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4 Action-Packed Vacation Destinations with the Best Theme Parks in the U.S.

4 Action-Packed Vacation Destinations with the Best Theme Parks in the U.S.

Published: May 15, 2024

You love an action-packed vacation. No lying around on a beach for you. Okay, maybe after three days in a row of running around from sunup to sundown.

You want to get the most out of those precious vacation days, and you definitely don’t want each day of your trip to blend in with the next. You want to maximize the memories.

When you’re trying to decide where to go on your next vacation, a destination with a theme park — or two or three — might fit the bill. With one ticket, you gain access to thrilling rides, family-friendly shows, amazing entertainment, fun dining options, and memory after memory.

We’ve rounded up some of the vacation destinations with the best theme parks in the U.S. There is so much to do in and around these theme parks that you won’t be able to do everything in one day, so be sure to book a luxury vacation rental nearby to make the most of your vacation.

Best Theme Parks in Southern California

Southern California is full of fun activities for families, including some of the nation’s top theme parks. Legoland and Seaworld are some of the bigger attractions near San Diego. Disneyland, Universal, and Six Flags, in and near Los Angeles, are also doable on a Southern California trip.

If you’re wondering what else is there to do besides theme parks in San Diego, the answer is plenty. With mild weather year-round and some of the country's most beautiful beaches, theme parks are far from the only thing to do in Southern California. Tempt your tastebuds at world-class restaurants, explore the bustling metropolises of San Diego and Los Angeles, delight in stunning west coast sunsets from private decks at beachfront vacation rentals, and hike and bike through gorgeous natural settings with beautiful vistas, including sandy beaches.

But there are so many fun amusement parks in Southern California and you could make a whole vacation out of just visiting one. Book a stay with our San Diego partner Bluewater Vacation Homes and be perfectly located to experience all that Southern California has to offer. Or, stay with our Orange County and Newport Beach partner Newport Beach Vacation Properties and enjoy the vibrant beach community along with easy access to these attractions..

LEGOLAND California

In Carlsbad, LEGOLAND is just 35 miles north of San Diego. Like its counterpart in Orlando, LEGOLAND California is full of rides, shows, and attractions geared towards kids 2-12 years old and bursting with LEGO-themed fun.

It has live and 4-D shows, like The LEGO Movie 4D A New Adventure, exclusively at LEGOLAND. It also has a few coasters, plenty of kid-friendly rides (they can even drive their own LEGO car), and water fun in Pirate Shores. Like Orlando’s LEGOLAND, this one also has a MINICITY USA, with the first-ever mini San Diego debuting in the spring of 2023.

At SEA LIFE Aquarium, you can visit over 350 different species and more than 6,000 creatures. Hands-on and interactive exhibits combined with up-close encounters with sharks, octopi, and rays make an exciting visit for families. The newest exhibit, Sea at Night, simulates a bioluminescent tide under a starry night.


On beautiful Mission Bay Park, SeaWorld San Diego is spread over 100 waterfront acres and features shows, rides, exhibits, and animal encounters designed to support animal rescue and conservation efforts.

Visit beluga whales, walruses, and northern sea otters at Wild Arctic, then giant sea turtles and thousands of tropical fish at Turtle Reef. Encounters with orcas and dolphins are not to be missed, so be sure to reserve them in advance because spots are limited.

SeaWorld San Diego also has tons of coasters and family-friendly rides. Their brand new coaster, Emperor, is California’s tallest, fastest, and longest floorless dive coaster. Get your adrenaline pumping with the multi-launch coaster, Electric Eel, and the upside-down twists and turns on Tidal Twister.

Sesame Street Bay of Play is the perfect spot for the tiniest tots – and included in SeaWorld admission. Plenty of meet-and-greets with Elmo and the gang, dance parties, and kid-friendly rides and attractions. For even more Sesame fun, the new Sesame Place San Diego features kid-friendly coasters, shows, parades, rides, and water slides.


More manageable than its Florida counterpart, California’s Disneyland Resort in Anaheim has two theme parks, Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, and a shopping district, Downtown Disney. It’s only a fraction of the size of Disney World in Orlando, and everything is located close together, making it much easier to navigate.

Disneyland Park is similar to Magic Kingdom in Disney World. It’s where you’ll find the iconic castle, and it has some of the same classic attractions, like “it’s a small world,” Pirates of the Caribbean, and Haunted Mansion. Disneyland Park also has some shows and rides that you’d find in the Florida version’s Animal Kingdom (like Tale of the Lion King) and Hollywood Studios (Rise of the Resistance).

