Nowhere can you find more daredevil thrills and family-friendly fun for all ages than in the USA and Canada, 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 10 favorite amusement and water parks in North America.
Cedar Point has some state-of-the-art rides, but don't forgo the classic wooden coasters © AWelshLad / Getty Images
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 the new addition of the high-speed Steel Vengeance with an initial drop that lasts 30 seconds, a 400-ft drop aboard the 120-mph Top Thrill, or the 95-degree incline of the Maverick (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.
Keep an eye on the undergrowth in Canada's Wonderland – you never know what might be lurking there... © Roberto Machado Noa / Getty Images
Canada’s Wonderland, Vaughan, Ontario
Canada’s Wonderland, 25 miles north of Toronto, has nearly a dozen coasters among its 250 rides, including the Leviathan, the nation’s biggest and fastest. 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, explore fun thematic areas like the Medieval Fair and over 40 life-size, animatronic, non-avian dinosaurs at 'Dinosaurs Alive!' (note: they’re not alive).
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 a ‘haunted water ride’ called the Curse of the Crypt, a couple rivers to float, an island ‘playzone’ for the whippersnappers, and, coming in summer 2018, Raja – The World’s Largest King Cobra, the tallest and longest waterslide of its kind in the world filled with serpentine twists.
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 418 ft. The new 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-storey Ferris wheel.
Expect eyeball-popping entertainment at the new DreamWorks Theatre, Universal Studios Hollywood © Paul Archuleta / Getty Images
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. The new DreamWorks Theatre provides a one-of-a-kind multisensory movie-watching experience (starting with Kung Fu Panda in 2018).
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 stand still, so plan your visit for slower times or use the FastPass+ app to reserve ride tickets in advance.
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First published in January 2013.