What are some of the world's great, but overlooked, theme parks?

September 6, 2010, 9:42 PM · Are there any great, unsung theme and amusement parks out there to which we should pay more attention?

We know about the top-attended theme parks, the ones from Disney, Universal and SeaWorld. They top the attendance charts because they typically offer world-class attractions, presented with excellent service. People want to visit those parks; they do visit those parks, and that's why those parks earn the bulk of our coverage here on Theme Park Insider.

But Disney, Universal and the SeaWorld parks don't have exclusives on high quality. Smaller, regional parks can offer world-class rides and service. Over the years, for example, we've become big fans of Indiana's Holiday World, not only for its three outstanding wooden coasters - including The Voyage, the top-rated roller coaster on the website - but also for its customer-friendly policies, such as free parking, free sunscreen and free soft drinks.

What other great, unsung parks are out there?

Allow me a word of caution before you answer. I'm looking for parks which offer something worth driving across the country to experience. A nice, friendly park that's worth a 30-minute drive to visit might not seem so nice or so friendly once you drive 3,000 miles to experience it, only to realize that you passed 10 just like it along the way.

If we're going to direct people from all over the country, and all over the world, to this park, it needs to offer at least one notable thing on the level of the Big Three - or better. Otherwise, we'd just be setting up your fellow readers for disappointment, and the owners of the park for complaints from visitors with unrealistic expectations.

That said, I'm still willing to bet that some parks down the list for annual attendance are worth more international attention. Here's your chance to make the case for your favorite smaller park.

Over the years, I've heard from fans of places such as Silverwood in Idaho and Mt. Olympus in Wisconsin. In Europe, I've heard readers recommend Efteling in the Netherlands and Parc Astérix in France. Do you agree on any of these parks, or do you have another to recommend? Remember, we're looking for a place that offers some aspect that's exceptional (in a good way). And the more excellence, the better, of course.

I'd love to hear from some lurkers on this one, as well as from a few new readers. If you know someone who speaks well of a park we don't typically cover, please invite her or him to come on over and submit a comment on this post.

Thanks in advance, and I can't wait to read your recommendations, along with your specific examples why these parks are worthy of more visits from theme park fans.

Replies (28)

September 6, 2010 at 10:12 PM · I want to add Dollywood to the list. It gets a bit of publicity, but it really is a great park. Mystery Mine is a fantastic attraction and is by far the best themed Eurofighter in the world. Thunderhead is my al-time favorite wood coaster. Timber Tower is such a unique experience and still the only one of its kind in the States. The Tennessee Tornado is the smoothest and best Arrow (built pre-S&S) coaster I've ever been on.

Beyond that, the friendliness of staff is comparable to Holiday World and Disney. The park's other attractions are so unique because Dollywood is not designed from the perspective of a theme park, but a representation of life in the region. The blacksmiths and various craftsmen (and women) and experts at their jobs. And the food. Oh my gosh, the food...

September 6, 2010 at 11:03 PM · I'm not saying it's the best park in the world, but I am really interested in hearing more about the new Euro-Fighter style coaster that is said to be the new for 2011 attraction at Six Flags Over Goergia. There has been so much Universal and Disney talk that I think this has been somewhat overlooked, but I think this is a big deal for that park. I also kind of look at it as thier awnswer to Carowinds adding a new coaster last year (for those of us in the middle of the two parks, they are competitors).

There are also a lot of overseas parks that have unique attractions that I see on-line but personally have not experienced..... and I'm not talking about the Disney or Universal Parks that are overseas.....lol (although those are nice).

September 7, 2010 at 1:14 AM · The efteling for sure,
for it's originality, vastness of the grounds, beautiful nature, the fairytale forest wich is huge and full of little surprises and for the great themed darkrides, coasters and pure Dutch nostalgy the park breathes.


greets dominique

September 7, 2010 at 2:25 AM · Phantasialand In Germany is a truly stunning theme park with plenty of fantastic attractions.

