There’s something so magical about a trip to one of the best amusement park and theme park destinations in the US. Maybe you’re cheering on your teen, who finally mustered up the courage to face that roller coaster, or you’re watching your little ones twirl around on the teacups. Or better yet, you finally dragged your best friend on your favorite spinny ride.

Regardless of your age or who you’re visiting with, everyone can find something to laugh and delight over at these popular spots scattered across North America which happen to include some of my California favorites.

Theme Parks vs. Amusement Parks

First, let’s address the difference between a theme park and an amusement park. While often used interchangeably, these parks have key differences. Both types of parks have rides, food, and entertainment, but what sets a theme park apart is that it is, well, themed.

A theme park is a type of amusement park with rides, characters, designs, and architecture that all reflect the park’s chosen theme — so Disneyland is all about Disney-owned properties, and LEGOLAND overflows with references to the toys.

Without further ado, here are the theme parks and amusement parks on your bucket list.

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Location: Anaheim, California

Two small boys in Star Wars costumes and wearing Mickey ears inside Star Wars: A Galaxy's Edge at Disneyland.
(Joshua Sudock/Disney Parks)

No list of best theme parks in the USA is complete without mention of Disneyland in Buena Park with its iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle and nine themed lands full of rides and attractions, including the new Star Wars: A Galaxy’s Edge.

It’s the original Disney park and it also tends to trigger the most nostalgia in its visitors like me — and that was by design. Not a lot has changed and that’s the way that many like it. The same rides that were favorites 40+ years ago — like Pirates of the Caribbean or Matterhorn — are still in action. I personally have been going since I was a toddler and it’s such a delight to visit now with my daughter and her friends. Space Mountain is still my favorite.

Just opposite of Disneyland, you can enter the resort’s other theme park, Disney California Adventure (many buy Park Hopper tickets to visit both parks on the same day). Here you’ll find more Pixar and superhero properties. I think that the best ride is Radiator Springs Racers in Cars Land but my daughter would tell you that Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! is worth the multiple drop-induced stomach butterflies.

As there is so much to say, you can learn more from my Disneyland Resort Guide and keep in mind that if you’re looking for two days or longer there are legitimate ways to find a Disneyland tickets discount.

Tip: Don’t forget there is also Disney California Adventure. See Disneyland vs. Disney California Adventure to compare the two parks.

Universal Orlando Resort

Location: Orlando, Florida

Roller coaster view at Universal Orlando.

Universal Orlando actually includes three parks: Universal Studios Florida, Universal’s Islands of Adventures and Volcano Bay. We’ll go over them all quickly here. Universal Studios Florida, is a theme park and production studio, showcasing rides and attractions based on TV shows and films. It includes eight themed lands, such as Springfield, Home of the Simpsons, and New York City.

As for Islands of Adventure, this park features seven themed islands. Throw your hands up on the Incredible Hulk Coaster at Marvel Super Hero Island and take flight on Pteranodon Flyers in the Jurassic Park area. This park is preferred by thrill ride lovers. And, Volcano Bay is the resort water park.

Don’t like standing in line? Check out my guide on how to skip Universal Orlando lines. And, don’t forget to save on Universal Orlando tickets.

Universal Studios Hollywood

Location: Universal City, California

My daughter stands in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
Heaven for Harry Potter fans.

Universal Studios Hollywood in Los Angeles is a working studio but also a theme park. First, practice some magic at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter which Harry Potter fans should head to right after opening as it can get crowded. Then head down to the World-Famous Studio Tour to see sets from some of your favorite movies and television shows … and perhaps run into King Kong along the way.

My favorite Universal Studios ride is Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride which has a few thrills and twists, but little ones may be more at home on Minion Way for the Despicable Me Minion Mayhem ride. There are also live shows and motion simulators so it’s no wonder this is one of the top theme parks in the US. Take our advice for saving on Universal Studios Hollywood tickets.

Magic Kingdom

Location: Buena Vista, Florida

The Dumbo ride spins around at Magic Kingdom
Dumbo is a classic favorite.

