Rollercoasters, funnel cakes, waffle cones, hotdogs, oh my! Theme parks scream summer. If you’re looking for adventure on your next family vacation, theme parks offer rides and attractions but also old-timey activities, special events, character meet-and-greets and more. These mega Midwestern theme parks are packed with enough fun for at least a two-day stay and each is within driving distance from Chicago. One is located along a beach, another immersed in the Ozarks, and one is the summertime home of Santa Claus. Here are our picks for Midwestern theme parks worth the road trip from Chicago.
Holiday World is a combo theme park and water park located in Santa Claus, IN, the summertime home of the Man in Red.
When this tiny town applied for its first post office in 1856, the application was refused as there was already a Santa Fe. The town then voted to change its name to Santa Claus in honor of the holiday hero. As a result, it receives thousands of letters addressed to Santa from around the world every holiday season.
Holiday World celebrates the holidays all summer long with its "four lands": Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. The Raven wooden coaster mimics a bird's acrobatic flight pattern in Halloween land. The Voyage in Thanksgiving land is widely considered one of the best wooden coasters for its 154 ft. vertical drop and is a tribute to the Mayflower's epic journey. The costumed character George the Eagle can often be spotted in Fourth of July land, where Holidog's FunTown 7 is encircled by the Holidog Express mini-train. Rudolph's Reindeer Ranch offers toddler-friendly rides like Comet's Rockets and Prancer's Merry-Go-Round in Christmas land.
320 miles from Chicago
$64.99/daily admission, $79.99/2-day flex ticket, free for ages 3 & under.
Sun Outdoors Lake Rudolph offers cabins and campsites a ten-minute walk from Holiday World's main entrance.
Stop in and share your wishlist with Santa, who reads stories and sings Christmas songs in his cozy Storytime Theater.
16 adrenaline-rushing roller coasters, including the 74mph Steel Vengeance, make Cedar Point the roller coaster capital of the world. For kids not quite ready to conquer the coasters, both Planet Snoopy and Camp Snoopy feature puppy-sized rides.
Nestled on a mile-long sandy stretch of beach on Lake Erie, Cedar Point has been thrilling visitors since it inaugurated its first ride, a water toboggan, in 1890, making it one of the oldest amusement parks in the U.S. It will likely take at least two days to conquer the park's 70+ rides spread out on over 364 acres of lakeshore.
Roller coaster fanatics love Cedar Point for its extreme roller coasters like the classic wooden Blue Streak and the steel-track Corkscrew with three inversions. Four designated kiddie areas have all the rides little ones love, like junior-sized bumper cars and two mini coasters that prep kids for the bigger coasters down the road.
Cedar Point also has an 18-acre water park and its very own beach, so you can cool off between rides.
A little under 300 miles from Chicago
$49.99/daily admission. The Cedar Point Pre-K Pass grants complimentary admission to ages 3-5.
Maximize your time by staying on-site at the historic Hotel Breakers, located steps from the park's main gate. The all-new Castaway Bay, a Caribbean-themed hotel with an indoor waterpark, debuted in 2022.
Start your day with a ride on the park's Cedar Point and Lake Erie Railroad, one of the last authentic coal-fired steam locomotives still in operation in the U.S.
SILVER DOLLAR CITY
Silver Dollar City is a 61-acre theme park immersed in the Ozarks in the live entertainment capital of the U.S., Branson, MO. Themed to recreate the aura of a circa 1880s mining town, the park is centered around Marvel Cave, the deepest cave in Missouri at 500 ft. below surface level.
Silver Dollar City’s eleven "districts" offer 40 thrilling rides and attractions, live shows and concerts, specialty boutiques, and over 100 craftspeople demonstrating heritage arts and crafts such as blacksmithing and basketweaving. While some coasters cater to thrill-seekers above 52 inches, like Outlaw Run, a wooden coaster with a 720-degree double barrel roll, Half Dollar Holler is a play zone designed for ages 3-7.
In the dining department, Silver Dollar City goes beyond the standard (read: greasy) theme park fare with its 18 award-winning restaurants. While BBQ reigns, Silver Dollar City's beloved skillets mix fresh veggies and handcrafted sausages in a giant iron skillet over an open fire.
No visit to Silver Dollar City is complete without a visit to its natural wonder, Marvel Cave. You'll descend 700 steps as you travel below the surface to the Cathedral Room, the largest cave entrance room in the U.S. at 204 feet. You'll then descend even further as you follow sometimes narrow passageways to the cave's other rooms. A circa 1950s cable train takes visitors 1,070 feet back up to the surface at the end of the tour.
550 miles from Chicago. American Airlines also operates direct flights from Chicago ORD to nearby Springfield/Branson (SGF), MO.
$79/ages 12-64, $69/ages 4-11, free for ages 3 & under.
Perched high above Table Rock Lake, Chateau on the Lake offers suites with outstanding views of the surrounding Ozarks. After a busy day at Silver Dollar City, unwind at the in-hotel Spa Chateau.
Grandfather's Mansion is an off-the-beaten theme park path funhouse with slanting floors, wacky displays, and other dizzying effects.
— Amy Bizzarri