Tournament 2018: What is America's top indie theme park?

March 7, 2018, 1:57 PM · The first round of the 2018 Theme Park Insider Tournament to determine the world's best theme park continues with some of America's favorite, but smaller, theme parks.

While you won't find any of these parks on the TEA/AECOM attendance lists, each of them consistently shows up in online discussions about America's best theme parks. They've won over their devoted fanbases with excellent customer service, pleasant surroundings, and some surprisingly innovative attractions that casual fans might not expect from parks you never see in a national TV commercial.

Dollywood, in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, has won Theme Park Insider Awards for Miss Lillian's Chicken House and Mystery Mine. Santa Claus, Indiana's Holiday World dominated several of our original Theme Park Insider Tournaments back in the day. Branson, Missouri's Silver Dollar City is about to drop the world the world's fastest, tallest, and steepest spinning coaster later this month. (Theme Park Insider will be there for the opening!) And Knoebels, in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, is a great, old-school park where you don't have to pay to park or enter. It's all pay-per-ride.

Here is our Theme Park Insider coverage of recent major coaster openings at each park, including POV video:

If you have visited any of these parks, please help add to our reader ratings and reviews via these pages:

You'll need to register with Theme Park Insider to leave reviews (and to participate in our Discussion Forum), but anyone can submit a rating.

Time to vote!

And congratulations to Ferrari World Abu Dhabi, which won our "play in" round vote and now advances into the European regional. Tomorrow, the first round continues with "Which is the better theme park in the UK?," featuring Alton Towers vs. Thorpe Park, and a biggie, "What's the best park at Universal Orlando?" with Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure squaring off.

No, CityWalk is not a contestant in that vote.

Replies (14)

March 7, 2018 at 2:24 PM ·

I think it's a shame Dollywood is considered to be an "Indie" park. Yes - I understand the reasoning, but anyone who has ever been there will understand how amazingly high the quality is in every aspect of the park and how it is operated.
Knoebels is also a great place, but it is much more along the lines of that I think this category is all about.

March 7, 2018 at 2:40 PM ·

I wouldn't consider Dollywood an indie park, at least not anymore. Over the past 15 years it has changed a lot is more of a corporate mega-park now. It's still a great park with some unique things going for it, but I just can't call it an indie park. To me thats like calling Busch Gardens an indie park.

I haven't been to SDC since 2007 but really enjoyed it for what it was. I'd probably put that at the top of my list.

Honestly I think Holiday World is over rated and don't buy into the hype. Raven and Legend aren't nearly as good as the enthusiast community makes them out to be (even when they were new rides I never though they were that great). I don't think i've ever had either of them in my top 10. Voyage is a great coaster but I haven't ridden it in a long time and am kind of afraid to ride it again as those kind of rides have a tendency to get really bad (i'm sure HW tries to take really good care of it but still). Haven't ridden Thunderbird.
The most disappointing aspect of HW to me is the general atmosphere. It's just very "bleh". The theming it has is not terrible but its not good, the rides aren't that great, the food isn't that good, the employees honestly weren't really that friendly (at least when I was there), and its out in the middle of nowhere without anything special in terms of landscaping. It was just a very "bleh" park. If this park had no hype or no press I would probably like it a lot better, it just doesn't live up to the big reputation it built for itself.

March 7, 2018 at 2:51 PM ·

Dollywood is owned by the same company that operates SDC (Herschend), so if Dollywood is too corporate for you then SDC should be out of this category too.

If we were to really evaluate what are truly "indie" parks, we'd have to look at places like Hersheypark, Kennywood, Lagoon, and Indiana Beach (along with Kneobels and Holiday World).

March 7, 2018 at 2:57 PM ·

It doesn't sound like you are an amusement park person at all. Holiday World is an amazing experience. The overall value, rides/visit ratio and low average wait times can't be beat by any park. Food is good, not great, but again a good value. I've been to every park mentioned in this article (including Ferrari World), plus Disney and Universal. I go back to HW again and again. I don't live next to it, and I'm not affiliated with it so all - It's a 12 hour drive to get there.

