6 must-visit amusement & water parks
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Love adrenaline-pumping roller coasters? Or is the lazy river your happy place? No matter your speed, there’s lots of great amusement and water parks worthy of a summer pilgrimage.
If you haven’t been in a while, know this: Theme parks have been getting some thrilling, high-tech upgrades. We’re talking 4-D roller coasters (think: As a rider, your seat can spin about independently from the cart) and out-of-this-world animatronics. But, yes, there’s still funnel cakes. And, cotton candy. Along with Harry Potter-inspired, caramel-infused ButterBeer at one magical park.
Prepare to throw your hands up in the air and plot your must-do rides out on a map. We’ve teamed with TripAdvisor to scout out the best theme parks for a quintessential summer vacation. Thousands of TripAdvisor reviewers who have “been there, done that” review everything from theme parks to hotels, leaving their opinions and advice to help point future travelers in the right direction. You can also rely on TripAdvisor to book flights and reservations directly, find travel itineraries, ask questions in forums and use their app on the go.
Here’s five great theme park vacations, plus a great escape for those craving some speedway thrills — but without the lines and crowds.
We know, Harry Potter fans, you’re wishing you could teleport yourself here to this theme park right now. Among the many attractions at Universal’s Islands of Adventure is The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where you can ride the high-speed “Dragon Challenge” coaster, sample a mug of “Butterbeer” and eat authentic British food at the rustic Three Broomsticks restaurant. “Fanatics of Harry Potter will enjoy investigating the nooks and crannies of the exhibit,” says one TripAdvisor reviewer. Don’t know what a Muggle is and never dreamed of playing a game of Quidditch? No problem: The park has plenty of other themed adventures from a Dr. Seuss-themed trolley ride for younger children to The Incredible Hulk coaster for thrillseekers.
Disney’s Blizzard Beach in Orlando, Florida:
If Christmas in July is perceivable, then we can also get behind a blizzard in Florida. Beat the summer heat and head to to Disney’s Blizzard Beach for winter-themed tube rides and lazy rivers. The wave pool is enormous (an acre!) and there are tube rides that can fit the whole family on board. A must-do-ride according to TripAdvisor reviewers? The Toboggan Racers, a hilly slalom-style water slide. But, we’re guessing your Frozen-obsessed children will love Blizzard Beach’s “Frozen Games,” which includes an ice pail relay, ski pole limbo and slide races. Keep cool by renting a shaded “polar patio” or get frosty desserts at the I.C. Expeditions stand.
Water World in Federal Heights, Colorado:
You’ll want to reserve at least two vacation days to truly conquer this epic, 70-acre water park. The park (just about 20 minutes from downtown Denver), features 50-some attractions, including 1,250 feet of water slides. New this year: Cowabunga Beach, an expansive wave pool where you’ll feel like you’ve been transported to a beach via boogie board. Theme park aficionados will be wowed by the high-tech Warp Speed ride, an intergalactic water slide gaming challenge that’s framed in a space setting. Space riders can sign into the game’s app at home (slideboarding.com) to play the game virtually and then experience in real life at Water World. “This place is gigantic,” one reviewer writes. “There are a ton of slides and the wave pool is the best I’ve ever been to.”
Universal Studios, Hollywood, California:
California is home to some pretty epic theme parks and vacation destinations. Among them? Universal Studios, which TripAdvisor reviewers rave about for having great attractions, but fewer lines. Thrill seekers, head to the Transformers ride. It’s enhanced with 3D media and flight simulation technology, for an out-of-this-world experience. California’s rendition of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter attraction is also mesmerizing guests: “I nearly lost my mind in the Harry Potter attraction. It was like walking into the movie,” one reviewer says. In time for Fourth of July, a post-apocalyptic Walking Dead attraction is also debuting. (You don’t want to sleep on that one!)
Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio:
Coaster lovers, point your GPS to Cedar Point, which is dubbed the Roller Coaster Capital of the World. “You really cannot top Cedar Point. Definitely go for the fast pass and try out all the coasters,” one TripAdvisor reviewer raves. Visitors are shrieking over the Valravn, which is new for 2016 and is the tallest, fastest, longest dive coaster in the world. You climb almost 225 feet into the sky before you’re held over the edge for the longest four seconds of your life. Then, it’s a 75 mile per hour, 90-degree dive down. The coaster is a 3-minute journey.
Busch Gardens, Williamsburg, Virginia:
This amusement park has a little something for every type of visitor. “There’s plenty to do for the whole day even if you don’t ride the rides,” one TripAdvisor reviewer says. A park favorite is the Loch Ness Monster, a double-looping roller coaster that speeds up to 60 mph. In addition to world-class rides, you can enjoy food and wine festivals. Or, visit the park’s animals, including American Bald Eagles or take a visit to the Highland Stables to interact with blackface sheep and their border collie guardians. If you can’t make it this summer, the park puts on special events for Halloween and Christmas, as well.
Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin:
Rev your engines, speed demons. For a trip that’s off-the-beaten path, but filled with adventure, head to Elkhart Lake, just about an hour outside of Milwaukee. Avoid the lines and crowds and zip around the Go-Kart track at Road America. (Unlike most tracks you’ve been to, you can get a print-out of your speed, and where you placed among your group, at the end of the ride). Stick around for a race, as well. “A trip to Road America is more than just seeing the cars on track. The grounds are just amazing — it’s like you’re at a park,” one TripAdvisor reviewer writes. Check into The Osthoff Resort (reviewers beam about the lake views) and continue your adventure by playing on the lake with huge hydro-bikes or stand up paddleboards.