Disney California Adventure also has a lot to explore with 6 lands that include Cars Land, Pixar Pier, and Avengers Campus. You’ll find more thrilling rides for older kids and adults, but also plenty of attractions for little ones. There’s everything from The Incredibles-themed coaster, Incredicoaster, to Toy Story-themed Jessie’s Critter Carousel.

Aside from the many dining and entertainment options in the two theme parks, you can also stroll through Downtown Disney. You’ll find delicious cuisine, live music, fun stores, and even the Star Wars Trading Post, where you can build your own lightsaber. Disneyland is one of the best theme parks for young children.

Universal Studios Hollywood

One of the best theme parks in the USA, Universal Studios Hollywood features an iconic Studio Tour, multiple rides, and seven shows that are all based on your favorite movies. Begin with the World Famous Studio Tour – this is what sets Universal Studios Hollywood apart. The hour-long tram tour takes you behind the scenes of a real working movie studio, and you can walk around actual TV and film sets, even as recent as Jordan Peele’s horror film, NOPE.

Then explore Universal Studios Hollywood’s popular lands, Jurassic World and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Experience exciting rides, explore Hogwarts castle, and visit Ollivanders Wand Shop. The kids will also love family-friendly rides like The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash and play areas like DinoPlay and the Minion-inspired Super Silly Fun Land.

Between the rides, attractions, and shows in the park and the dining, shopping, and entertainment at CityWalk, there is something for everyone at Universal Studios.

Six Flags Magic Mountain

If you’re looking for one of the best amusement parks in Los Angeles, Six Flags Magic Mountain might just be it. With a whopping 20 roller coasters, it has more coasters than any other amusement park in the world. From classic wooden coasters to hypercoasters with high speeds, thrilling loops, and heart-pumping drops, this park has every type of coaster imaginable.

But while it has tons of heart-pumping thrill rides, Magic Mountain also has tons of family-friendly rides, such as the Magic Flyer, carousel, Speedy Gonzales Hot Rod Racers, Taz’s Trucking Co., and Whistlestop Train.

And if you need a good cool-down, Hurricane Harbor is right next door. The 25-acre water park boasts rides, slides, a lazy river, and more. Splash all day on thrilling water rides, or reserve a cabana to relax by the pool.

Best Theme Park in Pigeon Forge

About an hour from Knoxville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, Tennessee are some of the best family-friendly vacation destinations in the country. Right in the heart of the Smoky Mountains, many visitors travel to the Pigeon Forge area to explore the great outdoors. Beautiful mountain views, tons of hiking trails, and every outdoor activity imaginable, from horseback riding to white water rafting, and everything in between.

Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg also have great small-town vibes with endless shops and restaurants to explore right on the edge of the Smokies. The two towns are really close to each other, less than 10 miles, so guests are able to explore both on one trip. Gatlinburg is super walkable – you can go from shop to shop without leaving to get back in your car. Pigeon Forge is more spread out, so it’s a great place to visit for those looking to drive between attractions.

But aside from all the outdoor recreation and charming mountain town vibes, there’s another huge draw for visitors to Pigeon Forge — and that’s one of the best theme parks in the country, Dollywood. Let our partners at Mountain Laurel Chalets help you find the perfect vacation rental for your Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg adventure!


Voted Tripadvisor’s #1 Theme Park in the United States in 2022, Dollywood is one of the top amusement parks for a family vacation. With the Great Smoky Mountains in the background, this beautiful theme park boasts more than 50 amazing rides, excellent entertainment, award-winning dining, and a friendly atmosphere.

Dollywood has attractions with huge drops, the fastest wooden roller coaster in the world, classic country fair rides, and toddler-friendly rides. The newest ride, Big Bear Mountain, will debut in the spring of 2023 and will be the longest coaster at Dollywood. It’s also completely family-friendly, welcoming guests of all ages to join the expedition.

Dollywood is truly a unique theme park, with so much more beyond the thrilling and family-friendly rides. There are many incredible shows, playgrounds where the kids can let loose, a museum full of Dolly Parton memorabilia, a five-mile scenic train ride, an eagle sanctuary, and delicious food to discover.

Dollywood’s unique entertainment changes with its amazing festivals throughout the year, from Summer Celebration’s nightly fireworks to Harvest Festival’s gospel concerts and Smoky Mountain Christmas’s millions of lights and nightly holiday parades. It’s one of the best theme parks to visit year-round.

Best Theme Parks in Orlando

Okay, you knew Orlando was going to be on the list. When you think of the top amusement parks for a family vacation, chances are the best Orlando theme parks come to mind. We’re talking Disney World, Universal, SeaWorld, and more. There is so much to do in Orlando’s theme parks alone, that you’ll need to visit more than once to check them all out.

