The Most Underrated Theme Parks Across the US

The word summer may instantly bring to mind a variety of different images. Backyard barbeques on the porch, a relaxing day at your local beach, a moonlit baseball game when the sun’s gone down and it’s slightly cool enough to sit outside. Or, better yet, maybe you’re the type of person who is instantly envisioning their next trip to the closest theme park near you.

There are dozens upon dozens of fantastic amusement parks spread out across the US, from the several Six Flags that dot the country to larger amusement parks like those owned and operated by Disney or Universal. However, it’s also worth noting how many lesser-known theme parks there are throughout the nation, from parks nestled in the farmlands of Pennsylvania to those that sit right alongside the Great Lakes.

Here are some of the most underrated theme parks in the US, all of which we’d recommend for the perfect summer day away from home.

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Hersheypark — Hershey, Pennsylvania

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You wouldn’t think Pennsylvania is known for its theme parks, but with places like Kennywood and Hersheypark offering all kinds of thrills and chills throughout the summer months, a hard argument can be made that Pennsylvania is the go-to place for theme parks in the Northeastern US.

A theme park with a key focus on chocolate, it doesn’t get much sweeter than Hershey. The park boasts dozens of rides, ranging from old-fashioned wooden roller coasters to log flumes, drop rides, a large zoo, and side-by-side roller coasters that race one another.

If you’re not one for rides, Hershey also of course offers chocolate and sweets around every corner, with its trademark Hershey's Chocolate World containing pretty much every candy or candy-related product imaginable in its store. There’s even a ride that walks you through how Hershey’s chocolate is made through every stage of its production. For those with an incurable sweet tooth, this is a must.

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Cedar Point — Sandusky, Ohio

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Resting on the banks of Lake Erie, Cedar Point has quite possibly some of the best attractions out of any theme park on the continent. There’s the Cedar Point classic Millenium Force — the park’s most popular ride — which features a thrilling 300-foot drop at descending speeds of 91 mph.

The park is without a doubt made for roller coaster enthusiasts — just check out the absurdly high drops for Steel Vengeance, Valravn, or Magnum XL-200 — but there’s also plenty for non-roller coaster fans as well. During the summer months, the park opens its doors to the adjacent Cedar Point Shores water park, containing just over a dozen water slides in addition to its various pools and other water-based attractions.

The recently-opened Snake Rider Expedition or the 15-minute long Cedar Point & Lake Erie Railroad ride also make for an ideal stop for park attendees of all ages, not to mention the beautiful sights the park affords over the scenic lake and its surrounding woodland area.

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Dollywood — Pigeon Forge, Tennessee

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You don’t have to love country music to love Dollywood, the passion project of renowned country singer Dolly Parton. As family-friendly a park as it gets, Dollywood is the premiere destination for anyone looking for a fun place to visit in the Southern US.

Sprawling over 150 acres and offering over 40 rides to park attendees, Dollywood is broken into a whopping 11 themed lands, containing all kinds of delicious restaurants and amenities throughout. Additionally, there are all kinds of concerts and musical events year-round, so be sure to check out the park’s schedule ahead of time in case you want to time your visit with your favorite musicians.

If you get tired of the sun or want to spend an additional few days nearby, you can also check out some of Parton’s adjoining properties. There’s Dollywood’s Splash Country water park, Dollywood's DreamMore Resort and Spa, Dolly Parton’s Stampede (a Western-themed dinner and show, similar to Medieval Times), and a huge museum showcasing Parton’s life and career over the years.

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Busch Gardens — Williamsburg, Virginia and Tampa Bay, Florida

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Busch Gardens has two locations on the East Coast — one in Tampa Bay and the other in Williamsburg. It’s tough to say which is the better of the two, but for our money, if you had to choose between them, we’d recommend visiting Busch Garden’s Williamsburg location.

Themed after several European countries, Busch Gardens takes plenty of inspiration from local myths and legends that abound in Europe, using them as the basis for their various rides and roller coasters. For example, you have the Loch Ness Monster — the only remaining roller coast left with interlocking loops — and the critically acclaimed Apollo’s Chariot, well-known for its eight hills that give you some serious airtime.

Known predominantly for its above-par roller coasters, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a wonderful place that’s a happy comprise for history buffs, roller coaster fans, and those who always wanted to visit Europe but don’t necessarily have the budget to cross the Atlantic. It may lack the zoo Busch Gardens Tampa Bay is known for, but it more than readily makes up for it with its massive selection of rides and (most importantly) variety of roller coasters.

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Holiday World & Splashin' Safari — Santa Claus, Indiana

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Located in the fittingly-named town of Santa Claus, Indiana, Holiday World & Splashin' Safari is a Midwestern theme park and sister water park with a very unique theme around it. Divided into four separate lands, each area of the park coincides with some of America’s major holidays: Fourth of July, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and of course Christmas.