Personally I loved Black Mamba, a new B and M invert, but Mystery Castle, a unique drop ride with absolutely incredible attention to detail in the theme, has to be one of the best attractions I've experienced.

Well worth a visit.

September 7, 2010 at 5:28 AM · while i haven't been to a real one, I would kind of consider sixflags over georgia one. It has a well rounded selection of coasters but most of them you can find many other places. Some attractions of note include: Thunder River(a rafting ride with far better rapids than Kali and excellent rock work and side buildings), Monster Mansion(a great darkride that's up to par with peter pan, snow white, and winnie the pooh), and Mind Bender(accredited by that coaster group that gives awards to rides, sorry i forgot their name). It's better known than dollywood and Holiday world but it's still better, and less known than other regional parks around the country.

Europa park in Germany looks really fun. They kind of seemed like they copied disney in some rides but they make ride systems that disney uses.

September 7, 2010 at 6:00 AM · It may only have one ride worth traveling 3,000 miles to visit right now, but by 2012, you will be wanting to drive all the way to Lagoon in Utah. By then they will have a new kiddie coaster (expected to be like Grover's Alpine Express) and a new coaster taller, faster, and overall better coaster than Wicked! at Lagoon (110 feet tall, 2,000+ ft., 55 mph)

Even Wicked! is worth driving 3,000 miles for.

Bert the Conqueror made his way to Lagoon to ride it for Travel Channel even:

Bert Braves Wicked!

September 7, 2010 at 6:57 AM · I grew up in Pittsburgh, Pa., and went to Kennywood once a year during the "School Picnic." There was nothing more important to me than that once-a-year visit! The park remains a classic example of what's right with a family-friendly theme park. The classic rides (the Whip, Noah's Ark, the Turtle . . . ) compliment the wonderful wooden rollercoasters (the Jack Rabbit, the Racer, the Thunderbolt), and, of course, the Steel Phamtom. (I haven't ridden the newest coaster yet). All of Kennywood's wooden coasters are unique, incorporating the ravines and hillsides that are natural to the park. The Racer's double track, the Jack Rabbit's double dip, and the Thunderbolt's one-of-a-kind dips and mid-ride lift make visiting Kennywood an unforgettable experience. In addition to the rides, the Potato Patch and other wonderful food choices are all reasonably priced and delicious! A day at Kennywood will be unforgettable and nostalgic, and will give you a glimpse of Americana that stirs the soul!
September 7, 2010 at 7:52 AM · I know that they are not "small" parks, but some of the best times that I have had at a theme park are at King's Island and more recently King's Dominion. Both of them are certainly worth the 3000 mile drive (I have driven 1500 miles for King's Island). With a nice blend of big new rides, innovative one of a kind rides, and classic rides, there is something for everyone there. Both of these parks have a very high coaster count as well.

Another park that I have become a big fan of is Kennywood. With it's blend of old school rides as well as its brand new one, Kennywood has that unique blend of small time amusement park with a very nice atmosphere and a decent coater count.

September 7, 2010 at 8:58 AM · Not really a "theme park," i gotta throw in the STRATOSPHERE IN LAS VEGAS!! Sure it's only got three rides, but come on... where ELSE can you do those rides while hundreds of feet in the air?????

And keeping with the above "Bert the Conquerer" theme, he also visited the Stratosphere... and tried this new 'ride' where you pretty much tie yourself up, free fall DOWN the tower's side, and somehow land gently on the ground. Mad insane!

Are those rides worth traveling 3,000 miles for? Maybe not, but since it's in freakin' Las Vegas (after all) I'll definitely travel that distance for the whole shebang!

