Last month, a reader asked me about theme parks. She wanted to know if they promise “a worthwhile family vacation” and “a good value.” She was also curious about any “lesser-known theme parks...worth visiting.”
Well, the good news is that America boasts a plethora of theme parks – from coast to coast, in fact. No doubt you’ve heard of the most popular ones – including Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort  (which encompasses multiple areas: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, Animal Kingdom Park, Hollywood Studios, and Downtown Disney), Disneyland Resort  in Anaheim (which contains Disneyland Park, Disney’s California Adventure, and its own Downtown Disney District), Universal Orlando Resort  (which consists of Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Wet ‘n Wild), Universal Studios Hollywood , SeaWorld  (offering locations in San Diego, Orlando, and San Antonio), and Six Flags  (which has parks in California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Texas).
Beyond these well-known names are a wealth of smaller theme parks – favored among tourists and area residents alike. Not far from Disneyland, you’ll find Knott’s Berry Farm , America’s first theme park, known today for its three area water parks as well as its seasonal Knott’s Scary Farm , where Halloween lovers can experience several frightening mazes and shows. In Orlando, Discovery Cove  offers a very different experience; there, you can spend the day exploring a tropical reef and frolicking with actual dolphins. Of course, the Midwest isn’t without its share of theme parks – from Worlds of Fun  in Kansas City, Missouri, to Cedar Point  in Sandusky, Ohio, to Michigan’s Adventure  in Muskegon, Michigan.
Although I have some amazing memories of places like Disney World and Disneyland, some of my favorite childhood adventures occurred in smaller venues such as Hersheypark  in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where the smell alone is worth the trip, and Busch Gardens  in Williamsburg, Virginia, where, besides typical rides and shows, there are animal-related attractions like Wolf Valley and Lorikeet Glen. Other niche theme parks include Dollywood  in the Great Smoky Mountains, Holiday World  in Santa Claus, Indiana, and LEGOLAND California  in Carlsbad.
So, in answer to last month’s reader, I definitely think that theme parks can be wonderful destinations for family vacations. Between the attractions, rides, shows, games, and food, there’s just so much to experience. Given many families’ current economic woes, however, such parks can also be expensive, which is why pre-planning is crucial. You can save money and time if you plan your trip well in advance – and if you’re willing to avoid more crowded times (like summer weekdays and holiday weekends). Also consider purchasing admission tickets online (which will spare you from long lines at the park entrance), and have a budget in mind before hitting the road – it’s harder to succumb to impulse snack and souvenir purchases if you know how much you have to spend.
If you plan to visit a particular park multiple times in the same year, you'll typically benefit from purchasing an annual membership. At LEGOLAND, for instance, an adult (13-59 years old) will pay $65 for a one-day admission ticket, $19 for a one-day admission ticket to the adjacent SEA LIFE Aquarium, and $5-15 for parking (depending on the vehicle); an annual resort membership, however, will cost $159 and include unlimited admission to both attractions, free parking, and an array of restaurant, hotel, retail, and event discounts. You’ll also save money by staying in chain motels near a given park (versus affiliated hotels, such as those at Disney’s pricey resorts).
For more information about America’s theme parks, including ticket discounts and travel tips, consult the Theme Park Insider  – and enjoy making memories with your family!
As always, I’m open to ideas for future posts. If you have any suggestions, burning questions, or destinations that you’d like me to explore in greater detail, please comment below or contact me at laura [at] wanderingsoles [dot] com.