love dogs?); and you have the best park around, big or small.

May 19, 2009 at 1:25 PM · I used to dream about the ULTIMATE amusement park. Upon my first visit to Knoebels, my jaw dropped as I walked through the trees through the park. I said, "I no longer have to dream of the ultimate amusement park because it exists right here in Pennsylvania!" That was 1985, and it has continued to be my favorite park since then.
Knoebels has an amazing collection of classic old rides and new ones, including a Flying Scooter, Hershell Looper, the best bumping cars, best haunted house, best carousel, best food, one of the best roller coasters on the planet and much more.

FYI I've been to most amusement parks in the US and many outside of the US.

May 19, 2009 at 9:33 PM · I haven't been to all of the parks on the list, but did make a pilgrimage last season to Knoebel's. It's a wonderful, old-school park.

Phoenix and Twister are great wooden coasters, and the rest of the shady, wooded park feels like you've gone back to 1964. The Knoebel family has put their heart and soul into the place. I will go back again when Flying Turns is done.

Frank D.
New York

May 20, 2009 at 6:51 AM · Why not Idlewild?
May 20, 2009 at 2:24 PM · I have to say I've been to both Knoebels and Kennywood and my experiences were VASTLY different. The former was one of the WORST theme park experiences of my life, complete with getting stuck on a ride because a cart fell off. It fell off with people in it! I was stuck on the log flume ride at the top of the highest drop while they pulled the people out of the water below me. A sink broke and sprayed water all over me, and the haunted house had an unusual moldy smell I didn't trust very much. Kennywood however is a fantastic experience. The rides are smooth, the food is great, and fright night is amazing! However compared to both of these I recomend Hershey Park. It's the best little theme park in the world, hands down! (Not to mention you can buy chocolate everywhere you go in that park!)
May 21, 2009 at 8:03 AM · Kennywood is a fantastic theme park! They have a great variety of rides (Thunderbolt!) and food (Potato Patch Fries) for folks of all ages to enjoy. This park continues to change and adds a new ride every year or so. We just love it and get excited every time we see on of the yellow arrow-shaped Kennywood signs.
Another park near the Pittsburgh area that I highly recommend - especially for families with younger children - is Idlewild Park. It doesn't have as many of the bigger thrill rides - but has a nice kiddieland and many of the bigger rides (like The Whip") that younger kids can ride. And Hallow-Boo (at Halloween time) is really fun for the kids to go through the park with costumes on.

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