September 7, 2010 at 10:20 AM · The Efteling looks AMAZING! I wish I could go there right now! I checked out the website and watched a few YouTube videos, and I'm astonished that I'd never heard of it before. It's like an 80s fantasy film world brought to life (The Dark Crystal/Legend/Labyrinth, etc.) It's got something for everyone; a fantasy forest, haunted darkrides, fantasy darkrides, rollercoasters and beautiful grounds. Thanks for enlightening me!
September 7, 2010 at 10:38 AM · In Europe: Futuruscope. Not the best, but the most unique attractions. The other top 20 parks have mostly attractions that are more or less similar to the ones at the big US franchise chains, just with a much smaller budget. Often they manage to do some aspects better anyway, sometimes they produce pathetic copies, but in the end, the 10 times bigger budgets always wins. Service doesnt need scale, unsurprising thats one area where they often run circles arround the 3 franchises. Less trained to robot staff, a couple off expirienced peak productivity age people mixed in, less merchandising push, less adverising are great advantages. Do i think that matters all that much? No, i think the attractions are the most important issue, trumping even the large staff differences. Just want to pushback against the praise for Disneys staff policy, where somehow staff is never obese, not even a little overweight, old, has bad teath, or is just smaller than average even so two of those things are much more common in Disneys home country than anywhere else in the developed world.

Futuruscope is a future themed park which consists mostly of Imax film theaters in all variations. Some of those variations are unique to Futuruscope. The 3 most unique attractions are: Two convex Imax. One of them uses an unusual technology for the 3d effect than usually (also with gasses, in case anybody gets his hopes up to much, just another type). An imax with an additional film below the viewer. If the standard is worth a 3000 mile trip, that one fails aswell. However, theres a lot to see within 3000 miles driving distance from there :-). Thanks to the excellent French high speed rail network which is an attraction on its own, the park is a short and relativly cheap trip from Paris for example. Theres a discount airline airport close by aswell. Caution note: The films in contrast to the technology to show them are somettimes real downers and never quite up to what one can would expect at Universal or Disney.

Other unique attractions: Hmm, always liked the bobsled type coasters from Mack. Mack built a couple off them across Europe. Not worth a long trip however. Never visited Deefteling or Parc Asterix myself. Just looking at the type of attractions, visitors numbers, and what others say, however theres no way Parc Asterix is all that interesting. De Efteling looks better maybe in the same category as Europapark, right below Disneyland in Europe. Those parks are not built to attract people all over Europe or the world with unique attractions, most visitors come from the region. Deefteling is good because they are the number one regional park in the rich dense populated Benelux region, Europapark is great because they basically have the market in the rich dense populated Baden Würtenberg/Suiss region alone for themself. Most visitors are local no overnightstay visitors, that rightfully expect to get the same attractions popular arround the world at home, sometimes with more sometimes with less local twist.

Just look at the numbers - the category difference is huge, thats why the second tier cant achieve much. Eurodisney did cost 4500 million to build so far, Europapark the second biggest in Europe 600 million. Maybe the asian non US franchise parks are more interesting, at least the TEA report suggests a couple of parks there have higher visitors than the non US franchise ones in Europe.

September 7, 2010 at 4:12 PM · I also agree with Kennywood and I would also like to add Knoebels, although I would consider them to be an Amusement Park and not a Theme Park but I guess that's up for debate.

New at Knoebels for 2011 is a dark ride, for which Robert I sent you an article but you never posted it for some reason, any reply to that? From what I can remember, it was bought from a pier in New Jersey and was named The Golden Nugget. It's now going to be about coal mining and I believe it's going to be called The Black Diamond, but not sure on that. It's suppose to have some horror stuff to it too.

Knoebels has two world class woodie coasters in The Phoenix and Mister Twister. A new steel kiddie coaster was put in last year. They're still having trouble with the Flying Turns ride since it's a one of a kind type of ride and no prior designs to go by. From what I understand, there are no tracks for the cars to follow so it's sort of like a water tube ride without the water and your sitting in a special made vehicle. They hope to open it in 2011 but not sure.

There are plenty of great rides to be had from there world class steel bumper cars, considered to be one of the best bumber cars in the business. The Grand Carousel is also one of the best in the business and you can still catch the "Brass Ring" and get a free ride. Talk about free, how about free parking and only paying for the rides you want to go on!!! They have an all day hand stamp too.

Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention their "cool spring mountain water" swimming pool. And the food, it's better than most park food you get at other parks. And only about 1 1/4 hours northeast of Hershey and 1 1/2 hours northwest of Dorney.

Bobby, formally known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

September 7, 2010 at 11:19 AM · I don't know how overlooked it is, but Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, is certainly worth a couple days' adventure after a 3000 mile trip.

For coaster fans, all three of the park's featured coasters are unique and imminently repeatable. Furthermore, with its 42" height requirement, Powder Keg may well be the best family coaster in the nation.

Additionally, the park has an extensive array of rides from common midway pleasures to unique dark rides, intricately themed water adventures (Tom & Huck's River Blast is perhaps the finest "river battle" attraction in the world), and high flying thrillers like the GIANT Swing and Electro Spin.

As an added feature, the park itself is built above a natural cave that is in of itself a unique theme park experience, worth a tour during every park visit.

Finally, the shows at the park are always top notch, as are the crafting exhibits, and food offerings. Furthermore, the customer service is on par with what one would expect from a Disney park but with a slightly more personal, hometown flare. Throw in the fact that the seasonal "festivals" provide locals with incentive for repeat visits throughout the year, and you have a park that should be billed as the Disneyland of the Midwest!

September 7, 2010 at 11:37 AM · My local park is Kings Island and I would tell you that you should visit not only for the top-notch thrill rides like the Diamondback and Flight of Fear but also for the HUGE children's area and my favorite thing - the shows.

"Way Too Much TV" is a 25 minute review of theme songs from the 50s through the 90's and the cast is hilarious, sing great harmony, and dance well. Its amazing as was "Down Home Country," "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," and "Don't Stop the Music." Plus we have a world class ice skating show every year and this year's "Snoopy Rocks on Ice" used the Peanuts characters and themes very well.

More information on the shows at Kings Island can be found at http://www.fansofkientertainment.com.

September 7, 2010 at 1:49 PM · I think Wild Adventures in Valdosta Ga is a really nice park. They have 6 nice coasters all kinds of animals and the water park is included with addmission to the park. I believe a couple more years with the new owners and it should be a great park to visit. They need a nice dark ride that should really help them.
September 7, 2010 at 3:08 PM · I have been to Knoebels several times. I just don't get it. I don't think the food is as good as people say. I have heard all this stuff about how great the Haunted Mansion is. When I rode it, I thought it was almost a complete waste. I like knoebels some, but I don't think it is that great.
September 7, 2010 at 4:36 PM · ^ Thomas, the Haunted Mansion is based on the classic dark rides of days gone bye. 60 years ago, this kind of dark ride was very popular and I rode a number of them back then. It's meant to look corney and plain, that's the way they were back then and people loved them. Things were simplier, easy going and taking a girl in a dark scary ride was the in thing to do, if you get my drift. Have you ever been in an old fashion Fun House, they had a great one at Crystal Beach in Canada before they closed the park down.

As far as the food, to each his own. Some people love their food, others don't. Just like all the other parks I've been to, some food is good and some is not and Disney is included also, as is Universal and Sea World. I've had bad food at all of them, but only somethings are garbage can worthy, just like at Knoebels.

Bobby, formally known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

September 8, 2010 at 7:05 AM · Should note something here tho -- a 'classic" park like Kennywood. Idlewild Conneaut Lake etc are NOT "theme parks". A "theme" park is Disney, Busch, etc where the experience is very strictly "scripted" so that what you see & do is very much controlled & directed.

This is not to say such a park isn't fun. But the experience is entirely different than an old fashioned park where you get to set the pace. Classic parks tend to be far more relaxing, because you aren't "programmed" so much.

Just 2 cents worth -- there is a difference, & sending someone to Kennywood as a "theme park" will only disappoint someone who's then expecting a Disney experience; sad thing then is the possibility of their not appreciating the uniqueness of a true classic park.

