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The 8 Must Visit Theme Parks in the Southeast

3. Dollywood

Image: DollywoodIf Tennessee ever split off from the rest of the country, I’m convinced that we’d become a monarchy with Dolly Parton as our queen. We’d use technology to keep her alive for centuries, thereby starting the Golden Age of the Volunteer State. I’m only partially joking.

Dolly Parton has done more for my community than any person over the last 150 years. She pays for the college educations of students from her high school. She donates time and money when the community suffers tragedies like the Great Smoky Mountain wildfires in 2016. And she bought the park I previously referenced, Silver Dollar City, turning it into Dollywood.

Sure, you may laugh at the name and the ridiculousness of some of Dolly's antics. You cannot argue with results, though. Dollywood routinely wins Golden Ticket Awards for its shows and cuisine. It's also home to several exceptional attractions like Lightning Rod, Mystery Mine, and Tennessee Tornado. And I say with tremendous pride that this place gave my late father a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when he conquered Wild Eagle, a winged roller coaster, at the age of 79.

No matter where you come from or how long you stay, when you’re at Dollywood, you’ll feel like you’re home.

2. Universal Orlando Resort

Image: UniversalWhen we evaluate the theme park industry geographically, some places provide tougher competition than others. For example, I would struggle to choose between Dollywood and Six Flags Great Adventure as the best overall theme park, yet the latter park is my pick as best in the Northeast. Dollywood can only manage third place in the Southeast since it’s pitted against the industry’s titans.

So, when I list Universal Orlando Resort as the second-best theme park in the Southeast, I’m NOT disparaging it in any way. To the contrary, I’d likely list it as the second-best theme park in North America, too. At a minimum, it’d finish in the top four. Its problem is the same one as with Dollywood. Nobody could beat Mike Tyson at the height of his power, and nobody can beat the obvious choice for the best theme park in the Southeast.

Ignoring the competition for a moment, Universal Orlando Resort is a marvelous place to spend a few days. Its hotels are luxurious, its theming is continually improving, and its rides are among the best in the world. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and the themed land of Springfield embody the pinnacle of non-Disney theme park design. They're immersive, engaging, and quite simply a blast to visit.

Some of Universal’s older rides like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, Men in Black: Alien Attack, and E.T. Adventure have all stood the test of time. Recent attractions like the Megatron character meeting and the (admittedly somewhat creepy) Toothless encounter have demonstrated that Universal has learned from the best and gone a long way toward perfecting their craft.

Universal isn't merely the little sibling to Disney anymore. This park stands on its own as an ascending challenger with plenty of upsides.

1. Walt Disney World

Image: DisneyThis is your shocked face, right? Look, even the most loyal Universal fanatics have to be honest with themselves about this battle. Disney started almost 20 years earlier in Orlando and have an overall advantage of 45 years in the theme park industry. It's simply too big a gap to overcome, mainly because, for all of its well-chronicled faults, Walt Disney World maintains its status as the best theme park on Spaceship Earth. 

This place has four theme parks, two water parks, a full sports complex that was recently expanded to host more events, and an entertainment complex that would be a pretty decent place to spend a day on its own. With so many rides, shows, and free concerts available, Walt Disney World stakes a solid claim to the entertainment capital of the world. There’s a reason why so many other places try to emulate it.

Yes, Universal has The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Contrast that to Walt Disney World, which has Pandora – The World of Avatar, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and an entire zoo contained in a single park. The entertainment options here are so ridiculous that one resort, Disney’s Beach Club Resort, houses a de facto water park.

Walt Disney World is comically overflowing with entertainment options that the seasonal events at Epcot are better than the ones that many large cities host. Oh, and then there’s Space Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean, and Haunted Mansion, and Splash Mountain, and Expedition Everest, and…you get the point. All of the parks on this list are worthy of your time and money. The Most Magical Place on Earth towers above the rest, though.

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