While there are six Walt Disney World Resort theme parks, Magic Kingdom is the one you can’t miss. Sure, it’s similar to Disneyland but still one of the best theme parks in the US. Spend the day than dining with princesses and charging along Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. What this park lacks in thrilling rides, it more than makes up for with its characters, performances, family-friendly rides, and magical atmosphere.

Whether it’s your first or fiftieth visit, there’s always something new to discover at the Magic Kingdom and it tops our list of best things to do in Orlando with kids. For discounted tickets to Disney World, check out my guide.  

LEGOLAND California

Location: Carlsbad, California

Kids drive around a track in LEGO cars at LEGOLAND California.
The driving school is popular with kids.

LEGOLAND California has long been a favorite when it comes to the top theme parks in the US. Dedicated to all things LEGO, this park features rides and attractions based around the popular building blocks. Though it’s geared toward the younger crowd (ages 2—12), even adults will find themselves amazed at the tiny LEGO cities made entirely from LEGO bricks.

To get the most out of your visit, check out my guide to LEGOLAND and learn how to get discounted LEGOLAND tickets. And if you’re in San Diego with kids you may want to check out SeaWorld, too.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Location: Williamsburg, Virginia

Roller coasters at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia
Photo courtesy of Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Virginia

With nearly 400 acres of land, Busch Gardens Williamsburg is an enormous, imaginative park featuring 19 areas that represent European countries and other themed locations. Catch a performance at the famous replica of the Old Globe in the England-inspired Canbury Cross area, and go for a swing on Finnegan’s Flyer at the Killarney land, designed after Ireland. Travel around the world without leaving the US for an inspiring cultural experience that you and your group will not forget.

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Location: Vallejo, California

A roller coaster goes down a track at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom
Photo courtesy of Six Flags Discovery Kingdom

Six Flags Discovery Kingdom combines the best of two types of amusement: Thrilling rides and animal exhibits. Ride Medusa, California’s first floorless coaster by day and come face to face with lions and sharks by night. You’ll find something for everyone at this park, including water rides like Monsoon Falls, kiddie-centric rides such as Air Penguins, and thrill-inducing ones like The Flash. While you’re on the West Coast, don’t miss my roundup of other incredible theme parks in California, too. Be sure also to buy discount Six Flags Discovery Kingdom tickets.

California’s Great America

Location: Santa Clara, California

An aerial view of a lake and roller coasters at Calfornia's Great America.
Oleg Alexandrov [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons

California’s Great America ranks high among the top amusement parks in the USA. If you’re visiting with adrenaline seekers, steer them in the direction of Drop Tower, where they’ll free fall 20 stories in 3.5 seconds. Exploring with less adventurous tots in tow? Make your way to Planet Snoopy for kiddie rides such as Peanuts 500 and Flying Ace or perhaps the famous carousel.

The hair-raising coasters and arcade games are only two stops in a park chock full of activities everyone in your group can enjoy. There’s even a water park, South Bay Shores (formerly Boomerang Park), where you can shoot down waterslides and float along in Castaway Creek. 

Six Flags Fiesta Texas

Location: San Antonio, Texas

The Boomerang roller coaster at Six Flags Fiesta Texas.
Chris Hagerman from New Port Richey, FL, US [CC BY] via Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, readers ranked Six Flags Fiesta Texas number five on USA Today’s Top 10 list of Best Amusement Parks in the US. The first ride you’ll probably notice at this Six Flags is the colorful Scream! tower ride.

Brave this iconic ride and then it’s on the next. Go from zero to 60 mph in seconds on the Poltergeist coaster and make a splash on Paradise Plunge at the water park. Hang on as you ride the Boomerang. From thrilling roller coasters and kid-friendly rides to waterslides and pool areas, it’s no wonder this is one of the best Six Flags in the USA. 

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Location: Orlando, Florida

The Expedition Everest ride at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Photo courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

Coming in at well over 500 acres, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is not only one of the biggest amusement parks in the USA, but also one of the largest in the world. Considered a zoological theme park, it focuses on animal conservation.

You will find roller coasters and family-friendly rides, but you’ll also come across tons of amazing animal exhibits. The massive park features seven themed areas including Oasis, Asia, and Africa, where you can see rhinos, giraffes, lions, and other regional animals. Start your day on the Expedition Everest coaster and end it with a zebra selfie. 

Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari

Location: Jackson, New Jersey

You better wear your comfy walking shoes because you have a lot of ground to cover at Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari. In 2012, Six Flags combined its Great Adventure park with its Safari park, making it one of the biggest amusement parks in the US. You and your family can enjoy 10 themed areas, complete with 50 rides and more than 1,000 animals.

There are 14 roller coasters to brave, including Kingda Ka Ride, one of the world’s fastest coasters. After taking a spin on the rides, don’t miss the Safari Off Road Adventure, where you can explore 350 acres filled with lions, tigers, giraffes, and more. 

Cedar Point

Location: Sandusky, Ohio

The maXair ride at Cedar Point spings guests around in the air.
User Vlastula on en.wikipedia [CC BY-SA]

Dubbed the Roller Coaster Capital of the World, Cedar Point delivers with 18 coasters. Whether you’re looking for a junior coaster for the younger kids in your crew or an adrenaline rush for yourself, you’ll find it all and more at this roller coaster mecca.

Rides like Woodstock Express and Wilderness Run are great starter coasters for the little ones, while Wicked Twister and Raptor are best reserved for the seasoned thrill-seekers. Top Thrill Dragster clocks in at a whopping 120 miles per hour, while Millennium plummets over 300 feet. All I can say is, hold on tight. You can buy discount Cedar Point tickets to avoid paying gate pricing.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

Location: Valencia, California

A roller coaster on a track at Six Flags Magic Mountain, one of the best theme parks in the USA.
Photo courtesy of Six Flags Magic Mountain

Get ready to throw your hands up at Six Flags Magic Mountain. With 19 coasters to choose from, it’s no wonder it earned a spot among the best roller coaster parks in the US. Upside down coasters? Wooden coasters? Stand-up coasters? Yes, this park has them all.

Whatever kind of thrill you’re in the mood for, there’s a good chance you’ll find it here. Experience the world’s first 360-degree vertical loop on The New Revolution, saddle up for the iconic Twisted Colossus woodie, and find out for yourself why they call that one coaster Scream. For more advice, check out my guide to Six Flags Magic Mountain for my preferred tips and tricks including how to buy Six Flags Magic Mountain discount tickets.

Kings Island

Location: Mason, Ohio

Jeremy Thompson [CC BY] via Wikimedia Commons

I can’t round up the best roller coaster parks in the US without mentioning Kings Islands. This park boasts 15 roller coasters, including the world’s longest wooden coaster, The Beast. If steel coasters are more your speed, step right up to Diamondback, the tallest and fastest ride at the park.

The park even features Banshee, the longest steel inverted coaster in the world. Whether you’re looking to fulfill your need for speed or your family wants to take a ride on some record-breaking coasters, this amusement park belongs on your roller coaster bucket list. 

Six Flags Over Texas

Location: Arlington, Texas

Texas Giant roller coaster hurls down a track at Six Flags Over Texas.
SFOTPR [CC BY-SA] via Wikimedia Commons

Another Texas Six Flags lands a spot on my roundup. Six Flags Over Texas has more than 20 thrill rides, making it the ideal park if your family is feeling daring. CATWOMAN Whip, Shock Wave, and the Titan are just a few of the many rides that will make your heart race. Not in the mood for screaming? Not to worry, this park has plenty of milder rides like the spinning El Sombrero and the Roaring Rapids whitewater rafting adventure. You’ll find tons of kiddie rides for the younger ones in your crew, too.

Round up your family or grab your best friend and venture to one of these top amusement parks. With parks all over the nation, it looks like you’ve got the perfect excuse to plan your next vacation. 

Katie Dillon is the managing editor of La Jolla Mom. She helps readers plan San Diego vacations through her hotel expertise (that stems from living in a Four Seasons hotel) and local connections. Readers have access to exclusive discounts on theme park tickets (like Disneyland and San Diego Zoo) and perks at luxury hotels worldwide through her. She also shares insider tips for visiting major cities worldwide, like Hong Kong, London, Paris, and Shanghai, that her family has either lived in or visits regularly (or both).

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