Find a vacation rental you love in Orlando and you’ll be able to come back again and again. While many people planning a Disney World vacation, for example, might first think of staying at an on-site resort, there are many benefits to staying off-property in an amazing vacation rental. From condo complexes with their own resort-style pools, splash pads, and amenities, to private luxury homes that offer tons of space, you’ll be far from missing out if you stay in a vacation rental.

Plus, if you want to explore more than one theme park – say Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld on the same trip – you can easily do that with a centrally-located Orlando vacation rental from our partner, Element Vacation Homes.

Disney World

Planning a trip to Disney World can be daunting. With four unique theme parks, water parks, Disney Springs, and endless dining, shopping, and entertainment options, Disney World planning has the potential to be intense.

But really, it can be what you want it to be. Meticulously plan every detail of your Disney World vacation to maximize your time, or go with the flow and have fun. Whichever way you choose to experience Disney, here are the basics.

The most iconic, well-known Disney park is Magic Kingdom. With tons of family-friendly rides and well-loved classics like Mad Tea Party, “it’s a small world,” and Splash Mountain (getting a revamp into a Princess and the Frog bayou-themed ride in 2023), there is plenty to do for guests of all ages.

Hollywood Studios is another favorite Disney World park with fan favorites in Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. To beat the waits at this popular theme park, Disney’s Genie Plus (replacing the former Fast Pass system) is a must – book Lightning Lanes for specific times and hop right on the most popular rides, like Slinky Dog Dash and Rise of the Resistance.

In EPCOT, you’ll be transported to foreign lands in World Showcase – sample handcrafted cocktails and exotic cuisine from around the world, especially during EPCOT’s Food & Wine Festival from July to November. Some of EPCOT’s most popular rides include Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Frozen, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, which has its own virtual queue (be ready to join on the My Disney Experience app right at 7 am or 1 pm).

Animal Kingdom is the perfect park for a laidback day, with amazing food options (Yak & Yeti, for example), incredible shows (Lion King & Finding Nemo), and plenty of walking trails to explore and see animals up close. The safari is a must for young children, while adults and teens will love the thrill of rides like Everest and Pandora’s Flight of Passage.

With so much to do in Disney World, it’s hard to decide how to spend your time. Choose one park or all of them (with a Park Hopper pass, you can head over to a second park after 2 pm). Venture to Disney Springs for world-class shopping and dining on the waterfront, or dine at one of the resorts’ many incredible restaurants, including those with character dining experiences that will bring magic to life for all ages. Visit Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon, Disney’s two water parks.

There is so much magic at Disney World that no matter how much time you choose to spend there or what you plan to do, you’ll have an unforgettable theme park vacation.

Universal Orlando

Planning a Universal Studios vacation? Universal Orlando features two action-packed amusement parks – Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure – along with a sun-soaked water park, Volcano Bay. CityWalk is Universal’s entertainment district (similar to Disney Springs), filled with restaurants, stores, and more.

A park based on movies and TV shows, Universal Studios is perfect for movie buffs and pop-culture enthusiasts. In this park, you won’t find as many thrill rides as Islands of Adventure, but more of a movie adventure. With rides and shows in the themes of Despicable Me, Transformers, The Blues Brothers, Fast & Furious, I Love Lucy, Terminator, The Simpsons, Fear Factor, and more, there’s plenty of fun to be had in Universal Studios. For small children, Woody Woodpecker’s Kid Zone features gentle rides and Curious George Goes to Town, a fun play zone featuring cartoonish buildings, soft foam balls, and water play.

Islands of Adventure is a must-visit for Marvel lovers – in fact, it has its own dedicated Marvel Superhero Island, with meet and greets, The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman, and the Incredible Hulk Coaster. On a super hot day, cool down on the log flume and river rapids in Toon Lagoon, then hit up Skull Island for Reign of Kong, Jurassic Park, and Seuss Landing – a great area for the little ones.

Which Universal park has the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? Both! In Universal Studios, you’ll find Diagon Alley, which features Escape from Gringotts. You can take the Hogwarts Express train from Universal Studios to Islands of Adventure, where you’ll find the fictional town of Hogsmeade and several Harry Potter rides.


What is there to do at SeaWorld Orlando? Plenty. The main theme park features roller coasters like Ice Breaker, which boasts Florida’s steepest, beyond-vertical drop and the Mako “hyper coaster.” Get soaked on Infinity Falls and Journey to Atlantis. SeaWorld also has an entire section geared towards small kids (Sesame Street Land) and up-close encounters with wildlife.

