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!
Location: Kaatsheuvel, North Brabant, Netherlands Map: PDF
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
Location: Alton, Staffordshire, United Kingdom Map: PDF
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 Park Map: Interactive
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.
Location: Williamsburg, Virginia, United States Map: Interactive
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.
Location: Brühl, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany Map: Interactive
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
Location: Map: PDF Download
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.