The ultimate guide to the world's theme parks
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The Top 10 Theme Parks in AmericaSubmitted by Nick Sim on Thursday, May 9, 2013 08:00
The USA is home to many of the world's leading theme parks, including several operated by giants Disney and Universal. Every year, the Themed Entertainment Assocation publishes a report that lists the most heavily-attended parks in the country, with the most recent having been published in May 2012.
In this article, we've highlighted the 10 most popular theme parks in America, based on the TEA's report. Perhaps surprisingly, major chains Cedar Fair and Six Flags don't feature at all in a list that is dominated by Disney and Universal. We've picked out the essential attractions that are not-to-be-missed at each park, and we'd love to hear your views.
You can find full details of the attractions and restaurants at each park in our theme park guides section.
10. Universal Studios Hollywood
2011 attendance: 5.1 million
The original movie studio theme park is still widely regarded as one of the best, and benefits from being attached to a world-class production facility. Universal Studios Hollywood first began offering tram tours of its backlot in 1964, building on walkthrough tours that started in the 1920s. Gradually, it installed additional attractions, culminating in the opening of a second "lot" in 1991.
The Upper and Lower Lots form two distinct sections of the park, which are joined by a series of escalators. Major attractions including Jurassic Park: The Ride, Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride and Transformers: The Ride - 3D can be found in the Lower Lot, while the Upper Lot hosts the famous Studio Tour.
Don't miss: The Studio Tour may have been running for decades, but it still offers a stunning experience. It effectively packs multiple attractions into one lengthy 45-minute ride, culminating in an impressive "4-D" encounter with King Kong.
9. SeaWorld Orlando
2011 attendance: 5.2 million
Combining marine life exhibits and shows with a selection of major theme park rides, SeaWorld Orlando is located in Florida's theme park hotspot. To compete effectively with giants Disney and Universal, it has installed multi-million dollar roller coasters Kraken and Manta, as well as the Journey to Atlantis water coaster. Its main draw, however, remains its killer whale shows, which are highly controversial but consistently pull in massive crowds.
The third park in the SeaWorld chain (after SeaWorld San Diego and the now-defunct SeaWorld Ohio), SeaWorld Orlando was expanded considerably following a takeover by Anheuser Busch in 1989. Now part of the broader SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment chain, it is planning another major expansion in 2013.
Don't miss: Due to open in May 2013, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is being billed as "the world's coldest theme park ride". Using a trackless ride system, it will offer a different experience every time, with guests disembarking into an all-new penguin exhibit.
8. Universal Studios Florida
2011 attendance: 6.0 million
Universal's second theme park was the company's first to be designed from the ground-up as a tourist attraction. These days, not much production takes place at Universal Studios Florida, but it offers some of the most unique and original ride experiences anywhere in the world.
Spread across seven heavily-themed areas are impressive attractions such as hybrid coaster-dark ride Revenge of the Mummy: The Ride (superior to the Hollywood version), Shrek 4-D and towering musical coaster Hollywood Rip, Ride, Rockit. Expect the park's attendance levels to receive a boost when a new Harry Potter-themed land opens in 2014.
Don't miss: Men in Black: Alien Attack, one of the most immersive laser-gun rides to be found anywhere on the planet.
7. Disney California Adventure
2011 attendance: 6.3 million
For Disneyland fans who had long looked forward to a second park opening at the resort, the debut of Disney California Adventure in 2001 proved to be a huge disappointment. The park was heavily critized for both its theme and for its lack of major attractions, with Disney being accused of having thrown it together "on the cheap". The addition of the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Toy Story Midway Mania helped, but the park remained in the shadow of the original Disneyland.
Eventually, Disney decided to virtually completely rebuild California Adventure, at massive expense. The spectacular World of Color show, several new attractions and the Cars Land expansion have begun to change the perception of the park, which is finally beginning to to fulfill its potential.
Don't miss: Radiator Springs Racers, a dazzling attraction that combines the ride system of Epcot's test track with the humorous characters of Pixar's Cars.
6. Islands of Adventure
2011 attendance: 7.7 million
Universal Orlando's second theme park has pulled ahead of sister park Universal Studios Florida in the popularity stakes, almost entirely due to the 2010 debut of the the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This has helped turn the resort into a true multi-day destination, and put pressure on rival Walt Disney World for the first time.
The park seeks to immerse visitors into movies themselves, with 6 themed "islands" located around a lagoon. After passing through the Port of Entry, guests can head to Marvel Super Hero Island, Toon Lagoon, Jurassic Park, The Lost Continent, Seuss Landing and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The Wizarding World has become the focal point of Islands of Adventure, with Hogwarts Castle dominating the park's skyline.
