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12 Underdog Theme Parks That Are Stuck In Disney's Shadow

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How can we say this delicately? Disney and Universal will always win in the end. The resorts owned by those huge corporations have equally huge budgets that fuel innovation, marketing, and international draw that local parks simply can’t compete with. That’s why Disney and Universal creations almost completely fill our countdowns of the Top 15 Dark Rides and Top 15 Roller Coasters as ranked by our readers.

Every day, readers ask us to write more about their favorite regional parks. We hear you, and we want to! The truth is, our content will continue to focus on the mega-parks (since that’s what most of our readers overwhelmingly want), but we also want to make sure those smaller, regional parks get their share of the spotlight.

Below, we've collected a dozen that are meant to give an example of the Disney-quality parks out there. This is not an exhaustive list, and if your favorite park doesn't get featured, that's not to say it's not a good park. This list is just a sampling of the great parks stuck in Disney's shadow. Will the parks on this list ever be more popular than Disney and Universal? Of course not. But they do have stories, attractions, and settings that are just as impressive as Disney's best. And it doesn't stop here – the overwhelmingly positive reaction to this feature lead us to a sequel: 12 MORE Underdog Parks. Make the jump to catch the full list of all 24!

1. Efteling

© Efteling

Location: Kaatsheuvel, North Brabant, Netherlands
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About: Efteling in the Netherlands opened in 1952. Its starring attraction was the Fairy Tale Forest, a walkthrough forest of characters and settings from all manner of legend. Ever since, the park has grown in a trajectory not unlike Disneyland's (which opened 3 years later), adding incredible dark rides scattered among themed lands. Today, Efteling is easily one of the most beautiful theme parks in the world, featuring a mix of modern coasters, audio-animatronic populated dark rides, and the original Fairy Tale Forest, which continues to accrue new stories every decade. 

Signature Attractions: Two of the park's most beloved dark rides are distinctly Disney-esque in their presentation and oppulence. The magnificent Dreamflight is a suspended dark ride through and over enchanted forest realms populated by fairies and goblins. Across the way, the infallible exterior of Fata Morgana (above) conceals a dark ride on par with Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, but retelling the tale of 1,001 Arabian Nights.

2. Alton Towers

© Merlin Entertainment

Location: Alton, Staffordshire, United Kingdom
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About: Easily the most well-known park in the U.K., Alton Towers originated as the very real manor home of English nobility in the 1800s. In the 1920s, the elegant Gardens around the mansion were restored as a tourist attraction. The park has since taken on a life of its own, developing into a modern thrill-based amusement park with cutting edge rides while still maintaining the regal and historical style of its forerunner. The park today has 10 themed lands, spread across its sprawling grounds.

Signature Attractions: There may be too many list, as Alton Towers is renowned for its "Secret Weapon" attractions that almost always dare to break records and expectations. In the post-apocolyptic Forbidden Valley, Nemesis stunned the enthusiast community with its tightly coiled inverted layout. In the futuristic X-Sector, the dizzying Smiler coaster (above) features a record-breaking 14 inversions. In the Dark Forest, the sinister Thirteen set a new standard for family thrills with its secret world's first element... 

3. Europa Park

Location: Rust, Baden-Württemberg, Germany 
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About: The second most visited park in Europe after Disneyland Paris, Europa Park in Germany features almost 60 rides, including 12 roller coasters. The park is actually owned by roller coaster manufacturer Mack Rides Gmbh, who use the park to test prototype attractions. Today, the park is filled with European country-themed sections like Scandavia, Greece, and Austria. 

Signature Attractions: Like choosing just a ride or two from Disneyland, it's almost impossible to pick only a few signature attractions for Europa Park. For coaster lovers, the GCI-built Wodan Timbur Coaster is a clear stand out, located very near to Mack's own Blue Fire, a launched coaster that tracks rider's heartrate on live in-seat monitors throughout. In Greece, Poseidon is a picturesque water coaster that lives up to its name. An entire land (and associated high-tech dark ride / coaster) themed to Arthur and the Minimoys Kingdom has put Europa Park on the map yet again. 

4. Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Image: Busch Gardens

Location: Williamsburg, Virginia, United States
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About: Like Europa Park, each of Busch Gardens Williamsburg's meticulously themed lands is dedicated to a European country. Busch Gardens, however, celebrates each country's stories and traditions in a more "old world" way. Quite literally as much garden as theme park, Busch Gardens has been voted the world's most beautiful for literal decades, and relies on authentic dining and merchandise options in its hamlets (England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, and Italy), along with appropriately-themed live entertainment that keeps folks coming back for more.