Between Holiday World and Splashin’ Safari, it’s impossible to grow bored when you visit the park. Each land contains tons of attractions well worth visiting. Some of the park’s most popular attractions include the Thunderbird (a roller coaster that launches riders from zero to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds), and Mammoth, the longest water coaster in the world.

Perhaps the greatest thing about Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari, though, is its generous giveaways. Throughout your visit, guests are entitled to free sunscreen, parking, Wi-Fi, and unlimited soft drinks, making this a fantastic bang for your buck.

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Kings Island — Mason, Ohio

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Another Midwestern staple, Kings Island is owned and operated by Cedar Fair — the same company that oversees operations at Cedar Point — located just north of Cincinnati. Like Cedar Fair, it’s known for its fan-favorite roller coasters, many of which have set records as being the tallest, fastest, or longest coasters in the world at one time or another.

Upon entering the park, you’ll spot numerous family-friendly attractions like bumper cars, a log flume, and several less intense roller coasters for younger riders front and center in Planet Snoopy.

Heading further back is where you’ll encounter some of the park’s most famous rides for those looking for a more intense Kings Island experience. The park’s popular Racer (credited with helping revive people’s interest in roller coasters in the 1970s) is a must, as is The Beast, the longest wooden roller coaster on Earth, and Banshee, the world’s longest inverted roller coaster.

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Knott’s Berry Farms — Buena Park, California

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Disney and Universal may be the parks most people think of in California, but there’s also the equally entertaining Knott’s Berry Farms, one of the oldest and best theme parks in the US. California’s first amusement park (predating Disneyland by about 30 years), Knott’s Berry Farms started off as a small berry stand that quickly grew into one of the Golden State’s must-visit locations.

Divided into four lands, Knott’s Berry Farms has no shortage of things to do, see, and eat within their property. Tour the park’s Ghost Town aboard the horse-pulled Butterfield Stagecoach, rocket down the historic Timber Mountain Log Ride (the park’s most popular ride), or hop on Montezooma's Revenge, the last roller coaster of its kind in the world.

For all the foodies out there, you can also grab any one of the park’s signature dishes, such as the delicious fried chicken platter at Mrs. Knott's Chicken Dinner Restaurant. It’s to die for.

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Silver Dollar City — Branson, Missouri

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Constructed around the Ozarks’ national landmark, the Marvel Cave, Silver Dollar City offers park guests the chance to step back in time to the 1880s, taking on a Western theme and offering attendees some lighthearted Southern entertainment and attractions.

Taking advantage of its historic and geographic setting, Silver Dollar City weaves all kinds of local history and urban legends into its theme park attractions. In Fire in the Hole (the park’s first and oldest roller coaster), guests ride through an enclosed, dark-lit building occupied by masked, marauding vigilantes known as the Baldknobbers. In Wildfire, you hop aboard a roller coaster themed after 1880s inventor Dr. Horatio Harris, who planned on building a device to ascend the Ozarks.

Though it was tailored more for those who enjoy a strong theme behind their park-going experience, Silver Dollar City is a fantastic amusement park that capitalizes on its fascinating regional location.

Image Credit: Silver Dollar City Attractions.

Knoebels Amusement Resort — Elysburg, Pennsylvania

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Giving Hersheypark a run for its money as the definitively best theme park in Pennsylvania, Knoebels is a family-owned property that includes a large amusement park and campground spread over 160 acres.

Within their park grounds, Knoebels has more than 60 rides at your disposal, from wooden roller coasters to a log flume to an authentic 1913 carousel. With that many rides, there’s something for everyone at the park, whether you’re into fast-paced thrill rides like the wooden bobsled coaster, Flying Turns, or Knoebels’ award-winning Haunted Mansion dark ride.

Unlike other parks, you don’t have to pay an admission fee when visiting Knoebels. Instead, you just have to pay for the individual attractions you hop on, allowing you to carefully pick and choose which rides you’d like to go on (in case you’re on a tight budget).

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Canobie Lake Park — Salem, New Hampshire

Canobie Lake Park
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Canobie Lake Park may be comparatively smaller than most other entries on this list, but that definitely doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting if you happen to find yourself in southern New Hampshire.

A family-run park that sits overlooking the Granite State’s picturesque Canobie Lake, Canobie Lake Park celebrates its 120th anniversary this year, making it one of the oldest theme parks in the US. It clocks in at a respectable 50 rides and attractions, which include an antique carousel that’s been around since the park opened in 1902, and the famous Yankee Cannonball wooden roller coaster, originally installed in 1936.

Canobie Lake Park may not have the largest selection of roller coasters for you to cycle through, but it does have a cozy, homely atmosphere to it that makes it truly feel like it belongs to another era.

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Richard Chachowski is a freelance writer based in New Jersey. He loves reading, his dog Tootsie, and pretty much every movie to ever exist (especially Star Wars).