March 7, 2018 at 2:59 PM ·

I struggled with a title for this one.

I wanted parks that were too small to show up on the TEA attendance list but that had devoted followings who might be able to make a viable case for "best theme park." I went with "indie" because none of these parks are owned by any major chains - such as Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Six Flags, Cedar Fair, or Merlin.

Yes, Herschend is a chain, but it's not a very big one. And while Kennywood, Lagoon, et al are fine parks, I just didn't see the support for any of them not to get crushed in this vote.

March 7, 2018 at 3:02 PM ·

I've visited three of the four (still need to hit Silver Dollar City...probably in 2019), and all three are among my top ten parks. Based on my experiences, I'd say the following:

Dollywood: Of the three, this is the most well-rounded park. It offers everything from great family rides to serious roller coasters, all in an excellent setting and with some very decent theming for a regional park. That said, this park does feel a bit more corporate than the others due to ownership by Herschend, but it still maintains the unique touches that separate it from the parks of Cedar Fair, Six Flags, or SeaWorld.

Holiday World: Of the three, I'd probably name this one as my favorite. They have some amazing rides and the staff at the park are consistently top notch. That said, a large part of my enjoyment of this park is that one ticket gets you an above-average theme park and a top notch waterpark. If you just go for the rides, you'll find a decent park with a handful of top notch rides in an otherwise average collection, but not anything to blow you away. With both parks, however, it becomes a full day destination with enough unique attractions to justify a visit.

Knoebels: Of the three, this feels the most like a true indie park. It is buried deep in the woods, with rides placed where they fit rather than with any type of advance planning. There's no theming whatsoever, but the natural setting is all the park needs. They've got a nice mix of rides, ranging from modern thrills to old-school attractions that you can't really find anymore. The main reason I don't rank this first is that it is a bit difficult to spend a full day here unless you really like flat rides, but it is absolutely worth a visit on a Pennsylvania trip (in fact, I'd rank it above Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Hersheypark for best park on the East Coast).

March 7, 2018 at 3:29 PM ·

Knoebel's is a fantastic and very unique park, and probably the only actual Indie park of the two I've been to on this list, but I have to give the edge to Dollywood if that's going to be included. That's a beautiful park also with a top notch wooden coaster and other great coasters. Even their family launched coaster is great fun. It's also an absolutely beautiful park. I could do without the religious stuff, but it's easy enough to ignore if it doesn't interest you.

March 7, 2018 at 4:05 PM ·

"Dollywood is owned by the same company that operates SDC (Herschend), so if Dollywood is too corporate for you then SDC should be out of this category too."
Just because they are owned by the same company doesn't mean they are the same experience.

March 7, 2018 at 4:28 PM ·

Among tough competition, Silver Dollar City stands tall and is far and away my favorite “Indie” park. In fact, I consider it the best theme park east of Disneyland and west of the Magic Kingdom. It is a wonderful place. It has great coasters, fun dark rides, amazing food, friendly and enthusiastic employees, stellar entertainment, beautiful scenery and grounds, reasonable prices, and a freaking real life natural cave tour as part of your paid admission. For those of you on the fence, vote SDC, it is the “best of the best” in this contest without a doubt.

March 7, 2018 at 5:12 PM ·

I enjoyed Holiday World on my sole visit in 2014 (especially the water park there), but a month later, I visited Dollywood and it blew me away. It was easily the highlight of my summer. Mystery Mine proves that you don't need Disney cash to do a Disney-type ride.

March 8, 2018 at 7:15 AM ·

Why doesn't Hersheypark qualify? That would be my choice if it were eligible.

Went with Dollywood, but all four are great.

March 8, 2018 at 5:11 PM ·

Knoebels by far !!

March 8, 2018 at 8:56 PM ·

Sad day when the best park in the bracket finishes in a distant last place. The TPI faithful really need to make the trip to Branson and experience Silver Dollar City first hand. The other three parks on the list are indeed top notch, but this contest should have been much closer.

March 11, 2018 at 7:45 AM ·

Voted for my home park, Knoebels!

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