You could spend a whole extra day at Aquatica Orlando, SeaWorld’s waterpark. The whole family will love Aquatica’s raft rides, slides, wave pools, sandy beach areas, and lazy river. The newest, most exciting attraction is Reef Plunge, a 330-foot water slide that zooms past a dynamic underwater habitat of marine life, including Commerson’s dolphins, leopard sharks, and plenty of fish. Heated water allows the park to stay open year-round.

Another popular SeaWorld attraction is Discovery Cove, an all-inclusive day resort where the main draw is swimming with dolphins. You can also snorkel with tropical fish and rays, feed exotic birds, and relax in paradise. Food and drink – along with swim gear – are included. This is an incredibly popular experience and tickets are limited, so be sure to reserve them in advance.


With 110 acres featuring thousands of alligators and crocodiles, panthers, bobcats, and birds, Gatorland is quite the unique Florida experience. There is a petting zoo and nature walk for small children, an exciting Screamin’ Gator Zip Line for thrill-seekers, and everything in between. One-of-a-kind reptilian shows, the Gatorland Express Train, the Gator Gully Splash Park, and the Stompin’ Gator Off-road Adventure through real Florida wetlands make this theme park worth a visit.


If you have a LEGO lover in your family, LEGOLAND can’t be missed. They’ve got something for everyone, from thrilling roller coasters to creative play areas in 14 distinct lands. The tiniest tots will enjoy exploring DUPLO Valley, while kids of all ages can let their imaginations run wild in the interactive Imagination Zone.

4-D movies and meet-and-greets with The LEGO Movie characters bring LEGOs to life. Get lost in interactive experiences like LEGO NINJAGO The Ride, then please the thrill-seekers in your group with LEGO-inspired coasters like The Dragon, The Great LEGO Race, Coastersaurus, and Flying School.

Stroll through MINILAND USA, LEGO recreations of California, Las Vegas, New York, and Washington, D.C. made with over 32 million LEGO bricks. Then enjoy beautiful botanical gardens right in the middle of the park.

LEGOLAND also features a separate water park and the all-new Peppa Pig Theme Park, just steps away from the main theme park, featuring kid-size playscapes, water play, games, and family-friendly rides.

Best Theme Parks in Ohio

When listing out the best amusement parks in the U.S., you’ll often hear Cedar Point mentioned. Along with King’s Island, Cedar Point is one of the best theme parks in the country, and both are located in Ohio.

Although they’re not located near each other – Cedar Point is between Toledo and Cleveland, while Kings Island is outside of Cincinnati – both are worth a trip. If you’re interested in visiting both, consider stopping in the Columbus area on your approximately 200 miles trip in between.

Cedar Point

Considered the second-oldest operating amusement park in the U.S., Cedar Point is also known as the roller coaster capital of the world, with 17 world-class roller coasters. The scenic location on Lake Erie is home to more than 70 rides, including the adrenaline-pumping Steel Vengeance and Millenium Force. It also has plenty of family-friendly rides, like Snake River Expedition, live shows, fun events and entertainment, and a mile-long sandy beach.

In 2023, Cedar Point will debut The Boardwalk, a modern version of old-time fun, with an all-new roller coaster, family rides, and a Grand Pavillion on the lakefront. Next door is the Cedar Point Shores Waterpark, with slides, pools, and water play guaranteeing summer fun.

Kings Island

Easily one of the best things to do in Cincinnati, Kings Island is a 364-acre amusement and water park that combines world-class thrills and family attractions for a fun-filled vacation experience. With over 100 rides, shows and attractions, there is something for everyone.

Thrill-seekers will love getting dizzy on Kings Island’s 15 roller coasters. The Beast is the world’s longest wooden coaster, while Diamondback and Mystic Timbers are exciting steel inverted coasters, and the newest addition, Orion, is the world’s seventh Giga coaster.

For the younger crowd, the Planet Snoopy kids’ area, with four roller coasters, live shows, and character meet-and-greets is sure to please. Park admission also includes Soak City Water Park, with 36 fun water slides, two wave pools, relaxing lagoons, and kids’ water play areas, making Kings Island one of the top amusement parks to visit especially in the summer.

Best Amusement Parks in the U.S.

When you want an action-packed vacation, planning your trip around visiting one of the top amusement parks in the U.S. is a great place to start. The locations above are just a few of the amazing vacation destinations that boast top theme parks.

With at least one of the best theme parks – in many cases more than one – you can spend a day or more experiencing the rides, shows, and attractions there. But the best theme parks aren’t in the middle of nowhere. They’re located near bustling cities, gorgeous national parks, and beautiful beaches, so there’s plenty to do beyond theme parks when you visit these destinations.

When you’re planning to check out one or more of the top theme parks in the U.S., a luxury vacation rental makes an excellent home base. Browse our collection to find an incredible home for your next vacation.

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