Insider's Guide: Best Theme Parks In North America

18 March 2015

If you're planning a holiday that takes in North America's famed theme parks, hold on tight because you might just be in for a bumpy ride as you try to narrow down the bucket list. For seemingly every theme, America has a theme park. Love alligators? Try Gator Land in Orlando. Or earthmovers?

Head to Diggerland in New Jersey. Perhaps you're more in tune with Dolly Parton? Then there's no better place to be than Dollywood in Tennessee.

If mainstream parks and roller coasters are more your speed, you will be spoiled for choice, as America is also home to some of the biggest and best theme parks in the world. To help put travellers in the loop when it comes to finding North America's top roller coasters and theme parks, Flight Centre sought expert advice from its consultants.

 Flight Centre's consultants break down the best theme parks and roller coasters (image: Getty)

Matthew Phelps

Flight Centre Consultant, NSW

When it comes to theme parks, Matthew Phelps (matthew.phelps@flightcentre.com.au) is undoubtedly one of Flight Centre's most enthusiastic enthusiasts. Matthew, from Flight Centre Rhodes Waterside in New South Wales, is a 26-theme park veteran and lists Disneyworld Orlando and Six Flags Magic Mountain (Valencia, California) as his personal favourites.

“I love that most theme parks are places where age is irrelevant," he said.

"You can be a big kid; you can be a thrill seeker and adrenaline junkie. Really, it’s a place to escape and just have a good time. I love the whole idea of immersing in films, characters, that sort of thing. The ones in the USA do it really well."

 The exhilarating Twisted Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain (image: Six Flags Magic Mountain)

Matthew hopes to add to his tally by visiting Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi, the world's largest indoor theme park, to take on the challenge of riding the world’s fastest roller coaster, the 240 kilometre-per-hour Formula Rossa.

Aaron Turner

Flight Centre Consultant, Queensland

Aaron Turner (aaron.turner@flightcentre.com.au), from Flight Centre Burleigh Town on the Gold Coast, has visited 15 parks and has set his sights on adding Six Flags Magic Mountain to his tally.

He rates the Disney World Resorts as his favourite theme parks because "between the four parks there is something for everyone".

“I love the thrill rides and atmosphere," he said. "However, theme parks are about so much more. The all have a variety of shows and static attractions that allow them to cater for literally anyone.”

Mandy Boulas

Flight Centre Consultant, Victoria

Mandy Boulas (mandy.boulas@flightcentre.com.au), from Flight Centre Croydon in Victoria, has visited 10 theme parks and has set herself a goal of visiting "every Disney park on earth".

Her favourites so far are Universal Orlando and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter (at Universal Orlando).

“I love the atmosphere," Mandy said.

"It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from or what language you speak, theme parks turn everyone into fun seekers.

"I love watching the rides go off from the line and hearing the tense silence right before the car drops, or spins or shakes. It’s like a countdown to fun.

"By far, though, my favourite part of theme parks is judging how scary a ride is by how far away you can hear the people screaming.”

Jeanette Edwards

Flight Centre Team Leader, Victoria

Mandy's team leader at Flight Centre Croydon, Jeanette Edwards (jeanette.edwards@flightcentre.com.au), is a 12-park veteran and rates Six Flags Magic Mountain as her favourite.

"Theme parks are a place that you go to have fun," Jeanette said. "You have no other reason for visiting them. I love the detail that goes into some parks, especially the Disney Parks where everything is themed – even the rubbish bins, the rest rooms and the light posts.”

Amanda Grogan

Flight Centre Consultant, Queensland

For Amanda Grogan (amanda.grogan@flightcentre.com.au), from Flight Centre Southport on the Gold Coast, Walt Disney World Resort Florida ranks first when it comes to the 15 theme parks she has visited so far.

“I love the suspense of belief – anything can happen," she said. "You're transported to a different land depending on the theme – underwater, space, jungle, a fairy kingdom. Everyone is always happy to be there and there are great memories to be made and new adventures to be had.”

 Fun adventures at theme parks provide great family bonding opportunities (image: Getty)

Josh Stent

Flight Centre Consultant, Victoria

Josh Stent (josh.stent@flightcentre.com.au), from Flight Centre Ivanhoe in Victoria, rates the Wizarding World of Harry Potter number one.