Signature Attractions: Even if Busch Gardens is sold as an authentic and romantic recreation of "the old country," it does sneak in some of the world's best coasters. The towering Griffon (above) is the world's tallest and fastest Dive Machine, seating 10-across in its massive wingspan. In Germany, the Dark Forest-ed Verbolten coaster left fans jaws in freefall while Curse of DarKastle was the second ride in the world to use the roving, 3-D motion simulator technology Universal's Spider-Man, briliantly transposing the tech onto a haunted German castle.

5. Phantasialand

© Phantasialand

Location: Brühl, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany
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About: Themed to adventure and exploration, Phantasialand is divided into unique realms like Mystery, Fantasy, Deep in Africa, China Town, and Mexico, each packed with attractions that rival (and even exceed) Disney's contemporary efforts in terms of themeing and storytelling, always fusing in innovative thrill. 

Signature Attractions: No matter how you like your adventure, Phantasialand has got a ride for you. The innovative Maus au Chocolat played off of Disney's interactive Toy Story Mania ride system, arming guests with a pastry cream bag of chocolate! The slithering Black Mamba inverted coaster dives through an ancient African fortress. The Mexico area of the park contains the dizzying Talocan (which earned a spot on our list of the Seven "Ancient" Wonders of the Theme Park World) and the brand new log flume adventure Chiapas with its record drop.

6. Lotte World

Image: Lotte World

 

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About: Lotte World earned the #1 spot on our countdown of the biggest Disney copycat parks in Asia, though we admitted that it may be unfair to call the park a copycat. After all, Lotte World is a destination in its own right. It's an impressive park that, like so many others, simply borrows from Disney here and there. Sure there are times when their attractions come across as imitations of Disney's. Just as often, Lotte World pulls ahead and produces incredible rides that deserve attention in their own right!

Signature Attractions: Probably Lotte World's most ambitious and memorable attraction is Pharaoh's Fury, which borrows the EMV technology behind Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure (and Animal Kingdom's DINOSAUR). The ride even parallels a few of Indy's most striking scenes. The park's Atlantis Adventure is a stunning water coaster that's quite unlike anything else on Earth. Altogether, Lotte World is one of the best "borrowers" of Disney ideas in that it implements them in new and unusual ways.

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There are 21 comments.

Love both Kennywood and Busch Gardens Williamsburg!

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a great theme park....glad you listed it. I would say that Dollywood also is an excellent pkace to visit and have fun. Besides the theme park, a family can also enjoy her water park Splash Mountain. Dolly's Dixie Stampede complements her theme park. With all the other attractions around that area plus the beauty of the mountains, Dollywood is a fine place for a theme park vacation.

Busch Gardens Williamsburg is a great theme park....glad you listed it. I would say that Dollywood also is an excellent pkace to visit and have fun. Besides the theme park, a family can also enjoy her water park Splash Mountain. Dolly's Dixie Stampede complements her theme park. With all the other attractions around that area plus the beauty of the mountains, Dollywood is a fine place for a theme park vacation.

You left off one park that is literally in Disney's and Universal's backyard, Busch Gardens Tampa. Great coasters and lots of exotic animals.

The two major parks in Ohio, but for different reasons. Cedar Point in that it is a pure Amusement Park, it does have some theming and is sort of broken up into areas but most of those are named after the biggest ride in the area ie; Gemini Midway, Millennium Midway and the Main Midway. There is the Frontier Trail area that leads to Frontierland. But Cedar Point is mainly a Thrill Amusement Park whereas down in Mason Kings Island is a Theme Park. Kings Island though has gone through changes due to its various owners I would have to say in the beginning it was a truer Theme Park with the Hanna Barbera characters running around and even when Paramount took over the theming was very noticeable in that the newer rides were named after some of Paramounts popular films. Even now that Cedar Fair owns it the theming is quite heavier compared to most of the original Cedar Fair parks even though the movie names had to be dropped due trademark rules.

No Six Flags Park as Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, NJ is the biggest amusement park destination in the Northeastern United States as they have 20 roller coasters including Kingda Ka which is a launch type roller coaster. Plus a safari attraction there.

You're right. Six Flags Great Adventure is an INCREDIBLE coaster park that many enthusiasts rate as one of the best thrill parks in the planet. So... "an underdog?" "In Disney's shadow?" Under-appreciated? Nah, I wouldn't say so. Great Adventure is in an entirely different race than Disney's parks, so the competition or comparisons between them are non-existant. Apples and oranges, as they say.

Does Great Adventure deserve attention and praise? Absolutely. But I wouldn't necessarily say that it's an underdog stuck in Disney's shadow, you know?

