Whizzing around on a roller coaster, splashing down a rushing water slide, noshing on cotton candy and hot dogs -- the theme park might be as quintessentially American as baseball. After all, if you're not going on a family vacation to the beach, chances are that your getaway will include a visit to an amusement park. And why not? It's quality time with your clan, away from the ubiquitous TV and computer screens that increasingly monopolize our time at home together. Here are seven of America's best places to ride coasters, play carnival games and enjoy one another's company.
Luna Park is a relative newcomer to a "best of" amusement park list like this one, but its Coney Island locale has experienced a brilliant past. Beginning in the mid-19th century, Coney Island lured New Yorkers to its shores for a sunny escape. Hotels and amusement parks popped up in quick succession, but just nearly a century later the last amusement park shut its gates. Luna Park, which opened in 2010, is hoping to rekindle Coney Island's romance with the amusement park. A number of rides -- designated as mild-, moderate-, high- and extreme-thrill -- reach their colorful beams into the sky. There are also a handful of carnival games like Duck Pond and Water Race that summon turn-of-the-century Coney Island, and several great options for noshing, from Luna Lemonade to hot dogs at Nathan's. But possibly the greatest thing about Luna Park is its close proximity to the Big Apple.
Walt Disney World
Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
There's a reason that generations of families have made the trek here. As cheesy as it sounds, there's something a little bit magical about Walt Disney World. After all, princesses are mingling with the crowds in the Magic Kingdom, a spaceship -- albeit a simulated one -- is blasting off frequently in Epcot and wild animals are roving through Animal Kingdom. And although Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. is the original Disney resort, Walt Disney World's diversity of amusements is hard to top. The park is certainly more expansive, with its 30,000 acres, four different theme parks, two water parks, multiple resorts and even a "downtown." And this summer will be a particularly exciting time to visit since Walt Disney World has unveiled its much-awaited Magic Kingdom expansion. The new Fantasyland includes the addition of a "Little Mermaid" ride Under the Sea, so to speak, as well as a recreation of Belle's quaint French village in "Beauty and the Beast."
Pigeon Forge, Tenn.
Sure, Walt Disney World and Islands of Adventure make sense on a best list, but Dollywood? As in Dolly Parton? Yes ... let us explain. Nestled in the rolling countryside of the Smoky Mountains, Dollywood is a theme park with a side order of Southern hospitality. Plus, it's appeared nine times on Amusement Today's Golden Ticket 2012 awards as one of the best overall parks, one of the friendliest parks and one of the cleanest parks. You can enjoy a number of rides and attractions in the 150-acre theme park. You can also cool down at the 30-acre Dollywood's Splash Country water park, and you can even spend the night in an upscale Dollywood cabin. To get a full taste of Dollywood, book a four-course Southern meal and dinner theater at the nearby Dolly Parton's Dixie Stampede.
Universal's Islands of Adventure
Universal's Islands of Adventure has Harry Potter. Enough said. Even though the last film debuted in 2011, Potter mania is still going strong. And the Islands of Adventure have cashed in on the craze with "The Wizarding World of Harry Potter." Fans of the magical world can enjoy a butterbeer in The Three Broomsticks, buy a souvenir house scarf from Filch's Emporium and take the exciting Harry Potter and The Forbidden Journey ride through the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. If Potter passion never captivated you, Islands of Adventure could still be the park for you. It also houses attractions featuring Spider-Man, the Incredible Hulk, Dr. Seuss and more. And this summer, a new attraction will debut -- TRANSFORMERS: The Ride-3D.
Schlitterbahn New Braunfels Waterpark
New Braunfels, Texas
Splashing around a water park is a great way to beat the heat in the summertime ... And Schlitterbahn New Braunfels Waterpark is one of -- if not the -- best park of its kind. Plus, it's one of the more affordable parks on this list, with general admission tickets that are less than $60. Included in the cost of admission is access to a number of attractions, including an elevator water ride, two inner tube slides that are nearly 600 feet in length and even a heated pool and a swim-up bar for the adults. And this park has been so popular that a number of other locations have opened: So if you can't make it to New Braunfels, Texas, the parks in Galveston Island, Texas, South Padre Island, Texas, or Kansas City, Kan. are just as appealing.
Perched on a strip of land jutting out into Lake Erie, Cedar Point amusement park boasts picturesque surroundings. Even though its locale is off the beaten track, experts (like those at Amusement Today) regularly praise it as the best overall theme park in the country. But Cedar Point goes one step further: It refers to itself as the "roller coaster capital of the world." And with its 16 roller coasters -- one of which is opening this May and has already broken a world record (for its length and its 164-foot drop) -- maybe Cedar Point can legitimately say that. But in addition to the exhilarating rides for the young at heart, Cedar Point also offers attractions for the truly young: a bouncy house, bumper boats and more. In May 2013, Cedar Point will also debut its nearly five-acre Dinosaurs Alive! attraction. This interactive exhibit will comprise 4.5 acres filled with nearly 50 life-size dinosaur replicas, with prehistoric sounds echoing throughout Adventure Island.
Knoebels Amusement Resort
Knoebels Amusement Resort earns major props for its affordability. It bills itself as America's largest free-admission park, though before you get too excited -- it's not entirely free. Each ride and attraction costs a small fee, but no ride costs more than three bucks and some are as cheap as $.75. Categorized as Kiddie, Thrill and Family, Knoebel's attractions run the gamut -- from a merry-go-round to a wooden Phoenix Roller Coaster. Not much of a thrill-seeker? Knoebels also offers a Bald Eagle Habitat, an 18-hole golf course and museums. There's also a 900,000-gallon pool, which charges $6.50 for adults and $4.50 for children, with slides, diving boards and a large wading section for young children.
[In Pictures: America's Best Theme Parks]
-- Emily H. Bratcher