He has visited 10 parks so far and plans to add Disneyworld to his list.

“I love the experience of being plunged into a childhood fairytale or a story that allows me to enter a world where dreams come true," Josh said.


Fall under a theme park's spell: The Wizarding World Of Harry Potter

Which is the best? Disney World v Disneyland

When too much Disney is never enough: The Wonderful Worlds Of Disney


Top 3 Roller Coasters

When it comes to favourite roller coasters, our experts have a clear top three:
• Tatsu (Six Flags Magic Mountain)
• Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit Coaster (Universal Orlando); and
• Manta (Seaworld Orlando)

“Tatsu gives a great experience for what is known as a ‘flying coaster’ (back flat to the bottom of the track, similar to flying like Superman)," Matthew said.

"It's a great perspective looking down, the loops and the barrel rolls are amazing, make you a bit dizzy, but that's part of the fun."

 

Manta offers similar thrills.

“When the train arrives at the station and you sit in the seat and pull the safety bar down, it all appears to be a standard roller coaster," Aaron said.

"But once the staff have made their checks, the floor underneath lowers and then the seats are tilted on a 90-degree angle so you are in fact lying on your safety bar facing the ground instead of sitting in your seat.

"This ride also features an inverted loop so when you are at the top of the loop where the G-forces are at their highest you are actually only a few feet off the ground."

In relation to the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit Coaster, Mandy said: "Not only does your ride begin with you personalising your trip with your own choice of classic or modern rock; the first thing the car does when it takes off is pull itself up a 51-metre fully vertical pole.

"The only thing you can see is the bright blue sky, the only thing you can hear is your rock theme and there is nothing standing between you and pure adrenaline-fuelled ecstasy."

Insider tips

  • Arrive early. You can get more done in the first three hours at a theme park than the rest of the day. Also see if you can get early admission or fast passes depending on the park.
  • Make a plan, even if it's rough and you don't stick to it. Don't waste precious riding time walking around aimlessly. Find out the park’s big drawcards and work out how to ride them in off-peak times.
  • Try riding your favourite coasters in different areas of the car. Sometimes a ride can feel completely different in the front, middle and back.
  • Six Flags Magic Mountain, which is not far from LA, is only open on weekends in the off season but if you are in it just for the coasters, it is the place to go.
  • For a more overall experience, try Disney or Universal Studios on either coast.
  • If your holiday is all about theme parks, consider basing yourself in LA, as you will be within easy reach of several hot spots.
  • If you're travelling with under-12s, try Knott's Berry Farm, any of the Disney parks, Universal Studios or Legoland.
  • With teens and older kids, try Universal Studios, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Islands of Adventure (Universal Orlando), any Six Flags Park especially Magic Mountain, Disney World in Florida, Busch Gardens or Hershey Park.
 Keeping the kids happy is rarely hard in a theme park (image: Getty)

Travelling with kids

  • Measure them first. Height restrictions apply on some rides, so you can let your child know what he or she is tall enough to ride to avoid theme park disappointment.
  • Have a safe meeting place for the kids and let them know what to do if they become lost.
  • Buy a rubber wristband that you can put your phone number on. If a child is too young to remember your phone number, this can be a great safety net if he or she becomes lost. Just teach the child to go to a staff member and show the band.
  • Bring toys or other items to occupy kids while they wait in line.
  • Warn the kids in advance that they won't always get to see every character or ride every ride.
    Timing is everything. To avoid the crowds, the best time to visit these parks is usually in the American winter. The best North American theme parks are in California and Florida, where winters are typically mild. This will dramatically cut down crowds and queuing. Just be aware that parks often perform maintenance works during low seasons and some rides may be closed.
  • Consider multiple-visit passes that allow you to spend more than one day at your desired park or parks.
  • Pack a good pair of walking shoes.

Flight Centre's Consultants

At Flight Centre, our consultants have travelled far and wide to offer you informed assistance when it comes to booking your next trip. These blog posts showcase just some of the experiences our consultants have had on recent adventures. We hope you enjoy reading these blog articles.