Nowhere can you find more daredevil thrills and family-friendly fun for all ages than at North America’s top amusement parks, where world-record-breaking roller coasters and waterslides meet pleasant throwbacks to the earliest days of theme parks. Get your adrenaline pumping and your trunks wet at our favorite theme parks in the USA and Canada.
Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio
For freefall thrills, nothing beats Sandusky’s Cedar Point, where you’ll find one of the world’s greatest concentration of roller coasters. There are 18 in all, including Steel Vengeance with its 30-second initial drop, Top Thrill which hits speeds of 120 mph and the Maverick which boosts a 95-degree incline (geometry fans, that’s steeper than straight down). There’s also a beach and water park for when you’ve had enough plummeting.
Knoebels Amusement Park, Elysburg, Pennsylvania
A great amusement park doesn’t have to be brand-new and shiny. Knoebels, open since 1926, is a real shoestring traveler’s delight, offering free admission to the park and bargain tickets for individual rides. Channel your inner winter Olympian on Flying Turns, the world’s only wooden bobsled roller coaster, powered solely by the force of gravity. If you’re in the mood for gentler, Americana-tinged thrills, visit the park’s bald eagle habitat or watch the sparks fly at a live blacksmithing demo – both free.
Canada’s Wonderland, Vaughan, Ontario
Canada’s Wonderland, 25 miles north of Toronto, has over a dozen coasters among its 250 rides, including the Yukon Striker, the world's fastest, longest and tallest dive coaster. Visitors can ride Canada’s most Canadian ride, the Lumberjack, a spin on the classic ship rides where you sit instead atop two whirling axe blades. Once you regain your balance, take in some entertainment at the Welcome to Tundra: A Cirque Experience or the Snoopy's Dog Days of Summer show.
Schlitterbahn Waterpark, New Braunfels, Texas
Everything’s bigger in Texas, including summer temperatures, and, mercifully, the water park options. The best of the Schlitterbahn chain of parks is in New Braunfels, between Austin and San Antonio on I-35.
Borrowing some familiar-seeming Bavarian castle motifs from a certain Walt, the 70-acre park features three miles of river with over 50 rides including tube chutes, speed slides, a wave river to float down and activity pools. If you think a waterslide is a waterslide, you haven’t met the Master Blaster Uphill Water Coaster – did you catch the word 'uphill'?
Noah’s Ark, Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
In the rolling farmlands north of Madison, the Dells is mostly kitschy taffy and fudge houses and overpriced rides, but Noah’s Ark is for real. There are over 50 slides including Raja – The World’s Largest King Cobra, the tallest and longest waterslide of its kind in the world filled with serpentine twists. There's also a couple of rivers to float and a kiddie play zone.
Six Flags Great Adventure, Jackson, New Jersey
Six Flags outpost in New Jersey is home to the tallest and fastest roller coaster in America – the Kingda Ka drops 456 feet. The CYBORG Cyber Spin is a seven-story, three-axis gyroscope that spins in any and all directions with no way to know what’s coming next – just watching from a distance can be enough to make you dizzy. Six Flags serves the 20-plus million residents of the greater New York area, so brace for lines. If you’re not into hardcore thrills, there's a Wild Safari zoo and a refurbished 15-story Ferris wheel.
Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles
Like Disney, Universal Studios has set itself up for a west versus east showdown, but the Hollywood location offers something no other amusement park can: a real, working movie studio worked into the entertainment. The hour-long studio tours take you behind the scenes of blockbuster movies from King Kong to Psycho – and hold onto your seats for the Fast and Furious finale. Harry Potter fans can buy wizard wares in Hogsmeade, and do a Harry meets Buckbeak reenactment on the Flight of the Hippogriff ride.
Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, Orlando, Florida
Bigger than its Californian brother, the Magic Kingdom – one of several Disney parks, including Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom – is the Orlando original and remains one of the biggest tourist draws in Florida. The indoor coaster at Space Mountain, the pre-Johnny Depp Pirates of the Caribbean and endlessly looping 'It’s a Small World' all make you feel like time stands still here. The lines can also standstill, especially after the Star Wars addition, so plan your visit for slower times or use the FastPass+ app to reserve ride tickets in advance.
First published in January 2013. Updated July 2019.