September 8, 2010 at 12:45 PM · I second and third the Kennywood idea. One of my best friends and I had a blast there.
As to Kings Dominion, it used to be good. The park is really showing its age and needs a major refurbishment.
September 8, 2010 at 3:12 PM · ^^ A few posts up (random stranger), I would like to say Six Flags and Cedar Fair and almost every park you call an "amusement park" now has begun adding themed attractions. Almost every park may now be considered a theme park. Please name one that can't?
September 8, 2010 at 4:48 PM · It's good to see Kennywood getting some attention, but don't forget about it's sister park Idlewild. this park is mostly for the little ones but it is an affordable family park which most of the larger parks are not.

Voted #2 best kids park in the world by Amusment Today

Voted top 5 Park for families by National Amusement Park Historical Association

Ranked as one of America's beatiful Theme Parks

Even here in Pittsburgh it is overlooked. our Union picnic is there every year and we look foward to going each year. There is no "cutting edge" rides, but there is a relaxing wooded setting to enjoy with the family.

September 8, 2010 at 7:09 PM · ^ Nick, I can name one and you can even Google it up,

Knoebels Amusement Resort.

Not to far back it was known as Knoebels Amuusement Park with a simple change of park to resort. And I don't remember much themeing since it's set in the woods of northeast Pennsylvania.

Bobby, formally known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

September 9, 2010 at 11:24 PM · New here. First post.

Though i've never been...I'd have to say Cedar Point in Ohio would be a park worth braving a trip to Ohio for. I've always been intrigued about the amount and caliber of their roller coasters. Millennium Force, Magnum XL-200 and Top Thrill Dragster are rides i'm dying to get on.

A nice weekend in Cleveland at the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame and Cedar Point has been on my mind.

September 10, 2010 at 11:39 AM · In my native New Jersey, we have Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, but what about Wild West City in Netcong? This Werstern-themed park dosen't get much publicity, and I haven't been there. This place is perfect for kids who want to become cowboys (or cowgirls) for the day.

I now live in Tampa Bay, Florida, 30 miles from Busch Gardens and an hour from the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resorts and SeaWorld Orlando. But visitors overlook The Holy Land Experience, which is a Christian-themed park. You won't fine any high-tech rides at either overlooked park I mentioned, but any of them is worth visiting!

September 11, 2010 at 8:15 AM · You can never count out Pennsylvania for a wealth of unique, family friendly parks. Every corner of the state has them and they are all very special to those who grew up with them. My heart will forever belong to Kennywood and her sister park Idlewild. But, a 2 1/2 hour drive north and you run into a 2 beautiful parks, Waldeemer(which offers FREE admission, and a well done remake of the Ravine Flyer, along with two classic dark rides) and Conneaut Lake (Currently still in need of donations to repair the Blue Streak.) In central PA, Altoona features Lakemont Park with the oldest running roller coaster in the world. Not far from there is DelGrossos, in Tipton. It's a great little family park. And still further east you have Knoebles Grove. All in all, PA is a great place for classic and modern rides combined with family values.
September 11, 2010 at 8:19 AM · I forgot to mention Hershey in my rant about PA parks. It does feature some very modern rides and a family atmosphere, and you can smell chocolate in the park!
September 11, 2010 at 7:43 PM · I must concur with Parc Futuroscope. The architecture is like a souped up Future World, and the theater with 21 iMax screens (one in front and one below the transparent floor) was amazing.
September 12, 2010 at 9:31 AM · Another nod to Dollywood and Dollywood's Splash Country water park. Great theming, friendly people, terrific thrill rides and great family rides. Lots of things to do, takes more than a day to see it all even on a low attendance day. They also offer a q-bot reservation system for an additional cost that can reserve a spot on select rides and shows so you can take a bathroom break and grab a snack then walk right up to the front of the line. And unlike the FastPass system, you can be on the other side of the park when you reserve your spot on the portable device. Really on par with Disney's level of theming and attention to detail. Sadly almost as expensive as Disney as well.

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