Lovers of sand, surf and theme parks will find no shortage of fun things to do in Florida. From bustling metropolises that are havens for foodies and party people to tranquil beaches and stunning national parks, the Sunshine State offers thrills aplenty, and Florida’s dazzling selection of theme parks pushes the state to the top of the fun scale.
There’s so much to see beyond Walt Disney World (though the Disney magic keeps growing each year, too), from mega-parks with high-speed coasters to relaxing water parks and quirky indoor finds. And yes, Florida's theme parks have more to offer than just experiences for kiddos.
Whether you’re a Florida resident, a seasoned theme park aficionado or a first-time visitor to the Sunshine State, you’ll find your own level of adventure. Here are the best theme parks in Florida to add to your vacation itinerary.
Busch Gardens Tampa
Best theme park for animal lovers
Florida’s amusement park scene expands well beyond Orlando – Tampa's Busch Gardens is a 330-acre mammoth of a theme park with 16 thrill rides, including the new-for-2022 Iron Gwazi, which is billed as the fastest and steepest hybrid coaster in the world. Busch Gardens has an African theme – sections include Congo, Morocco and Sesame Street Safari of Fun – and a steam train chugs around the park.
Busch Gardens also serves as Tampa’s largest zoo, and it’s home to more than 200 species, including sloths and Florida’s iconic flamingos. The park offers some unique animal encounters – at the Animal Care Center, you can see rehabilitating animals getting X-rays and undergoing treatments, while a train ride through its giraffe-dotted Serengeti Plain offers a taste of the Africa savanna.
Another bonus – the park is one of just a few dozen establishments in the United States to be awarded the Humane Certified seal from American Humane, for its ethical treatment of the animals in its care.
Best theme park for beating the heat
Florida can be a muggy, sun-blaring beast come the summertime, so on any theme park outing in the Sunshine State, you need to be prepared with plenty of drinking water and sun protection. Or you can opt for the 800,000 sq ft of indoor fun that is Dezerland Park in Orlando.
Entertainingly interactive, Dezerland Park has an ax-throwing area, a trampoline park, a neon-lit miniature golf course, an indoor karting track and bowling lanes. And if the long lines at other parks leave you hopping mad, you can let it all out at Dezerland Park’s rage room smashing up old electronics.
Best theme park for kids
Florida has an entire theme park dedicated to what could be the world's best childhood toy: Lego! In fact, there are ten Legolands around the globe to explore, from Japan to Dubai, though the Florida park is one of the best. Living up to its name, the Legoland at Winter Haven has building block-inspired rides and interactive experiences that are guaranteed to make kids – and reminiscing adults – smile.
One of the biggest draws for kiddos is the 4D Ninjago Ride, based on the company’s martial arts-inspired characters, but perhaps the biggest thrill is the roller coaster known as The Dragon, which whirls riders through a Lego castle. No day at Legoland would be complete without a visit to MiniLand USA, an outdoor area chock-full of Lego-built replicas of cities, attractions and American icons. A Peppa Pig-themed zone is slated to open in 2022.
Best theme park bargain in Florida
With tickets running at nearly half the cost of its larger counterparts in the Orlando area, Fun Spot still delivers the thrills. In fact, there are two Fun Spots in Central Florida - one in Orlando and one in Kissimmee, and if you’re venturing out of state, there’s one in Atlanta, too.
Fun Spot's Orlando hub has a massive carnival vibe, with fairground games, a funhouse, amusement arcades, bumper cars, a Ferris wheel and, yes, some proper coasters. And, on the coaster front, Fun Spot offers something that you won’t find anywhere else in the Orlando area: an old-fashioned wooden coaster known as White Lightning.
With the money you’ll save on parking (it's free) you can load up on treats in the Fun Food area, including funnel cakes, deep-fried candy bars and more.
Universal Studios Florida (plus Universal’s Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay)
Best theme park to be dazzled and starstruck
Owned and operated by the media mega-corp NBCUniversal, Universal is where you’ll find experiences inspired by your favorite movie characters. The celebrity roll call includes Harry Potter, the Hulk, The Simpsons and Woody Woodpecker. Between the rides are meticulously crafted outdoor areas that resemble New York City’s Central Park, Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and Hollywood.
The world of Universal covers three parks. At a minimum, you’ll want a buy two-park pass that grants you access to Universal Studios Florida and the movie-themed Islands of Adventure. If you're really in the theme park mood, add Volcano Bay, Universal’s water park. The best rides here are set in the 200ft-tall Krakatau artificial volcano, including the fan-favorite Krakatau Aqua Coaster – aboard a four-person canoe, you'll twist and turn through the volcano before bursting out through a lava-like waterfall for the finale.
Walt Disney World
Best theme park for making your own adventure
With 25,000-plus acres of grounds, four theme parks, two water parks and Disney magic binding it all together, the only question with Walt Disney World is where to begin. One thing is for sure: you’ll want to opt for the Park Hopper ticket, which allows you to visit more than one park on the same day, rather than tying yourself to a single-day, single-park option.
There are thrill rides aplenty for the kids, and the build-it-yourself “drinking around the world” adventure at Epcot remains a top outing for grown-ups. The various nation-themed areas within the park each offer their own alcoholic concoctions. You can sip a Grey Goose-infused orange slush in France, or apple ice wine in Canada, before mopping up the booze with potstickers from the China pavilion or a funnel cake in the North American corner.
For families with tots in tow, the nightly fireworks at Magic Kingdom create a memory that will last a lifetime. Another top family zone is the open-air Kilimanjaro Safari in Animal Kingdom, a charming way to get close to some friendly giraffes.
WonderWorks Upside Down Museum
Best quirky-yet-educational theme park
Just looking at WonderWorks is a spectacle all by itself. This upside-down building in Panama City Beach creates a wild contrast to the pharmacy and buffet restaurant it's wedged between. The back story for this museum-meets-theme park is that Wonderworks was once a top-secret laboratory, but an experiment went horribly wrong and the building miraculously blew through the air from the Bermuda Triangle to Panama City Beach.
The real fun is inside. WonderWorks features more than 100 hands-on exhibits organized into themed zones, including an Extreme Weather area where you can feel the effects of a Category 1 hurricane and a 5.3-magnitude earthquake. WonderWorks also has a partner museum in Orlando.
You may also like:
First-time Florida Keys: island hopping along the Overseas Highway
12 best things to do in Florida, from rockets and rollercoasters to the Everglades
How to avoid Florida's crowds: a year-round guide