20? You're padding their count quite a bit don't you think? Try 12. Plus the park is disgusting, dirty, and very unreliable in regards to park operations. I avoid that park along with most other six flags property like the plague.

I also adore Knott's Berry Farm. Less so now that the family sold the ride area to a more aggressive ride company, and it has lost some of its old-fashioned charms. Still, it's a great place, and well worth a visit, particularly if you're in town for Disneyland or California Adventure.

Thanks for mentioning these parks, but I wouldn't consider them "underdogs", they're quite successful in their own rights, many of which were inspirations for Disney and Universal parks.

Oh, definitely! Agreed. "Underdog" in the sense that they're under-appreciated and sometimes discounted when compared to the "big guy," like the underdog in a boxing match. People just assume that Alton Towers can't possibly have anything that compares to Disneyland, so they write Alton Towers off. The reason we highlighted these parks is because you and I know that they meet and even EXCEED Disney's standards in one or more ways, and that they should NOT be counted out. Definitely something I hope folks understand after reading.

In my opinion, Holiday World in Santa Claus, IN is one of the nicest parks. We are Disney fanatics, BUT Holiday World is the cleanest park we have been to next to Disney and they offer FREE soft drinks for all visitors, all day long with pop stations scattered through the park. It is smaller than most, but very nice.

I am originally from Pittsburgh and literally grew up @ Kennywood Park, as did my children. However, I lived in Evansville, IN for several years and have nothing but good things to say about Holiday World. The Voyage is definitely one of the best coasters I've ever ridden. And we enjoyed the Holiday Theme.

KENNYWOOD - is a Classic! (how many parks date back to 1901?!?) That could be another article...

Loved the fact that both Thorpe &Alton made your list. For me Alton is the UK Disney, it was when I first visited back when I was 11 &it didn't disappoint when I returned 26 years later. Pleased to see Phantasialand is strong rember visiting that back in 89 and would love to go back now I a! Not such acwuss with coasters. More than anything you have me super excited about Busch gardens in 15 days timevwoo hop

Thank you so much for including Kennywood on your list. It is a great old park starting as a "trolley park" on the end of the car line with picnic groves and later a merry go round and pool. It has grown and evolved since. It is a great example and the three coasters mentioned are now on that classic coaster registry. It is in good company, as well.

Can you tell us more about this? I'd love to find
out more details.

I understand that Disney and universal are mega parks but to be mostly devoted to them! Maybe this site should be renamed. I personally would like to hear more about other parks that I might like to visit. If I want to hear about Disney all the time I would just go to their website. This site has so much more potential to stand apart from others totally devoted to Disney. Instead of themepark tourist this is more Disney tourist.

I totally understand, and that's why the site is taking a step back and doing articles like this. :) But the unfortunate reality is that, when you're talking theme parks, Disney and Universal ARE the best in many ways, and DEFINITELY the biggest.

Say your hobby was basketball. If you visited a website called "Basketball Central" that was full of basketball news and stories and features, you'd expect that MOST of the coverage on that site would be about major-league, professional, NBA basketball teams. You'd also expect that most of the coverage would be about the BEST of those professional teams, right? It's natural to root for your local team and think your local team is great, but on "Basketball Central," you would know better than to think that your local team would get tons and tons of coverage. It might be brought up and mentioned and celebrated here and there, but it's the big, famous, expensive teams that MOST people want to read about, right? They want to hear about the big star players they know and love.

Same thing here! Disney and Universal are the big teams. 1,000 people want to read an article on Thorpe Park, and that's great! But 100,000 want to read an article on Disney World. Features like this one are our attempt to get more people interested in those smaller parks, and it seems this article has done that. The comments here and on Facebook are from excited readers who want to learn more about these parks, and we're happy to help there! So you'll see more of these in the future and you'll see smaller, regional parks get a slice of the pie. But for us to stop focusing on Disney and Universal is like a basketball website deciding to talk only about minor-league teams. :)

I see your point, but TPT's articles - while undeniably well written and interesting - are so weighted toward Disney and Universal. Non D/U parks rarely get written about, that even when they do, they're always labelled as "In Disney's shadow", or "Disney Rip Offs", or somehow wind their way back to talking about D/U parks one way or another. Occasionally it comes across as treating major non-D/U parks like they're cute kids playing at being grown-ups.

I understand the basketball analogy, but a website that purports to cover the whole of the NBA couldn't go around treating 2 teams as being gods, and the rest as wannabe copyists. A more fitting analogy would be a music website that will only discuss bands in terms of their relationship to The Beatles or Elvis.

I am sure this article has touched all the internet users,
its really really nice piece of wruting on building up new webpage.

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