Don't miss: The innovative Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, which employs cutting-edge technology and special effects to take guests on an adventure with Harry and his friends.
5. Disney's Hollywood Studios
2011 attendance: 9.7 million
When rival Universal Studios announced plans for a new theme park in Florida, Disney quickly put into place plans for its own movie-themed park. Expanding upon designs originally produced for Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios eventually opened over a year ahead of Universal Studios Florida in 1989. Originally, the park incorporated a working movie studio and guests were able to view filming and animation in action during the Studio Tour. However, these facilities have since been shut down and the buildings converted into rides and shows. Disney dropped its association with MGM and renamed the park in 2007.
While it's somewhat smaller in scale than Walt Disney World's other theme parks, Disney's Hollywood Studios is home to some of the resort's best attractions. This includes the thrilling Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, the addictive Toy Story Midway Mania and the revamped Star Tours: The Adventures Continue.
Don't miss: The original Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, which is vastly superior to the clones at other Disney parks. This is due to the presence of a section in which the elevator explores one of the Hollywood Tower Hotel's floors, which was removed from the clones to increase capacity and reduce downtime.
4. Disney's Animal Kingdom
2011 attendance: 9.8 million
Opened in 1998, Walt Disney World's fourth theme park is unique in that it incoporates live animal exhibits alongside the chain's usual rides and shows. It boasts 7 themed lands, organised in a "hub-and-spoke" layout. After entering the park through the Oasis, guests hit Discovery Island. From there, they can reach Africa, Asia, DinoLand U.S.A, Rafiki's Planet Watch and Camp Minnie-Mickey.
Like Disney California Adventure, Disney's Animal Kingom was panned for its lack of major attractions when it first debuted (as well as facing criticizm from animal rights groups concerned about Disney exploiting its inhabitants). Since then, though, it has added the heavily-themed Expedition Everest coaster, with plans for a new land based on Avatar also in the works.
Don't miss: Kilimanjaro Safaris, which takes guests on an off-roading adventure past real animals that takes place on a "savannah" that is the same size as the entire Magic Kingdom theme park.
2011 attendance: 10.8 million
Walt Disney originally envisioned Epcot as the centrepiece of his Florida resort. Rather than being a theme park, it was to be a utopian city in which people lived and worked developing the technologies of the future. The park's name derives from Walt's original title - the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). Though the concept was scaled back after Walt's death, the park still embraces his aims of celebrating international culture and showcasing cutting-edge technology.
The park can be compared to a permanent "World's Fair", and is divided into 2 main sections. Future World is dedicated to technological innovation, and features high-tech attractions and exhibits sponsored by major corporations. World Showcase, situated around the park's lagoon, is made up of 11 pavilions depicting different countries around the world.
Don't miss: Touring World Showcase in the evening. Grab a bite in one of its many world-class restaurants, and then take a leisurely stroll around the lagoon.
2011 attendance: 16.1 million
Disneyland holds the distinction of being the only Disney theme park to have been constructed under the full supervision of Walt Disney himself. Disney claimed to have conceived the idea for the park after visiting Griffith Park in Los Angeles with his children. Frustrated by the lack of attractions that could be enjoyed by adults and children alike, he designed Disneyland to fulfill that need. The park took exactly one year to construct, and opened on July 17, 1955.
The park in Anaheim, California still retains the core of its original design and layout, which has become the template for Disney's other parks around the world. After entering the park on Main Street, U.S.A. guests can head to any of 7 themed lands. These are Adventureland, New Orleans Square, Frontierland, Critter Country, Fantasyland, Mickey's Toontown and Tomorrowland.
Don't miss: Indiana Jones Adventure: Temple of the Forbidden Eye, which remains one of the best dark rides in the world despite having opened back in 1995.
1. Disney's Magic Kingdom
2011 attendance: 17.1 million
Walt Disney World's clone of Disneyland retains the original's hub and spoke layout, boasts many of the same attractions, but covers a large footprint. Disappointingly, its versions of some of Disneyland's most popular rides, particularly Pirates of the Caribbean, are inferior.
Still, the Magic Kingdom is the world's most popular theme park for a reason. It packs in an incredible number of family-friendly rides, particularly in the sprawling, recently-expanded New Fantasyland. It also boasts two popular roller coasters, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Space Mountain.
Don't miss: One of the best-themed water rides in the world, Splash Mountain. Aboard hollowed-out logs, riders pass animatronic scenes depicting the Walt Disney film Song of the South, traveling along with Brer Rabbit as he outwits Brer Fox and Brer Bear.
Which park is your favorite?
The Magic Kingdom is the most popular theme park in the USA, but is really the best? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.