Fun-seeking individuals have been enjoying theme parks for many years. Ever see those wonderful old turn-of-the-century moving pictures of early amusement parks where the ladies are riding coasters in a dress and the gentlemen are wearing a tie as they enjoy the bumper cars? Obviously, such attractions have long been a favorite for people of all ages.
As the years have passed, amusement parks have gotten more and more elaborate and continue to grow in popularity. Thanks to folks like Walt Disney, expansive “theme parks” have taken shape and become top vacation destinations for travelers throughout the world. Around some of those theme parks have sprung elaborate resorts that provide an all-inclusive vacation destination for guests, making it unnecessary to go elsewhere for food, lodging, and other activities.
Aside from Disney, other amusement park companies have developed mega-parks with over-the-top rides that prompt people dto travel there from far and wide, just to experience the world’s highest coaster or some other record-breaking ride.
The theme park business generates billions of dollars per year, and as long as individuals want to keep pushing the envelope as far as thrills are concerned, the industry will continue to grow.
One thing, however, seems clear as you peruse attendance numbers for the world’s most popular theme parks. Those that are family-balanced, spending plenty of money on pleasing the kids, consistently have the highest and most consistent attendance.
Nobody does theme parks like Disney. Ever since Disneyland opened in 1955, the world has flocked to the Disney parks for a unique combination of entertainment and fantasy, courtesy of amazing animation techniques and the wacky minds of the company’s Imagineers.
With the opening of each new park, Disney’s technology becomes more and more sophisticated, making innovative new rides even more amazing than the old favorites, like It’s a Small World, which now pales in comparison to attractions like Disney World’s Everest coaster or Disney California Adventure’s magnificent Soarin’ Over California. Still, for the young and young-at-heart, the fun and fantasy of simple Disney magic is still very much present at all the theme parks.
Disney parks now include the Walt Disney World Resort in Kissimmee (Orlando), Florida, which includes 4 individual theme parks; Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure in Anaheim, California; Disneyland Resort Paris (France); Tokyo (Japan) Disney Resort; and Hong Kong Disneyland Resort.
The folks at Anheuser-Busch have been putting together theme parks since the turn of the century, but the two most recent are the ones best known to current amusement park aficionados.
Busch Gardens Europe (Williamsburg, VA), originally known as “The Olde Country,” opened in 1975 with much fanfare. This welcoming park has been voted “The Most Beautiful Park in America” every year since 1990. It was initially well-known for its coaster The Loch Ness Monster, which was one of the first to contain a loop. Its latest endeavor is Griffon, which the company’s website notes is “the tallest dive coaster in the world; the first floorless dive coaster, and the first to incorporate two Immelmann loops (an inverse diving loop named for a WWI German fighter pilot), a second 130-foot dive and a water feature with spectacular viewing platforms where ride watchers can share in the thrills.”
Busch Gardens Europe, however, has plenty of family-friendly rides, shows, and attractions, including a wildlife reserve, a chance to view the famous Clydesdale horses, and international variety shows that boast the flavor of Europe.
Further south in Tampa Bay, Busch Gardens Africa (originally “The Dark Continent”) has been thrilling visitors since 1959, when it opened with just an Anheuser-Busch brewery and some bird gardens. The Serengeti Plain, the largest, free-roaming habitat outside of Africa, was introduced in 1965, and in 1977, the rides started arriving.
The Serengeti Plain remains one of the most popular family-friendly attractions in the park while the many coasters continue to attract older kids and adults. Like its sister park in Virginia, the shows here are wonderful and reflect the music and traditions of the continent of Africa.
Also owned by Anheuser-Busch, the SeaWorld parks come in close behind Disney as far as annual park attendance is concerned. SeaWorld Parks, located in Orlando (FL), San Diego (CA), and San Antonio (TX), certainly fall into the category of “theme park.” As a matter of fact, these marine parks are pretty much one-of-a-kind and were the first of their genre.
The dolphins, whales, seals, and sea lions that live here are the stars of these parks. That’s what makes them so family-friendly. While there are a handful of thrill rides – like SeaWorld’s unique water coasters – the animal shows take center stage. There are also a number of other fun attractions, such as water skiing shows, high divers, circus-type productions, and a carnival midway. Little ones also have their own land – Shamu’s Happy Harbor – where they can climb, slide, and jump to their heart’s delight.
All three SeaWorld theme parks are close to other popular attractions, so you can include them on a trip that features other popular tourist destinations as well.
Universal has two very popular theme parks. The first, Universal Studios Hollywood, was opened in 1964 as a backlot tour. Over the years, a trip to Universal in California became more than just a tour of sound stages. Special effects were added to the tram ride, highlighting Universal Studio’s best and most famous movies. Soon there were plenty of rides, shows, restaurants, and a host of other things to do here.
Capitalizing on the popularity of nearby Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando opened its gates in 1990. Early attractions, which had a history of not working so well, were – like the Hollywood location – based on movies like Jaws, King Kong, and Earthquake. Universal didn’t really grow in popularity, however, until it added the Islands of Adventure section in 1996.
Today, Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Hollywood, are among the 10 most-visited theme parks in America. Though families visit the parks together, the Universal theme parks tend to attract an older crowd than Disney World or SeaWorld. Universal is all about thrill rides and coasters though you’ll find a handful of attractions geared towards smaller kids.
Not unlike Disney, Universal has added hotels and other amenities to their property – like their CityWalk entertainment area – to entice visitors to view their complexes as all-inclusive vacation destinations.
More an “amusement” park than a theme park, Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio deserves a nod for being one of the most innovative parks in the industry. Cedar Point has led the way in the roller coaster realm, boasting more coasters than any other park in the world.
Cedar Point is one of the oldest amusement parks in America, having opened in 1870 with just a few rides. Now it boasts dozens, including 17 roller coasters, 3 of which are among the top 10 steel coasters in the world.
Endeavoring to attract overnight guests, the park also boasts a water park resort and several hotels just steps from the front gate. Located on the southern shore of Lake Erie, the area around Cedar Point is a lovely place to visit during the warm weather, when guests can enjoy the small towns along the lake and participate in fun water sports.
Canada’s most popular theme park can be found just outside of downtown Toronto. Opened in 1981, Paramount Canada’s Wonderful consistently ranks 12th – 14th among the most popular theme parks in North America.
Known for its many thrill rides, Canada’s Wonderland is proud of its many coasters, including Tomb Raider: The Ride, Canada’s only “flying coaster.” Not unlike Universal, many of the most-popular rides at this park are based on successful movies, like Top Gun, The Fly, and The Italian Job. There’s also a Hanna-Barbera-based land for little children, plenty of family rides, and a 20-acre water park.
Paramount also owns the very popular Kings Island outside of Cincinnati, Ohio. Since its opening in 1972, this park has enjoyed consistent success and has recently added Nickelodeon Universe, with a host of rides for the younger set based on popular Nickelodeon TV shows.