A tour of the world's best amusement parks

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When we found out that Lonely Planet reader Lisa Scheinin had visited more than 500 amusement parks (and ridden more than 1300 roller coasters in 36 countries on six continents), we had to ask: which ones are her favourites? Here are just a few:

Amusement parks may be the most overlooked of all travel destinations. Most people are familiar with the Disney parks, but there are plenty of lesser-known, safe, clean and surprisingly entertaining parks in every corner of the world that are worth a visit.  And they’re not just for kids.

Today’s amusement parks have moved way beyond the uninspired collections of carnival rides, greasy food and dubious games of chance of sixty years ago.  Are you looking for great rides, beautifully themed areas, old-time atmosphere or something utterly unique?  Here are a few parks from around the world that can stand up to any cathedral, palace or museum.

If you're looking for fun (lots of rides, great theming, or both):

  • Europa Park, Rust, Germany: You’ll feel like you’ve visited thirteen European countries. The theming is elaborate and the food and rides are top notch.
  • Everland, Suwon, South Korea: Korea’s largest park has tons of rides (including Korea’s only wooden coaster) and an entertaining drive-through animal park.
  • Fuji-Q Highland, Fujiyoshida, Japan: One of Japan’s most avant-garde parks.  There are coasters of every conceivable type, an appropriately scary walk-through haunted house, and a magnificent view of Mt Fuji.
  • Happy Valley parks, China: Find them in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenzhen (more are planned), each with elaborate theming and gleaming new rides. The Beijing branch is perhaps the most striking.
  • Holiday World, Santa Claus, Indiana, USA: This holiday-themed park has not one but three Top Ten-ranked wooden coasters, and has been ranked #1 for cleanliness and friendliness in enthusiast surveys.  Santa is in residence year-round.
  • Knoebel’s Amusement Resort, Elysburg, Pennsylvania, USA: This rural park is like a blast from the past.  Excellent coasters, one of the world’s best dark rides, and one of the few carousels where you can still grab for the brass ring.
  • Liseberg, Gothenburg, Sweden: The out-of-you-seats wooden coaster Balder is a favourite of coaster fans worldwide. The walk-through Hotel Gasten (Ghost Hotel) yields some genuine scares.
  • Pleasure Beach, Blackpool, England: This old-time, non-themed amusement park has an endearing jumble of rides, including four wooden coasters and one of the world’s few Derby Racers (an intense carousel-like ride).
  • Tivoli, Copenhagen, Denmark: Rides, fine dining and a magical atmosphere converge in this park in the heart of Copenhagen. Don’t miss the old-time funhouse and the brakeman-driven scenic railway.
  • Tripsdrill, Cleebronn, Germany: Clever theming, fun rides and little surprises are the rule here, from the Bathtub Flume to the Vinarium (wine museum).
  • Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo, Japan: There’s no formulaic castle or Main Street at this unique, water-oriented Disney park.  The elaborate theming is absolutely stunning.
  • Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, Orlando, Florida: Another park with just the right blend of great rides and fabulous theming- especially the unique Dr Seuss and Harry Potter areas (drink a butterbeer!).

If you're looking for something truly unique:

  • Bonbon-Land, Holme-Olstrup, Denmark: This park continues the body-function humour that its candy company founder began.  The results are occasionally hilarious—like the Hundeprutte Rutschebanen (Dog Fart Coaster). You can buy Hundeprutte candy- a salty, sour liquorice - too.
  • Ferrari World, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates: Formula One fans will love the racing theme, and everyone can get blown away on Formula Rossa, the world’s fastest coaster (in 2011).
  • Kansai Cycle Sports Center, Kawachi-Nagano, Japan: Everything in this rural park south of Osaka hinges on cycling.  You even have to pedal the coaster and the carousel.
  • Prater, Vienna, Austria: An eclectic mix of modern and classic rides from the horse-powered carousel to the Riesenrad - an immense Ferris Wheel built in 1897.
  • Schlitterbahn, New Braunfels, Texas, USA: This immense, extraordinary water park makes superb use of the Comal River flowing through it.
  • Suoi Tien, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: Rides take a back seat to relaxation here. The grounds are dotted with real temples, contemplative grottoes and interesting statuary. And you can feed the crocodiles.
  • Tibidabo, Barcelona, Spain: High on a hill, this park mixes magnificent views with an eclectic collection of rides, some of which exist nowhere else in the world.
  • Xetulul, Retalhuleu, Guatemala: This surprisingly elaborate gem in the jungle is deservedly Guatemala’s biggest tourist attraction. There’s an adjacent water park and erupting volcano.

Further reading: You can get information about these and hundreds of other parks at the Roller Coaster Database. US travel editor Robert Reid has also written about his favourite theme parks in North America.

Lisa Scheinin MD  lives near Los Angeles, California and supports her travel and park habit by working as a forensic pathologist.